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In the quiet surrounds of the ancient salt beds that make up Lake Tyrell the Boorong people gazed into the night skies and created legendary stories of the animals and people they saw twinkling back at them. Hundreds, and maybe thousands, of years later these stories have been rediscovered and come to life on the 16 metre domed ceiling at the Melbourne Planetarium.
Header images: Ben Tiefholz, Stories in the Stars, Melbourne Planitarium - 10 sequential images from the section of the ride where we pass through the heart of the snake, rendered with Cebas Final Render at 3000x3000 pixels per frame, 30 frames per second. Footage was the treated with Trapcode’s Shine plugin in Adobe After Effects to heighten the colouring.
Original publication: Design Graphics: DG Magazine 2005
Republished with permission
dgdesignnetwork.com.au
Dan and Erica are forlorn and angry when they find that instead of going to the party they had hoped for they are destined to spend the evening with their grandparents on a lonely trek around Lake Tyrell – Victoria’s largest salt lake and ancient home of the Boorong people. However, their despondent foot shuffling soon turns to fascination after finding a brightly coloured snakeskin and uncover a wonderous world of stories in the stars as Grandpa recounts the initiation ceremonies of the past.

The Boorong clan no longer exists, but many of the North West Aboriginal nations include their descendents. Over the past decade, these communities have worked with historian John Morieson to recover the stories of the Boorong. These stories express not only knowledge about the night sky but also reflect aspects of Boorong culture. The changing skies speak not only of stars and planets but of landscapes, the activity of animals and plants throughout the year, rights conduct, healing, and the Law.

“Our stories are up there, our kinship, our morality, our hunting and gathering, the seasons – everything is there in the night sky like it is on the earth” explains Gary Murray, deputy Chair of North-West Clans; the body charged with community responsibility for native title and cultural heritage responsibilities. While most Australians are familiar with the night sky stories from European cultures, they remain unaware of these unique perspectives on the Southern sky. “When Lake Tyrell Aborigines looked into the night sky in Dreamtime Australia they saw not the Southern Cross, but a ring-tailed possum sitting atop a blazing bough of light,” states Murray.

New research has revealed that the ancients devised their own zodiac, charting the pattern of the seasons and life in pre-European Australia through a unique view of the heavens. In their sky, a giant emu reposes between the Southern Cross and Scorpius, the Gemini twins are formed by a tortoise and fantail cuckoo, and a pair of brolgas make up the milky clouds of Magellan.

The original research by cultural historian John Morieson is derived from the written account of William Stanbridge, an Englishman who took up a grazing license at Lake Tyrrell in the 1840’s.

Ben Tiefholz, creative designer for Stories in the Stars ventured with a team to Lake Tyrell and brought back many physical artefacts, which became central to the Planetarium show. The snake ride, which takes its passengers on a journey through the stars, is based on one of these artefacts, as well as many indigenous paintings and drawings.

This new version of the Stories in the Stars makes use of the SkyVision system installed at the Planitarium as part of its $1.5M upgrade in 2004. SkyVision provides dramatic multimedia capabilities allowing still image and video clips to be inserted anywhere on the dome and manipulated freely in real time. This show is the first to be created in Australia to meet the format capabilities of the SkyVision system, and will allow this show to be shared with other SkyVision planetariums around the world.

The original system required a myriad of 56 slide projectors, video projectors and a data projector were made to “all sort of match up on to the sections, like an Atari game,” says Ben, “it was hard to get all the stars and constellations to move, but on the full dome video you can have the whole dome spinning and twirling”, and that’s exactly what the Melbourne Planetarium team has in store for the audience in this show. One of the special elements of a dome screening is that it uses peripheral vision images. As Ben explains, “it’s a bit like a roller-coaster ride, as you are flying through this snake it takes on a corkscrew spiral and you can start to feel quite nauseas through your visual senses, so you have to close your eyes otherwise you start feeling a bit ill”.

Ben used 3D Studio to compose the show, utilising Adobe Photoshop CS2 and After Effects 6.5 for several post-production effects. One of the benefits of using 3D Studio is its inbuilt star generator. Ben has used this module on a number of productions and although the generated stars cant possibly match the DigitalSky real time star show it is certainly undetectable in his animated world. The show was 6 months in production, taking on a team of scriptwriter, DOP, live production crew, four dramatic actors, animators, and a digital artist overseen by the astronomer, science advisor and a production manager.

