Chm Blog Behind the Scenes

Lit, Shot and Gigapixeled

By Jon Plutte | September 28, 2012

I was walking on the beach today by my house and ran across an old friend, his kids, and a buddy of his. They had taken the kelp stalks that washed up on the beach, cut the heads and tails off, and being trumpet players, were playing a kelp concert for everyone who walked by. They were delighted, the passers-by were smiling. It was a perfect sign-off for a beautiful, sunny day.

What we all didn’t know during the kelp concert was that these are highly-skilled musicians who have been playing for decades. It seemed easy because their musical skills are high enough to make it seem easy.

Day-to-day my job is to help develop exhibits and to make movies and media for museums. That all sounds pretty glamorous, for sure. How many people get to spend their days thinking about creating exhibits, media, making up stuff, really? But along with all that, you also have to think about all the parts that make that fun stuff up. What’s the story? What are the main points? What should the visitor remember when they walk out of the exhibit? It’s not always so easy to figure out the core of what you’re trying to represent.

We have a lot of exhibit-making tools at our disposal these days. We can show artifacts (if we have them). We can have panels all around that have pictures and text, We can utilize the modern electronic media that we now have all around us.

And that’s where it gets really exciting these days. The technology to create electronic media has become downright affordable. You can buy the tools to create a touch-screen interactive off the shelf, or even free if you’re really clever. The cost of video creation has come down amazingly, and in addition, social media tools are not expensive.

But the availability of great tools doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. It still takes talent and skill, and like all other creative endeavors, it’s hard work to make an exhibit. On the other hand, this is fun stuff to do. The people that work in museums really do have a great job. We get to think hard about a subject, make a storyline that gets across what we think is important for the visitors to know, and in the end we get to create this unique type of experience–an Exhibit–using our brains and our hands.

Which brings us to the kelp players on the beach. I don’t think they planned to have a concert that day. But they saw an opportunity (actually they saw kelp), they had the skills, and they said to themselves “I can make music with this.” So they did.

I like to think that the people who make exhibits do the same thing. We see what might look like machinery, or rocks, or old books, we have the skills, and we say: We can make an exhibit with this. So we do.

I recently produced a video shoot of the museum’s Babbage Engine for a multimedia production we are developing with Microsoft Research. We have shot footage of the Engine before, but this time we wanted to document it in operation. We also wanted to shoot incredibly detailed photos called Gigapixels.

Since the Engine is sort of tucked into a corner in the museum we had to move the 4-ton device into an area with enough space to light it and shoot it. Not only that, we had a two-day window to shoot in, and during that time we would have to light it well in a restricted space, shoot tracking shots around the engine (the camera would be on a dolly on tracks rotating smoothly around the engine), and capture a lot of other video of the engine in operation.

We also had to leave sufficient time for the xRes team from Los Angeles to shoot the Gigapixel images. On top of that all that, staff videographer Eric Dennis and I had a live show to produce at the end of the second day, so we needed to work quickly. Yow! Senior Registrar Karen Kroslowitz coordinated the engine’s move.

We lit, we shot, and xRes Gigapixeled. The results turned out beautifully as you can see.

Special thanks to Joseph Joy of Microsoft Research, Eric Hanson and Greg Downing of xRes, Babbage Engine Expert Tim Robinson, Kirsten Tashev, Eric Dennis, and Karen Kroslowitz and team, all from the museum.

About The Author

Jon Plutte is an award-winning filmmaker, media creator, exhibit designer and musician. His films have shown at the Sundance Film Festival, on PBS, and at exhibit and film venues nationwide. His honors include film awards, exhibit awards, and an artist-in-residency to develop a first-person interactive history game.

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