Cranes in Motion

Animating an Ancient Skeleton, Interacting with a Contemporary Species

With the help of the IRC and a UMBC Special Research Assistantship/Initiative Support grant, Associate Professor of Visual Arts Cathy Cook completed Phase 1 of her Cranes in Motion project, a multifaceted, multimedia portrayal of the natural history of the oldest living species of birds. Over 2013-2014, Cathy conducted extensive documentary research, filming thousands of cranes in migration at their “refueling stops” in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Maryland, capturing their calls, mating dances, migration patterns, nesting, and other activities in high-definition video and surround sound. Animation major Deborah Firestone combined this documentary footage with digital reconstructions she modeled from a skeletal crane (supplied by the Field Museum of Natural History) and images of a 12-million-year-old crane fossil to create a short animation in which the ancient skeleton comes to life, stands, walks, takes to the air, and transforms into a contemporary living crane in flight.

To animate the crane to perform the motions Cathy researched and outlined, Deborah learned the configuration of its bones by studying photographs of the fossil and reassembling the skeleton, both physically and virtually, using Maya software. This careful process of building a digital model, rigging it for movement, and coding the desired sequence of moves took over a year. The in-progress animation, titled Prehistoric Resurrection, debuted in September 2014 at Temporary Resurfacing, an outdoor multi-projection video event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was projected, along with video works by 20 other artists, on building exteriors and in-store windows along four blocks of a downtown commercial street. Several other short videos, inspired by crane-related folklore, poems, and fossils, and combining animated and live-action material, are in development and will be completed over the coming months.

With an IRC Summer Faculty Research Fellowship, Phase 2 is in development. IRC Programming Intern, Boris Boiko was brought on board to develop an interactive application using Kinect software to allow viewers to control an animated crane, dancing with the onscreen bird. A finished multi-media installation of video, photographs, sound recordings, and interactive animations is scheduled for Spring 2016 at VisArts in Rockville, MD. Ultimately, Cathy aspires to create an experience that will help connect humans to cranes at a time when their environments are threatened, creating a greater understanding and empathy for the complex ecological issues surrounding this ancient species.

Production Notes

Collaborators: Cathy Cook, Associate Professor of Visual Arts, and Paul Dickinson, sound artist
Undergraduate Intern: Deborah Firestone
Undergraduate Programmer: Boris Boiko
IRC Technical Director – Animation: Ryan Zuber
IRC Technical Director – Programming: Mark Jarzynski