Arts & Culture

Morehead Planetarium’s ‘Take Flight’ is physics with a punch line

A shot from the planetarium show about aviation called "Take Flight," the newest original production from Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.
A shot from the planetarium show about aviation called "Take Flight," the newest original production from Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Morehead Planetarium and Science Center

When Jay Heinz watches a Pixar film, he’s amused by an unexpected part of the movie: the credits.

“There’s literally 2,000 people who work on a Pixar movie, and it takes them three years to make it,” he says. “We have basically five people and it takes us a year. We do a lot of work in a short amount of time.”

With a smaller team than a major production company would use to even maintain its computer servers, Heinz makes full-dome theater productions for Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. The latest show, “Take Flight,” sees its official launch Sunday as part of Family Science Day.

Using animated slapstick and an immersive visual experience specific to planetarium theaters, “Take Flight” presents the laws of physics – specifically, the four forces of flight – to an elementary school audience.

“The four forces of flight are something that every kid needs to know when they’re in school – that’s thrust, drag, weight and lift,” Heinz says.

Producer and director Heinz, animators Jim Kachelries and Andy Minard, and scriptwriter Scott Myers paired those forces with flight pioneers Leonardo da Vinci, Amelia Earhart and Chuck Yeager, and with a futuristic NASA flight engineer.

Stick figures of Orville and Wilbur Wright function as guides in the 22-minute show, taking kids into the future – their future.

There are tributes to early aviation pioneers, such as barnstormer Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to hold a pilot’s license, and scientific diagrams offset with wacky pratfalls. At one point Orville falls headfirst into a tablet, discovering the Internet and finding it filled with cats. “Take Flight” is a physics lesson with a punch line.

“It’s targeted at elementary and middle school kids,” Heinz explains. “We want it to be interesting to them, and we want it to fit into the standard course of study at schools.” Education experts and NASA specialists reviewed the show, ensuring it was scientifically sound – “Take Flight,” after all, was made with a grant from NASA, though it’s not an astronomy show.

“Everybody knows the Planetarium as a place to go see space science,” Heinz says. But at the foundation of “Take Flight” was the realization that the second “A” in NASA stands for “aeronautics” – that is, atmospheric flight. The Planetarium had collaborated with NASA before on its “Solar System Odyssey” show, and that relationship continues with “Take Flight.”

Not everything Heinz learned made it into the show. NASA’s work on highly efficient green aircraft or planes that break the sound barrier quietly got in, as did theoretical planes that could travel from New York to Paris in about an hour. But some developments were too far in the future, too conceptual as yet to put in “Take Flight.”

“They’re talking about having material on planes that basically is self-healing, so if there’s a hole, it will basically heal itself in real time. It’s crazy,” Heinz says, revealing the same sense of wonder his work instills in Planetarium audiences. “It’s stuff like that that’s almost sci-fi. That surprised me.”


What: Family Science Day

When: 1-4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Morehead Planetarium, 250 E. Franklin. St., Chapel Hill

Cost: Free

Info: The launch of the Planetarium’s new show, “Take Flight,” includes an afternoon of family-oriented science activities, demonstrations and interactive experiments. The first run of “Take Flight” goes through June 5. More info at