A giant squid in a conical shell sizes up his unsuspecting prey, a beetle-like creature innocently scavenging for food on the ocean floor. In a flash, dominance wins and the sandsweeper is enveloped by hungry tentacles. Meanwhile, a pod of irridescent jellyfish gracefully pump through the crystal-clear waters; a cluster of sea lilies, dance in the currents; and a bed of clams instinctively shut their shells.
This is Ancient Seas, a digitally animated, 450 million-year-old underwater world brought to life on three jumbo-sized screens inside a darkened corner of The Manitoba Museum.
The five-minute-long film, a digital aquarium of sorts, plays on a continuous loop projected on a trio of screens spanning 7.5 metres. The tropical reef—complete with brilliant-hued corals, sun-streaked waters and swaying underwater reeds—recreates life under the sea, near a rocky shoreline of modern-day Churchill in northern Manitoba. But back during the Ordovician Period, the province straddled the equator and the area was an ecologically rich tropical sea, inhabited by a vast and varied cast of underwater creatures.
Ancient Seas—which opened in late March also includes real fossils and explanations about each on-screen creature—has quickly become a popular stop for kids visiting the museum. (For kid critiques, check out comments on the adjacent page from grades 5 and 6 students at École J.B. Mitchell School who recently visited the exhibit.)
“People nowadays can get all their information and stories off the Internet. What we can give people is an experience that they can’t get anywhere else,” says project head Graham Young, the museum’s curator of geology and paleontology.
The exhibit is an impressive and enlightening addition to Winnipeg’s ever-evolving list of world-class attractions that add spark and vibrancy to the city. It’s for those reasons that Where Winnipeg magazine has named Ancient Seas the city’s top new attraction for 2010. While the attraction is still basking in opening-day glory, in reality, the video project has been about 18 months in the making and the culmination of a decades’ worth of research by Young.
The first of its kind in Canada, the $540,000 project uses multi-screen-projection technology similar to Evolving Planet, a digital film currently showing at The Field Museum in Chicago. To bring the world to life, the museum enlisted the help of Australian digital production company, Phlesch Bubble, who had worked with Chicago to re-animate the 500-million-year-old Cambrian seas. The company spent about 18 months working with Young and his team of researchers, trying best to realistically bring the long-extinct creatures back to life. Plants, animals and coral were digitally resurrected using information gleaned from fossils found in the area and ongoing research about the now-extinct underwater eco-system.
“Every creature [in the video] has a story about what it’s doing. Nothing is really random,” Young says.
Cases in point: A cluster of brachiopods defensively shut their shells as a team of worm-like polychaetes crawl nearby along the ocean floor. The worms also feast on the carcass of a dead trilobite beetle. The world projected on screen is also long-since dead.
With the shifting of the continents and extreme global climate change, very few of the creatures survived. Instead, many exist only as fossils, which Young himself has been excavating in traditional archeological digs in the Churchill area since 1996.
The animation project is an exciting step forward in the field of paleontology and geology research, he says.
“This is a way of bringing fossils alive.”
He also hopes the exhibit sparks more public interest in the ecology and geography of Manitoba and how radically the natural habitat has changed over time.
In the meantime, Young is modest about Ancient Seas contribution to the city’s landscape of attractions and exhibitions.
“People are blown away by the quality and volume of attractions when they come to Winnipeg. And everything is a piece of that. [Ancient Seas] is one little piece of that.”
— Robin Summerfield