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Seeing the Arctic
Michael Clark and Canaz demonstrate collaborative spirit and underwater vision
by Brianne Wells

Toronto filmmaker Michael Clark has been using innovative camera systems to photograph wildlife and extreme landscapes since he joined forces with writer-director Patricia Sims in 1998. Over the past four years their production company, the Canaz Corporation, has focused on developing nature documentaries and new media products. With a diverse background in fine arts, film post-production, technology design, animation, and advertising, Clark has been able to combine his talent for visualisation and his love of the natural world. Capturing stunningly beautiful images in harsh conditions is his speciality. His self-designed camera systems have played a pioneering role in both filmmaking and collaborations with research scientists. By gathering scientific data and documentary footage at the same time, Clark has been able to bridge the gap between art and science in a visually appealing way. His cameras have helped biologists, educators, and documentary audiences peer into otherwise inaccessible environs, and pass on a greater understanding of nature.

Spying on Sea Canaries
The Beluga Cam is a 360-degree panoramic underwater video-camera system developed by Clark. It allows researchers at the Russian Academy of Science to study the behaviour and communication of beluga whales in the wild, while at the same time capturing haunting images and sounds. In addition to visual information, a collection of underwater directional microphones known as a “hydrophone array” records the vocalizations of nearby belugas. By judging the relative distance of a given vocalization from each microphone, researchers can determine specifically from which whale the sound originated.

Audio vocalizations recorded by the Beluga Cam are digitized into real-time graphic waveforms via computer. Image and sound are then married by displaying the audio waveforms on the same screen as the video, with different colours allocated to the waveforms from each microphone. This is especially valuable to beluga researchers because an individual whale’s vocalizations can be studied in detail, both visually and aurally, and matched with its body language or interactions with other whales. The ability to pair visual and auditory information in this way helps scientists to identify what is happening socially among the whales when certain vocalizations are made. This in turn permits a much broader perspective on beluga communication than was possible before. Using this underwater visualization technology, the Russian bioacoustics researchers hope eventually to decipher a ‘whale alphabet’.

The Beluga Cam is an example of what Clark calls “non-intrusive technology”: it is designed to operate remotely, without immediate supervision. The camera is positioned on the sea floor and connected to shore by fifteen hundred to six thousand metres of fibre-optic cable. It can therefore be used to view nature from afar with little disturbance. At a recent conference on art and science visualization at The Banff New Media Institute ( Quintessence, September 12-15, 2002), Clark explained that he designed the Beluga Cam “to make beautiful pictures [of the whales]…to visualize their world…but what we came out with was an interesting tool for science.” The technology didn’t go completely unnoticed, however: the belugas were naturally curious of the camera, and would send a “scout” ahead to check it out each time the system was installed in a new location. Interestingly, the Beluga Cam included a monitor: the whales were able to watch themselves. Nicknamed “sea canaries” by whalers because of their constant song and chatter, belugas responded to images on the monitor with vocalizations and movement, much how a bird responds to its reflection in a mirror. The whales’ apparent interest in the Beluga Cam made it easier to capture them on video.

Visualizing a Pan-Arctic Partnership
Six thousand year old petroglyphs recently discovered along Russia’s White Sea coast allude to a long history of human-beluga interaction. A 1999 trip to see these inscriptions inspired Sims and Clark to make a pan-Arctic documentary about belugas. When Clark learned about the underwater observation experiments that Russian marine biologists were already undertaking, it became clear to him that they should be working together. Because Clark was able to improve upon an earlier underwater camera developed by Volodia Baranov from the Russian Academy of Science, the Academy agreed to an exchange. Through a mutually beneficial partnership, scientists with limited resources were able to collect and interpret new data using Clark’s Beluga Cam. In return, Canaz and their Finnish production crew were permitted access to the prime Russian whale-research location, Solovetsky Island. The island, a birthing and gathering place for the last remaining European beluga population, has a long history of military activity, and was off limits to all visitors until the 1990s. Thanks to their collaborative approach, Canaz gained the co-operation of the Russian government that was necessary for shooting in previously off-limits areas of the Russian Arctic.

The resulting Canada-Finland co-production, Beluga Speaking Across Time (Canaz/Matila & Rohr; 2001) was shot over a period of two arctic summers. Written and directed by Sims, and recently broadcast on CBC’s The Nature of Things, this documentary explores the underwater world of belugas in the White Sea, and also in the Canadian Arctic, where belugas are still hunted by traditional means. The movie examines the long and varied relationship between whales and people, the ways in which human cultures and industry have effected belugas, and how belugas have affected us.

Seeing Long and Broad
During the White Sea expedition, the Beluga Cam had to withstand icy waters for up to three weeks at a time. Clark’s motion-controlled Planetary Camera System (PCS) likewise had to withstand the elements when it was also used to record images for Beluga Speaking Across Time. The PCS is a high-resolution digital camera system used to capture landscape scenes in beautifully smooth time-lapse video (actually a series of high-resolution digital stills set into motion). The image quality is quite good, with a resolution four times that of High Definition Television (HDTV). Like the Beluga Cam, the PCS is solar powered. And because it can be left for many days unattended, it is capable of capturing weather patterns and other slower-moving environmental changes that would otherwise be missed.

Clark has also developed a helmet-mounted 360-degree panoramic still-film camera, which exposes the landscape in stunning dimensions (it’s also handy for keeping the photographer out of the shot). Currently, he is at work on gaiaTime, a series of five-minute “episodes” of HDTV time-lapse imagery captured with the Planetary Camera System that will document the changing environs of each Canadian province and territory.

Michael Clark’s camera systems allow scientists to gather and visualize data from far afield, and filmmakers to record nature with little human impact. Using design-it-yourself technology, Clark is revealing Earth across time and distance, and helping us to see the big picture.

Brianne Wells has worked in film and television, and is presently part of the HorizonZero editorial and research team. She looks forward to a career in Media Theory.

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