The Ancient Seas Video
When I think about my job, one thing that can safely be said is that it is never dull. I am occasionally driven to distraction by conflicting deadlines, but most of the projects are challenging, fascinating, and rewarding.
Almost two years ago, it came to the attention of some of the people at our museum that the Field Museum in Chicago was using an exciting new video animation, which brought to life the varied creatures of the Cambrian Burgess Shale of British Columbia. It was suggested that we should have a similar exhibit at the Manitoba Museum. While we don’t have a Burgess Shale in our backyard, we do have some fabulous fossils in our Ordovician rocks, many of which represent forms unknown anywhere else.
And so our “Ancient Seas” exhibit was born. We were fortunate to receive capital funding from the provincial government, and extremely fortunate that Phlesch Bubble, the company that produced the Field Museum video, was available to work on this project.
The finished exhibit will be a digital animation on three huge adjacent projection panels, giving the visitor a view into the underwater tropical paradise that existed 445 million years ago on an equatorial shoreline. You will see it as though you are in a submersible beside the rocky shore. A boulder field is covered with and surrounded by algae and corals. In front of the boulders, a more open seafloor is interspersed with patches of sponges and sea lilies. Giant trilobites plough through the seafloor mud, while sea scorpions, fish-like conodont animals, and huge fierce predatory cephalopods swim above. Near the water surface, immense numbers of small jellyfish float past.
This is going to be an amazing exhibit, unlike anything at this museum or elsewhere in the city. But for me, the best part is that it is largely based on knowledge we have developed here. The place that is being depicted is the Ordovician rocky shoreline near Churchill (see posts below). I have been studying this site for more than a decade with several other scientists, including Bob Elias (University of Manitoba), Dave Rudkin (Royal Ontario Museum), and Godfrey Nowlan (Geological Survey of Canada). The animals and plants are all from fossils that we know to occur in northern and central Manitoba. The “in-place” hard elements, such as corals and sponges, are the same as the specimens we have collected from the Churchill rocky shoreline. We have added some free-moving creatures we know from other places (such as the sea scorpions and jellyfish), and the algae are based on the famous fossil seaweeds of the Cat Head – McBeth Point area along Lake Winnipeg.
The really intensive work on this exhibit started about a year ago, when I began to compile a package of detailed materials that described and illustrated all of the organisms to be represented. Phlesch is located in southern Australia, so this package (and all subsequent materials) had to be sent halfway around the world. The “long-distance” collaboration has been one of the most interesting parts of the project – I had done remote research collaborations before, but have never worked on an exhibit with someone located at some distance. I have not actually met Phlesch’s Jilli and Lars in person, but we have spent so much time in e-mail discussions that I feel as though I know them quite well. They sometimes lose patience with me, and I occasionally feel a bit annoyed by something that they do, but overall this way of working together has turned out brilliantly. This project has also turned into a global scientific collaboration; I will talk about that aspect in a future post.
Over the past several months, Phlesch have developed the “environment” in which the animals will move. For each animal or plant, they first made digital models of it, then developed those into three-dimensional versions that could be rotated, and then gave life and movement to those three-dimensional critters (each of which exists only inside computers, of course). At each stage in the process, I have had opportunities to give feedback, or been required to find additional information. Can we make this seaweed taller? Which way would sea lilies face relative to the current? How would the branching corals vary with depth? What colour should this cephalopod be? When artists work to depict an ancient lost world, there are so many questions, many of them not expected by the scientific mind.
We have now reached the point where the various pieces are being assembled, and I am really looking forward to the next couple of weeks. We will see feeding corals, seaweeds being pushed by the waves and currents, a school of conodont animals swimming across the foreground, a trilobite being …
It will be like Christmas, and I really can’t wait!