Liberty 360, a circular theater telling the American tale

[From The Philadelphia Inquirer]

Oct. 1, 2010

History in 3-D

Welcome to Liberty 360, a circular theater telling the American tale.

By Kathryn Canavan
For The Inquirer

The centuries will collide in Philadelphia’s historic district this weekend when tour guides in 18th-century garb welcome visitors to the 21st century and a 3-D theater in the round.

David Niles, designer of the well-received video wall at the Comcast Center, is offering a new 3-D attraction dubbed Liberty 360 that opened this week. It’s a 15-minute, sometimes-panoramic show about the iconic symbols of America. The onscreen host is tinkerer extraordinaire Benjamin Franklin – the founding father most likely to be dazzled by 3-D.

Just to dish up this one short, Niles Creative Group designed the circular Peco Theater in the lobby of the new Historic Philadelphia Center near Sixth and Chestnut Streets.

For the shows, audiences of 50 to 65 people file up a ramp to a suspended platform surrounded by a 150-foot circular screen. It’s a little like walking into an oversize Gravitron at an amusement park, but nothing shakes, including you.

As you stand in the center of the platform, waiting for the show to begin, audience members fiddle with the Buddy Holly-style 3-D frames on their noses, unaware that the lenses employ three layers of gold to filter light. A custom-designed sound system streams original compositions featuring 65 musicians. When the show begins, images from eight 3-D projectors dovetail to display the yarn about the symbols of America.

“I think it’s really smart to blend the history with the newest technology because that’s what kids like – the Facebook generation and the video gamers,” says Jill Lawrence of Newark, Del.

“I think the kids are really going to like the movement and the 3-D graphics and the 360 degrees,” says Lawrence, who got a sneak preview of the show as an employee of Historic Philadelphia Inc. (She leads the weekly Tippler’s Tour in the historic district, sort of a colonial pub crawl.)

The show opens with New York actor Charles Edward Hall, dressed and stuffed to resemble Franklin, talking to the audience from a Philadelphia workshop while apprentices toil in the 3-D background and passersby occasionally stroll past on the opposite side of the windows.

“It starts out 20 feet wide,” Niles says. “By the end, it wraps all the way around. We’re using 3-D here to create the illusion of space that is not really there.”

The designer, who edits video at a stunning 3-D computer monitor in his Manhattan studio, says he wants viewers to be wowed by Liberty 360’s story, not its gizmos.

“Like the Comcast wall, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the content,” Niles says. “This is not a panoramic of Philadelphia. It’s not just a thrill ride. It’s a story.”

It’s a story with a surprise ending, one that delighted some members of the audience at a preview screening.

Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., calls Liberty 360 “the formative American story.”

Niles says he believes the installation is the first 3-D theater in the round in the world. “There’s no true 3-D theater-in-the-round anywhere in the world that I know of, and I’ve certainly researched it,” he says. “There’s a couple of government installations that use 3-D in a similar setting, but there’s no theater that I know of that’s open to the public.”

Liberty 360 opened Wednesday, but this weekend’s showing will feature Historic Philadelphia’s history makers in period costumes. On Saturday and Sunday, called Liberty 360 Grand Opening Weekend, the activities include free face painting and balloon animals for children and an appearance by the Phillie Phanatic at 11 a.m. Saturday.

The show is one of two 3-D parts – a new digital outdoor Lights of Liberty Show slated to open next summer will take visitors on a nighttime journey through Independence National Historical Park with surround-sound and 3-D scenes shown on the facades of historic buildings.

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