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Let’s Make a Planetarium Show: Part 1 – Take It From the Top

When you come to the Louisiana Art & Science Museum and see a Sky Tonight show—when you see the stars on the dome, the planets in orbit, the deep sky objects far beyond our own galaxy—you’re actually looking at a 3D model of our observable universe.  Every star, planet, and object is placed where they belong in space.  You’re underneath a dome that operates essentially like a digital universe.  Navigating through this and making a show with the enormity of space can be a little bit tricky.  Well, that’s where I come in.

I’m sure you’ve heard the word “Producer” thrown around a lot.  A Producer’s role can vary quite a bit depending on the field you’re in.  Area of expertise aside, a Producer in TV has a very different role than a Producer in radio; what a Producer in Hip Hop music does is very different than what a Producer does in rock music.  So what does a Planetarium Producer do?  In my case, I’m chiefly responsible for making the in-house content for our planetarium, i.e. each Seasonal Sky Tonight, school show content, and special shows like “The Worlds Within Star Wars” and “The Astronomical World of Harry Potter.”  The question is, how are these shows made for the dome and what makes them special?  What does it take to navigate the universe and make a show out of all the possibilities available to us with emerging technology?

That’s what we’re going to examine in this 10-part blog series.  We’re going to go over how to make an automated Seasonal Sky Tonight from beginning to end, the gear and software it takes, and the workflow involved.

Now, I’m not going to go into the minutia of detail that is required to fully understand the process.  What we’re going to look into is the general steps leading to what you see on the dome.  We’re also going to learn the difference between when you’re seeing an animation and when you’re seeing something in real time.  We’re going to look at video rendering, composing music, and surround sound effects.  And it all starts off with a concept and a script.

As you know, we have four seasons every year: winter, spring, summer, and fall.  And every season there is something new to see up in the sky.  The planets will, for the most part, be in different locations; the constellations come and go as the months pass, and there will occasionally be something timely to point out like a comet crashing into Jupiter.  There is also a huge selection of deep sky objects available to explore.  The list goes on and on.  I’m always making a new show with new content.  And here at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, I’m always updating these Seasonal Sky Tonight shows with updates in the form of when you can see certain meteor showers and when certain significant astronomical events are going to take place.  These are my Astronomical Calendar of Events, which get tagged onto the end of Sky Tonight presentations.  They’re little updates for what’s going on up in the sky.

But we’re here to talk about the seasonal Sky Tonight show.  It’s the bread and butter of any planetarium.  You probably have the planetarium experience in mind:  the dark theater with the stars on the dome, the celestial soundtrack playing alongside planetary travel.  But like anything dealing with technology, things are always improving.  Currently, we have a 4K multi-projection system with a 5.1 surround sound.  We have laser lights, cove lights, spot lights, and the capabilities to display movies, large format films, and visual music shows.  We also have the power and advancements to transform our theater from a planetarium into a music and live theater venue.  So, I should add, how we make our shows at the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium is going to be very different than how other planetariums put together their shows.  This is about how the planetarium shows at LASM are made.

So, let’s start with a script.

I’ve been writing all the planetarium scripts since taking the position of Planetarium Producer back in 2015.  My approach to writing these planetarium scripts hasn’t deviated too much over the years.  The only thing that I’ve been doing differently now is trying to somehow incorporate the current and upcoming art exhibits into the Sky Tonight shows.  It really comes down to finding the main theme in the art exhibit and finding a way to incorporate that into the current astronomical events that will be presented in the Sky Tonight show.

For example, one year we had an exhibition that was all about portraits.  So, I made sure to add a segment into the show talking about how the Hubble space telescope takes pictures and portraits of deep sky objects.  That segment dealt with how the Hubble camera is a bit different than a camera normally used here on Earth.

Currently, we have a whole exhibition based on color.

Well, if you look up at all the stars, planets, nebulae, and galaxies you’ll see that the sky is awash in color.  The challenge is how to weave that into the Sky Tonight in a way that makes sense.

As it happens, autumn (or fall) is a great season to deal with cosmic color.

