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My Night at the Satosphere, Montreal's Immersive Audio-Video Dome

I saw the premiere of Canadian animator Munro Ferguson’s film ‘Minotaur’—his first film made for a fulldome environment.
May 22, 2015, 10:00am
Image: Jordan Pearson

The Satosphere is like a high-tech planetarium for adults—except at this planetarium you're allowed to get drunk inside, and it once hosted a Boiler Room DJ set.

Hoping to push the boundaries of immersive experiences, the Montreal Society for Arts and Technology opened the Satosphere in a former meat market in 2012. It features eight powerful projectors and 157 speakers. Below the sphere, artists and researchers work on applications for virtual reality.

It's also not the kind of place you'd expect to find Munro Ferguson, a horn-rimmed Canadian animator who made a hokey kid's movie called "How Dinosaurs Learned to Fly" in the 1990s. It was here at the Satosphere that the premiere showing of Ferguson's first film made for a fulldome environment, Minotaur, was held. I watched it on Wednesday night at the opening of the IX Symposium for immersive environments and virtual reality.

The film, which was projected across the entire span of the dome, featured abstract images of a tiny little neuron—at least, that's what I like to think it looked like—venturing through the cosmos, or maybe inside the body. It was hard to tell, looking up at the spectacle from a comfy-ass beanbag chair with what looked to be sixty or so other people. The soundtrack was provided by Montreal DJ Kid Koala.

"Before this, I was doing some stereoscopic films, and I was interested in immersion," Ferguson told me. He wore a suit jacket and spoke hurriedly. "I had to kind of figure out the new language that this new medium required. You have to participate in the invention of the new language; in my case, I was trying to tell a story with abstract imagery."

Minotaur uses traditional hand-drawn animation techniques that were rendered and vectorized—meaning you can blow them up without them looking all pixelated, Ferguson said—in software and adapted for screening in a dome environment. The digitized images had to be mapped to the 3D surface of the dome and tested over and over, so that any distortions that might break the illusion could be compensated for.

Fulldome works, as they're called, have straddled the line between nerdy day-with-the-parents-at-the-planetarium-fun and actual science for decades. It wasn't until 2004, though, that domes got their first feature film: a children's movie about fish.

Other films from the night included a series of dark and tessellating classical paintings nested inside one another in endless recursion from Montreal-based artist Dustyn Lucas, and a set of shorts from the Netherlands-based artist Julius Horsthuis.

According to Ferguson, his next work won't be a fulldome film, but a virtual reality experience built for the Oculus Rift. "They're all various versions of immersion," Ferguson said. "You can use it for very realistic purposes or for an illusion. I'd like to do a painting in Oculus Rift."