When it comes to fulldome/giant-screen convergence, are we asking the right questions?

Attention fulldome community: IMERSA is trying to identify the ‘big’ questions that operators need to answer before ‘convergence’ can go much further and is seeking community feedback. Please read on...

Your input will inform IMERSA's session "Digital Planetariums and Giant Screen Digital Domes – Conflict or Convergence?” moderated by Paul Fraser at IPS (Wed, 7/25 at 11 am).

There are approximately 100 film-based giant screen domes and a roughly equal number of giant screen digital planetariums worldwide. As giant screen domes transition to digital dome projection, how will they differ from digital planetariums? What standards will they adhere to? Will giant screens run fulldome programming and will planetariums run digitized giant screen films? This panel will explore the coming convergence of digital planetariums and giant screen film theaters.

Paul Fraser, Blaze Digital Cinema Works
Michael Daut, Evans & Sutherland
Martin Howe, Global Immersion
John Young, R.H. Fleet Science Center
Steve Savage, Sky-Skan
John Jacobsen, The White Oak Institute

Below is the preliminary list of questions for panelists.

Are we asking the right questions? 
Let moderator Paul Fraser know what you think. Send an email by July 20th to paul “at” blazedigitalcinema.com indicating the questions you prefer, including any new questions you’d like to add. (Please reference the question number(s) in your email). Thank you.

  1. The business model: The stark difference in business models means that for convergence to happen, either one side accepts a huge change, or a hybrid approach emerges over time. What do you think SHOULD happen?
  2. Re-formatted giant-screen films for fulldome: Is this showing us the ‘runway’ to convergence, or is it revealing conflicts?
  3. Live-action content: Will digital planetariums accept pre-rendered shows that are mainly live-action? Will audiences accept it?
  4. Flexibility in programming, part 1 – non-astronomy topics: How flexible are digital planetarium in experimenting with non-astronomy programming? How about fiction programming?
  5. Flexibility in programming, part 2 – decision making: Who should be making the decisions about how a theater should be programmed if its equipment allows the operator the ability to screen any format and any content? 
  6. Marketing/positioning different dome formats: How should theaters position each of their formats/film types so that audiences are attracted to them? 
  7. 3D for the Dome: Do you believe 3D for the dome will be a catalyst for convergence? 
  8. The benefits of convergence: What are they? Who benefits the most? 
  9. Your question!

Posted on behalf of IMERSA.org and Paul Fraser of Blaze Digital Cinema Works

Views: 387

Comment by Philip Groce on July 19, 2012 at 2:53am


I wish you luck with your panel, but I’m afraid many planetarians may not understand the economics of giant screen production. I hope you will start with an overview of that process and costs.  I also wish I had the time to address all of the issues and questions you raise.  However, all of the questions surrounding fulldome planetariums can narrowed down to one: “What business are we in?”


I find this discussion ironic given that the first giant screen theaters were dome theaters (space theaters) and later became giant screen/flat-screen experiences that have become almost as common as Starbucks on every corner.

Because there is such a dearth of content for fulldome theaters and because many planetariums operate in markets without giant screen theaters, there will always be planetariums that will want to show fulldome conversions of giant screen movies.  Too bad, because almost without exception, fulldome conversions are inferior experiences that often severely compromise the visual content. For example, seeing Sea Monsters on a dome, heavily magnified and cropped with the center of action at dome zenith is for me a dismal and unsatisfactory experience, knowing what the director intended and what the audience deserves.  Some distributors have correctly reduced the image size to a more acceptable 100° high x 200° wide dome image with greater image success and quality, but then it is not a fulldome presentation. I think our audiences are really OK with that approach and I personally prefer it.


Fortunately for most planetariums their public doesn’t get a chance to compare fulldome versions with a giant screen presentation of the same content. If the public could make that apples-to-apples comparison, planetariums would not fare so well. However, operators of fulldome theaters point out that their dome may be the only opportunity for their audiences to see this movie.  They rightly insist that it is still a positive experience and a good value for their visitors.  So this is not a simple black & white issue.


On the surface this adaptive reuse of giant-screen content may seem to be a good thing for giant-screen producers, if the content has already made its run through large-format theaters. Fulldome theaters are an additional market and can be seen as "found money". However asking distributors to release new content scheduled for giant-screen release with the same distributorship model will simply not work for many many reasons.  In the interest of time I will simply list a few of them I consider deal breakers:


1) Most fulldome theaters are planetariums, not movie theaters.  We can argue about whether that is good or bad, but the fact is most institutions cannot devote a generous show schedule to a giant-screen movie in its program schedule.  Nor can they devote as much of their marketing resources toward marketing the product. As a result, given like populations and market size, it is highly unlikely that fulldome versions of giant-screen movies can ever generate the level of revenue produced in giant-screen theaters.