Ok, so now we have our mission statement for the Autumn Sky Tonight.  Incorporate color and what color in space means.  Why are some stars blue and some stars yellow?  Why is Mars red?  Why are Neptune and Uranus blue?  In fact, why is the sky even blue?  Now we have our underlying theme that will run through the course of the Autumn Sky Tonight.  Not just color, but the question of color as it applies to objects in space.  What does color tell us about what we’re seeing out there—that’s the angle.

One thing I don’t like in planetarium shows is when a presenter jumps around too much.  I don’t like covering a topic about Earth, then zipping out to cover a topic about a galaxy, then coming back to something you can see on Earth, then zipping out to look at a nebula.

For me, every script starts off simple and by what we can see with our naked eye from planet Earth. From there, we then venture further and further out.

It all begins by establishing our cardinal directions in the theater.

When you’re sitting in the dome, all the seats are facing “south.”  It’s not true south, it’s just the way that I have the planetarium sky set in the dome.  The constellations appear to take a familiar shape when facing south.  That’s why we orient the audience in that way.  If you’re looking at Orion and you’re facing due south. then Orion looks like the familiar Hunter shape we all know.

After covering the cardinal directions, we go into a sunset.  We’re going to transport the audience from the daytime into the nighttime.  And, of course, after the sunset we get into the stars.

The best way to round out a planetarium script is to introduce the audience to the star field that they’ll see in the current season. From there we get into the constellations.

It may seem archaic to talk about these old constellations but, actually, we can still use constellations to find the other objects of interest in the sky.

That’s why the constellations are so important.

Remember that image of the first ever photographed black hole?  Well, the best way to communicate where it’s located is to tell you which constellation it’s in.  In that regard, constellations are still very important and useful.

I’ll use constellations throughout the show.  After all, they’re not only great for pointing out deep sky objects, but also to locate the planets in your seasonal sky.

The planets will appear to travel through the constellations along an imaginary line called the Ecliptic.  And as the years go on, you’ll see how certain planets will leave one constellation and enter into another one.

You can see the logical progression of where we’re going here.  We get our bearings with the cardinal directions; we transition into a night sky; we learn about the uses and locations of constellations; we’ll see how some of the bright points in the sky aren’t all stars but some are actually planets; we’ll learn how to locate those planets by the constellations we were just introduced to and how they appear in which direction of the sky.

The effect we’re going for is having these topics overlap and fade into each other in seamless transitions while the scope of our story gets bigger and bigger:  The twinkling stars can form ancient picture patterns; the picture patterns will help us locate other objects.  We not only mention distant objects but we’ll visit them also…and each deep sky object we meet is further still from the one we just passed.

So what are deep sky objects?

Things like galaxies, nebulae, star clusters, etc.  For the most part, they’re things you’ll need a telescope to see.  Of course, not all the time.  If you can find the Andromeda constellation this season, you’ll be able to see the most distant object visible to the naked eye.  Yes, on some clear dark autumn night, go out and find the V-shaped Andromeda constellation. Within the nook of that V, you’ll find a fuzzy object.  That fuzzy object is the Andromeda galaxy.  If you can spy that fuzzy patch of light in the sky, you should know that the light making up the object that you see is entering your eyeball after traveling for over 2.5 million years.  After all, the Andromeda galaxy is indeed over 2.5 million light-years away.  That’s how big the Andromeda Galaxy really is.  No need for a telescope, just a clear dark sky away from any city lights.

But, of course, there’s still so much more that we can cover.  During some seasons, or in some years, there will be anniversaries of events or cosmic occurrences to cover.  This year, as you may know, was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.  In our Summer Sky Tonight we took a look at the moon, the man-made objects still on its surface, the Apollo missions, and what may lie ahead for space travel in the future.  Then there was the year that we finally got clear images from Pluto via the New Horizons space probe.  Things like this are covered in our Sky Tonight shows along with the traditional use of constellations, locations of planets, and exploration of deep space.

In short, a planetarium script has to deal with the seasonal constellations, the planets you can find that season, some deep sky objects worth pointing out, and any timely material that might be worth mentioning, i.e. the visit from a comet or a solar eclipse.

But now we have to incorporate our underlying theme to connect the planetarium show with the art exhibition on view: Color.  Our interpretative theme and thread is color and what it tells us about what we’re seeing in the sky.

