michael naimark

Immersed in Technology : Art and Virtual Environments,
edited by Mary Anne Moser and Douglas MacLeod,
MIT Press, 1996



Field Recording Studies

Michael Naimark


"Field Recording Studies" began as an attempt to study "place" by making 3-D computer models based on the physical world. The concept was to retreat from making finished work by making modest studies around art and virtual environments. I didn't expect to be looking back 100 years.

Study #1 - Panoramic Tiling and Guerrilla Technology - summer 1992

This first study was intended to be fast and cheap. (In fact, I flew into Banff exactly two weeks before I had to fly out with something to exhibit in Siggraph's "Guerrilla Technology" show.) The concept was to make one continguous panorama by "tiling" together slightly overlapping still images. These images were collected with a simple 8mm video camera on a tripod, using traditional surveying tools such as compass and level.

The site I selected was a viewpoint above the Banff hoodoos overlooking the Bow Valley and Trundle Mountain, particularly spectacular just after dawn.

Back at the Banff Centre John Harrison had prepared software for hand-positioning the forty-two still images we digitized from the video for a single panorama. No human should have to do this, but we had no choice. The images were meticulously lined up so the edges matched, and the result was a single panoramic dome.

Study #2 - Projection Sculpting and Placeholder - summer 1993

But the images used to composite this virtual dome were still flat 2-dimensional images. The next step was to shape it to the actual contours of the landscape, by hand if necessary. Conceptually, this process, of taking 2D images and making 3D shapes, is exactly what a sculptor does when working from photos. Humans are remarkably good at filling in the missing information based on our everyday knowledge.

Shortly after Study #1, Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland had approached me about collaborating on their project, "Placeholder." John Harrison believed that such "projection sculpting" could be possible with his new software and the Banff Centre's new SGI Onyx. And I had been wagering my colleagues at Interval Research that if I had a slide projector, a slide of a human face, and a giant mound of mashed potatoes, that I could hand-shape the mound to create a credible (if not accurate) 3D face projection. I accepted Brenda and Rachel's offer.

The first site they selected for projection sculpting was Johnston Falls. Rachel had a short video of the Falls and its surroundings. Several frames were digitized (to give a sense of motion) and turned over to Cathy McGinnis, who was to hand-shape the flat image. Several, actually many, attempts were made at shaping, as well as both shaping and tiling from another site, Troll Falls. But the most credible was the first one made by Cathy. It became the setting for one of the three Placeholder virtual worlds.

Study #3 - 3D Moviemapping and the 100 Year Old Connection - fall 1993

At this point I gave up with the computer technology. We were using the World's Most Powerful graphics computer and it kept choking. The industry, and art, is built around making computer models from scratch rather than from cameras. The result has been a bias toward making fantasy worlds, imaginary places, and scientific visualizations rather than representations based on the actual world, however abstract.

I reverted back to film. Wonderful medium, film: simple, portable, rugged. Rich vibrant colors, subtle detail. Working with my research colleagues back at Interval and with artist Mark Pauline, we built a modest camera rig out of two old 16mm cameras and a 3-wheeled "super-jogger" baby carriage. The cameras were mounted side-by-side for stereographic 3D and had very wide-angle lenses, similar to those in "VR" goggles. The cameras could only shoot one frame at a time, and could be triggered either by an intervalometer for timelapses or by an encoder on one of the carriage wheels for moviemaps. The idea was to capture imagery that looked "VR-like" enough to encourage further investigation.

The camera rig could be disassembled to fit in a car, re-assembled and ready within minutes. Gilles Tassé, a filmmaker with extensive location experience in the area, and I spent six weeks filming studies around Banff and rural Alberta. We filmed over 100 sequences.

Our biggest struggle was not technologicial (thankfully), but was artistic. On the one hand, the sites in the Banff area are monumental in their grace and beauty. Some are sacred. On the other hand, watching the tourists at these sites told a different story. Busses and busses pulled in and out parking lots seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Tourists would get out - cameras in hand - for twenty minutes, then back on the busses off to another Site. Gilles and I agreed that the strength of the footage would lie in counterpointing these two conflicting messages.

Banff has a curious history as a tourist area, dating back a hundred years. In a very real sense, wilderness tourism in Canada was "invented" by Canadian Pacific Railway, who built a chain of luxury hotels to subsidize the construction of the railway west. The Banff tourist scene still has a turn-of-the-century feel to it.

Banff has also had a longstanding controversy over tourism, ecology, and growth. For example automobiles were banned from the Banff National Park in 1904, a ban not completely lifted until 1917. The controversies continue today.

It was also during this period around 100 years ago that visual representation technology was exploding. Stereoscopes, stereo photographs mounted on card stock and viewed with simple viewers, were popular around the turn-of-the-century. "Around the world . . . without leaving your home/just like being there" was the slogan of a popular stereoscope series. They proved to be a very high quality and effective means for viewing our footage in 3D.

Pre-cinema public exhibitions were also proliferating. The most popular was the Edison kinetoscope, which made its public debut 100 years ago, in April 1894. One and a half years later, in December 1895, the Lumiere brothers publicly exhibited projected film, and cinema as we know it was born.

The kinetoscope became a transitionary symbol during a turbulent era in the media arts. Making one out of our Banff footage seemed like the right thing to do.