The “Rotunda Film” at the Atlanta History Center Receives Bronze MUSE Award

The “Rotunda Film” at the new Atlanta History Center received a Bronze MUSE Award in the category of Video, Film, Animation, & Live Media or Digital Performance on July 8, 2020. The Media and Technology MUSE Awards recognize outstanding achievement in museum media. Recipients are selected by an international group of industry professionals, the awards celebrate scholarship, community, innovation, creativity, education, accessibility, and inclusiveness. 

For most of its existence since 1886, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama has been presented as an attraction. The interpretation was based on dramatic battle stories told as if all the scenes depicted in the painting were literally true. The new Atlanta History Center exhibition Cyclorama: The Big Picture approaches the painting as a historical artifact – as an example of how art, entertainment, and performance shape popular historical perceptions, especially of the American Civil War. This approach allows the exhibition to also challenge popular Civil War myths, including the Confederate “Lost Cause.”

A central element of this new interpretation is the “Rotunda Film” created by Cortina Productions in partnership with the Atlanta History Center. The 12-minute film is projected across 125 feet of the painting (approximately one-third of the cyclorama canvas) using five projectors and a specially-designed sound system. Depending on audience size, traffic flow, and demand, the film is activated by a guest experience associate at least once per hour. 

The “Rotunda Film” focuses not just on the actual Battle of Atlanta, but also on what The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama represented to different audiences over time. Using scripted and costumed actors, the film presents a series of historic figures and composite characters to represent audiences from 1886 through the present. The film also portrays a range of characters that depict the cyclorama’s history as a painting as well as perspectives from different parts of the battlefield. 

Visuals in the film are dependent upon the integration of the cyclorama into the storytelling as the subject of the narrative as well as the projection surface. All of the characters appear as silhouettes or reverse silhouettes, allowing for the reveal of specific features of the painting. Additional high-resolution digital scans of the painting are used to highlight details. The film also uses projection mapping techniques, vibrant colors, time-lapse, and the illusion of deterioration of the cyclorama to illustrate its condition at various points throughout its history. Additional archival images and newspaper headlines are used to illustrate the progression of the painting’s history.

There were numerous technical challenges to projecting a film onto a 134-year-old painting, but the most important was determining exactly how light would interact on a painted surface. A multitude of tests helped the production team to focus on the best storytelling techniques for the integration of the film experience with The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama. This approach drove the use of silhouette and reverse silhouettes as well as the integration of live-action explosions and CGI gunfire simulations to add an additional element of realism to the combat sequences. As characters and composites were created, the team had to constantly reference the painting to determine if figures would be blocked by the visual elements in the cyclorama. The film was edited and animated using Adobe Premiere and Adobe After Effects.

A key focus of the film was the theme: history is never static. The film encourages viewers to think critically about how history is made. All of the film’s characters embody the changing narratives around the causes and outcomes of the American Civil War. Educational goals for the exhibit included (1) the historical significance of the Battle of Atlanta and (2) the subjective nature of art interpretation. The film also acknowledges that the cyclorama celebrates the narrative of heroic white males while omitting the contributions of African Americans and women. Great care was given by the Atlanta History Center and Cortina Productions when developing the film’s script and aesthetic to share the narrative behind the depiction on the canvas. During development and production, the “Rotunda Film” was screened and reviewed for clarity of the film’s complex visual techniques as well as the diverse narrative elements of the cyclorama’s history. 

The “Rotunda Film” is currently viewable at the Atlanta History Center’s exhibition Cyclorama: The Big Picture