Q&A – Peter Morse, computer visualisation
Dr. Peter Morse speaks to Pauline Askin about his role as visualisation specialist on the Mawson’s Huts Foundation Expedition 2009/10.
Peter runs a visualisation consultancy in Hobart, Tasmania – working upon visualisations of scientific data, museum applications, fulldome and stereoscopic content for a range of national and international organisations. He lectured for many years at the University of Melbourne and Victorian College of the Arts, and was instrumental in establishing the ACM SIGGRAPH Graphite computer graphics conference series in Australasia; he works closely with colleagues from the Western Australian Supercomputer Program and a variety of other Australian institutions. Alongside these research and technical applications he is also a media artist and has exhibited work in many places around the world for the last 25 years. He is widely travelled and looks forward to new adventures. This is his third season in Antarctica – he has been to all the main Australian bases – and his second season at Cape Denison. His website provides an overview of current obsessions: www.petermorse.com.au
Q. What is your role here?
A. I’m here as the ‘Visualisation Specialist’ – which covers a whole range of activities. I’ve got multiple roles in a sense. I’m also Expedition videographer/photographer which means I do a range of documentary photography for sponsors and have shot and produced the weekly Video Blog. But my principal activity is shooting a ‘fulldome’ movie. Fulldome means I’m shooting for a Planetarium screen – so if you’ve ever been to a planetarium that’s a large hemispherical screen. The idea is to produce a feature length documentary about 45 minutes long that will be suitable for showing around Australia and internationally.
Q. I hear you use the word stereoscopic regularly, what does it mean and what does it mean for you here at Cape Denison?
A. ‘Stereoscopic’ describes a technique by which two photographs of the same object taken at slightly different angles are viewed together, creating an impression of depth and solidity; normally when you look at a cinema screen or a magazine or book it’s two dimensional – or flat looking; it doesn’t have depth in the way the world does when we look around us. Stereoscopic (or ’3D’) movies require special projection techniques that project a left eye and a right eye view onto a special screen – and then with the aid of special glasses you suddenly see it in depth. Stereoscopic photography has been around for well over 100 years – and, amazingly, Frank Hurley used a stereoscopic camera here at Cape Denison 98 years ago during the AAE. Because his images are stereoscopic we can treat them in very interesting ways, as you can actually undertake computer processing of these images and derive all sorts of interesting data that you wouldn’t normally expect to gain from photographs.
Q. Can you give me some examples of what you have found from these early images taken by Hurley here at Cape Denison?
A. The images are such high resolution that we can read the title of the books the Mawson team were reading on their bedside shelves. You can zoom in and in and see information that would normally be lost to conventional photographic processes – so they are useful for heritage ‘forensics’. You have a much stronger sense of the reality of the world they lived in – viewing them stereoscopically – they no longer simply look like ‘old photographs’ but an actual tangible world in which these men lived and struggled here in Antarctica. Another thing you can do is to derive three dimension models from them – using computer processing – so you can actually look at the changes in the landscape between 98 years ago and now. So they have a whole lot of very interesting applications beyond their ‘entertainment’ and photographic documentary value: they also have interesting potential scientific applications and useful forensic data.
Q. The term ‘Hurley Dolly” is often mentioned, can you tell me more about that?
A. A lot of the camera and cinematography that has been shot here at Cape Denison is simple one-point tripod mounted stuff – where you have a camera on a tripod and it rotates around a fixed point. Visually that becomes a bit boring after a while. I was very interested in motion systems for cameras, so I mentioned this to Chris Henderson. Generally these things are very expensive, they can range from A$10,000 up to A$100,000′s of dollars, if not millions of dollars in high end Hollywood movies. I wondered if we could build one. Chris being ‘a man after my own heart’ i.e. ‘a Tip Shop enthusiast’ looked at what I sent him and said “I think we can do that”! So we set about building the Hurley Dolly from bits and pieces scavenged from the Tip shop. We managed to construct a kind of Heath Robinson device for about A$100 as opposed to A$10,000 – which is very funny! (It’s explained on one of the video blogs). The motive section is three broken old Chinese drills, the tracks are made out of old Bakers shelves (but only the finest), the dolly itself is based upon discarded roller blade wheels and bits of aluminium tubing and stuff like that, then it’s all cunningly put together so that it can run smoothly. And it works! Future developments will include full computer motion control and camera exposure control, so it can become very sophisticated.
Q. What are you using it for?
A. It runs very slowly and smoothly along the tracks over a very long period of time shooting time-lapse material. It was set up to shoot inside the Huts with 180-degree fish eye lenses mounted on the cameras – the extreme wide angle is what enables me to use it for fulldome and virtual reality applications. The great thing about time-lapse is that you capture all these events that are not normally perceptible to us – but to make it interesting we also need to exercise control over the camera motion – and that’s the really intriguing and challenging thing about time-lapse, fulldome and camera motion control. The reason it’s called the Hurley Dolly is because it’s named in honour of Frank Hurley – Australia’s most famous photographer and cinematographer for the AAE – and because it’s a dolly on a track system. The dolly is a tripod with the rollerblade wheels on it , then there’s the track that it runs along. It enabled me to capture a really amazing series of sequences inside the hut where we see the light changing through the day, glinting across ice crystals and surfaces and seeing how dynamic the illumination environment is here. That’s not something you would normally witness because it moves over many hours. The other thing it allowed me do was get really great external shots of the huts, up at Lands End and John O’Groats and the landscape and weather environment, what the penguins and seals are doing etc. You can see all sorts of activities that you wouldn’t be usually be able to attend to for such extended periods of time. This is an interesting and useful way to visualise Antarctica – because it enables us to form new understandings of the environment in a different time and space to those of our ‘normal’ human perception – I think that’s very important,
Q: What were the highs and lows of living in such a harsh environment?
A. For me it seems to be all highs. I find it incredibly stimulating visually, physically, intellectually and technologically – because you are dealing with visual and technical challenges in a very harsh environment – there’s no doubt about that. It’s cold and windy and it’s hard work carrying all the equipment off to areas of the Cape to work in. The weather is unpredictable, technology breaks down in this environment fairly rapidly but it’s also very rewarding when you get on top of those challenges and sort it out yourself. The low points for me are when things don’t work like when your camera breaks or your batteries are flat – that’s a pain in the bum when that happens. Sometimes you’re defeated – but the consequence of that is you are forced to think of alternative strategies to work out new ways of doing things. I already have a million new ideas as a result of this adventure and look forward to developing the equipment and techniques for a whole raft of projects I’m working on that combine sophisticated data visualisations with real-world material shot in difficult environments. Also I enjoy the family lifestyle of working with committed professionals who are also lunatics doing different things. There’s always something amusing and strange going on here. People are very very good at their jobs and committed to it so there’s a real momentum built up from that. It’s always fascinating to find out what people have been doing. There’s always constant surprises coming up and that’s really thrilling.