Animating outside the box

Electronic media and film associate professor explores immersive animation, plans full-dome media production lab at TU

By Rebecca Kirkman & Ron Santana on January 16, 2023

While most see the Towson University Planetarium as a venue for exploring the cosmos, Lynn Tomlinson, an animator and associate professor in the Department of Electronic Media & Film, sees it as an opportunity to explore immersive media in an interdisciplinary, collaborative space.

“The planetarium has this feeling of immersion like a virtual reality headset, but rather than alone, you’re experiencing that immersion with other people,” says Tomlinson. “That’s why I’m drawn to the planetarium: It’s the theatrical experience of being with other people and the immersive experience of seeing something all around you.”

With TU Planetarium Director Christian Ready, Tomlinson is working to bring this vision to the TU community and beyond. In July, their proposal to develop an interdisciplinary, immersive full-dome media lab received a two-year, $31,000 grant from the TU School of Emerging Technologies

The project’s first full-dome film, from a production team including undergraduate and graduate research assistants, will be on the interdisciplinary subject “Light and Color” and is designed to be shown as part of an introductory physics course as well as in high school science classes.

“With this lab, we’re hoping our students have the chance to work closely with faculty in a one-on-one experience, to do scientific visualization, to tell stories about nature, history, physics, astronomy, using what they know from media production but expanding that into whole different ways of working,” Tomlinson says.

Ready adds, “We hope this can become a program where students can learn full-dome immersive media, and it won't just be here in the dome, it will translate to virtual reality, augmented reality and whatever new technology is coming next.”

In October, Tomlinson presented her full-dome work and plans for the production lab at the Immersive Media Entertainment, Research, Science & Arts (IMERSA) Full Dome Summit in Montreal. This spring, she will continue to explore immersive, full-dome animation with students in EMF475: Special Topics in Production - Expanded Animation, a course designed to break the boundaries of the film and TV screens that culminates with a project in the planetarium.

Since first experimenting with full-dome animation as a graduate student earning her master’s in fine arts in studio art at TU in 2014, Tomlinson has continued to explore the possibilities of immersive media. 

Known for her clay-on-glass animations, where modeling clay spread on a glass surface is altered frame by frame to create a moving painting, Tomlinson’s recent work explores how this medium might pose a unique solution to some of the challenges inherent in 360-degree filmmaking.

“I wondered if the kinds of metamorphosis and transformations I do in my clay-on-glass animation would work to create a narrative in this planetarium space,” she explains. “Straight cuts don't work very well in immersive media, but maybe these animated transformations, where things morph or evolve or blend to the next scene, will be a great way to create a narrative.”

Her past projects include “Aqua Dome” (2018), a mixed media project with more than 150 student and faculty collaborators throughout the College of Fine Arts & Communication (COFAC) and beyond that debuted at the Watson-King Planetarium, and “Reverie de Giverny” (2020), an animated, 360-degree film inspired by Claude Monet’s water lilies series that began as a full-dome film and was completed as a virtual reality film due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Her work has been supported by the inaugural COFAC CoLab grant, the Faculty Development and Research Committee, Maryland State Arts Council and COFAC Dean’s Summer Research Grant in Interdisciplinary Studies. And in 2022, she received the $10,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Prize for Film/Video from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance’s Baker Artist Portfolio Awards.

This summer, Tomlinson’s immersive media scholarship continues at the 34th Society for Animation Studies conference at Rowan University in June, where she will curate a full-dome animation screening and lead a workshop as animator in residence.