Computer Graphics World

Edition 1 2020

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30 cgw e d i t i o n i , 2 0 2 0 A n iconic Los Angeles destination, Griffith Observatory draws millions of visitors to its grounds each year for its sweeping skyline views and astro- nomical pursuits. Self-described as "South- ern California's gateway to the cosmos," the Observatory features the impressive 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium dome theater, which presents up to 10 science-fo- cused shows a day. Each one is brought to life with a sophisticated digital projection system, including a Zeiss star projector, and is narrated live by an engaging storyteller. In June 2020, the planetarium is set to debut its first new big show in 13 years, Signs of Life, produced by non-profit Friends Of The Observatory (FOTO) and the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks and Griffith Observatory. The nearly 35-minute full-CG project incorporates artistic elements, and delivers an emotional cinematic experience – albeit one still firmly rooted in science. Many of the Signs of Life producers and artists come from the visual effects world, and their experiences strongly influenced the production team's decision to build a plug-and-play pipeline using industry-stan- dard, interoperable VFX tools to streamline the content creation process. As a result, the ambitious studio pipeline build and show was realized in under three years by a small 25-person team using almost entirely off-the shelf soware, including Autodesk's Maya, Arnold, and Shotgun; SideFX So- ware's Houdini and Mantra; Pixologic's ZBrush; Adobe's Substance Designer; AWS Thinkbox's Deadline; and Foundry's Nuke. "This project is a dream for me. It's the story of life in the universe; a reciprocal relationship between art and science only made possible by combining the talents of our VFX pros and the knowledge of space and astronomy experts," says producer Dawn Fidrick, who oversees the project with producer/director Bob Niemack, art director/ director Don Dixon, and VFX supervisor Gee Yeung. "By far the scariest aspect of the project was determining a workflow that could support the huge amounts of data that we were going to be generating. With this in mind, we incorporated a standard production pipeline and established effi- ciency procedures, like being very selective on when to do full-res renders." Signs of Life was created in 8K resolution at 60 frames per second and with a 180-de- gree fish-eye lens aesthetic for display on the Observatory's 76-foot immersive dome. The 8124x8124 dome master is sliced to be shown from six Christie Boxer projectors that beam a total of 24 channels onto the dome. Beyond significant data consider- ations, production also had to navigate is- sues inherent to the dome format, including adjusting for cross-bounce lighting, timing animation for large-scale display (to avoid inducing motion sickness), and mitigating the image distortion that results during close-ups with a fish-eye lens. Surprisingly, all the work for Signs of Life was done on-site by the Observatory. A purpose-built facility, the Griffith Obser- vatory Satellite studio was established in an existing building ahead of production. Observatory director Dr. E.C. Krupp, cura- tor Dr. Laura Danly, and art director Don Dixon developed the project's script over several years with input from scientists from NASA, JPL, Harvard Medical School, Caltech, and the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles County. Once the script was near-final, addition- al space was built adjacent to the studio to house infrastructure. Dubbed the "Mini Moon," it features an augmented electricity and air-conditioning supply to keep the team's 128-blade renderfarm and back-up drives running around the clock. This setup facilitated a more fluid feedback loop be- tween artists and Observatory experts. By opting to leverage standard content creation and pipeline management tools, Fidrick and her team are able to capitalize on the solution's built-in functionality. It has also accelerated artist on-ramp, as most are already familiar with the tools. These efficiencies have been instrumental in real- izing an extraordinarily advanced production Discovering Signs of Life CREATING GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY'S NEW FULL-CG 8K DOME SHOW This shot from the Earth sequence in Signs of Life, the new show in Griffith Observatory's Samuel Oschin Planetarium that premieres June 2020. Images ©2020 Griffith Observatory.

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