A version of this article appeared in The Age, August 2, 2010.
Nestled near the foot of the West Gate Bridge in Spotswood, the Scienceworks museum is popular with families and school excursion groups, but less known as a destination for film buffs – until now. This year's Melbourne Film Festival includes a series of programs at the Scienceworks planetarium, showcasing large-scale videos made for the Fulldome format.
This is “expanded cinema” with a vengeance – more thoroughly immersive than even a 3D IMAX movie. Your seat moves into a reclining position as the image stretches all around; you stare up at the ceiling and descend into a dream. When the horizon line shifts, the body is tricked into sensing motion, as if on a ship pulling away from the shore.
Having spent the last few years with Scienceworks designing planetarium shows, the season curator Warik Lawrence says that he hopes that the MIFF screenings will encourage a wider audience to open their eyes to the possibilities of the format, which has been around in some form since the early 1990s. Prior to that, planetariums were largely restricted to projecting static images of the night sky (he shows me the traditional “star projector” still used by Scienceworks on occasion, a massive edifice resembling a Star Wars laser cannon).
The medium is still developing, and Lawrence regards the possibilities with excitement. “It's like a space-time machine, because you can transport your audience anywhere. I really feel it's a much more transcendental experience than cinema itself, because it's almost as though the screen disappears.”
The majority of the titles in the MIFF season are Melbourne premieres (and, according to Lawrence, are unlikely to be seen here again). Several come straight from the Fulldome festival in Jena, an annual event which Lawrence attended for the first time earlier this year.
For the moment, creating live-action Fulldome sequences is still a challenge (one technique involves using five separate video cameras, mounted into a single rig and pointed in different directions). Many of the music videos and experimental works in the season rely on computer animation. Others, like Peter Morse's Frozen in Time, seamlessly combine still photographs to take the viewer on a tour through a virtual space – in this case, the remains of the huts erected by Douglas Mawson and his companions on their 1911 expedition to Antarctica.
Planetariums are conventionally used for educational purposes, but Fulldome presentations have equal affinity with avant-garde cinema and with theme park rides. Lawrence says he would like to see more narrative works made for the format in the future; the main issue is figuring out what kinds of stories to tell. “In that particular dome space you don't want to put in close-ups of people,” he says. “It would be very intimidating, overwhelming.”
One favorite he cites from the MIFF season is Alien Action, an part-animated science-fiction adventure made on a shoestring by Dominic Bunning and Ralph Heinsohn, who run a small design studio in Germany. “It's almost War of the Worlds, if you like, but done really tongue-in-cheek. Visually it's just great when you have this gigantic three-legged robot towering over the audience.”
The Germans appear to lead the world in developing the format: Lawrence says that in Hamburg the planetarium stays open late every night for music shows featuring live video mixing, with participation from the likes of electronic composer Jean Michel Jarre. “They fill the dome with smoke and lasers, and they've got packed houses.” If the concept takes off locally, the sky's the limit.