13 September, 2010
by Michael Dessner
Two things strike you as you enter the lab where the 3D imagery of Titanic is being created. The first is that everybody in the room is staring rapt at the screens, oblivious to anything you might be doing. I’m pretty sure that you could walk in there without pants and not get noticed until you got in between someone and the screen. It almost resembles a creepy brainwashed moment when you first see it, everybody staring up all slack-jawed. The other thing that stands out is that everyone is wearing the exact same pair of sunglasses that look like a pair of light grey polarized sunglasses. These ain’t the old paper cutout, red and blue plastic film lensed glasses you grew up with, nuh-uh. You could actually walk down a flight a stairs with these bad boys on. Once you scare up a pair and get them on everything else fades to background and you are transported down 3,700 meters to Titanic. Live and 3D, in your face, right now. Real. It’s the kind of sight that will have you feeling around behind you to make sure there’s a place to sit but not actually turn your head to see that there’s a chair there. It’s the cobra of visual stimulation; you can’t tear your eyes away.
If you could pull your eyes from the screens long enough to take in your surroundings you’d see the most amazing sprawl of technology running around the room along with a spider web of cables, network cables, extension cords and zip ties suspending it all from the ceilings and walls. There are three primary areas in the imaging lab where the work is done and probably as many smaller stations. The big draws are the main screens, what everybody is gawping at. A pair of large, 47″ HD flat screens takes up the ‘front’ of the room (which is actually facing aft). These are the screens that are monitoring the 3D process, the money shot. Get in between those and whoever is watching and the popcorn thrown at you will be the least of your problems. Remember, these are sailors and people working at sea generally carry knives. OK, it ain’t that bad but nobody wants to miss anything when they are in there. Polite concern for the feelings of others is a damn good policy when everybody is busting their butts trying to pull together one of the most ambitious deep sea projects ever attempted.
Underneath the big screens are five smaller screens of varying sizes showing views from the various camera systems mounted on Remora, including its primary piloting cameras. Each of these cameras is on a pan and tilt device so while the 3D might be looking straight out at the hull there’s likely another camera that is showing the bottom below the vehicle. Many of these cameras show what the conditions are like at depth, a very different view from Bill Lange’s 3D super sci-fi set. For some reason, his cameras seem to be less susceptible to the biomass swirling like snow in the currents and over the site. I’m told by those that know that this particulate matter is likely dead plankton drifting down from higher up in the water column, little creatures that have lived out their lives and are now settling onto the sea floor, future sediment. I don’t know the precise reason Bill’s cameras seem to be able to see through this better than the other cameras but, they do. It probably has to do with the custom lighting racks they installed on Remora and says much about the skill set of his engineers. I’d get into it more in depth but those guys are busy; the last thing they need right now is a former fishpimp asking stupid questions. I will try and flesh it out a bit more when we make our run for the beach in a few days.
Back to the room, in front of all those screens on the main stage sits one key guy, usually Bill Lange or Evan, who was married on the back deck a couple weeks ago. Whoever happens to be in that chair is the clearinghouse for a lot of moving parts. He is interfacing with the ROV operators in the shack two decks down, directing the recording team at the back of the room when to roll tape and working with the navigation team to try and get the cameras where they want them. All of these folks are relying the data the girls made to help dial in where and how they will work.
Trying to keep your bearings when piloting a device that provides views only through cameras isn’t as easy as it might seem as the visual cues don’t translate well to the human experience. Abyssal ocean bottom pretty much all looks the same, there ain’t no background except the dark and there’s certainly no sun or moon or any of the things we commonly reference to keep our bearings. There’s only a compass heading and strings of endless numbers that refer to the cable out, the slant range from the ship to the bottom, depth and other variables that impact their flight over the tangle of steel that was once a ship.
The navigation guys keep everything sorted out and in perspective. They are, like everyone else on board, seasoned professionals who have spent years at sea. They’re contracted to the job via Williamson and Associates and are also the only local guys working the job. Tony is from St John’s and has been a great guide to the culture and scene in town; he even threw a big barbecue for everyone the day before we took off for the second leg. Brad is from Halifax. Both towns boast a long and proud maritime heritage. I was over at Tony’s house one night for cocktails a few nights before we sailed and a good time was had by all but the highlight for me was when he sang “Barrett’s Privateers“ along with the recording. At full volume I might add. Brings a shiver to my spine just thinking about it, a great moment. His lovely wife Glenda was a perfect hostess; as I got caught up in the shanty, I swear I heard her whisper, “another Newfie born.” Both Tony and Brad are damn fine shipmates, pros and performing a critical task that I’d explain to you if I understood it better. But I don’t, its real math-y and, heck, I get turned around looking in the mirror.
If you were in the middle of the room looking at the 3D screens up front, Tony or Brad and their 3 nav computers are on the left. If you looked over your shoulder to the right you would see the recording suite and another huge pile of tech: Five monster Mac tower computers, seven large computer screens, six smaller monitors, four huge armored computer cases and a couple other stacks of arcane technology that I can only guess at. There are usually a couple of Bill’s technicians in there; when he tells them to roll tape, they make sure that nothing gets missed. It is yet another area that eludes me. Even though they don’t have time to go too deeply into with me it’s enough to know that it’s cool to watch. They are clearly consummate pros and know their stuff. As a note: my guest blogger from the other day, best friend to bride Maryann and our lovely wedding planner aboard this trip, Ms. Katherine Rose, works in this section.
So you got three ROV techs in a van a couple decks below running the ROV and winch, a couple techs recording the video as directed on stage right, a navigation guy at stage left advising the ROV team along with the man in front who ramrods the whole bunch. They are on the stage and they should be, because the video that is coming up is über cool.
Ah man, here I am at my 1,500 word self imposed daily goal and I STILL have not talked about what its like to sit and watch this video. Now I’m wondering if I should. A stingy man, a man who wanted to make everyone pay to see what he has earned by sweat equity, would make you go to the nearest IMAX in a year or so and part with a little of your dough-re-mi to watch the show. I guess I am not that man… I will talk about what its like. But not today. (I know, what an ass…oh well, I’ve heard THAT before).
Actually I have both my girls on the surface right now after a couple fairly hairy boat recoveries and there is such a perfect opportunity to get some sleep before midnight I just cannot pass it up. We’re taking a little weather this evening and the ship has suspended small boat operations; the girls won’t go back to work again until tomorrow so, what can I tell ya, at heart I am a lazy man who cannot pass up a nap. Here’s a couple pics to tide you over.
Nighty night from Expedition Titanic.