Case study

Meet the Studio: Griffith Observatory

Year Established: Griffith Observatory opened to the public on May 14, 1935 
Upcoming Projects: Signs of Life, a stunning new visual effects planetarium show to be projected in 8K at 60fps in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium
Shotgun Users at Height of Production: 30
Favorite Shotgun Features: Streamlined out-of-the-box functionality and integration with industry-standard applications 

40%
Asset Organization Improved
30%
Communication
Streamlined

By Dawn Fidrick, Producer, Griffith Observatory

When audiences and stargazers return to the Griffith Observatory, a new astronomical visual effects spectacle Signs of Life will light up the interior of the 75-foot dome in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Produced by Griffith Observatory’s Satellite Studio — a creative facility in partnership between the City of Los Angeles and the nonprofit organization Friends Of The Observatory (FOTO) — the 35-minute show will feature a live performer accompanied by extensive animation and visual effects presented in 8K at 60fps. Audiences will also be treated to an elegant star show projected by the Zeiss Universarium Mark IX Star Projector inside the massive dome. As Griffith Observatory Producer, I oversaw the production and helped to build the studio’s pipeline from the ground up with Shotgun. Following the recent transition to a fully remote team, we’re now working on new initiatives that include integrating Griffith Observatory’s planetarium show catalogue into our Shotgun-based pipeline for remastering.

The Challenge

The intersection of art and science are central to Griffith Observatory’s mission of inspiring everyone to observe, ponder, and understand the sky. It is the result of this merger that aids in educating the public on astronomy and space exploration. The combination creates a means in which to engage audiences in a highly immersive medium with entertaining and informative content. In pursuit of this objective, Signs of Life was the largest scale planetarium show that the institution had ever undertaken. To execute it, we established Griffith Observatory’s Satellite Studio. When we built the animation studio, we had a limited amount of resources for pipeline development and required an out-of-the-box solution that a single pipeline supervisor would be able to implement, operate, and manage. I knew Shotgun was a pipeline system that larger studios used, and at the recommendation of industry colleagues, I worked with our pipeline technical director Scott Ballard. A key ingredient to our initial technology success was connecting with Shotgun co-founder Don Parker. He was a real champion of our wide-eyed, innovative pursuits. 

The solution

After evaluating the platform, it seemed like a natural fit that Shotgun would become the basis of our entire studio. Ultimately, the hook to go with Shotgun was Toolkit, which we used to build out our pipeline. Scott was able to seamlessly integrate it and bring the team on board. We built Signs of Life entirely in Shotgun, and we’re using the platform to track everything, from final deliverables and assets, to shots, tasks, and review notes.

To streamline our onboarding process during production, we made a video tutorial of our use of Shotgun to help new team members more easily adapt to our show pipeline. At peak production on the project, we had 30 Shotgun users. 

"Shotgun’s ability to automate processes is one of my favorite features. It saves the team a lot of time and effort from having to manage repetitive tasks. It’s what computers are great at, so why not let Shotgun handle it instead of me?"

The Features & Production

One of the main reasons we chose Shotgun as the backbone of our pipeline was because of its simple out-of-the-box integration with every standard application in the industry. This gave us maximum efficiency. We have Shotgun integrated with Maya, Nuke, Houdini, After Effects, and Photoshop. For rendering, we also have Shotgun connected to AWS Thinkbox’s Deadline, so anything that gets rendered on the farm automatically triggers a post process with a new movie version that is automatically uploaded to the Shotgun project.  

Shotgun’s ability to automate processes is one of my favorite features; it saves the team a ton of time and effort from having to manage repetitive tasks. It’s what computers are great at, so why not let Shotgun handle it instead of me? As a producer, another one of my favorite features is being able to browse through the versions page, where I can always see the latest work, provide notes, and get prepared for the next day’s tasks. Shotgun records all communication in context of the asset or shot, which further drives efficiency and is a huge time saver that previously wasn’t available when we relied solely on email and spreadsheets. I love talking to people in real time, but when you’re working on 20 shots simultaneously and have a full day of meetings, communicating via Shotgun is essential. The notes features in playlists on specific versions with the ability to annotate on frames is especially convenient and critical for keeping our team on track.

To translate Signs of Life from an artist's flat computer screen into an immersive curved planetarium experience, we also relied heavily on Shotgun to automate the management of the delivery process. To display Signs of Life on the planetarium’s massive 75-foot dome, six Christie projectors operate in sync to comprise the full 8K image. We slice each domemaster image into twenty-four segments that are ultimately distributed among six projectors, four to each one. Scott created a custom tool that we called a Slice Ticket within Shotgun to manage and execute this task. The encode script created by our planetarium technology partner Evans & Sutherland communicates with AWS Thinkbox’s Deadline and Shotgun to enable it all to run on our render farm, resulting in sliced images that are reassembled during playback on the colossal curved planetarium dome.  

When you’re creating a planetarium show, it’s imperative that you regularly view how shots will look on the curvature of the dome. It helps guide your creative decisions and detect whether or not the camera movements may cause motion sickness. Ultimately, I’m looking to recreate that experience in a VR headset remotely, but for Signs of Life, we installed a 15-foot miniature dome manufactured by Astro Tech with a single projector in the center for our review process. The mini-dome has enough space to seat about eight people in small beach chairs, as we try to get as low to the ground as possible to create the same viewing experience as in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. Within the mini-dome, Oneal Douglin, our Render Wrangler, used RV to drive the playback during dailies so our production manager, Carolyn Manning, could take real-time notes in context. 

Throughout production, it was important for us to visit the Observatory for weeklies in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, but also to interact with the public — that is who the show is made for! We would also invite some staffers on shift that day to sit in on our weeklies session, and we’d gauge their reaction to shots in progress. My beginnings are rooted in live theatre, it is when the lights go down, the audience goes silent, and you hear that first musical note, that’s when the magic begins. And sharing that sense of real time energy with nearly 300 people as an immersive experience is what makes all of the challenges of production worth it. 

Using Shotgun on Signs of Life helped our team implement best practices for production used by larger studios, which ultimately elevated the quality of our final output. I love the creative process and working with artists, and with Shotgun managing the cumbersome and technical aspects of production, our team was able to harness ingenuity and develop a truly impressive show. 

After evaluating the platform, it seemed like a natural fit that Shotgun would become the foundation of our entire studio. Ultimately, the hook to go with Shotgun was Toolkit, which we used to build our pipeline