Aquarium artisans fine-tune displays to let humans, sea mammals interact

June 09, 1993|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Touch, feel, sense, reach for what isn't there, move with what isn't moving, see reality -- birth, survival, death -- from the point of view of marine animals.

There's a bit of glitz to the new exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Kim Elorriaga, manager of the $2 million project, says the goal was to do for marine mammals "what we did for fish in the old building."

To that end, video discs, sound effects, controller boxes, computers, holograms, "touch screens," hemispherical mirrors and "moving" stationary murals unite for the aquarium's "Exploration Station" in the Pier 4 Marine Mammal Pavilion. The official opening of the exhibits is July 21.

The key word here is "interactive." You do more than just see. You participate.

"The space has never been utilized except as a waiting area for the dolphin show," Ms. Elorriaga says. "Now it will be used on its own. We hope people will stay after the show and learn about marine mammals."

Kathy Cloyd Sher, senior director of marketing and planning, goes a bit further: "We want people to leave the place mesmerized."

Several of the artists-designers-filmmakers charged with providing the special effects of "Exploration Station" have spent time at the aquarium in the last few days, installing, checking, working out the rough spots for their creations.

* Andy Newell, lean and laconic, sets up Sounds from the Sea Theater, enhanced recordings of 11 creatures played on a continuous 3-minute, 45-second loop.

His company, earwax productions, won a sound effects Academy Award for "Dracula."

Mr. Newell, 40, of San Francisco, works with a Macintosh computer, on which a "very cool kind of program" called "Aquarium Loop TK 1" awaits his commands.

As you stand in the darkened 10-by-16-foot "theater," the computer sends out signals, the name of a mammal appears on the wall and its vivid cry roars in stereo. Manatee; walrus; orca, pilot, humpback, fin, sperm and beluga whales; weddell and bearded seals; and bottlenose dolphins are represented.

"We wanted to progress in the loop starting with dolphins, move to larger whales and ending up with walrus and seals," Mr. Newell says.

* Mark Shelley, blond hair in a ponytail, is another Californian, from Monterey. President of Sea Studios on Cannery Row, Mr. Shelley, 42, is a filmmaker specializing in natural history subjects.

Films of 20 different mammals involved in feeding and locomotion make up Sea Studios' two creations. Mr. Shelley's crews shot footage of "three or four" mammals.

"No way could we shoot all of them," he says. "We sent out requests all over the world through our network of sources. We found stuff never seen in this country."

Viewers sample the scenes through a touch screen containing photos of marine mammals. You touch the desired image, and on a separate screen above, the animal appears via video disc.

'Touch' a polar bear

Say you want the "Living in Water" polar bear water ballet. Touch the bear and see it swim fluidly under water on a 20-inch monitor, back legs acting as a rudder, powerful front legs driving the bulk.

Or a seal feeding in "Meals on the Move." This one, on a 40-inch screen, is billed as a "high-impact reality film" and may not be for the squeamish. The seal's food-chain meal for the day is a live penguin, plucked out of the air at mid-hop, taken into the water and flailed.

"Technically, a project like this can be difficult," Mr. Shelley says. "Combining computers, video and sounds hasn't been around for that many years."

* How about a little low-tech high-tech, a "Swim-Along" with artist-filmmaker Rufus Butler Seder?

While the other artists-designers visit Baltimore to install and refine, Mr. Seder, 39, remains home in Boston, baking 8-inch-square, glass block "lifetiles" -- 780 of them -- for his 6-foot-8-inch-tall, 52-foot-long creation, the last exhibit going up in "Exploration Station."

Nothing moves in this moving mural except the beholder. Walk along the wall, and sea lion, sea otter, manatee, dolphin and seal "floating" inside the wall swim along with you. Walk backward or stop, and they do, too.

Mr. Seder describes the "lenticular art" as "3-D turned sideways."

Illusion of movement

"With 3-D, each eye sees a separate image, which becomes one," he says. "Here, both eyes get the same image. As you move, both eyes get a new image. You have the illusion of real movement."

He compares it to "wiggle picture" prizes in Crackerjack boxes. "These are old film and optical techniques," he says. "But they've never been applied on such a large scale."

Mr. Seder says credit for the 77 illustrations in the mural belongs to aquarium artist Cindy Belcher. "I get concept and design credit," he says.

* E. S. "Stan" Eskridge Jr., president of InteractiVisions Inc., goes out from his home base in Raleigh, N.C., whenever the call comes.

In California last week, he was working with the Walt Disney entertainment empire; at the aquarium before that, he was overseeing the installation of his company's "Can You Catch It?"

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