The Melbourne Planetarium is housed within Scienceworks, now a part of the Melbourne Museum. The Planetarium is a 150 recliner-seat theatre featuring a 180 degree visual dome. At the time of this production (before the digital full-dome projection was installed) multiple banks of slides were used to create visual panoramas and overhead vistas within which are projected video footage. Immersive multi-channel surround audio combines with the expanded visual to create a stylized heightened sensory experience.
The Melbourne Planetarium produces 3-4 shows per year, each running for around 45 minutes. 4 different shows are programmed throughout each day, each show aimed at a target age group. Escape From Andraxus was for late-teens and tells the story of Rojil whose planet is destroyed. He must find a planet and solar system similar to his own - which leads him to our Earth.
The main themes from Escape From Andraxus were included on the CD The Planets released on Sound Punch Records.
Producers - Monica Zetlin & Tanya Hill
Sound design, music and 6-channel mix - Philip Brophy
Premiere season - Melbourne Planetarium
Escape From Andraxus involves an unusual approach for the Melbourne Planetarium. The central character ROJIL is never seen. Instead, the visitor to this show sits in the auditorium and experiences what he experiences as he navigates space in his ship. The script required a semi-serious dramatic tone to convey the tension and excitement as ROJIL encounters supernovas, red drawers, blue dwarves & black holes.
To reflect ROJIL's state-of mind throughout his journey, 2 musical themes are developed which recur and enforce his emotional state as he leaves his home to find a new one. The first theme (Andraxus) evokes his loss, mourning and regret. Grand piano tinkles state a simple mannered motif. Angular digital corruption occasionally intercedes to remind one of ROJIL's compassionate yet non-human status. On top, a counter-cycle of rising dissonant surges breathe. A down-tempo fractured beat remains unmoved by the harmonic momentum; a soft but brittle analogue synth drone swirls across the chords. In a second movement of this theme, choral samples impregnate this base arrangement with mock heroics, building up only to dissolve into a babbling of synthetic vocoder harmonies.
The second theme (Solar System) expresses the immensity of the universe before ROJIL as he ventures into the unknown. Referencing distant twinkling star constellations, it is based around a cycle of pointillist chords played on Rhodes. Electric dubby bass percolates a recurring refrain while eclectic percussive detailing creates complex restless rhythms. Grand drama (in the form of somewhat gaudy orchestral flourishes) erupts to represent ROJIL's earth-shattering experiences. The Black Hole sequence goes for the drum&bass jugular with lots of sub-woofer booms.
The sound design for Escape From Andraxus works to create the scale of the ship interior and the spatial realm of the universe navigated by the ship. Attention is paid to how sounds can develop the audience, and shift their sense of perspective and direction. The first phase of sound design involved breaking down the script into appropriate 'locations' (or spaces). Dramatic weighting and tone was then ascribed to these 41 locations. A schema of sound sources was devised, then recorded by Philip and Jennifer Sochackyj. Half were location sounds; half were specially prepared elements 'performed' in a studio.
The audio configuration at the Melbourne Planetarium features a 6-track multi-track played through 6 discrete speakers. There is no spatial encoding involved as the multi-track (a DA-88) is linked directly to a set of amplifiers and connected speakers. The spatial lay-out is an unusual one that simulates an expanded screen above, in front of and below the listener as they lay in a recliner seat at 140° recline.
A timecode sub-track of the DA-88 serves as the master for the major components of the Melbourne Planetarium's audiovisual infrastructure at the time of this commission:
1. 3 Betacam video decks (each with their own projection, 2 of which are on moveable skews)
2. the DigiStar programme (which generates wire-frame simulations of mapped data from a database of star constellations and their position within the solar system, and projects these computer animations onto the 180¼ dome screen)
3. a custom synchronizing programme called Spice (for sending action lists and sequences to control and trigger movements of the video projector skews as well as the banks of over 40 35mm slide projectors)
This system has since been replaced by a full-dome projection – SkyScan Digital Sky – promoted as a seamless visualization system for 180° set-ups, though lacking in the hybrid charm of the earlier system.
Producing the sound design for a Planetarium show is not as straightforward as working on a film. Firstly, there is no 'single screen' to work to. Production involves working with 4 separate time-coded tapes for synchronization:
1. an 'A-Roll' of video
2. a 'B-Roll' of video
3. a flat-screen output from the Digistar system, representing the dome animated dome projection on a 360° circular disc
4. a low-light fish-eye lens video shot inside the Planetarium showing the slides and video being projected onto the dome (the light does not pick up the DigiStar projection)
Prior to receiving these 4 tapes, extensive planning is done while the show is being developed and edited. In the case of Launch Pad a demo voice-track was recorded to provide an initial timing guide to produce an animatic. This was then checked for sound Effects timing to ensure that voice narration was separated or spaced away from any major sonic events (explosions, etc.). The animatic was then locked-off and an EDL of trigger events for Spice, markers for the voice track and time-code positions for sound events was generated. The actors were then recorded in a studio and then repositioned over the rough vocal guide-track of the animatic. Once these voices were in place, the rest of the sound design and score could be positioned.
Working in such an open-ended format as a Planetarium show demonstrates the fluidity that exist between pre-production and post-production in sound designing and film scoring. because there is no actual 'shoot' pre- and post- are merged, and in the process one can see the value of preparing simultaneous to the creation, production and placement of the multiple image tracks.
Spatialization mixing is largely intuitive within such a system. All sound design for Escape From Andraxus was done on an ASR10 workstation with an Output Expander. All immersive and dynamic spatial events and gestures are handled through MIDI editing, using extensive controller data to generate precisely articulated movement. Whereas shifting audio data through multiple speakers mainly relies on panning and volume, MIDI manipulation affords an expanded palette of possibilities (pitch, filter, LFOs, gates, envelopes, FX algorithms, etc.). The mix is checked at a number of stages in the actual Planetarium. Notes are taken on how the sounds are sitting in the space, and then the MIDI data is edited back at the studio.
The music score is also produced on an ASR10. All instrumentation is complexly routed through MIDI manipulation throughout the surround soundfield. By working with both sound and music within the one system, great flexibility is available in the mixing and merging of the two. No clashes occur as there is always a way to alter or modify micro- or internal details of sound or music data at any one point.
The final mix is mastered with light compression (mainly for voices) onto a DA-88 tape. The output level of the tape is controlled by the Spice programme onsite at the Planetarium.