Twenty years ago, colored lasers and hard rock music were at the cutting edge of the sound and light displays featured by many planetarium shows. Today, huge advances in digital animation technology, computer speed and sound reproduction are helping to create dramatic and stunning new shows.
The latest is a sound and light extravaganza called Sonicvision co-produced by the rock-music cable channel MTV2, and the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
There was high excitement at the gala party following the premier showing of Sonicvision, a series of short, high-tech animated sequences projected onto the Hayden Planetarium's huge, darkened dome.
All 20 sequences were created by top animation artists to accompany pop songs blended seamlessly together by musician-composer, Moby. A 12-year-old audience member named Matt offered a typical reaction. "It was really cool. The effects were amazing," he said. "It was like a bunch of colors moving around, It was basically like a roller coaster because wherever you look, there is no spot where there is nothing going on. It was, like, whoa!"
Such accolades are rare, even at the Hayden Planetarium, which is renowned for the scientific rigor and visual beauty of its more traditional astronomy shows. Chris Harvey, the creative director at the Rose Center for Earth and Space where the Hayden is housed, said that he wanted Sonicvision to combine the esthetic potential of the famous dome with the joys of pop music, but without the usual formal constraints. "In a space show, in a science show, we're limited to scientific accuracy and factual information, but here we can tap into the same sense of awe and mystery that space has, but because it's a fantasy show, we can do absolutely anything" he said. "And in this show we were free to just have fun with technology, run with the imagination and show people some of our dreams and hopefully evoke some of theirs."
"It does make you stand in awe of what you're looking at. Looking literally from horizon to horizon in all directions, the animation surrounds you," said Steve Oakes, director of Curious Pictures, the New York animation studio that produced one of Sonicvision's first sequences. It featured music from Audioslave and U2. "Where we are launching ourselves off up to a fantastic alien planet, very fantasy imagery. And we penetrate the colorful field and find ourselves at this bizarre landscape that we allow ourselves to go on an amazing roller coaster ride, where half the audience sees something thinking it's up, and the other part on the other side of the hemisphere is thinking it's upside down or right side up. So it's an interesting exercise in understanding dimension."
Mr. Oakes said that while the fantastical imagery in Sonicvision belongs to the realm of art, it often provokes the sort of questions that scientists love. "Because it does make you think of dimensions wrapped in dimensions and speed and symmetry and things that are so to the heart of things in the natural world," he said. "I made the analogy of the first time I saw the Northern Lights, lying on my back in a football field, just seeing color streaming across the sky. And you think about the distance and the speed and what it means. And here is a pretty good simulation of that same kind of awesomeness."
It certainly took awesome computer and software technology to create the show which included simulated space cathedrals, moss green inter-stellar clouds, rainbow galaxies and a variety of weird humanoid forms. Benjy Bernhardt, who directs the engineering at the Rose Center, described some of the new technology behind the Hayden show.
"We have to have 118 processors rendering the show, seven of the largest video projectors in the world to project it, 48 channels of 24-bit, 48k audio, 23 speakers in the ceilings to make it sound good, 429 'shakers' in the seats to make you feel it, and what else? I must be missing something" he said.
On opening night, museum president Ellen Futter seemed especially pleased by the way animation, music, and computer technology were combined in the Sonicvision program.
"The connection between art and science runs deep at this institution," she said. "But nevertheless, in addition to the loftier reasons that I am really enamored of the show and the way it brings art and science together, I really like that it's just fun. And some things can be fun. And I think in these times fun is especially important from time to time."