Bowhead Whale Appreciation


A bowhead whale calf weighs about a ton at birth.

Bowhead whales are one of Alaska’s iconic animals. Giants of the Arctic, they live their entire lives in the coldest waters of the Northern hemisphere; they don’t migrate to warmer Southern oceans like their cousins the grey whale or humpbacks.

They are also at the center of the culture of the Inupiaq people of the North who have hunted bowheads for thousands of years. Generations of these whalers have watched the whales pass by their shores. This traditional knowledge has aided scientists as they strive to understand the role of bowhead whales in the changing Arctic ecosystem.

An Inupiaq hunter scans the horizon for whales in a still from the museum’s animated film “Arctic Currents.” Artwork by Hannah Foss

An Inupiaq hunter scans the horizon for whales in a still from the museum’s animated film “Arctic Currents.”

Bowhead whales are huge. The largest adults weigh as much as 100 tons (about 12 elephants) and can measure more than 60 feet in length. They are thought to be the longest living mammal on earth. Harpoon tips from the 1800s have been found in their skin, suggesting they can live around 200 years.

Unlike other whales, they do not have dorsal fins on their backs. They do have gigantic heads – which make up a third of their body length – and use them to break through thick ice. Like other marine mammals, bowheads do not have gills and must breathe air to survive.

The University of Alaska Museum of the North cares for a wide variety of objects relating to bowhead whales, from preserved bones and baleen to objects made from these materials, such as masks, baskets and scrimshaw carvings. There are paintings and drawings depicting the history of whaling in Alaska on display throughout the galleries.

And the museum has preserved specimens of bowhead foods, like tiny krill, which help in comparing the size of the food to the size of the whale.

Museum educator Gabrielle Vance said kids are curious about bowhead whales and really identify with them. At the Fairbanks premiere of the museum’s animated film “Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale,” she overheard one young viewer whispering, “I wish I was a whale!”

That kind of curiosity is a natural incentive to connect bowhead whales to larger topics, like science, culture and even art.

The museum’s education team displayed a table of specimens and artifacts at the event, including a whale vertebra spanning almost three feet. Comparing that to a bone from other, land-based Alaska mammals, like a tiny vole or even a human vertebra, shows how unique bowhead whales are.

“When people see a piece of baleen and the objects made out of the material, like a baleen basket or a whale bone mask, it helps them look at a whale not only as an awesome mammal but also as part of a more complex system,” said Maïté Agopian, the museum’s public programs coordinator. “It helps them make a connection between the animal and its cultural uses.”

Asking kids to look at the objects and figure out the part of the whale these objects are made out of can lead to better understanding of a wide variety of subjects. Looking at the color and the material leads to questions about the structure of the bone (science) or the weaving process (culture and art).

“Using objects and comparisons are strong tools that trigger interest and comprehension of the world in a connected way,” Agopian said. “That’s what museums do: use objects to share and learn about the science, culture and art of Alaska.”

Parents can help kids learn about bowhead migration and behavior by watching the museum’s film online. They can also visit the special exhibit “Arctic Odyssey: Voyages of the R/V Sikuliaq,” which looks at all the ways oceanography fuels Arctic exploration.

fdnm plates_11

A krill in a still from the museum’s animated film, “Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale.”

Or they can try making a food chain at home. Start with a series of nesting cylinders representing bowhead whales, krill and phytoplankton. Make your own paper tubes or repurpose kitchen containers to create a set. Parents and kids can also look at maps together and compare the locations of Alaska coastal villages with bowhead whale migration routes.

Museum educators have observed how powerful the connection with bowhead whales can be for even the youngest of us. At a program offered recently at the Noel Wien Public Library featuring the “Arctic Currents” film, Vance met a budding young scientist. “He came up to me after the film to show me the three pages of notes he took.”

Theresa Bakker is the manager of Marketing and Communication at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Contact her by phone at 474-6941 or by email at

Now showing!

The UA Museum of the North digital media team behind the film: (from left) Hannah Foss, animator/modeler, Roger Topp, head of production, and Kelsey Gobroski, digital media producer.

The UA Museum of the North digital media team: (from left) Hannah Foss, modeler/animator, Roger Topp, head of production, and Kelsey Gobroski, digital media producer.

After all the planning, hundreds of hours spent imagining whales as characters with distinctive markings and personalities, working with film narrators and scientists and observers, after the coordination of funders and experts and community members, the months of rendering on computers tucked away in offices, Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale is ready for the big screen.

This 25-minute film tells the story of the annual migration of bowhead whales. The species spends its life searching for food among the ice floes of Arctic waters. They are elusive and yet are a major influence on the culture of the Inupiat and Yupik people. Bowhead whales live a long time, as many as 120 years and perhaps much longer. The film explores the life cycle of bowhead whales, their diet and survival strategies. And all in beautiful, full color animations that bring to life the crisp environments of Northern Alaska.

