Science Museum of Minnesota Omnitheater: Ten things you need to know about its past and its future

Science Museum of Minnesota Omnitheater: Ten things you need to know about its past and its future

Growing up, I took the Omnitheater at the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) for granted. Our science museum has a dome-shaped movie theater…okay, that’s cool.

Over the years, though, I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the Omnitheater as a phenomenon, and I started tallying a mental list of questions. Who ever had the idea to build something like that? Why are Omnitheaters only found in educational institutions? How did Minnesota become a leader in the OMNIMAX world?

When it was announced that the Omnitheater would close for several weeks this fall (from today through October 8) to accommodate the first phase of its conversion to an “IMAX Laser Dome” with digital projection, I decided that it was time to actually ask those questions I’d been wondering about—which now included the question of what, exactly, is a “Laser Dome.”

Last week Mike Day—senior vice president at SMM—sat down with me at a table overlooking the museum’s lobby to talk about all things Omni. Here are the ten questions I decided to ask.

1. Who invented Omnitheaters?

As it turns out, Omnitheaters evolved from planetariums—and “the credit goes to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego,” said Day.

Almost 50 years ago, the board of directors at the museum—then known as the San Diego Hall of Science—wanted to build a “modern planetarium,” so they made two innovations.

“First,” said Day, “they tilted the dome—and thus the seating platform.” Instead of being positioned directly above a semi-prone audience, as in a traditional planetarium, the dome in the new planetarium was tilted at an angle that was neither directly above the audience nor directly in front of it; the seats rose in tiers, “so we were all looking at the same direction into the screen.”

Second, the new planetarium included both a traditional star projector and a newly-invented film projector designed to project an IMAX image onto a dome. Working with the still-new IMAX Corporation, the San Diego museum developed a projector that would project a high-resolution IMAX image through a fisheye lens so that it could be seen, with minimal distortion, on a domed screen.

The San Diego Hall of Science dubbed its new projection system OMNIMAX, and it premiered in 1973 with a presentation called Voyage to the Outer Planets—a hybrid of a planetarium show (using the star projector) and an Omni show (using the film projector).

“The film projector was only turned on for short sequences,” explained Day, “where they had shot planets in a studio, so you would fly by. And lo and behold, they discovered, ‘Hey, this film thing on this screen has some incredible potential.'”

Some of the footage featured in that first Omni presentation, produced by innovative studio Graphic Films, can be seen in the 1971 short below.

To work appropriately on the dome screen, films don’t just need to be projected differently—they need to be shot differently. Some directors, said Day, actually double-shoot films so that they can have both an Omni version and a conventional IMAX version.

2. How many Omnitheaters are there in the world?

There are now about 50 Omnitheaters worldwide, estimates Day.

3. Why are Omnitheaters found at nonprofit educational institutions, while IMAX has become a commercial format?

Fundamentally, said Day, “it’s a cost-benefit issue. In movie theaters, it’s a flat-screen experience, and what they’ve done differently is they’ve added 3D—whereas they didn’t see the commercial viability in a dome theater, where you have a smaller seating capacity.”

The economies of scale that make commercial film production and distribution profitable simply wouldn’t work with films projected onto a dome. In the museum world, though, the idea of presenting educational films on a dome screen caught on quickly—thanks to evangelism by the technology’s California founders.

“San Diego knew that being a one-theater theater chain was not very efficient,” explained Day, “and they went out as proponents of this in museums. They actively started an industry association, they sent their staff out as consultants, and you quickly got St. Paul, Monterey, Mexico, Detroit science museums all to sign on.”

In 2010, seven U.S. science museums with Omnitheaters—the Cincinnati Museum Center, Discovery Place (Charlotte, North Carolina), the Museum of Science in Boston, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the St. Louis Science Center, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, and the Science Museum of Minnesota—founded the Giant Dome Theater Consortium. Incorporated as a nonprofit in St. Paul, the consortium is chaired by Day.

“We had certainly worked together before,” said Day, “but now we said, let’s step up, let’s pool financial resources, let’s work together as we transition to the new technology, always towards films that fulfill our mission, that are designed for the uniqueness of our screens, and that maintain and even exceed the quality we’ve presented in the past.”

