Relics get high-tech makeover

UMBC center works on PBS documentary

June 15, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

To help explain the mysteries of an expansive canyon in New Mexico filled with ancient ruins, Anna Sofaer came to a rather cramped space in Catonsville filled with cutting-edge computers.

Sofaer knew she needed sophisticated animation to adequately illustrate her theories of why and how these huge buildings were constructed in Chaco Canyon. But with the going price in Hollywood at $1,000 a second for such work, that seemed beyond the reach of her independent documentary budget.

Then she heard about the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Imaging Research Center. Students there labored a year and a half to bring the 1,000-year-old structures to three-dimensional life. Sofaer got a bargain-basement price, and the students got invaluable experience and an impressive addition to their resumes.

Their 15 minutes of animation is a key element of "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon," Sofaer's documentary, which will air tonight on Washington's WETA Channel 26 and tomorrow nationally on PBS, including the channels of Maryland Public Television.

It was perhaps the most complicated job undertaken by UMBC's decade-old Imaging Research Center. Using computer animation techniques, students have produced the raven that flies on the jumbo screens at PSINet Stadium and the Kindercat character that introduces a children's show on WMAR television.

Rebuilding the Chaco Canyon pueblos took everything the Imaging Research Center had, technically and artistically.

"This was the ideal project for us because it involved so many things," said David Yager, the center's founder. "Students had to look at the history, the anthropology, the culture, the astronomy, as well as the artistic and technical elements."

Tim Best, an intern at the center who worked on the Chaco Canyon project before graduating in 1997, said the complexity of the animation forced the students to be creative in all sorts of ways.

Sofaer's theories about Chaco Canyon center on the astronomical significance of its huge buildings that were constructed between 850 and 1150, then mysteriously abandoned. She contends that Chaco was a spiritual center, the buildings aligned with the movements of the sun and stars.

To illustrate this, the UMBC students started from film of the ruins, then carefully matched it against their animated reconstructions, which were built up layer by layer, each layer including more color, detail and three-dimensional qualities.

The animation takes viewers inside and outside the buildings, moving the sun and stars through the sky to show the relationship between the celestial bodies and the structures.

"We would work at night so we could hook up other computers in the university that otherwise would have been turned off," Best says.

Yager says the center is not about flexing gigabytes and spinning hard drives. It was founded as part of UMBC's art department and keeps its feet firmly fixed in that foundation.

"The neat thing about working with UMBC is fundamentally they are artists with a lot of technical skill," says Sofaer.

"They really have the vision of artists," she says. "I loved working with them for that reason."

Dan Bailey, the center's interim director, says projects such as this give art students an important dose of practical experience.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for students who want to work in this type of arena," he says. "They learn that when you do this kind of work, the dog can't eat your homework and the client is always right.

"And they learn to work in collaborative environments, which is the way most animation is done. A school's grading structure focuses on individual skills, but in this industry, it is a team that creates work."

Yager, who directed the center until he left last year to head a company in UMBC's technology park, says such projects can help students learn other real-life lessons.

"It makes them ask the question, `Is this really what I want to do with my life?'" says Yager, who still teaches at the center. "They see the down side. Animation like this is the factory work of this decade."

No one connected with the project would say how much the center charged Sofaer, only that it was a small fraction of the Hollywood rate.

"When I see the quality of the work and the amount of money paid, I just feel enormously grateful," says Sofaer, who notes that she received many pro bono contributions to her documentary, including narration by Robert Redford.

"You can see the movement of the sun and the stars and see how they worked out the patterns in their minds," she says. "This actually comes as close as you can to being a Chacoan person 1,000 years ago."

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