The film takes its narrative and title from the 2013 calendar edited by University of Alaska Fairbanks oceanographer Steve Okkonen, a teaching tool designed to portray the science and natural history of bowhead whales. The museum made the film using scientific data, photographs for inspiration, and lots of creative license.

Narration is presented in English, Inupiat, and St. Lawrenece Island Yupik. The film will also be available for download and as a DVD.

UA Museum of the North Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production Roger Topp

UA Museum of the North Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production Roger Topp

At a recent screening at the UA Museum of the North, the museum’s head of exhibits and digital media production, Roger Topp, thanked the talented team behind the film. But the list went far beyond the audio and visual producers. It included community members, scientists, teachers, and wildlife experts, along with the agencies who funded the project.

Arctic Currents credits:

Narrated by Chris Koonooka, Fannie Akpik, and Pausauraq Jana Harcharek
Writer/Director: Roger Topp
Producer: Steve Okkonen
Animation and Modeling: Hannah Foss
Sound Recording: Kelsey Gobroski

Special thanks to all the whale experts, scientific advisors, administrative staff, and partnering organizations.

Billy Adams, Phil Alatalo, Carin Ashjian, Mark Baumgartner, Uma Bhatt, Eugene Brower, Harry Brower Jr., Bob Campbell, John Citta, Jaclyn Clement-Kinney, Oliver Dammann, Seth Danielson, Jeff Denton, Hannah Foss, Craig George, Rofl Gradinger, Taqulik Hepa, Lara Horstmann, Bill Kopplin, Sam Laney, Wieslaw Maslowski, Vera Metcalf, Julie Mocklin, Sue Moore, Leslie Pierce, Ruth Post, Rachael Potter, Steve Okkonen, Lori Quakenbush, Dave Ramey, Bobby Sarren, Gay Sheffield, Kate Stafford, Susan Sugai, Robert Suydam, Hikaru Uesugi.

North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Barrow Whaling Captains Association, UA Museum of the North Mammals Collection, Idaho Visualization Laboratories, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Arctic Currents: A Year in the Life of the Bowhead Whale is funded by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Cooperative Institute for Alaska Research, the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Project funding is administered by the University of Alaska Coastal Marine Institute.

Museum Educator Gabrielle Vance (left) and Public Programs Coordinator Maïté Agopian show off bowhead whale specimens and artifacts from the museum's collections.

Museum Educator Gabrielle Vance (left) and Public Programs Coordinator Maïté Agopian show off bowhead whale specimens and artifacts from the museum’s collections.

The film has already been well received. The museum’s premiere event was standing room only. Another 60 people attended a program produced by the museum’s education department at the Noel Wien Public Library in Fairbanks. Arctic Currents will be a valuable resource for the museum, as well as schools, museums, libraries, and other learning institutions worldwide.

Visit the museum’s YouTube channel to stream all three versions of the film. Or check out the museum’s website for additional viewing options.

Media coverage:


–Theresa Bakker (Marketing & Communications)

The Voices of “Arctic Currents”

Beneath the surface, Arctic Currents is a story about more than bowhead whales and Arctic marine ecosystems. It is a film about working together.

What we know about bowheads comes from thousands of years of traditional knowledge and decades of collaboration between researchers and subsistence hunters. We want our story to reflect everyone involved.

One key to this collaboration is language. Eleven villages in Alaska harvest whales for subsistence. Of those, nine speak Inupiaq and two speak St. Lawrence Island Yupik. English is also common, but the rich cultural understanding of the bowhead has been passed between generations through Alaska Native languages.

We needed translators who were not only willing to work through a 25-minute script, but also review the film, offer suggestions, and narrate. The search was on.

St. Lawrence Island Yupik

bowhead_1080p.mp4.Still002Gambell and Savoonga are on St. Lawrence Island, west of mainland Alaska, in the Bering Sea. St. Lawrence Island Yupik hunters harvest bowhead whales that migrate near the island in the spring and fall.

In winter the snowy island blends in with the surrounding sea ice.

In winter the snowy island blends in with the surrounding sea ice.

I’ve never been to St. Lawrence Island, and neither has anyone on our production team. I went downstairs to check in with Ethnology & History Senior Collections Manager Angela Linn. She knew just the person.

Angela took Central Yup’ik language classes with Chris Petuwaq Koonooka in the late 90s. Eventually, he worked on the Native Advisory Committee for her master’s project.

“When I learned about your project, I thought he’d be an ideal fit. And he has a beautiful voice to boot,” she wrote.