The first film to be financially supported by the consortium was 2012’s Tornado Alley, and the consortium is now producing a film celebrating next year’s centennial of the National Park Service. That film will premiere at SMM in March, and Day raved about an “outstanding” two-minute trailer that will run before the Humpback Whales film that opens in Minnesota on October 9. “It’s going to be two of the best minutes ever in the format,” said Day. “You don’t want to miss the whales film—and you don’t want to show up late.”

4. When did the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater open?

The Science Museum of Minnesota, which dates to 1907 as an institution, got its William L. McKnight-3M Omnitheater when its then-new facility opened in downtown St. Paul in September 1978. As that facility was being developed, Day was recruited from Cleveland to lead SMM’s Omni-related activities.

“We only had San Diego to look at,” remembered Day. “They were the guinea pig.” Minnesota’s new Omnitheater improved on San Diego’s in various respects, notably its use of a grey screen instead of a white screen. “The challenge of the dome screen,” explains Day, “is light bounces off the screen to another part of the screen, and washes out the image: cross-reflectance. You don’t have that on a flat screen.”

With a grey screen, cross-reflectance is less of an issue—and the Laser Dome transformation will be a further improvement in that respect, by increasing the image’s contrast. (More on that later.)

The need to keep the screen clean is one reason you can’t bring popcorn into the Omnitheater, explained Day. If you had oil-popped popcorn being munched in the Omnitheater, the oil would get into the air and ultimately collect on the screen—thus interfering with the system whereby air pressure from behind the screen causes dust to collect on the back rather than the front of the screen, later to be vacuumed off.

5. What’s that original Minnesota Omnitheater being used for now?

When SMM left for its current riverside home in 1999, the 1978 facility was sold to the Minnesota Business Academy. After that charter high school closed in 2006, the portion of the former Science Museum containing the old Omnitheater auditorium was sold—in a strange twist—to the Church of Scientology, which undertook a multi-million-dollar conversion and reopened the facility in 2011 as its largest public space in the Midwest.

The original theater is no longer a true Omnitheater: when the Science Museum left 16 years ago, they took the Omni projector with them. The theater now has a flat screen on which films can be projected, and “serves as a venue for a wide range of community events,” according to the Scientology Twin Cities website.

An tour video produced by the Church describes the former Omnitheater as a “double-duty chapel and cinema”: “it’s an IMAX theater, and its three-story screen will be presenting the introductory videos on Dianetics and Scientology, as well as international Church events and the entire range of public service documentaries, from drug awareness to human rights.”

6. The Science Museum of Minnesota has the only convertible Omnitheater in the United States. How often does that conventional IMAX screen behind the dome screen get used?

“Rarely, except for special occasions,” said Day—who emphasized that the decision to build a convertible Omnitheater was part of a broader plan to maximize the facility’s flexibility.

“We’re planning for this building,” said Day, remembering. “We’re visioning the future. We’re asking all the critical questions: What is the future of education? What is the future of technology? What is the future of St. Paul and its citizenry? We had a moment of epiphany, and somebody said, ‘We don’t know the answers to these questions,’ so that led us to a key operative in the design of this building: maximum flexibility, which has served us really well.”

As an example of one effective use of the IMAX screen, Day cited stunning footage of the ivory-billed woodpecker—a bird that had long been thought to be extinct, until a living specimen was reported in Arkansas in 2004, leading a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to investigate and ultimately document the surviving birds.

“They brought the research here for a public presentation,” said Day, “because of the sound system of the Omnitheater and its dynamics, and the size of the screen. It was the best venue to relate this research.”

7. How did the Science Museum of Minnesota become such a leader in the Omni world?

“Go back to 1978,” said Day. “The board of trustees of this museum not only said we want what San Diego did, we can improve on it—but all we have is a hardware system, and the key is software. Content. We don’t want to be passive on the content side of things, we want to be active.” Not only did the trustees raise funds to build the new Omnitheater, they commissioned the first film to be screened on it: Genesis, a film about plate tectonics.

