(Produced By Magazine, November 2014) – Dancing on the Ceiling. Fulldome Storytelling Starts to Take Shape. By Mike Ventre
As youngsters, all of us have sat in rooms and dreamed about what we’re going to be when we grow up. Typically, it’s not something like a certified public accountant or a project manager, although those are fine and noble professions. Usually, those types of fanciful dreams involved wondrous flights of imagination that an astronaut, fighter pilot, ninja warrior, master spy or movie star might take.
Ed Lantz was one of those kids, a budding techie scifi geek, although now he’s making his dream happen as a grown-up. He sat in a room once and said to himself: “What if you could control people’s sensory inputs and take them on journeys? And what if you were an artist creating those journeys? And what if you didn’t have to edit and shoot and cut it together? What if you could project your consciousness directly onto a dome?”
Today, Lantz is a PGA member, and the president and CEO of Vortex Immersion Media, Inc., based at L.A. Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles. He basically projects his imagination onto a dome so you can have a mind-blowing cinematic experience. It’s sort of like you remember from your class trip to your local planetarium, only much, much cooler. And while this technology doesn’t figure to replace conventional cinema, the bet is that it will augment it in a significant way.
“These domes are another wonderful platform that a story could be told through,” noted fellow PGA member Kate McCallum, a longtime development executive at Universal and Paramount who has worked with Lantz in fulldome since 2009 and now serves as a fulldome producer and creative consultant with Vortex. “Think about Interstellar or Gravity or Avatar. So you have Avatar the movie, but then you could also do Avatar: The Dome Experience, which may be either a ride film or a short journey that somebody might take.
“Imagine there’s a dome in your movie complex,” she adds. “People could have that experience as well as the story narrative feature film. It’s just another media platform that you can showcase another experience, because it’s different.” Lantz doesn’t see himself as Leonardo da Vinci. But he does share a belief with the old master innovator, visionary and esteemed brainiac.
“Everything in our world is formatted for a flat plane,” Lantz observes. “Almost everything. All graphics. You’re starting to see LED screens that now are curved. Oculus Rift (virtual-reality goggles) is the kind of thing where you look around and it’s a kind of perspective that Leonardo da Vinci called ‘natural perspective.’ Artificial perspective, that’s projecting on a flat plane. If you do the same thing onto a sphere, it’s natural perspective. The head pivots around on that sphere.”
The domes in Lantz’s personal sphere of influence generally fall into two categories: those that are portable and can be constructed in about three days, such as the two Vortex set up at Comic-Con last July in San Diego for Meatwad and Constantine 4D experiences, both of which drew long lines of gawkers (“A lot of my friends never got in,” Lantz lamented); and permanent brick-and-mortar, planetarium-like structures at multiplexes, theme parks, museums and other such venues, which Lantz hopes to see — and is actively working toward creating — more of.
“People love this stuff,” Lantz enthuses. “It’s exciting and new and… wow! It’s not like a little postage stamp on your mobile device. It’s big and immersive. We see it as the Next Gen cinema. There’s higher brightness and resolution with 4D. “Where is there left to go,” he asked, “but to wrap the image around your head?”
Lantz has been pondering that profound notion since he was a young teenager growing up in the other Hollywood, in Florida. He once wrote a science fiction story about a performer in a dome projecting his consciousness onto a big holographic screen, immersing audiences and taking them on journeys. At the time, he quickly came to a conclusion: “I said, ‘Oh my God. That’s the future. I want to do that.’ Of course, my next thought was, ‘Uh, that doesn’t exist yet.’”
While the possibilities continued to swirl inside his own personal dome, Lantz embarked on a career that saw him receive a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Tennessee Tech, then gain experience in computer science, quantum physics, electro-magnetics and aerospace engineering. It was at one job he had in a government lab in Melbourne, Fla. — “We were getting into battlefield management and kill ratios,” he explains — that he had an epiphany.
“I was in a lab playing with an acousto-optic crystal projecting beautiful laser patterns on a wall,” he recalls. “I said to myself, ‘This shouldn’t be in a government lab. This should be a laser light show.’ I ended up coming to one of those turning points in my career where I said, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I want to heal people and bring light and awe. I don’t want to figure out better ways to kill people.’ I knew I needed to get out of that.”
