The new Griffith Planetarium, a preliminary artists critique


1. The building and getting there.

Getting to Griffith is now a real pain thanks to the rich property owners on the route up the hill influencing the city council to close off automobile traffic to the Observatory. One has to arrive at designated lots and take buses, all arranged in advance. Parking is of course extra. Thankfully this will not be permanent, the idea of not being able to spontaneously drive up and enjoy the greatest city lights view on Earth was alarming! This temporary inconvenience is thus to be mentioned only in passing. Griffith Observatory has re-opened, and its renovation has gutted the old structure from within while preserving the exterior of the landmark Los Angeles building. The use of the structure in many films has been documented elsewhere, from its use as a Kryptonian palace in the pilot episode of the 50's TV show 'The Adventures Of Superman' to its most famous appearance of the building and Planetarium in 'Rebel Without A Cause', as well as numerous science fiction films such as 'War Of the Colossal Beast', and 'The Rocketeer'. Any effort to update this facility has its historical status to consider as well as the need to present evolving ideas in novel ways to the public. Thus the exterior has changed little thanks to heroic measures taken to lift and preserve the shell of the existing structure, integrating it with the new sunken levels of exhibit and theater space. The frescos on the grand dome near the entrance are beautifully restored and lit to the point of appearing backlit, a cathedral like magnificence. The exhibits include large models of the planets, such as are hung in the Rose center in New York. The popular 1937 vintage Tesla coil from the old facility is proudly shown in its protective metal cage. I will not attempt anything like a comprehensive survey of the new facility. My attention in this initial appraisal is focused on two specialized aspects of the new Griffith, one admittedly a minor element yet one I had inside knowledge of, the other the show itself, whose unveiling was the most innovative aspect of the new facility.

2. On the solar system 'murals'

I visited Griffith during a tour of the Astro-viz conference I attended in Pasadena on the evening of November 7, a few days after the Grand Opening and I only sought out one exhibit in the limited time I had there. There was a set of murals of the planets which were commissioned for use there. At first an unknown number of artists including myself were contacted and for some time led to believe they were in the running for the job. Later after repeated requests for and sending samples to the New York design firm, which shall remain nameless, I learned Griffith artist Don Dixon and Independent artist Adolf Schaller had been given the job, which resulted in a magnificent series of digital paintings. I had the pleasure of examining large prints of Schaller's work beforehand, as He was in town on unrelated business. (Adolf Schaller was not invited to the grand opening) Mercury had the look of an uncanny premonition of what future Lunar explorers might photograph with large format digital cameras. Mars presented a similar startlingly real vision of what an advanced rover or human explorer might photograph. Schaller's digital paintings were done at a resolution of 22,000 pixels wide, using rocky elements photographed by collaborator Donna Tracy, whose background includes matte painting for films. The works could be thought of as digital matte paintings 3 IMAX film widths wide, packed with detail and with things to see in even distant corners of the views. My brief look at the others in the series done by Griffith art director Don Dixon were rewarding. Many artists would have looked with trepidation at Adolf's works when in that position. Dixon, who is among the artists who has successfully embraced digital media as a new 'canvas' for his work, using 3D computer renders and confident extensive hand painting, created landscapes in a realistic yet individually styled fashion which work well.

Unfortunately, what looked on paper to the artists initially contacted for the project like a set of murals the public could feast their eyes upon turned, thanks to the whims of the New York design firm, into a set of defaced (sprayed on solid color over the lower portions of the murals) and cut up (square holes in the art with insets for related images) backgrounds to a rather unimaginative looking display. Of course being an artist in the space field I could fairly be regarded as biased in such appraisals, but there is something to be said for large immersive murals such as those Chesley Bonestell once painted for several great museums. A lot of good work was wasted in the way the Griffith 'murals' were incorporated as a background element rather than proudly displayed as they deserved. I hear the works may be made available as prints, if so the opportunity to purchase undefaced versions of these works should be taken.