Chris Koonooka

Chris teaches technology and St. Lawrence Island Yupik to students in middle and high school in Gambell. He has a bachelor’s degree in Yupik and Eskimo studies from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Now, he teaches students at Gambell School to embrace their Yupik heritage through his language classes and traditional storytelling.

chris3 edit“I was always impressed with his knowledge about SLI culture and language, even as such a young man. Over the years he’s been really helpful in helping me ID artists of objects in our collections,” Angela wrote.

Chris spent part of his summer translating our script and making suggestions. When it came time to record, he ventured on a long, nine-hour journey from Gambell to Nome to Anchorage to Fairbanks.

I learned quickly how good a storyteller Chris is.

Chris Koonooka used the portable sound booth our museum production team built last year.

Chris Koonooka used the portable sound booth our museum production team built last year.

A script with many unfamiliar words – copepod, telemetry, hydrophone – can fall flat without the right narrators. Usually when voice coaching, I’m imagining a particular character or cadence. With Arctic Currents, we wanted our translators to bring their own voices to the project. Chris and I discovered the English script came to life when he integrated what he’d learned from telling stories in Yupik.

Meanwhile, two educators in Barrow were translating the same script into Iñupiaq.


bowhead_1080p.mp4.Still003Flying into Barrow in October, I could see the land was white but the sea ice had not yet set in.

I came to see Pausauraq Jana Harcharek and Fannie Akpik, two instructors who are well known in their community. They work at the North Slope Borough School District Iñupiaq Education Department.

When Hannah Foss visited Barrow in Spring of 2014, she described the film to Department of Wildlife Management officemates Qaiyaan Harcharek and Andrew VonDuyke. Qaiyaan brought Hannah to meet his mother, Jana, and Fannie. Hannah found out they were open to translating the film into Iñupiaq. Even better, the school district had a recording studio. Seven months later, I landed in Barrow with a couple bags of audio equipment.

Fannie Akpik

Fannie Akpik

Coordinator of Curriculum & Instruction Linda Frame brought me to see Fannie.

This is Fannie. She will invite you to travel with her to see the goings on around town. She will tell stories about her family at lunchtime. She let me flip through the just-published “Iñupiatun Uqaluit Taniktun Sivuniŋit/Iñupiaq to English Dictionary.”

Fannie read the English script in just a day and a half. In the final film, her soft voice balances Chris’s deep bass tones.

Jana Harcharek

Jana Harcharek

I happened to arrive during a very busy week in Barrow. While I worked with Fannie, Jana stole away to read the Iñupiaq script for me. In a single day she went through 10 pages of script and wrapped up the translation.

“I woke up this morning with a mission,” she said.

After the day shift, I swung by Sam & Lees for dinner and then trudged back through the blowing snow to the elementary-school-turned-administration building, which was also my home. I wound through back halls to itinerant housing, and started on the night shift: editing. As the final readings of English and Iñupiaq began to take shape, I reflected on what I’d learned.

photo(6)Directing and voice coaching is a delicate process. Films that inspire us often have a familiar narration style. When we calibrate our ears to what we’re used to hearing, audiences miss out on learning about the many methods of storytelling there are in this world.

You’ll rarely hear the Barrow dialect or the Gambell dialect in a feature film, but Chris and Fannie delivered the English versions of the script powerfully.

The story has a lot of science, and bringing life to unfamiliar scientific terms is no easy feat. The script needed their voices.

Their expertise, their familiarity with their culture, and their strong voices are ways to connect a film produced far away in Fairbanks back to these communities. If they read the script how I would have read it, that connection would have been lost.

Chris, Fannie, and Jana were all very gracious with my suggestions, but often practice was all it took. I learned the best way to direct was to help actors become familiar with the script and then back off and let their personality shine as they spoke in their own ways.

photo 2

photo 5P.S. Having finished early, I had the time to pay a visit to the ARF (Arctic Research Facility), the bunkhouse, and it was clear Hannah had been by recently. She leaves no whiteboard untouched.

Thanks to Chris Koonooka, Jana Harcharek, Fannie Akpik, Linda Frame, Dave Ramey, and many others.

Stay tuned for more adventures as the film tours Alaska this winter, prior to being released in January.

–Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)

Life at the ARF

In an effort to continue research and development on the film, UAMN Production Modeler and Animator Hannah Foss traveled to Barrow to observe firsthand the striking weather, environs and atmosphere. In addition to sharing our film clips with scientists and artists and whalers for critique and feedback, Hannah collected accounts of encounters with bowheads, gaining a better understanding for the deeply engrained culture surrounding the beautifully mysterious Aġviq.


Barrow, AK:

A few miles out of town, down a bumpy road hugging the ice-bound shore lies the ARF. Nestled amongst weather-beaten stations and pallets of snowy equipment, the ARF station sits squat and steadfast.