 2) There is also the investment of the fulldome conversion.  That cost is another major hurdle for release of giant-screen content to fulldome theaters.  Many of these conversions shown today were done by fulldome equipment providers as an investment to convince their clientele that their theaters can be more than just planetariums.  But that model will not pay for the conversion of most of the giant-screen library and certainly not for new releases.  So who is going to pay for the conversions?  Is there really enough revenue to distributors to justify the conversions?


3) Complete lack of display standards or poor standards among fulldome theaters is another serious hurdle.  Almost all digital movie theaters, including most IMAX™ Theaters adhere to some pretty specific standards for both content and display systems, including image brightness and contrast.  The industry wide digital conversion from film resulted in DCI Compliant systems. No fulldome system on the market today is DCI Compliant and can readily show DCI Compliant content shown in digital movie theaters or giant screen theaters.  


In all fairness, the DCI standards were largely designed for flat screen commercial theater displays and a large part of DCI deals with securing the content to prevent pirating movies.  Domes are by their very nature, not compliant to cinema standards.  Cross-bounce issues greatly limit the potential brightness of any image.  Even if you had the brightest fulldome system in the universe on the darkest dome possible, you would never really want more than 8 foot-lamberts.  Added light would just wash-out the image and degrade the image contrast.  If we use brightness, contrast, and pixels per degree of view as measures of quality image, flat-screen presentations will always be superior to fulldome.  Most fulldome systems produce 1 or 4 footlamberts, while DCI compliant systems produce images 5 to 10 times brighter, with far better color saturation and contrast.


Let’s face the fact that the only images that consistently work well on the dome are dim, high-contrast content where the brightest part of the image is placed to the front of the dome.  Domes are made for projecting stars and high contrast objects like planets on the front of the dome and not for showing BUGS or Sea Monsters, much less “The Dark Night Rises”.


Most fulldome content today is CGI for a good reason. It is relatively cheap to produce. Integrating live-action into programs is a desirable goal that gives a sense of reality to our visualizations.  It is also a difficult and expensive process, given that shooting for the dome requires unique equipment and an awkward set of production skills and software.  Converting giant-screen live action to fulldome is certainly an attractive idea.  However, the dome itself prevents or at least greatly inhibits the success of recreating bright and realistic live action scenes.   


For the reasons above converted images photographed for the rectangular screen simply don’t work as well in the fulldome format.  The requirements for 3D are even more stringent.  It is time that planetariums get over their giant-screen envy and instead market their fulldome planetarium productions as unique immersive experiences and concentrate on content that feature high contrast images that work best on the dome.


Having said all of the above, I believe there is an application of giant-screen movies to the dome theater.  Forget fulldome, instead show these images as partial-dome giant screen images and retain as much of the original image content as possible.  Stand-alone inset DCI Compliant 2D and 3D systems allow the planetarian to show any and all content including giant-screen movies with no conversion costs.   There is little or no cropping of the image and the angular image size is still larger than a typical movie theater.  Partial dome images are sharper, suffer little from cross-bounce and are bright enough to realistically recreate daytime, live-action scenes.  These inset 2-D and 3-D DCI Compliant systems cost a small fraction of the cost of fulldome systems and for the most part produce a more audience-pleasing experience than fulldome conversions of the same movies. Personally, I can’t see how anyone can justify any fulldome 3-D on the market today, knowing that there is little or not content converted for this medium, that it will always be dim compared to DCI Compliant systems, and presents a severe compromise of the original work of movie art.


I would hope that planetariums would adopt the philosophy of “rendering onto Caesar that which is Caesar.”  Inset 2-D and 3-D Digital Projector systems do have a place in planetariums.  They provide an experience completely different from the fulldome planetarium experience, they cost a fraction of fulldome systems, and they have a large existing library that requires no conversion or additional costs.  It is only these conditions that will make giant screen content economically viable for both the planetarium exhibitor and producers of giant screen movies.


Planetariums are wonderful immersive theaters that are at their best when they meet local needs with locally produced programs.  That is their strength.

Somewhere along the way they will have to decide what business they are in.

If they are to be giant screen theaters exclusively, then they would be better off ripping out the dome, erecting a giant flat screen, and provide a better product.  That would be great. They just wouldn’t be planetariums. 


Finally, this is not an all or nothing situation. Ideally, museums and science centers would be wise to provide separate planetariums and giant screen theaters.  Where that is not possible and a planetarium already exist then planetariums and giant-screen theaters will merge in some fashion.  How and when that happens will be determined by the answer they give to the question, “What business are we in?”




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