3. The new Planetarium

Griffith had been in many ways a 'classical' traditional Planetarium in its design, a circular chamber with seats concentrically arranged facing the center, where a large intrusive star projector projects a star field that is treated generally as the focus of attention of the show. One curious quirk of the old Griffith was its plaster surfaced projection dome, which was great for projection but bad for acoustics. Projection domes are generally perforated to address the audio echo problem. The new Samuel Oschin Planetarium is largely a manifestation of the design preferences of Griffith observatory Director Ed Krupp, and the researches and preferences of recent Planetarium program supervisor John Mosley. Mosley was a veteran of Hansen Planetarium, at the time a leading facility in show production quality under the leadership of Mark Littmann, before I worked there.

Apparently in deciding what of the new aspects of modern Planetarium technology to use some 'hard lines' were drawn in traditional methods in some places while recent innovations were regarded as essential in others. Mosley had the vision to look forward to laser projection technology as a promising new way to fill a dome with moving images. The projector was a work in progress at the time, but such a projector was indeed unveiled at the new Griffith. The use of a traditional star projector was considered mandatory probably through out the design process by both Mosley and Ed Krupp, and was accommodated along with the laser projector. The traditionalist mentality became especially evident in the theater design, a central projection platform contains the electromechanical star projector. The dome is 'flat', or untilted, an anachronism dictated by the perceived primary use as an astronomy teaching facility where the cardinal points can be easily referred to by a presenter with a pointer. The problem with such domes is the 'open pit' view of the heavens presented to an audience, with no true eye level horizon available. This is exacerbated by a rather high 'spring line' or dome bottom of 3 meters from the floor, imposed by safety requirements for an earlier laser projection method contemplated during the design process and frozen into the final configuration. My prejudice toward tilted domes notwithstanding, the existing theater was intended as a major upgrade to an antiquated facility and succeeds in this well. The modern aspects of the Planetarium include the 'epicentric seating', arranged in curved rows facing the 'far wall' of the projection dome and the laser projection system, the dual projectors placed along opposite sides of the 'cove', the shelf at the base of the dome.

An especially contentious aspect of the rebirth of the Planetarium was the insistence on the use of live presenters. One of the displaced show presenters, Pasadena City College astronomy professor John Sepikas, protested publicly the decision to use professional actors to recite the spoken word content of the show while roaming the packed theater. The plus of this method is having a professional actor who is likely to consistently deliver a good performance, not to mention the pulling of capable actors from their usual jobs waiting tables. The minus, of course, is the probable inability of the actor to answer questions as well as could an astronomy professor. Another factor in removing question and answer oppurtunities is the need to move the old audience out and get the new one in on time. The weighing of the 'show biz' role in new Planetarium design and show content is a balancing of money with plans, imagination with tradition.

4. The show

A. Theater and star projector

The inaugural show was composed for a horizontal dome with due efforts to emphasize the strengths of that viewing format. Interestingly, the tilted orientation of some of the content would make the show also work well when shown in a tilted dome. The seating is wisely designed for quality rather than quantity, some 300 seats now in the theater. The ushers tried to herd everyone to the outer rows of seats first, but I quickly recruited some friends to grab seats closer to the center, from which fulldome content should ideally be seen. The spacious 75 foot diameter dome is painted a 55 percent gray (a little light light compared to most new domes, which often go for as low as 40 percent in order to minimize light bounce) and the surface appeared very smooth and virtually seamless away from the cove lighting near the bottom. The dome was flooded with blue light, with subtle clouds visible, as the audience was seated. The clouds were made by the laser projector, and when the show finally began with an initial dimming of the lights the clouds appeared dim but beautifully colored. The actor strode into the theater center and delivered the lines flawlessly and with a proper air of sharing something magical, indeed I was at times reminded of a stage magician. He held an illuminated 6 inch globe in one hand, raising it to punctuate descriptions of the motions of the heavenly bodies and such. The clouds reddened and faded as the star projector came up, beginning an 'episode' of star ID programming, a laser pointer used to indicate constellations.

