ASTC 2011

Filed under: by: Aaron Price on Tuesday, October 18, 2011 @ 11:59 AM

I'm in Baltimore for the 2011 meeting of the Association of Science and Technology Centers. They are basically the main trade group for science museums, planetariums, aquariums, zoos and just about any informal science organization. They have about 1700 attendees at this conference.

Yesterday they had a morning panel on 3D film development held in the IMAX theater at the Baltimore Science Center. It was a pretty good session for someone like me. I'm new to the production side so it was an interesting glimpse into what goes into 3D film. I know the basics, of course, but my experience is on a completely different scale. For one of the films, they had something like 250+ CPUs crunching for over a week to render just a single model of a star formation region. I thought with modern machines those days were over - apparently not. Moore's law applies to animation as well as the CPUs that render it.

One person in the audience kept raising a question about fidelity to reality. Let's say you have a 3D image of the Andromeda galaxy. In real life, the human eye cannot see stereo beyond 50 feet or so. To get stereo images of mountains and such, the photographer has to physically move the cameras far apart to create the parallax needed. For galaxies, this is simply impossible. Even if we had Star Trek/Wars type of technology, we wouldn't be able to do it. The distances are just too great.

So are we lying by showing such an image? The panel basically said "Yes!". They claimed artistic license is needed to keep it entertaining. I think there was only one astronomer on the panel, the rest were primarily visualizers and directors. But I know some of them personally and I know of the others. They are actually careful to be faithful to the science, where possible. I think they were limited in their responses because the session was running out of time (since we were in a theater, we are unable to "run over" because other films were scheduled). So kudos to them for being honest, but I think the reality is more complicated.

My take is that whether you are being faithful to truth or not is based on the learning goal of the film. Is the goal to show what something would look like to the human eye? (As would be the case in training video, for example.) In that case, the stereoscopic galaxy is indeed a lie. But what if the goal is to educate about the structure and properties of galaxies? In that case, then the stereoscopic galaxy is not a lie because the 3D nature of the galaxy is real. That is, the galaxy would definitely look like that from a specific viewing angle in the Universe. It's just not a viewing angle we'd ever be able to see ourselves. The spatial properties of the central bulge, the flat disc, the orbiting globular clusters, etc. They all exist. They were not created for the film. So, for me as a learning scientists, if what you see exists in reality then it's game.

After the discussion we saw a new 3D IMAX film by National Geographic called Flying Monsters, narrated and written by Sir Richard Attenborough. I thought it was pretty good and effective at teaching a light lesson on evolution. Some of the stereo was very nice, but some of it was way too strong and ghosting was bad (I was in the sweet spot of the theater too). I REALLY hate the opening shot, which is a super stereo animation of the National Geographic logo. It almost caused me to throw off my glasses and is a classic example of why you should ease people into the 3D, not throw them into it to get a cheap thrill. It sucks that this will apparently be at the start of every National Geographic 3D film made.