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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?