How Do You Make a Film Experience More Than VR? Use a 360° Dome

Pixomondo’s David Garber tells us how the company tackles large-scale immersion inside theme park domes.

by DJ Pangburn
Aug 27 2016, 12:05pm

All images courtesy Pixomondo

Every year at the SIGGRAPH digital arts and technology symposium, the creators of the V-Ray 3D rendering software, Chaos Group, host "V-Ray Days." These sessions focus on the work of VFX studios in film, television and gaming industries.

One of the creatives who spoke at V-Ray Days 2016, John Nelson, is a VFX artist and lead lighter for Pixomondo, a company that creates large format dome films for theme park installations. In his presentation, Nelson spoke on the processes and challenges of rendering such high-resolution immersive visuals.

Hubei platform, showing the audience seats inside the dome

Originally, Pixomondo CEO Thilo Kuther focused the company’s efforts on large scale VFX products for industrial clients, then moved into feature film work. Eventually, David Garber, the company’s executive producer of Themed Entertainment, and an experiential environment filmmaker, took Pixomondo into this realm of immersive large format dome filmmaking.

Long before making these immersive, large-format film experiences, Garber created experiential environments at Yale University, which incorporated experimental structures with sound, light, music, and film. Garber later moved to Hollywood, where he began directing commercials and creating VFX and main title sequences. The combination of traditional film and experiential environment production experience allowed him to tackle large-scale immersive attractions at theme parks. Pixomondo’s first was an immersive flight over China’s Hubei Province.

Concept art

“With the creative energy and exceptional talents from our feature film VFX artists globally [we created] a large-format domed theater film for a flying experience and a motion simulator film for a space journey attraction,” Garber says. “Using thousands of photogrammetric images, our artists were able to build dramatic scenes in Max software for our flight through Hubei Province in China, while employing V-Ray to render the massive number of hi-res files.”

To create the Hubei Province experience, the Pixomondo team first pinpointed their locations using Google Earth. From there, the VFX artists pre-visualized what the actual locations look like. Next, Pixomondo sent their location team to China, where they used drones to capture 90,000 photographs. These reference images generated accurate 3D geometry through a cloud-based photogrammetry tool.

“The meshes derived from this process were used as a template for our 3D artists to model detailed architecture and landscape,” Garber explains. “Then we created 3D assets, which would need to be projected on a 65' by 40' curved dome, so we had to inject a huge amount of geometry and texture detail into every scene, which was then effectively rendered at 6.5K.”

Concept art

“On the actual ride platform, visitors were hydraulically lifted from a horizontal to vertical position and then moved in sync with our animated camera and experienced 4D elements such as wind, scent, mist and water,” he adds.

Garber says Pixomondo recently opened a second flying theater in Nanchang, China. Their third flying film, which will be installed in Harbin, China, is currently being filmed on location by Pixomondo’s aerial team, who developed an 8K heli-camera system for the project.  

“These live-action scenes will be enhanced and complemented by CG sequences,” Garber says. “All of the millions of files in our production pipeline will be rendered with V-Ray.”

Though some might consider virtual or augmented reality experiences as competition, Garber doesn’t see it that way. He believes VR has the potential to “heighten one’s awareness” and allow viewers to be immersed in their own worlds, so it’s still an “innately individual experience.” On the other hand, Garber sees AR as adding to an “individual’s environmental, interactive experience on a real-time basis,” which could be applied to a larger audience format.

“The large-format live theatrical experience, enhanced by layers of media and sound in a three-dimensional environment, which is shared communally by an audience of participants, still feels to be like one of the most potentially rewarding experiences we can create,” he says. “I think it happens within the moments that occur during the immersive experience that allows us to turn to each other and acknowledge and share that moment.”

Garber sees “our immersive future” as opening up unlimited possibilities to create totally experiential realities. He and Pixomondo want to do this without the use of headsets, instead inside a “360-degree communal environment, holding the hands of our loved ones, as we share stories that take us back through time, into the future, or through phantasmagorical worlds of three dimensional holographic imagery, as we, together, approach the uppermost rings of our imminent Paradisios.”

Click here to see more of Pixomondo’s work.


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virtual reality
Augmented Reality
theme parks
immersive film
David Garber
digital arts
360 degree
360 experiences
John Nelson
V-Ray Days
experiential environments