The new show "Time's Up" explores the 2012 Mayan doomsday… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)
A scene depicting the total destruction of Santa Monica — complete with fiery meteorites, land masses shearing off into the sea and swarms of flying monkeys — might seem better suited to a Hollywood disaster movie than a planetarium show. But "Time's Up," opening at the Griffith Observatory on Thursday, is not the kind of planetarium show you might remember from grade school.
The imagery goes way beyond the traditional static view of the stars, while the presentation forgoes canned narration and gesturing at constellations. A project 15 months in the making, "Time's Up" combines high-tech multimedia and the age-old tradition of oral storytelling.
FOR THE RECORD:
Griffith Observatory show: In the May 29 Calendar section, an information box accompanying an article about the new "Time's Up" planetarium show at the Griffith Observatory said that it would be playing at 6:15 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Those times are for Wednesday through Friday shows; There are no showings on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Under the 75-foot dome of the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, which is capable of playing back 50 million pixels of full-motion video and multichannel sound, audiences are guided by a live lecturer across boundaries of space and time.
"We can take visitors anywhere," said observatory curator Laura Danly, who led a nine-person team of astronomers, artists and technicians in creating the show.
In addition to experiencing a star-filled sky free of light pollution (an unfamiliar sight in the city), viewers of "Time's Up" are whisked from the shores of Santa Monica to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, the far reaches of the universe and a future vision of Los Angeles.
The show, which was inspired by continued interest in the supposed 2012 doomsday predictions of the ancient Mayan calendar, dispels those misconceptions and uses them as a jumping-off point to explore broader ideas about how time and the universe operate.
Observatory director Ed Krupp said visitors have been asking about 2012 and the end of the world since the observatory reopened after renovations six years ago, but that topic alone was too narrow for a planetarium show.
"It became apparent that what we really needed to do was a show about the real nature of time," Krupp said. "We leverage the Mayan 2012 calendar business as the propulsion for a deeper and really rather exotic exploration into one of the most fundamental aspects of life, the universe and everything."
Creating "Time's Up" required both scientific rigor and Hollywood-style production methods. Danly, the show's director and producer, co-wrote the script with Krupp, art director Don Dixon and performance director Chris Shelton. A three-month preproduction period focused on outlining the narrative and drawing up a storyboard, both of which had to be grounded in sound science.
During the next nine months, artists used high-end 3-D animation software including Maya (no relation to the civilization) and Cinema 4D to design the visuals for the show, which were processed on the observatory's own render farm, a cluster of 256 dedicated computers. Animatics, rough sketches of the visuals, allowed the team to conceptualize the live performance elements and plot out the dramatic beats. Michael McCuistion, a composer who works in television, crafted an original score.
Even after more than a year of preparation, presenting the show is no small feat. Sixteen computers feed the planetarium's two laser projectors, three handle audio, and one controls the Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector.
The one component that can't be controlled by a computer is the live lecturer, one of the distinguishing features of Griffith Observatory's planetarium shows. Each show is narrated by a lecturer such as Tom Schmid, an actor and astronomy enthusiast who estimated he's performed "a couple thousand" shows.
One of the challenges faced by Schmid and his fellow lecturers is that once the show has started, there's no way to slow down, pause or rewind the visuals or soundtrack, so it's up to them to stay in sync. "It's like a musical in some ways," Schmid said. "The orchestration helps me with the mood of the moment, and also with rhythm and time."
For Danly, the narrative and emotional aspects of a planetarium show are as important as the underlying science, because the goal is to encourage people not only to think about their place in the universe but also to feel something.
"It is as much an entertainment and as much an inspiration as it is informative," she said. "We're not really interested in people coming up here to learn science so much as to fall in love with science."