Lasers light the sky at Parkland’s Staerkel Planetarium

By Chicago 4 Min Read

CHAMPAIGN — Swifties, classic-rock fans, anyone who likes Halloween: There’s something for everyone at the Staerkel Planetarium this weekend.

For the first time in about five years, planetarium staff added laser light shows to the lineup for the two weekends before Halloween.

Planetarium director Erik Johnson said that he picked the shows he thought would have the broadest appeal since they only rented the laser system for a limited amount of time.

“If we were to own a laser system, we would probably bounce around between multiple options and share with audiences maybe a more eclectic variety,” Johnson said.

“Maybe then we’d actually start to do something like laser Gorillaz. If I had a longer setup, we would definitely do laser Lizzo.”

No “Rumors” or “Feel Good Inc” for now, but there are still seven shows to check out featuring the music of Prince, Queen, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

The eighth show, “Halloween Spooktacular,” features seasonally-appropriate tunes like the theme from “The Munsters.”

While it isn’t uncommon for planetariums to use these laser projectors, they aren’t necessarily designed for curved surfaces and don’t have 360 degree visuals.

Waylena McCully, producer at the planetarium, designed imagery to accompany the laser visuals and make the experience more immersive.

She made it easier by starting with sample graphics included with the planetarium’s projector system, but she still had to create a lot of custom commands in the system.

For some parts of the show, McCully uses an animation of stars from the more standard planetarium presentations.

“If it’s one that tells a story or something, we don’t want to detract from that, but with the stars, we can get a sense of depth,” McCully said.

The laser projection is so bright that it easily shines through the “starlight,” making it look like, for example, a neon Frankenstein is dancing in the sky.

McCully had to put everything together on a pretty tight schedule; she and Johnson had blocked out a full week to get the shows ready, but the laser projector was delayed in shipping.

She also ended up deciding to run the planetarium lights for each show manually, rather than trying to sync them with the music and the lasers.

“These are three very independent systems that we’re running,” McCully said.

One of the strange things about the laser show is that while visuals look like static images or standard animations, they’re actually created by beams of light that are moving very quickly the whole time.

The images can’t be captured on camera without a long exposure — Johnson joked about telling people to stop trying completely.

He said he would’ve liked to see more people at the first weekend of shows, but since it coincided with homecoming at the University of Illinois, he wasn’t surprised turnout was a little low.

He still has high hopes for this coming weekend and is already tossing around ideas for doing more laser shows next year.

“I wouldn’t do two weekends, just for sanity’s sake,” Johnson said. “We may do something around December. I think that’d be a lot of fun, trying to offer a different seasonal offering.”

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