Cinema in the Round
The 'Frozen' movie poster features an ice cube and the slogan 'Cold Matters'

The March 2009 release date of "Frozen" marks the end of the International Polar Year. Image Credit: NASA

One of the best-known theatrical venues of all time was London's Globe Theatre, famous for its association with William Shakespeare.

Four hundred years later, NASA is producing exciting, informative films for a new type of "globe theater."

"Science On a Sphere," or SOS, was developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. An SOS installation features a six-foot-diameter white sphere hanging from the ceiling. Four computers and video projectors display pictures on the screen, creating the illusion of a floating, animated globe. These images can simulate Earth floating in space, other planetary bodies or flights of imagination. SOS animations help audiences visualize complex environmental processes, including such things as weather phenomena, climate change and changes in ocean temperature.

Currently, 33 Science On a Sphere sites are located in science centers, universities and museums around the world.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., produced two new movies that are available to museums and institutions with The Sphere to be released in spring 2009. The headliner is a production called "Frozen," scheduled to open on March 27, 2009.

"Frozen" is timed to coincide with the conclusion of the International Polar Year, a scientific research program that ran from March 2007 until March 2009. During IPY, scientists from more than 60 nations studied Earth's arctic and Antarctic regions by observing how they are changing and researching how the polar regions affect the rest of the planet.

"The Sphere provides a natural metaphor for examinations about the Earth," said "Frozen" producer Michael Starobin. "The ability to depict the Earth in its proper shape immediately focuses the mind on the inescapable fact that anything that can be said about our planet is not simply abstract: it is directly in front of audiences -- in the world all around us outside the theater, and on an Earth-shaped screen inside the theater. 'Frozen' leverages the high resolution of the SOS system to showcase details about the cryosphere in context with other parts of the planet. The technology presents the opportunity to dynamically reorient the Earth right in the middle of a performance. It also compels audiences to place themselves in context with the narrative, as being in a cinema-in-the-round essentially demands a different, more intimate relationship between audience and movie."

A still image from 'Frozen' showing Earth with glaciers illustrated in yellow

"Frozen" uses NASA technology to illustrate satellite data about such subjects as glaciers. Image Credit: NASA

International Polar Year themes are at the heart of "Frozen." The movie focuses on Earth's cryosphere, those locations where the temperature rarely rises above freezing. Because changes in climate are often readily apparent in the cryosphere, "Frozen" is able to use information about those regions to reflect environmental trends around the world.

Climate change is a hot topic right now, and "Frozen" presents the subject in a way that's easy for viewers to follow and understand. The movie takes relatively arcane satellite data and converts it into a very accessible visual presentation. And thanks to its unusual format and dynamic animation, "Frozen" is not only informative but also exciting and captivating.

"Audiences will get a lesson on the basic anatomy and physiology of the cryosphere, including its most essential parts," Starobin said. "But before we begin with the breakdown of what it is and how it works, we start with a sneaky 'lesson' about how to even look at data gathered by satellites. Early on in the movie, we depict a fanciful space where four people are making tea. In that scene, we shoot the actors and the set with a traditional camera and also simultaneously with a specialized infrared camera. In the shots you can see where cold milk in a creamer appears blue and the hot tea in the teapot appears red. Temperature gradients pop out immediately.

"We use these same color ranges and metaphors immediately in the next scene and throughout the movie to examine satellite data that measures planetary temperatures and other data. The primer offered in this earlier scene helps translate the subject to the mainstream and establish a visual vocabulary that makes sense for the rest of the film.

"Other parts discussed concern the trend of decreasing sea ice over time, and the overall warming feedback loop that’s inherent in that phenomenon. We look at how precipitation yields snow, and how melting snow affects aquifers. We take a look at permafrost, and examine how melting permafrost is a vital component of the global warming problem as a major source of trapped methane. Finally, we consider what the Earth would look like with no water at all, and consider how civilization would not have been possible without the clear definition of the coasts."

Goddard's other Science On a Sphere movie, "Return to the Moon," features NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, scheduled for launch in 2009. As it happens, LRO will lift off and essentially celebrate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first human landing on the moon. The movie, which was released on Feb. 27, 2009, uses Science On a Sphere to make the moon come alive.

An artist's rendition of LRO in lunar orbit

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will launch in 2009 to explore the moon. Image Credit: NASA

"Return to the Moon" begins by exploring NASA's legacy of lunar exploration, and then follows planned milestones and goals of the LRO mission. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will study the surface of the moon and what lies beneath in preparation for human missions currently under consideration. One particular highlight in the film includes the depiction of a research probe intentionally crashing into the lunar surface. Known as LCROSS, the probe will accompany LRO on the first part of its journey. Engineers designed its fatal dive into the surface as a means to explore whether water ice lies trapped in the moon’s polar regions.

"Frozen" and "Return to the Moon" are NASA's second and third movies for Science On a Sphere. The first, "Footprints," was released in May 2006. It was a groundbreaking moment in terms of spherical filmmaking. The original concept for “Footprints” was intended to be a much simpler product -- essentially a round slide show. But Goddard Space Flight Center's media team created a new strategy, which involved developing new techniques and some subtle but vital new technology to take the Science On a Sphere concept to a new level. Working in partnership with Goddard's Scientific Visualization Studio, the overall production team transformed vast troves of satellite data into easy-to-understand visualizations, artistic animations and mind-bending full-motion video displays.

Goddard's media team also worked to find unique solutions to challenges presented by the tricky spherical format. Research included techniques for zooming in on an object, ways to include actors and other non-spherical subjects in a movie, and how to create a production that everyone could experience even if they couldn't see the whole screen.

"The spherical nature of the screen is the biggest challenge of all," Starobin said. "By means of an object lesson, consider that you and everyone else in the mainstream already understand the basic visual 'rules' about television and motion pictures. There is a left and a right side to each image; there is a top and a bottom. You understand the idea of 'cutting away' to another shot, of panning the camera from left to right, of 'pushing in' so that we feel like we're getting closer to the subject.

"All of these techniques (and many, many more) are completely out the window on the sphere," Starobin said. "There is no left and right; there is no top and bottom. The basic rules of cinema simply do not apply the moment you have an endless screen where one side of the screen meets the other. ... We therefore had to literally begin writing a new set of rules for making cinematic experiences even make sense on the sphere. In creating spherical content, we are genuinely adding a new chapter to the rulebook of moviemaking."

All three movies support NASA's goal of engaging Americans in the agency's mission. NASA works to draw linkages between science, technology, engineering and mathematics for formal and informal educators, and to increase Americans' science and technology literacy.

Related Resources
Frozen: Cold Matters Interactive Feature
Return to the Moon
Frozen SOS Locations
Science On a Sphere   →
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Scientific Visualization Studio   →
Windward: Outsmart the Weather
Our Dynamic World
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration   →
International Polar Year   →

David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services