The ARF, or Arctic Research Facility brims with character and tangible history. Animal Research started in the building in the 1940’s – 50’s, but the term ‘ARF’ was not properly in use until the 60’s. The living-quarters extensions (kitchen, bunks, etc) were built in the mid 70’s.

Evidence of its dedicated years of service are found everywhere. Sun-bleached newspaper clippings cling next to printed pictures of researchers busy in the field. Ice-trail maps of years past are tacked next to a panorama of an open arctic shore, with a palm tree comically pasted on. Well-worn novels rest on shelves with boxes of puzzles and odd parts, whilst in the hallway hangs a cabinet of carefully preserved curiosities. Down the end of a long hallway flanked with rooms of steel-frame bunkbeds, curves a prep-area filled with supply-coolers for the research runs and jars of ponderous specimens and metal instruments.


For days the ARF has been reminding me of something, but only today did I figure out what. In the movie AVATAR, after the sergeant shuts down the main science facility the rebellious scientists hijack a helicoptor and fly out to a remote research facility- an old sturdy connex high on a mountainside. The place is a little dusty and weather worn, but even with periods of little activity, everything runs reliably.

That is the feeling I get from the ARF- a time-tested, wonderfully useful feeling. You can sense and see evidence of the years of researchers who have lived in and passed through this place- their photos, business cards, sketches and articles are taped all over the place.  Their experiences and efforts and research have built the character of this place, from the ramble-stocked pantries to eclectic mementos left on various shelves.


The day starts at 7-8 am, with muffled footsteps on the linoleum hallway floor and the percolating gurgle of the industrious little coffee pot. Because the ARF is accessible by the public, pyjama-wearing is essentially restricted to your bedroom, which is separated from the main hall by sliding wooden doors. It is usually a good idea to get changed into warm adventure-ready clothes first thing- thermal top, shirt and thick jumper, jeans and warm woolen socks. Bunny boots, freezer pants, and an off-white parka are hung in the hallway along with your personal gloves, hat, and balaclava. Expeditions can materialize in a matter of minutes, so being ready for departure is a must. For this reason showers are usually taken in the evening, when things settle down for the night. Between the expeditions, there is time to reflect.

Travel and observation is crucial to be faithful to the portayal of the bowhead, its people, and their home. This is the closest I can come to walking in a bowhead’s metaphorical shoes — to feel and breathe and see the power that nature so freely wields. There is an enduring sense of awe and impressiveness in the elements that is truly humbling. A strength, calm, and resilience in the Inupiat people’s approach to living in the powerful unpredictability of their climate and home. I would never have learnt or felt any of this by sitting in an office chair in interior Alaska. This is why study and observation is as crucial to animation as it is to any other medium or profession.


The food situation at the ARF is a mixture of personal and communal- personal favorite food items range from peanuts, muesli, seaweed, dried apricots, halibut and pop tarts. Most special food items are brought in personal luggage because they are prohibitively expensive to buy at the AC in Barrow, due to being transported in by air freight. I found a 2L bottle of orange juice on half-price sale for only $6! The communal food is a culinary culmination of many years of foraging and storing. From boxes of jello and ramen, to crates of creamer and leaf spinach, to odd specialty items like powdered wasabi, mate´ hot chocolate and pico limon (Mexican spicy seasoning for fruit).

The caretakers of the ARF are Dave and Bobby- jovial folk that are ready to help you at the drop of a hat. You can usually find Dave hunkered over an ATV, snow machine or truck; he is the quintessential handyman, keeping the ARF and its equipment running smoothly.  Bobby is always up for an expedition or errand run, whether by snow machine or truck.


There are a couple of major rules at the ARF: clean up after yourself, take short showers (water is very expensive) and don’t wander off base alone. When you are not out in the field or at the wildlife wing of NARL, you usually spend your time in the communal kitchen working on your laptop, which means in respects to myself; animating Bowhead shots for the film and writing outlines for this blog. Another work-roost is in the office on the work-computer (it has working Ethernet!!) Wifi at the ARF is evasive at best, and mythical at worst.


Craig, Kate and Dave preparing for an expedition on the sea ice.

There is a phenomena here known as ‘Barrow-time’- (a feature shared by smaller towns and villages around the world), where time is not often counted by numbers, but more by the markers: ‘this morning’ ‘lunchtime’ ‘after lunchtime’ and ‘this evening’.  Completely in contrast with this, exciting things will often happen at right now, a time punctuated with a flurry of glove-grabbing and coat-zipping. The waiting time contrasted with the sudden rush to action adds excitement to the place- you might be out scoping the coastal ice situation, or sitting working on your laptop, when suddenly someone shows up proposing an expedition to the open lead.