The stars were excellent, which one would expect from a dedicated major projector. The star images were tiny points, and various nebula could be seen in the proper places. David Malin, renowned astrophotogropher, was in the audience and he later declared the sky between the stars was too black, as if the contribution of many dimmer unresolved stars was left out. He also pointed out the lack of color in the stars, an odd omission from such a machine. The stars scintillated, reproducing nicely the 'twinkling' caused by atmospheric turbulence. The Milky Way was an odd contradiction in quality. Looking up at the Cygnus Milky Way it was beautifully represented, reminded me of how I had seen it in the Sierras several weeks earlier on the way to Burning Man. Looking down, the brilliant Sagittarius Milky Way was badly muted to the point of hardly being visible. The star projector which so much effort went into accommodating thus gets a mixed review from me. As the fulldome video began, the obtrusive star projector obligingly lowered itself out of sight.

B. Fulldome video

The fulldome video begins with a move that works well in a horizontal dome, lowering the audience into an environment with considerable vertical relief. Palm trees rose on all sides, then buildings and glimpses of the ancient city of Alexandria appeared. The camera settled on a tilted view allowing a slice of the horizon to show, cruising slowly as a track mounted camera might do. The motions were fairly slow, timed after research into thresholds of motion sickness for audiences. A classical concept of the heavens appearing on a papyrus scroll, planets fastened to concentric spheres, is dwelled on as it serves as a flat 'doorway' for a 3D model of concentric glassy spheres to be extruded up from the diagram.

The concepts of the universe were described as they advanced, the view changing into the study of Galileo, his observations confirming the Copernican idea of a sun centered universe. Again visualizations of advancements in thinking about the Universe emerged from flat diagrams on the table. We then found ourselves within the cavernous dome of the Mount Wilson 100 inch, the telescope which revealed the galaxies as masses of stars like our Milky Way. The Mt. Wilson digital model was a stupendous effort, with the scene carefully composed to make the observatory dome coincide with the projection dome for a brief enhanced sense of reality.

Unfortunately the view of this and some other interior scenes suffer from inherent dimness, primarily in the projection. The lighting appeared subdued in large portions of the animation scenes, although they were 'punched up' in color and brightness later in the production to combat this. The projector was also turned down to mask imperfections in edge blending otherwise visible in a few scenes. The light gray projection dome tends to promote cross bounce between any bright point in the scene and the rest of the dome. To address this the animators tried to avoid large bright scenic elements near the 'rear' of the scene. The dual projector laser system from Evans & Sutherland was very sharp, with excellent color so far as could be seen at the time. Minor imperfections in this projector setup included a bad pixel making a 'line' across the image, thankfully near the horizon, and a linear canvas like pattern seen here and there as scan lines were imperfectly joined. With actual hardware now in use incremental improvements in performance are likely. Even so the projection, with reservations for the dimness setting used, looked stunning.We traveled to Mars, lingering on an excellent digital model of the canyon lands. The Milky Way galaxy was shown as one of innumerable galaxies which were shown as a vast crowded swarm drifting among each other. The Big Bang was shown (in the traditional 'outside view' format of a tiny thing exploding, something criticized by the visiting astro-vis group who grapple with similar visualization problems) with resulting far flung gaseous matter forming galaxies. We finally traveled to Earth toward a landing at Griffith, shown as excellent digital models of the buildings and surroundings skillfully merged and animated so as to suggest a helicopter shot. The theater lights came back up, and the globe in the actors hand lit up again as he thanked us for coming to the show.

