I was recently hired by the exceptional team at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center to provide images for their Blue Marble Campaign. They've been hard at work installing the region’s first ever Elumenati Omnifocus Projection System in their Immersion Theater and needed both images of the theater system itself and interaction photos for promotion.
So what is an Elumenati Omnifocus Projection System exactly? I didn't know either until I made my first on-site visit. The center's promotional piece describes it as follows:
"This one-of-a kind panoramic astronomy and earth science theater software was developed by the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and will take audiences on interactive, virtual journeys across vast scales of time and space, provoking questions regarding the nature of the universe and human’s role in protecting our fragile planet’s place in it. This will also be overlaid with cutting-edge infrared technology and customized content, creating an interactive immersive experience like nothing else!"
Picture a circular room wrapped by a screen. For perspective, consider that HD video is projected at a 16:9 aspect ratio. This particular system projects at a 40:9 aspect ratio. It virtually wraps around you when you stand in the theater. Multiple projectors are tucked into the ceiling and the content is controlled by a touchscreen podium at the back of the room. It's like something out of Star Trek...and it is seriously cool. It also happens to be an incredibly difficult scene to photograph.
There were two clear challenges with this shoot, the first was the room's dimensions, the second was the lighting. I wanted to show the entire room and briefly considered shooting a series of images and stitching them together but that would have made the room look too flat...too 2-dimensional. I opted to use a 15mm fisheye lens which gave me just enough coverage (within inches) to get the entire room in the frame. The distortion was severe, but I could correct for it when I processed the images. The second challenge was exposing the theater in such a way that both the projection on the screen and the hardware would be visible. This is of course impossible with a single shot, especially in a darkened room so I opted for a High Dynamic Range (HDR) sequence. This technique involves shooting multiple exposures of the same scene and "tone mapping" them together. I shot 5 images, underexposing 2 to capture the projected images on the screen, over exposing 2 to get the hardware and room detail, and finally, 1 that was properly exposed according to the light meter. Below is what they looked like right out of the camera. Note how the lens distorted the room and how, from an exposure standpoint, a single image simply wouldn't have worked. To get the projected image of the Earth, sun and stars meant the room and the projection equipment was far too dark. Conversely, to expose the scene in such a way as to illustrate the projectors and the room would result in a washed out image on the screen. By combining all of the below images I could bring out the shadowed floor, the projectors and the screen image.
I was hoping to recreate the feel of actually being in this room...the feeling of being on the bridge of a star ship looking out into space. After correcting for the optical distorion of the fish eye lens, tweaking the tone mapping, and doing quite a bit of cleaning, I was very happy with the result.
We also needed to create a compelling image that showed someone interacting with the theater. I knew just the photo I wanted...it was inspired not by any great artistic vision on my part, but rather by the system itself and how, just minutes after first seeing it in action, I could clearly picture my son Luc silhouetted by the earth, looking up at it in whimsically. And sure enough, once in the the room, that's precisely what he did.
For anyone who hasn't paid a visit to the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, you should consider it. The center boasts a number of impressive interactive displays as well as some great children's programs and beautiful outdoor grounds and trails. And if you go, don't forget to stop into the immersion theater. You'll be glad you did.