You can keep your fancy hotels with pointed toilet paper and fresh-fluffed sheets- I much prefer the friendly, gritty, character-filled halls of the ARF- weather-beaten but tough and sturdy- inviting to all those invested in the Arctic and its wildlife.

Post script: I violated my own rule and tried to have a shower in the morning. There was a brisk knock on the door: “Get dressed and grab your coat, there’s a polar bear! We’re leaving to go see!”

IMG_1964copysmall IMG_1980copysmallAnd that’s why you shower at night.


“Good Morning, Good Morning.”


Hannah Foss, UAMN Production modeler and animator is in Barrow this week sharing our film clips with scientists and artists and whalers in Barrow, and working with them to figure out what we’ve not yet captured in the film. 


VHF radios can be heard all over Barrow. They are kept on all day and night, and the intermittent broadcasts of folks up and down the coast gives a comforting sense of community and togetherness. Their friendly voices greet the morning, afternoon, evening and night, always twinned. Sometimes people broadcast Eskimo donuts for sale. Sometimes a son will radio his dad on the ice to say ‘I love you’ and ‘goodnight’. Sometimes the messages are a puzzling combination of Inupiaq and English.

Usually the transmissions involve rescue bases checking in with whaling camps, or whaling-crew contacting families for supplies or information. It is really awesome to be tuned in to the lives and goings-on of people around you, though they may be sight unseen. It makes the howling winds and cold temperatures seem much more acceptable.


Snow machining out to the open water of the lead is an adventure in itself. Once you’ve skirted the shore-side road, you dive down into a deeply-grooved trail that runs the perimeter of the coastal land. From this snow machine ring-road, trails branch off straight down onto the ice itself, with tracks spidering off into the distance.  Following your trusty guide, you traverse the sometimes flat, sometimes bumpy, more often dramatically ridged sea ice trails, eyes always on the lookout for returning whaling crews, ice cracks and hungry polar bears.

20140427_171318_HDRFresh Polar Bear tracks, complete with claw marks and fur scuffs.

Once you have been driving for a good few minutes out on the sea ice, the landscape transforms into a mixture of the baffling and the awe-inspiring. To describe it as ‘alien’ seems trivial- the sheer scope and breadth of the horizon is incredible… a white expanse pocked with crumpled ridges, shelves, and jumble ice. The exposed belly of the ice formations glows a deep rich blue against the brilliant white.


After a timeless period of rodeo on sea ice, bouncing and ducking and gliding and roaring across, you reach a clearing of snow, trampled flat. Here we meet with our Whaling Captain-friend Billy and his crew, stationed behind a windbreak of caribou and seal furs, drinking coffee in ponderous silence. The threshold between sea ice and open ocean feels like a portal to another dimension, where the white snow-ice crumbles into stone-grey ice, lapped by the bitter cold water.


The otherworldly quality of the lead’s edge is accentuated by a phenomena called qisuk, or water-sky. The white fog-cloud that hangs low over the ocean reflects the dark Arctic waters, hueing its underside a dark purple-blue.


As we talk with the crew I notice a ringed seal silently pop its head out of the water. It bobs on the waves for half a minute, heavily blinking dewy-wet eyes, before quietly slipping back into the water without a trace. Curious little guy. I am about to turn around, when there he was again. This time he kicks his way upward so that his entire upper torso sticks out of the water, watching us. As I turn to view him better, he pops down again out of sight.


This morning Kate, Bobby and I headed into town early, braving the blisteringly cold howling winds and stinging snow. Visibility was whittled down to pitiful distances by the driving snow that leapt across the coastal road. Cars and trucks flashed out of the white haze, and the road was lost underneath aggressive drifts of snow and sand. I stopped off at the Inupiat Heritage Centre, eager to speak to Inupiaq artists and see the huge hanging bowhead model.


Shortly after paying for my ticket and hanging up my coat, several women came hurrying from a honey-wooded corridor to speak to the front-desk lady. ‘The ice is breaking!’ ‘Nunavuq!’ ‘Big water right in front!’ were several phrases I manage to snatch from the worried discussion, followed by, ‘We’re going to go make sure the crew is ok.’ I realized with horror that the rumors of coastal ice-cracks widening over the past few days have been true. At this stage however, I didn’t realise how dramatic the break had been. This sort of ice-shelf break is abnormal and rare.


I learned later that the dramatic storms during the night had caused the entire ice shelf to break off from land at 10:30 am, carrying one of the whaling crews with it. Over the next nine tense hours, rescue crews and locals kept in radio contact with the stranded members, updating coordinates every half hour, waiting for the howling winds and fierce, driving snow to die down. It is thought that the crew floated seven miles out to sea, travelling South-West at about 1.1 miles per hour.


