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And the Survey Says...

June 2011

According to recent surveys, astronomy and science-based shows continue to be the most successful choices for fulldome video. Digital fulldome technology presents great potential to stretch programming into new territory, but creating a production from scratch can stress a budget in this evolving arena. This conundrum has prompted a closer look at how to deal with the sticker shock.

IMERSA supporting members and content producers Mark Petersen of Loch Ness Productions and Mike Bruno of Spitz Inc. keep a close eye on this area and have both presented fulldome market reports, both at the 2008 Fulldome Summit in Chicago and, more recently, at the 2010 Fulldome Summit in Denver. A new survey, summarized here, was conducted by the University of North Carolina's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in the summer of 2010.

Part of Morehead's own model for future sustainability will involve distribution of their own in-house titles as they transition from traditional to fulldome technology prompting them to do this survey to discover more about the evolving fulldome market.

As fulldome is still a very young and rapidly shifting arena, IMERSA considers it very important to check in on a regular and frequent basis. Our organization actively encourages these studies and we will be supporting and conducting future studies. The latest round of data underscores that the primary home of fulldome is still overwhelmingly the planetarium and the primary subject is space science. Planetariums continue to adopt and upgrade to fulldome presentation at an increasing pace.

However, that shouldn't mask the other growing story about fulldome—the increasing awareness and application of the medium to other types of content and other types of venues. We will see fulldome increasingly adopted for the repurposing of non-astronomy content while, at the same time, its use in entertainment venues grows. The recent IMERSA Fulldome Summit held in Denver (details below) bears this out.

The Strategy

After installing a new Sky-Skan Definiti system in January 2010, the Morehead team be gan to map a course for producing fulldome shows by talking to other production groups doing work similar to what they had in mind. They found that the average digital fulldome production created from scratch (including animation, graphics and visuals, scripting, narration, an original musical score, and so forth) cost about $300,000-400,000.

Richard McColman, director of the former Star Theater (now the GlaxoSmithKline Fulldome Theater), explains, "A prominent consideration in the process of this survey was this: How do we, as a field, create high quality programs that can be affordable to facilities across the board?"

To evaluate where their production time and resources should be allocated, they decided to ask the fulldome community to define show quality and value for them.

Involved in the survey were Planetarium Director Todd Boyette, Director of Education and Planning Denise Young, Fulldome Theater Director Richard McColman, Digital Production Manager Jay Heinz, Director of External Relations Jeff Hill, and Ravi Ayer, a recent MBA graduate of UNC hired for the summer as a consultant to help formulate the business plan for the production team.

The Morehead team went in without expectations. A cross section of fulldome venues was chosen from the Loch Ness Productions' online compendium and 503 email invitations were sent out to facilities in several English-speaking countries speaking European countries. The response rate was 15%, (74 responders total) representing science centers, museums, and school districts which have domes or small onsite planetariums accessible for astronomy programs. Some of the results follow.

The Answers

Meeting the mission was ranked the top success factor of a show, followed closely by audience evaluations and total attendance. Total revenue was spread evenly across the board, important for some and less so for others as a definition of success. Given the opportunity to further explain what other standards are used to evaluate success, many listed educational standards. Appealing to a broad audience, prompting positive audience feedback and repeat visits were also among the considerations mentioned.

School children make up a large portion of the target audience for the vast majority of respondents.

Planetarium managers led by a large margin in making decisions about the purchase of a fulldome production. "There are relatively few people involved in the decision making process," Hill commented, "So a lot of emphasis is on standards in educational content and not as much on entertainment value. This made sense when we realized who the decision makers are."

Not surprisingly then, shows for school groups and children, with strong educational and astronomy themes, were given the highest success rate. The lowest scores were given to history themes, and non-astronomy science had the most N/A responses.

Top: The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Center: The coyote narrator from Earth, Moon and Sun, a show that was designed to strongly align with national science standards at the elementary level. Below, from left: Planetarium Director Todd Boyette, Fulldome Theater Director Richard McColman, and Director of External Relations Jeff Hill. All images courtesy the Morehead Planetarium and the University of North Carolina.


Questions

The response rate, 15%, and the role of the person completing the survey, mostly the planetarium manager, may have skewed some of the numbers toward astronomy and science-based content and the strong desire for meeting curriculum standards. Also, a significant number of the respondents, 55%, indicated that they had some type of fulldome production capability. Follow up questions are needed to determine whether the respondents included specialized, one off adaptations or fully animated, highly produced shows.

 

Impressions

The variables ranked in evaluating production quality carry great significance in determining where to allocate resources. Some venues pay more attention to the script and some, educational content. The overall impression was important but individual aspects, such as music, weren't given much weight. Here, a producer must decide whether to get a musical score off the shelf, for example, or to develop a special score in-house.

"Do you want to put your resources in the music if it doesn't get as much attention from the venue?" asks Hill. "The question also becomes, can you find a good score off the shelf? The challenge lies in getting things to sync up, getting the peaks and valleys of the score to match the visuals to add to the overall impression."

