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Watch the screen – and your back! Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium reopens, hosting a 360-degree horror film

Student filmmakers Camden Gradwell, Matthew Markayze and Sydney Baker-Hendryx view the screen inside the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at SUNY Buffalo State, where the 360-degree horror film they helped create is being shown this weekend.
Michael Mroziak
Student filmmakers Camden Gradwell, Matthew Markayze and Sydney Baker-Hendryx view the screen inside the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at SUNY Buffalo State, where the 360-degree horror film they helped create is being shown this weekend.

SUNY Buffalo State’s Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium has reopened after a multi-year reconstruction project at the college’s Science and Mathematics Complex. Just in time for Halloween, the planetarium is celebrating by hosting screenings of a student-made horror film which projects on the entire dome.

“It was really experimental for our students,” said Aaron Daniel Annas, associate professor and director of Television and Film Arts at Buffalo State. “They've never done this before, because the audience can look in any direction. You know, they're looking face forward when you're in a regular movie theater. But when you're in a 360-degree space, you have to actually direct the audience where to look with audio, with visuals, and you have to direct the audience where not to look if you're going to sneak up behind them with a monster.”

The newly released short film, Portrait, is a tale of art thieves whose stolen property comes to life and makes them pay for their misdeed.

“One of the parts that attracted me to the project was how immersive it is. It's one of my dreams to have virtual reality as a form of popular form of media. So it's really exciting to see the beginnings of that here,” said Sydney Baker-Hendryx, who served as cinematographer for Portrait.

But how does a film crew make sure they’re not a part of the scenery in a 360-degree shot?

“We had to sort of create our own rules, we had to use a lot of practical lights,” Baker-Hendryx continued. “We wouldn't have giant film lights in the shot. We had to figure out little tricky ways to be able to watch the monitor from afar.”

It was a challenge not only to the crew but to the film’s writer, Camden Gradwell, who also served as production designer.

“I had to write thinking of, how are we going to film this in 360 degrees? I can't write ‘someone jumps out of a building’ because how are we how are we going to show that? It's got to be more grounded, not a lot of crazy effects,” he said. “We were limited to some special effects but we could also be like, you know, maybe we'll put a monster in the background that the audience would have to look for, or maybe sound cues would signal it.”

And timing, always critical in getting a shot right, was especially critical when factoring in the need to avoid spoiling a scene.

“You have to run through the scene in its entirety. Probably a couple times, that's what we did, at least,” said Matthew Markayze, who along with Emmaus Nakagawa, co-directed the film.”We probably ran through each scene before we actually rolled cameras, two or three times to get everybody to plan their timing, to make sure the lighting was correct.”

The Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium is no stranger to programming beyond traditional astronomy presentations, having hosted numerous laser and music shows over the years. Its director, Kevin Williams, hopes this 360-degree film may also entice some viewers to come back and enjoy their astronomy programs.

“That's part of the reason for doing these non-astronomy shows. It’s not just to allow audiences to experience a film like this, or the laser shows, but also, hopefully, they learn about the facility and come back for some of our more astronomy education programs,” he said.

When asked of his thoughts about the film after seeing it the first time, Williams replied, “it scared me.”

And as for the student team that put Portrait together? Markayze admits while the project was in progress, he was leery of how it was developing. But as he watched more test footage, his confidence rose.

His personal takeaway from the experience?

“In my experience in the past, I've done a lot of short films by myself. But this was the first project that I really got to collaborate with a lot of different people on, and I think that was invaluable,” Markayze said. “Because the moment that you start collaborating with other people, you really get to see the big picture, and the bigger ideas and the story you're trying to tell come to life, and you can really expand upon that. And I think that makes a better film overall.”

Portrait will screen on Friday, October 29th and Saturday, October 30th, beginning both nights at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free but because of limited seating, a ticket is needed.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.