(A rare sight in Winter- a view of the ocean from land)

Between well-coordinated helicopter and boat support, the crew and their equipment were rescued and returned to land safely by 8:30 pm. What I found most endearing was the huge community support, joking around, offering help, and checking in.

‘Don’t worry, when we work together everything works out for every one of us.’

“You’ll be ok, we always help each other out.”

‘God-bless the winds for dying down.’

‘Good luck and safe return to the crew.’

The radio thrummed with comforting voices.

Listening to the Whaling Station strained your heart, worrying for the endangered crew, but warming it with the welling of community support and mass rescue efforts.

A close community is a powerful thing.


Instagram Saves Everything

This has nothing to do with Instagram. The statement, “Instagram Saves Everything” is a patent lie. It has actually been proven through science that Instagram does not actually exist in the real world. We use it here simply because the traditional phrase, “fix it in post,” now seems increasingly antiquated given everything here begins and ends with the computer. One of our favorite pieces of animation software actually comes with a filter called Lens Cap. It does exactly what you think it does. A sense of humor is a good thing. Now where’s the Make Awesome button.

We return to the conversation in progress, Kelsey trying desperately to moderate.

fig21Kelsey Gobroski: What are each of your favorite parts of the project to work on?

Roger Topp: Ice edges for you, Hannah?

fig01Hannah Foss: Ah yeah, I love ice edges. Like that is the best. We started working on ice edges for the sim, and then Roger’s like, ‘just kidding I want to do the whole Earth.”

R: Slight scope revision there on what the camera was going to see, in terms of —

fig06aH: That was a fun –

R: The looks Hannah’s throwing me right now are —

H: He should be bursting into flames.

R: We should get these on camera.

H: I love you man, it’s OK.

R: So what part do you like though, because I know that was not the best thing the last couple of weeks to work on?

H: It’s relaxing, it’s like ocean waves. It’s like a no brainer. Well I don’t know, there’s something very therapeutic about clone stamping ice together.

R: After rigging 96 controls on a copepod just sitting down in front of Photoshop and just clone stamping ice is relaxing.

H: I think rigging and realizing rigging problems too late is — most of my anger goes toward rigging. Because with rigging you have to be on yourself to be conscientious about a lot of steps going up to it and if you get anything wrong and you have to go back to it, then you have to go back this many steps, like if you don’t zero out rotations, if you forget to turn your joint orientation, all that stuff adds up to pain later on.

R: Nightmares.

K: This took about a minute before it went on from thing I like best to thing I hate the most.

R: There’s not a thing we’re doing on this project or indeed most of our projects where we aren’t pushing some envelope, right, and so what happens is no matter what part of the project it is, there’s a technical challenge to be met. A mental challenge to be met. Once you finally solve that, it’s wonderful stuff, but copepods right now, the challenge is still there. It’s not yet solved how we’re going to get this copepod rigged well, looking right, swimming right, that’s  something that we’re still looking on. The krill! Hah! Happy about the krill, krill was awesome.

H: I think my favorite shots were the ones I know will look epic when they’re rendered out.

R: So what are the favorite things you’ve worked on?

H: I know lots of animators hate swim cycles or walking cycles, but I find something very therapeutic about getting cycles to look right because the payoff is huge when you can use bits of it later on, and other bits and pieces, that you have something that’s really polished and nice. But I love doing shots that will look really cool, like the tail shot when it’s done right, that will look really nice, like when I finish animating it right and pass it off to you, and getting to see what it looks like –

R: When it’s rendered.

H: (whispering) When it’s rendered.

R: I’m a big fan of simulations. And when they work, oh yeah, they’re great. And when they don’t work –behind me is a computer slaving away at a certain water simulation that it has been slaving away for a while now, trying to just get it right. And once we get it right, once we solve the problems with it, it will be used again and again over the next couple of months to produce wonderful stuff. But it’s still tricky trying to get it to work. It’s always the latest thing that’s my favorite, and right now it’s swarming krill. Tens of thousands of krill swarming and they look like they’re a unit. They look like they’re animals behaving in concert with one another. Reacting with each other, reacting with what’s around them.  We pushed a whale through the krill this morning –

H: You didn’t.

fig18R: — to see if they would disperse properly.

H: You didn’t tell me.

R: They did.

H:  Oh my goodness.

R: Yes.

fig14cH: Did the whale eat any of them or did they all survive?

R: No, the whale, it was just — the whale was a ball.

H: What!

R: The whale will be added –

fig11aH: It was just a butterball.

R: The ball was pushed through a cloud of 20,000 krill.

H: So everyone that’s listening, the whale is a lie. It’s a ball.

R: It’s a ball.

