Skimming along the rings of Saturn or exploring the canyons on one of its many moons was part of the work chores for a handful of Clark Planetarium employees.
Five full-time and five part-time staffers run the planetarium's film production unit, which has produced 10 digital films for the dome theater since it opened in April 2003. Their latest effort, "Saturn: Jewel of the Heavens," which debuted last week, took about a year to complete.
The show combines a soaring instrumental soundtrack with 3-D views of the planet available only from NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission, which began orbiting and photographing the planet starting in 2004.
"Saturn has always been one of those hot topics in space exploration," said Mike Murray, planetarium programs manager and co-writer and director of the film. "But it's only been in the last four years we've really gotten to see it. The show helps people understand what these discoveries mean."
That the planetarium has its own production crew may sound like a luxury, but the effort pays for its $840,000 annual budget by distributing films around the globe. Last year, distributing planetarium films even brought in an additional $64,000 in revenue. The Utah-created work screens in 90 planetariums in 14 countries, reaching as far as South Korea and in places as surprising as Kuwait.
For a film production crew, it's a small staff, compared with Hollywood scale. One of the film program's strengths is the fact that all production, from script writing to modeling to rendering, is done at the planetarium. "We're a very interactive group and so many things happen serendipitously," Murray said.
David Merrell, the lead modeler and animator, is in charge of turning thousands of pixels into 3-D views of distant planets, meteors and stars. Where there's artistic license, it's mainly to deal with the large distances between objects. "We can get really close detail," Merrell said in an interview, as he paused to flash one of Saturn's moons on his computer screen. "You can see the tectonic fractures in this one."
Murray likes the dome theater's ability to immerse the audience in a scene. One of his favorite examples is a panoramic shot from a Mars rover. "You can get a feel for what it's like to stand on the surface," he said. "It makes Mars feel a little less otherworldly."
The dome theater is tilted at 12 degrees, which allows for more audience engagement, Murray said. The dome itself is made of aluminum, perforated with about 50 million holes, and is riveted to a steel frame. Six projectors throughout the theater combine images on the screen, which ensconces the audience from a low horizon line to above and behind viewers' heads.
The production crew doesn't focus only on science. It also produces music laser shows, featuring bands such as U2 and Pink Floyd. During each show, a trained operator adds visual elements to the screen, such as lights and lasers, so no two shows are alike. "Part of the presenters' jobs is to make it feel like a digital concert," said Dani Weigand, marketing manager for the planetarium.
Blending entertainment with education is part of the planetarium's mission. "If we can get kids interested in something scientific because it explodes on screen, maybe we can ignite that intrinsic interest in them and get them exploring on their own," Merrell said.
"Saturn: Jewel of the Heavens" lets viewers see up-close images of the ringed planet with images taken during NASA's Cassini-Huygens mission in an immersive, 360-degree show.
When » Daily at 2:30 and 5:30 p.m.; also screens at 4:30 p.m. Sundays, with a 6:45 p.m. show on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Where » Clark Planetarium, 110 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City
Running time » 36 minutes.