Like little techie angels, planetarium people would call him periodically to gauge his interest in a job. He always declined their overtures because he wanted to be more than a technician. But at that juncture, he answered the call, and went to work as a programmer for the Astronaut Planetarium & Observatory in Cocoa, Fla., writing code to control the moon and sun.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, this is such a powerful medium,’” he recalls. “When I took the job, I almost cried because it was what I dreamed of as a kid.” From there Lantz worked for a planetarium manufacturing company. Then he had a sit-down with himself: “I said, ‘Ed, you’re an innovator. You’re creating this new stuff, but you’ll never see anything but a regular paycheck unless you become an entrepreneur.’ I looked around and asked, ‘How do I generate cash?’”
Inspired in part by the example of BET founder and multimillionaire Robert L. Johnson, Lantz became a cable guy, albeit one of the white-collar variety. He found a cable television network start-up kit online for $250. From there he created something called the Harmony channel, which he said eventually topped out at 14 million viewers. But he and his partner found that the operation became too costly to sustain.
So he went back to the comfort of the dome. He moved from the Philadelphia area to Los Angeles in 2009, and in 2010 put up a dome at L.A. Center Studios. He joined forces with McCallum, with whom he had been telecommunicating, and business partner Matt Fannon. They decided to go full bore into the dome-experience business.
Lantz and McCallum — who, after working together for a while, had a mutual sensory experience of their own and now share a dome-icile in the downtown L.A. area — recently invited a visitor to witness Vortex Immersion’s technology at L.A. Center Studios. The imagery and sound are indeed immersive, showing anything from a magnificent school of whales to a scary horror house with cockroaches to any number of shapes and colors. It’s a sensory feast: sometimes wind and scents are used.
While Lantz continues to try and raise capital for expansion, Vortex Immersion’s bread and butter these days is in experiential marketing in the pop-up domes, which have been used for a wide array of experiences at sporting events like the NBA All-Star Game and Super Bowl, for gaming tournaments and events, movie promotions and lots of other product marketing. The company also works with Oculus Rift and other virtual-reality headsets to create the “home video” version of the dome experience, as well as IMAX format films that are warped out for a dome viewing.
Dane Allan Smith is a line producer at Threshold Entertainment, who detects a burgeoning market for dome and Oculus Rift–like experiences.“The demand outstrips the number of people who can do it,” Smith explains. “The biggest barrier is developing a reliable pipeline and selling it to the decision-makers who green-light these projects.”
To illustrate the dome immersion’s popularity, Smith pointed to a recent promotion involving Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which saw people stand in line for two hours at Universal City to put on Oculus Rift lenses and experience life in the spaceship. “I think what is driving it is virtual reality,” he says. “If you look at the numbers created by the Interstellar tour, it tells you that people are willing to spend that kind of time just on a low-resolution, low-quality version.”
Lantz also sees a growing demand for filmmakers who specialize in dome work. Right now, much of it is done with CG, and there are a few creators who do it on a regular basis. Lantz would love to see more established filmmakers who work in traditional filmed entertainment to drift into his world.
“There are a small handful of immersive filmmakers now and Oculus Rift is making that possible because you don’t need as much resolution in the Rift,” he notes. “In the planetarium industry, there are some decent storytellers; I don’t want to be negative on them. But I think bringing the storytelling power of Hollywood into this format will just blow the doors off of it.”
Regardless of the technology used, the possibilities for storytelling are blowing up and going beyond the conventional movie theater flat screen. “Transmedia is this idea that one story — whether it comes from a film or a book or a TV show or an original IP — has been created, and then you tell that story in a variety of media platforms,” McCallum says. “So you have the mobile game that goes with the television show, that goes with the feature film or a book or a graphic novel or a comic book. This is what’s happening now. People are developing upfront multiple story extensions from an existing intellectual property.”
As a young man, Lantz said he once had to choose between art and technology, so he went with the latter. Now, inside a dome, he’s doing both. “It’s a compelling experience,” he smiles. “What we’re doing, you can’t get at home.”