H: Wow.

R: Well we will get the actual whale in there and it will do the same thing.

H: (sighs) How could you do this to me, Roger?

R: Yeah. That was fun.

H: So all the krill survived, none were lost to the ball?

R:  None are destroyed as the whale moves through. That’s right, we cheated.

H: None were lost to ballistics?

(A moment of silence, then all three erupt into laughter)

H: One might say!

R: I can’t, I can’t follow her sometimes. What is she saying, Kelsey? Could you just translate?

H: One might say the krill were having a ball. What’s your worst, what do you not like the least, Roger?

fig03R: The thing I find I’m the least happy with at the moment is finding when you have different kinds of shots in a film, I mean we have a lot of whales in water, go figure, then we also have some rather technical shots that we need to get into the film, things like spectrograms, things like cladogram for the whale, parts of the whale, that kind of stuff. And making that fit with the more photorealistic stuff is more difficult to do. It’s not like ‘oh, that part of the film is cheap and easy.’ It’s actually more difficult because you need to do those kinds of technical details while fitting it in. And we’ve talked about things like the stroke recording and that —

H: —that was really cool.

R: Yeah, and by itself, I think it’s pretty cool. But it’s one of those little hassles, difficulties, nightmares, I’m just sitting there thinking ‘it’s got to be more than that. We’ve got to make it fit and not just leave it to the editor, Kelsey, to make it look seamless. There’s another step in between, that’s something that I’m trying to find time for.

K: Just turn the brightness and contrast way up and it’ll look amazing.

H: Whee!

R: Just bloom it!

H: Just put an Instagram filter on it! Instagram saves everything.

K: How do you plan out shots? I’m thinking specifically longer swimming shots. How do you plan them out to meet the needs of both the narrative, to fit within the time, and for scientific accuracy?

R: Yeah well there’s a script, and the script is calling for certain types of shots that seem appropriate to that part of the script. But when, let’s say you select a shot, like we have a reveal at some point, where Mysti will reveal the baby.

H: Aww, the little baby.

R: Name’s Ghost, right, when we reveal the baby whale, the narrative calls for it. And so there’s a time allowed for it. We’ve done scratch recordings of the narration even though we haven’t put the actual voice talent on tape yet, we know roughly it takes this many seconds. And so we can make an adjustment saying let’s make sure all our shots are 10 percent longer than they’re required, the narration itself might be a little longer than that, you say, instead of being a 15 second shot, you fill 20 seconds of it. So now you kind of have a range. But then you get these wonderful animations and you’re like, woah, it could be 30 seconds, and you sit there and go, well there’s problem with 30 seconds, because, that’s time, that’s computer time. You’re not going to use all 30 seconds, but how many choices do we want to give the editor later, extra footage. And when you shoot video, you shoot tons of extra footage without burning too much daylight, but in the computer it’s a week’s worth of work sometimes for the computer to spit out an extra five seconds.

ghostReveal_0333And so the project moves forward, five seconds by five seconds, which translates to weeks of painting, animating and rendering. By the time it gets to me, Kelsey, the editor, I will have my filters at the ready.

–Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)

–Hannah Foss (UAMN Modeler/Animator)

–Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)

Krill, Kittens, and Many Hats


Our bowhead sequences are multiplying. Every day there’s more a sense of story, and we better understand how the film is going to come together. It’s time to take a step back from the lights and the water and the whale scars.

I’m Kelsey, the museum’s digital media producer. I’ll edit the animated Arctic Currents as anyone would edit live action footage into a cohesive film. When Roger and Hannah have the rendered shots just the way they want them, they’ll kick them over to me and I’ll stitch them together over the voices and music and sound effects, making sure everything flows.

We’re nearly three quarters of the way through this project. More and more is happening each week and soon I’ll be thrown into the thick of it as well. During a quieter afternoon than most, Hannah, Roger, and I took a step back from our individual minutia and tried to think about the whole film, how far it has come and how far we have to go.

production panorama
Roger: A whole blog on how to work with 20-year-olds.

Hannah: ‘You’re not my mom!’ ‘Go to your room!’

R: Actually, 20-somethings.

H: Why is it difficult working with 20-year-olds? I thought we were youthful.

R: I was 27 when I started working here.

H: But why, what’s bad about working with me?

R: I have no idea, we’ll find out. The year is young.

H: You made it sound like it was already an arduous chore.

R: It has its moments.

Our cast of creators, left to right: Head of Production Roger Topp, Modeler/Animator Hannah Foss, Digital Media Producer Kelsey Gobroski.

Our cast of creators, left to right: Head of Production Roger Topp, Modeler/Animator Hannah Foss, Digital Media Producer Kelsey Gobroski.