“The storyboard becomes a critical part this type of production as the actors need to be in a certain position on the frame or its not going to be a complete screen”, Ben explains, “a particularly difficult shot was when the grandfather is talking and the kids gradually fade away. The camera sort of pulls in on the grandfather slowly and then the animated story starts taking place and takes over the dome space. Then the rest of the grandfather disappears as well, but for that shoot we had to be really careful at the same time zooming in on the grandfather which is only 720 by 576 pixels which is pretty average resolution to match his face so you really have to be conscious of your edge”. The pixel dimensions are put into perspective when Ben estimates some of the images in the shoot to be 3,000 by 3,000 pixels. The hardware that drives this show is sweet by anyone’s standards.

Everything you see on the dome is projected by six video projectors, positioned around the rim or base of the dome. Five of these projectors each cover one wedge on the dome and the sixth covers the zenith (the point overhead). These six images knit together seamlessly to cover the entire dome in movement and colour. The SkyVision system offers nearly five million pixels per frame, and a frame rate more than twice that of large format film.

David Bridie composed and recorded the sound and music for the show with Byron Scullin and it involved collaborations with Kutcha Edwards and Jida Gulpilil in surround. “Byron and I ventured up to Lake Tyrrell with surround microphones recording night ambience, wind and wire harmonics, footsteps and noises and based a soundtrack around these organic sounds” explains David. “The result was layers of sound, grooves underpinning drones of wind and wire and clap sticks and Jida’s unique indigenous vocals (his father is David Gulpilil) and occasional Enoesque piano ambience and a bit of dub thrown in for good measure. It was rare for me to do the sound as well as the music, so we had total control of everything audio”. David highly recommends the show as a place to take in his unique blend of earthy beats, “Tis the perfect environment for a surround sound recording as you are there in the Planetarium, in the comfy chairs leaning back, totally absorbed staring at a 360 degrees simulated night sky”.

Morieson says that the constellations that are featured are ones that are easily found in our night sky. “The Southern Cross, the Pointers, Gemini, Orion and Lyra can be picked out without too much difficulty”, he said, “and with binoculars, naked eye viewers will then be able to find the possum, the fan-tailed cuckoo, and the long-necked tortoise, the malleefowl and the two young men dancing”.

There are several differences in the way the Boorong studied the night sky compared with our more familiar European traditions. Some of these differences include the prominence of dark nebulae (the dark patches in the sky, such as the Coalsack near the Southern Cross) in their asterisms. It also includes the prominence of star colours, the shapes of constellations (although join-the-dots constellations were used, many Aboriginal traditions included more abstract groupings, eg a straight line of stars may represent a particular animal). For almost all Australian Aboriginal groups, the Sun was seen as a woman and the Moon as a man (unlike almost all other traditions in the world).

Gary Murray says that the Boorong as regarded by their neighbours as great astronomers and hopes that the Planetarium’s tribute to Boorong will provide a greater understanding of Aboriginal culture. “This Planetarium show reveals some of the complexity of their life and demonstrates how observant they must have been over the centuries and thousands of years to gain this knowledge and to use the stars in such an intelligent way” says Murray.

Stories in the Stars was produced by the Melbourne Planitarium in conjunction with the North-West Nations Aboriginal Corporation. The cultural rights to the traditions described in the show are held by the North-West Nations.

Terri Dentry is an independent film journalist, animation producer, and the Director of thinkRED film & media in Melbourne, Australia.

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Snake Quarterview - This shows the image as it is rendered from 3D Studio Max thru Cebas Final Render Stage0 fish-eye lens plugin. The fish-eye lens compensates for the projection onto the domed surface. Framing an image for the dome; action is generally focused in the centre lower half of the frame. The centre of the frame is projected on the apex of the dome and anything towards the top of the rendered frame is projected at the rear of the planetarium dome and tends to behind the audience.
A mock-up of what the audience sees when the full-dome video footage is projected. The six high definition RGB data projectors are synced up through Skyscan’s Digital Sky planetarium projection system.
Snake’s heart as it would appear when projected on the dome
The actors were shot against black and laid out in Skyscan’s Digital Sky onto the painted background. The background image was created in Photoshop.
Animated scene from the show. Weetkurk the singing bush lark transforms and hurls her spear at Tchingal the killer emu. The characters were hand drawn and cel animated by Dermot and projected onto a painted background, created by Jessica in Photoshop.