Educational value and story/script ranked highest over animation, audio, music, narration, graphics/visuals, overall impression and scientific/historical content.

 

Worth

Cost was equally important in deciding which show to purchase, as were educational content and appeal to school children and general audiences.

About half of the price tags on the most recently purchased shows were under $5,000. Nearly one third were between $5,000-10,000. Another 13% ranged up to $25,000 and four respondents paid more than $25,000.

Over half of the respondents felt they had gotten a good value in their most recent purchase. Notably, there was no correlation between high cost and low value; respondents did not indicate they had paid too much for a high-priced show. Rather, the low values were assigned to some of the least expensive shows. Some planetariums found that paying a low price or purchasing a well-known title did not necessarily guarantee a good deal.


Conclusions

Like many planetariums, producing their own shows has been part of Morehead's heritage since the facility's opening in 1949. The results of Morehead's survey indicate a direction to its intended, internal audience.

Since Morehead is a small organization in terms of overall activities, with limited floor space for exhibits and programming, their creative strength lies in the planetarium. They hope that other planetariums will look to
them for licensing of fulldome productions along with other distributors already supplying the field.

Organizationally, Morehead is trying to stretch out from traditional astronomy shows. When footing the entire bill up front, however, they feel the need to cater to the market to maximize the potential returns. In order
to try more non-traditional programming, they might opt for grant funding. "We already have successful shows on the market, such as Earth, Moon and Sun and Magic Tree House Space Mission," says Hill. "We are not comfortable going too far out on the limb for non-traditional shows when we are not sure that the market will respond favorably."

One option for supporting production efforts is to produce work for other entities such as commercial institutions, the university campus or other nonprofits. McColman states, "The ebb and flow of the production cycle are such that, for example, animators could be working on other projects while the current planetarium project is in music or editing or scriptwriting."

One possible conclusion is that the field is going to move toward fewer producers of content than it had in the pre-fulldome era. "There is the potential to create this whizbang stuff," says McColman, "and the desire
is there, but it requires considerable resources. And then to recoup a substantial fraction of the investment is where the problem lies for medium to small planetariums where the budgets aren't huge."

Further information about the fulldome marketplace can be found at IMERSA.org.

Notes from the 2010 Fulldome Summit, Oct 26-28 in Denver
(If you attended the Summit, please share your views on the survey on the IMERSA website.)

IMERSA's first Fulldome Summit was a success; participants were slicing content and showing up to the very end. From October 26-28, the Summit, held concurrently with Symposium 2010 for Museum & Media Professionals, drew some 280 people to the Gates Planetarium at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The Symposium, hosted biennially by the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, went on the road for the first time this year (to Denver) and will likely return to Denver in 2012. In the meantime, IMERSA has penciled in another Fulldome Summit for 2011.

Mark Petersen's presentation at the 2010FulldomeSummit in Denver. TheUniviewEarth in the background shows Mark and some of the 600+Fulldomesites around the world. Photo, plus two onfaceingpage: All Rights Reserved, Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The fulldome community meshed well with the wildlife documentary community that Jackson Hole caters to, for a fertile crossover of ideas and artistry. IMERSA found encouraging support for its goals of bringing full-dome to wider circles beyond planetariums. The Symposium provided tremendous opportunities for outreach and bridge building.

"I thought we had a pretty good idea of what we could do with our new digital dome, but the Fulldome Summit completely blew me away," commented Terry Burton, Digital Media coordinator at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, which is building a brand new museum facility—including a 36-ft digital dome theater. "To have the opportunity to spend three days in the world of immersive media was not only hugely inspirational, it came at a perfect time in the development of our project."

David Pentecost is project manager at the Center for Community, a new science center being built in New York that will include a planetarium. He found inspiration in the photography workshop given by Greg Downing and Eric Hanson, principals at xRez Studio and producers of Crossing Worlds, a contemplative sequence of landscapes shot in the southwest United States and set to music.

"They used some techniques, little 3D tricks, that are complex to pull off shooting still photography," said Pentecost. "They are very skilled photographers and it was great to hear them explain what they did and then participate in the Spherical Panoramic Photography and Composition workshop with them."

Pentecost further commented regarding the fulldome community: "It is a hearty group of pioneers. The halls should be packed at the next Summit." IMERSA's board members agree that the Summit and Symposium
presented fulldome at its best and was a high point in the positioning of the format and its potential.

The content showed well on the Gates Planetarium dome, and the presentations demonstrated significant attention to the aesthetic aspects of the medium, not just the technology. The bar continues to ascend for top shows in production and for the caliber of producers and suppliers working in the fulldome medium.

Note: Most of the Fulldome Summit sessions were videotaped and will be accessible on IMERSA.org in the near future.

Left: The IMERSA Fulldome Summit work¬shop with Bob Patterson. Pho¬tos all rights re-served, DMNS

This article first appeared in The Planetarian, published by the International Planetarium Society [http://www.ips-planetarium.org] (IPS). Reprinted on IMERSA.org with kind permission.

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