Montreal planetarium brings city scenes to big screen with groundbreaking 360-degree film

The newest show at the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, EXO, about life on other planets, starts right here in Montreal.

Latest show about life on other planets filmed partly in Montreal with cutting-edge video technology

EXO captured Montreal's tam-tams event, held every Sunday at Mount Royal Park, in 360-degree video. (Radio-Canada)

When the lights go down under the big dome at the Montreal planetarium, the audience is transported — not to a far-away moon or alien solar system, but to a surprisingly familiar scene.

Captured in high-quality 360-degree video, images of Montreal in summer flood the 18-metre screen: drummers beat their tam-tams in front of the Georges-Étienne Cartier monument in Mount Royal Park, locals ride bikes on tree-shaded paths, young people balance on slack lines strung between two trees.
Sébastien Gauthier, an astronomer at the planetarium, is the executive producer, project manager, director and photo director of the new show, EXO.

These are the opening scenes of the newest offering from the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium — a show about life on other planets that starts right here in Montreal.

"I saw all the magnificent people and the energy happening there, and I said to myself, 'This must be filmed in 360-degree,'" said astronomer Sébastien Gauthier.

"It's the perfect scene for the dome. There's so much passion everywhere.'"

Gauthier is the executive producer, project manager, director and photo director of the new show, EXO.

"When you look at humans performing live music at those events, and tourists and neighbours enjoying the party — you see everything. You see joy; you see love; you see music, passion and some sort of science and engineering," he said. 

"For me, this gathering represents what is good about humanity."

The film crew had to adapt 360-degree filming technology in order to capture the range and scope of the visuals they needed. (© Sébastien Gauthier, Nicolas Didtsch)

Are we alone?

At its heart, EXO focuses on the idea of extraterrestrial life, posing the question, "Are we alone?"

Starting on Earth, with a montage of life in the natural world — some of which was shot at the nearby Botanical Gardens and the Biodome — the film then takes viewers into the outer reaches of our solar system.

The show is educational, offering information about what scientists know about alien life and how they continue to research it, but it also invites viewers to think about the bigger picture on their own terms.

The show considered the question of life on other planets in the far reaches of space. (© NASA JPL Caltech )

"It gives us a philosophical point of view about our life," said Gauthier.

Two philosophers were consulted on the project, including UQAM's Christophe Malaterre, who holds the Canada research chair in life science philosophy.

From the distant, cold exo-planets that can't sustain liquid water to the tiniest builder ants or a group of poisonous blue dart frogs, the film strives to remind its audience that life everywhere is precious.

Ambitious undertaking

The show offers stunning visuals of life on earth, including the 360-degree immersive video shot specifically for the presentation — an ambitious undertaking with its own set of challenges.

Because the video camera rotates in all directions, its difficult to hide crew and equipment, said Gauthier. Moreover, modifying the existing technology to suit the team's needs required more than a little tinkering.

Gauthier explained equipment tests were done at the Montreal Biodome before going to Hawaii for the underwater shoots. (Espace pour vie/Youtube)

"Every movie we make, we push the technology forward," said Gauthier. "For EXO, we modified a cinema camera."

The planetarium's film team had to develop new ways of filming and producing 360 video in order to get the shots they needed for such an immense platform.

This mini-dome maquette allows the team to see the projected 360 video on a smaller scale inside the production studio. (Espace pour vie/Youtube)

The large dome at the planetarium is bigger than an IMAX screen, and the 360-degree video is hard to edit and to conceptualize on a regular computer monitor.

Gauthier and his assistant took matters into their own hands, building a miniature dome maquette where they could preview the video in 360-degree projection.

"We built a foam core dome in about two hours," he said. "It's right in the middle of our visual effects studio. We use it daily."

EXO is running now at the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, just off of Viau Street next to the Olympic Stadium. The film is recommended for viewers aged seven and up, and it runs 40 minutes.

Find a schedule of presentations in both English and French, here.


Marilla Steuter-Martin

Former CBC journalist

Marilla Steuter-Martin was a journalist with CBC Montreal from 2015 to 2021.