News / Industry News & Events / Team works in twilight zone to bring reef to surface at Cal Academy (04/11/18)

Team works in twilight zone to bring reef to surface at Cal Academy

04/11/18

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A few hundred feet beneath the oceans surface, spots known as twilight zones are home to extraordinary and glowing deep-water creatures that few humans have ever seen in their natural habitat. An exploration of life under water, the twilight zone is featured in the latest California Academy of Sciences Planetarium show, Expedition Reef, a 24-minute cinematic adventure that was entirely created by a tiny but incredibly dedicated staff of designers and filmmakers who work in a twilight zone of their own.

Underneath the main level of the California Academy of Sciences sits, among other things, the VizStudio. Windowless and located next door to a jellyfish breeding facility, the studio is where designers and scientists work together to create all of the academys video elements, most notably the series of short science films presented in the museums planetarium.

Ken Ackerman joined the design team at the academy a few years ago. Now an animator and motion graphics designer, one of his initial tasks on the job was to animate a scared horse for part of the earthquake exhibit. That paranoid pony was the first of thousands of animals Ackerman has since animated for the California Academy of Sciences. In fact, for Expedition Reef, he worked on a scene that featured approximately 5,000 fish on the planetariums massive dome screen all at once.

We want people to walk away from this being in love with coral reefs, Ackerman said, sitting on a swivel chair in the underground studio. Ackerman is definitely in love with coral reefs, although its not quite clear if that love has always lived inside the 35-year-old or is a result of the two years he and the academys visuals team spent creating Expedition Reef.

Thats right. It can take up to two years to make a 25-minute show, and the process is almost as fascinating as the result. The topic of reefs came from the top. Jon Foley, the academys executive director, earmarked coral reef sustainability as one of the organizations five areas of focus (along with accessibility, environmental solution planning, educational materials development and a multimedia magazine called bioGraphic.)

Reefs it was for the visualization studio, and the small team got to work. Basically, all planetarium films start with a short list of bullet points that the audience should take away from the show. From there, scientists and experts on the subject come in and debate the most important things that need to be included in the 25-minute feature. According to Ackerman, these discussions can get thrillingly heated.

The team decided to start explaining the science of coral reefs at Devils Point, a location off the coast of the Philippines. They worked with scientists already on site, as well as a local company that flew drones throughout the area, to develop a near-perfect representation of the scenes both above and below the water.

Ackerman called dibs on animating the fish.

According to Tom Kennedy, producer and head of production, the Viz team has two main goals. They want the show to be correct, current, and meaningful, which is a challenge considering the time it takes to make a film and the rapidly changing world of science. Related

Throughout the making of several of the Academys films, new discoveries meant that the script and design needed to be changed to reflect the most current scientific knowledge. Secondly, Kennedy wants folks to leave the planetarium inspired. Expedition Reef offers not only education on the issues facing coral reefs, but makes small suggestions on ways regular folks can help.

Upstairs, above the VizStudio and the jellyfish breeding lab, hundreds of CalAcademy visitors shuffled into their seats beneath the dome. One woman sitting near me managed to transform her coats and bags into a pillow, as if she was settling in for a trans-Atlantic flight. In some rather virtual ways, she was.

After ushers instructed us to keep our feetsies off the seatsies, Expedition Reef began, setting the first scene in the academys actual aquarium. Suddenly, the aquariums glass disappeared, and the audience was transported into a scientifically accurate underwater wonderland. We zipped into the air, we flew across the planet, we got up close and personal with the inside of an eels mouth. And somewhere, a few dozen feet below us, the men and women of the VizStudio were hard at work at finding new ways to visually explain whatever might come next for the planetarium, the world of science and the people of Earth.