SMM has also—now in partnership with the new consortium—focused on not just making dome-oriented movies, but the “total educational experience” associated with each film, said Day. For Tornado Alley, the Science Museum “reviewed all of its weather exhibits, contemporized them, built some new ones. We created a stage show called Storms on Stage—so you’ve got a live stage show, hands-on weather exhibits, an Omnitheater film, as a package called ‘the big weather experience,’ all mapped out against state science standards by grade.”

Minnesota even waited several months to open Tornado Alley—which premiered in spring 2012 at the other six consortium partners—so that the film opened here at the end of tornado season, and the Tornado Intercept Vehicle, “the star of the show,” could be parked in SMM’s lobby all winter long.

Here too, Day cited the importance of the flexibility of SMM’s facility. “We could bring in—by only taking six hinges off of doors—a 14,000-pound tornado interceptor.”

8. What’s the most popular Omnifilm ever? How about in Minnesota?

Day isn’t sure what Omnifilm has sold the most tickets worldwide, but Minnesota’s all-time greatest Omni hit is Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West, which screened here in 2004 and sold 381,979 tickets over the course of its run.

Why Lewis and Clark? Day speculates that three significant factors made a difference. First, “it was the bicentennial of the expedition. Very popular with schools. Two: North Dakota Tourism put a huge television advertising campaign into the Twin Cities for the Lewis and Clark Trail, and I think everybody thought it was promoting the movie. The third thing was, it was a really excellent film.”

Having human actors in Omnifilms “can be challenging,” acknowledged Day. “If the acting is not spot-on and you magnify the image 560 times, it’s…magnified.” The actors in Lewis & Clark didn’t have any spoken dialogue, so viewers watched the expedition “like a fly on the wall.”

9. Who chooses the music that plays while audiences wait for the movie to start?

It’s a team decision, said Day, “always made challenging by music rights.” SMM staff’s thoughts about what music to play before Omnitheater presentations are still evolving, but music selections have included soundtrack music from Omnifilms and specially-commissioned music by local and national composers. The youngest person on staff traditionally has a lot of say in the music programming, said Day. “That used to be me.”

10. What will be different about the “Laser Dome”?

The transition will ultimately make SMM’s facility the first digital-projection Omnitheater in the world. The entire process will take over a year to complete, though the theater will remain open for business during most of that period. This fall’s six-week hiatus will allow for the construction of the new projector’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure, and SMM is hoping to ultimately go live with the new system in October 2016.

Despite the “Laser Dome” moniker, the Omnitheater isn’t going to turn into an ’80s-style laser light show. Instead, lasers will be the source of illumination for the new digital Omnifilm projection system, which is being designed from the “ground up,” said Day. “The whole pathway of light has been re-engineered, and there’s proprietary software that does image enhancement.”

In the new system, Omnifilms will be projected as high-resolution digital video from the upper projection booth at the back of the theater, instead of from what Day refers to as “the dog house” in the center of the seating area, where the current film projector with its fish-eye lens is housed. Not only will the new system save the trouble and expense of printing traditional film stock—something commercial theaters have been moving away from for years—it will look even better than the current film system, said Day.

“It will be brighter. It will have more resolution. It will have a broader color spectrum—but the key, in the Omnitheater, is it will be higher-contrast.” That will help with the cross-reflectance problem. “If you can increase the contrast—make the blacks blacker—you don’t have cross-reflectance, and everything pops.”

Though the Omnitheater is, and will be, still the Omnitheater—in many ways, seeing an Omnifilm today is much the same as it was today’s parents of young children were kids themselves—Day said that SMM can’t rest on its laurels if it wants an Omnitheater visit to remain one of the most memorable experiences in Minnesota, for both locals and out-of-town visitors.

Every morning, Day said, he and his colleagues arrive at work knowing that “you have to achieve at the standard that your community has said you work at. That’s what we’ve tried to do for more than three decades, every day—but you still have to come back tomorrow and succeed again. We’re still challenging ourselves.”

Jay Gabler