WI McCully

Waylena McCully, producer at Parkland College's Staerkel Planetarium, is shown with some of the hardware used to make the planetarium's shows at the college in Champaign.

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Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet WAYLENA McCULLY, the producer at Parkland’s Staerkel Planetarium who also serves as a technician and an educator.

What’s your favorite part of the three roles?

Production. For production, I create and adapt content for use in our digital planetarium system. Content includes 3D models, images, videos, audio elements and datasets.

Who else is on your team?

With our new director, Erik Johnson, and our part-time presenter, Tania Swigart, I present quite a few live and prerecorded planetarium shows.

What part of your job is the most technical?

The technician component involves maintenance and troubleshooting of the digital system components, plus training and supporting the other presenters and the astronomy instructors who use the system.

Do you create software?

In creating and modifying content, I rely almost exclusively on open-source software tools such as Blender, Gimp, Inkscape, Hugin and Audacity. For other tasks, I use the software tools specific to the Digistar 6 planetarium system.

What is Staerkel’s hardware setup?

Our digital system is a set of nine computers and two video projectors. One computer controls the others. Each of the two projectors is fed by four of the computers, making a total of eight video channels playing together to cover the entire dome.

Are there different modes of presentation?

Within the system, there are two kinds of presentations, and each one has a different workflow of preparation. One is for the full dome movies, in which eight pieces of the movie play together as one. The other is real time, where images, 3D models, datasets and smaller movie files are either added to the dome by the presenter on the fly or they are programmed into the system using the Digistar scripting language.

How do you manage these massive images?

Full dome movies are produced and rendered out as sequences of images called “full dome masters” -- in our case, each image is 4096 by 4096. To play them in the dome, they need to be split into properly warped segments and then encoded into the video files. Each of the eight computers have a custom video-buffer system to keep them all on the same frame.

How does the live show work?

The real-time part of the system contains lots of built-in science and astronomy features, plus any additional content. This lets us customize many of our presentations. I very much enjoy the work that I do and I enjoy teaching other planetarium folks how to create and customize their own content.


Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I very much enjoy playing Words With Friends. It keeps me in touch with my mom and sister in Ohio.

On Facebook I follow ... a lot of open-source graphics projects.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I still use books for learning programming languages, but for fiction I’ve switched to Kindle. There just isn’t enough room for that many physical books. At the moment I’m once again rereading “Dune.” I probably read that book twice a year.


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).