This is actually a lot easier than you may think.

Whenever we get to the point in the script where we talk about stars, we’re going to simply enlarge the stars to take a better look at them.

Yes, in the planetarium I can take all the stars and increase their size.  By doing so, the audience will clearly be able to see how there are some red stars, some blue stars, some white stars, and so on and so on.  Naturally, they may ask why stars have different colors.  Well, that’s mainly due to the star’s temperature as well as its chemical makeup.

But stars aren’t the only colorful points of light you can find in your night sky.  Far from it.  Some of those points of light aren’t really stars…they’re planets.  And each planet has its own unique color, which connects to more information about what makes up that planet.

For example, when you see pictures of Uranus and Neptune, you’ll see that they appear bluish in color.  You might think that just because these two ice giants are so far away from the sun that they’re blue because they’re so cold.  Actually, Uranus and Neptune are bluish in color because they both have methane-rich clouds.  When the white light from the sun reaches Uranus and Neptune, these methane-rich clouds absorb light from the reddish end of the spectrum and end up reflecting back light from the bluish end of the spectrum.

So, things like light, temperature, and chemical composition all influence not only how objects in space are colored, but also what those colors can tell us about what we’re looking at.

Now that my theme of color is running throughout the show, I can then gauge how the show is broken up into sections.  These sections are my “scenes,” and these scenes are what I’m going to end up working on individually in the animation process.

For example, my 2019 Autumn Sky Tonight show has a total of 13 scenes (some large, some small): Scene 1: opening dialogue into the start of the sunset Scene 2: fulldome local sunset Scene 3: why is the sky blue? Scene 4: night sky and constellations Scene 5: fulldome animation of Mercury spinning Scene 6: fly away from Mercury, approach Venus, clouds of Venus, red-orange surface of  Venus Scene 7: leave Venus and fly to upper part of Earth, Earth clouds, blue, green, brown surface, go to Mars, Mars red surface features Scene 8: night sky with 3D markers, approach Jupiter, white and orange cloud bands, go to Saturn, goldish color with blue in the upper hemisphere Scene 9: telescope of Neptune and Uranus Scene 10: animation of Uranus reflecting blue light Scene 11: finding Helix nebula within Aquarius Scene 12: fulldome animation of Helix nebula flythrough Scene 13: local night sky wrap-up

I then storyboard these scenes with a visual and/or written breakdown of what will go on in each scene by camera angle and flight path.

It’s also worth pointing out I’m careful to write the script in such a way to keep in sounding conversational.  It’s much like the way I’m crafting this blog.  We don’t usually talk in brief sentences that perfectly start and stop.  A lot of the time we’ll start a sentence with “and” or “well.”  I believe this keep the automated Sky Tonight flow more casual and less like a science lecture. I don’t want it to sound like the voice-over artist is reading from a script, but is simply in the room with you talking off-the-cuff.

Once I’m happy with the full script, I read it out loud to myself to make sure that it sounds the way people talk.  I make sure that certain sentences don’t go on for too long because I don’t want my narrator taking a breath in the middle of a sentence.  It’s those breaths that I have to edit out later in audio editing.

The finished script then goes to our editor to make sure I didn’t miss anything or make any flubs like mentioning “summer” instead of “autumn” (which I’ve done before).  The script also passes through our Educators, who may have a couple of notes on it or may be able to catch something out of place or maybe something that isn’t clearly stated.

At that point, it’s ready to be sent off to my voice-over artist.  This is what we’ll get into next:  The fine art of voice-over and planetarium audio.

This one script will be used in upwards of four different shows for the upcoming season.  Every season I produce one automated Sky Tonight, a Live version of the Sky Tonight (a different beast all its own), a Stargazing version (meant for our younger audience during Family shows), and sometimes I’ll make a shorter version of the automated show to be played before especially long feature presentations or if a scheduled group has arrived too late to enjoy the full version.

That, in a nutshell, is the script process.

It’s finding out what’s going on in the night sky, incorporating our current art exhibition, and making everything flow together in a compelling way.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the voice-over recording aspect when I’m in Louisiana and my voice-over artist is in the northern part of the U.S. and how I’m moving to do our own voice-over recordings.

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