In a way I was struck by a parallel between what I had seen and one of the first animated films ever made, 'Gertie The Dinosaur' which had Windsor McKay, the animator, live on stage speaking to his projected giant pet, telling it to do tricks on cue. The show works as presented, but ironically the approach chosen, that of substituting actors for educated presenters, carries a similar penalty to that perceived by Planetarium traditionalists with 'canned' presentations, the inability to take questions after the show. One is in effect doing a canned show 'live'. Fulldome is a brand new cinematic medium, within which the first tentative steps are being made. It is intriguing to see how each production center manages the challenges of the hemispheric animation medium. The show production process has changed vastly from the days when a machine shop in the basement would employ a half dozen technicians building custom projectors for each show. Those were the 'Magic Lantern' days of show production, a sophisticated outgrowth of the traveling projection shows which entertained audiences in pre-cinema times.

The production process to fill a dome with moving images now is in the hands of artists, digital modelers and animators, compositors and system managers, often with each team member having more than one vital skill. In the hands of capable artists and animators such methods carry the traditional ingenuity artists have applied to visual effects methods along the path of affordable computer rendering into new realms of affordable visualization. The vast studio spaces needed for shooting physical models, filled with lights, cables, camera mounts and model sets, have given way to shelves of hard drives gathering the rendered animations churned out, after a lot of preliminary work, by multiple computers. Observatory Art Director Don Dixon was the leader of the team gathered to produce their inaugural show 'Centered In The Universe', providing much of the script, direction and coordination of the team which brought about this excellent show. Artist Chris Butler was the show Art Director, with several other animators and programmers involved. The primary software used was Maya, with artistic methods used to emulate various processes rather than relying on actual simulations as the Hayden in New York often uses. 'Centered In The Universe' works well in communicating the basics of the cosmic perspective gathered through out history, and it is a beautiful show.

One glaring omission I as a worker in the field saw was the lack of credits to the talent involved at the end of the show. At Hansen Planetarium we ran credit slides at the end, and yet this tradition, followed by many facilities, was left out. During a discussion with many of those involved after the Astro-vis reserved show I saw, a helpful and attentive Ann Hassett, of Friends of the Observatory, mentioned the lack of credits, saying 'This is not a movie!'. Undoubtedly this echoed the attitude from higher up, which I regard as a misguided attempt to show detachment from the entertainment industry.

There are many aspects of the Hollywood way of doing things which are worth discarding and ignoring, especially the mining of the basest instincts to make a buck. The production of this fulldome show is a triumph of a new generation of digital 'film makers' who are bypassing the institutionalized caste systems and ritualized labor practices of the movie industry which is driving many productions overseas. Such innovative efforts by 'home grown' teams of artists and animators should be nurtured, and their work proudly acknowledged. It may not be film, but it is indeed a 'movie', which didn't come into being by itself. The importance of 'show biz' is acknowledged at Griffith in the use of actors, as well as the enshrining of the bronze bust of James Dean prominently on the grounds. One would think the cinematic capability of ones own institution, a major driving force as a public attraction, would be worth mentioning.

A complete list of credits for the show can be found here.

It will be interesting to see to what degree Griffith will continue to shine as a producer of quality fulldome content. Alas, all too many Planetaria enjoy an initial burst of support and funding only to gradually wither in their production capabilities. It would be a shame to allow the team gathered for such a display of the capabilities of fulldome planetarium production to be dispersed. In such a specialized field one cannot always count on such talent being available on demand in a deadline situation. The bulk of future programming at Griffith may well revert to primarily traditional star shows. The star projector and horizontal dome assures that traditional Planetarium shows will always be possible, yet the fulldome video display allows the potential of moving images on the dome to be exploited.


I have received helpful feedback which has resulted in corrections and clarifications. Among the responses I wish to acknowledge is from John Sepikas who wishes to make clear he was not fired, as earlier worded, and that he is still an observatory lecturer. His plight, whatever the particulars of his case, highlights worthy issues regarding trends of the modern Planetarium industry.

Since this article was written not only has the public automobile access problem been greatly remedied, Adolf Schaller has been received as an honored guest, signing the grand old guest book many an astronomical luminary has added their signatures to over the decades.


Don Davis