Kelsey: So getting into this project, what were your thoughts, wishes, and hopes?

R: Apart from the ‘Hell yeah, that sounds awesome?’ We’ve done a lot of animation over the last decade for lots of projects but they’ve all been small amounts of animation stuck in where appropriate. Nothing threaded together where it becomes the main visual mode. I was very excited from the beginning at the idea of doing a project that was 100 percent animated, take all that we’ve learned in the last decade and put it on the table. What about you, Hannah?

H: I didn’t know it was all – I thought there was going to be some live action in there.

R: Did you?

H: Yeah I thought there were going to be some shots of people on the shore –

R: No we’re going to animate those, too.

H: Oh please don’t do that to m—

R: Yeah.

H: Wait, serious?

R: Yes. But it won’t be 3D animated.

H: (Giving Roger quite the pointed look) I’m judging you right now.

R: It’d be 2D animation.

H: You didn’t tell me about that.

K: So no talking heads?

R: No talking heads. No live action in the final frame.

H: It sounded like a big project when you talked about it last year when you said okay, we’re almost done with voles, now let’s go on to the bowhead project. And you were talking about all the stuff to be done and the krill and the copepods and modeling, there’d be ice, and in the back of my head, I’m like ‘I hope Roger knows what technical level I’m at, that I’m not some super duper wizard that sits at home and programs.’

R: We started writing it last summer. Hannah was with us as a student at the time, doing some work for the hibernation exhibit.

(That exhibit had a first-person explorer game where you could play a vole in winter – running around, getting food, evading moose feet.)

R: In terms of putting together a team, the production unit here is five members tall, and not everyone is currently working on this film because we have so many projects, so it’s a very small team.

proud hannah

H: Currently? Arctic Current-ly?

R: Yeah…

H: Sorry. I’m the derailer.

K: How do you account for the fact that you’re working on a pretty small animation team?

R: Hey, maybe it’s a small team but it’s better than one person. It’s always important to have your playwright, your director, and your actors be different people. I think it’s great to have different people’s visions and skill sets merge and cross over. There’s a certain amount of compromise that comes when you have a project like this, and compromise is a good thing. You get a better product. I’d like to get a bigger team down the road. Right now I’m very thankful for having the people we do have. We made a big jump this last year with new staff and I hope I see it grow from there.

K: Even though there’s delineation in having more than one person work on it, there’s still a lot of one person having to wear a lot of hats, do a lot of jobs. Do you want to talk about that?

R: Anyone who works on the team needs to have a skill set that covers a broad range. I like to say that in the department we have three writers, we have at least two animators, we have at least three illustrators, we have multiple people in the fabrication shop, we have two people trained in design. It sounds like a big team but I’m talking about the same five people.

K: So, how do you feel now that we’re most of the way through the calendar?

(Hannah and Roger laugh, a bit panicked)


K: Since you were saying it’s a two year project from start to finish and we’re—

R: Yeah, this is what always happens. You start slow and things accelerate and you hope you have the time in that last quarter to make up the point differential. We’d love to have more time, but the way these projects work is if you give yourself six more months, or another year, you fill it, you get lazy. The good thing is you have a firm deadline and you work as hard as you can towards it.

H: Fear is a good motivator.

K: So, how about you, Hannah? On that note.

R: She just found out we’re going to have to worry about people, so.

H: Right. Cool.

R: Yeah, she’s cool with it.

H: Quiet panic? Yeah, quiet panic.

R: That’s a good way of doing it.

H: You know, the Titanic’s in your head going “aaaaaah!” all the people are running around. But you’re the iceberg on the surface. It’s very poetic.

K: Between your thoughts and hopes and wishes from the beginning to how you feel now, how do you stay motivated and on task?

H: Kittens.

(There are times when only YouTube cat and goat gifs calm the storm for Hannah and me. Roger, somehow, finds solace in more work. Or, rather, seeing what our machines can churn out after much tinkering.)  

When the project gets her down, Hannah draws something great that creates more hype (and then, by extension, more work).up to.

One of several promotional posters Hannah drew to find inspiration and take her mind off the pains of animation.

R: You put an awful lot of time in on some parts of the project and nothing seems to happen for a while and it gets a little demoralizing. I was showing you the shot of the krill, it’s slowly rendering on a machine in the other room and it’s gorgeous. You see that and say ‘I don’t care that it’s going to take the computer a month to produce a second worth of this shot.’ You see a glimmer there that the product, when you’re done, is going to have this wonderful look to it. The work you put in, the time it takes, the stress of the calendar, all of that settles a bit when you see what the final product can look like.

H: I think looking at other people’s final products and being inspired by what they can create and you realize how much time they put in and the number of times they probably freaked out, and also seeing the things that [Roger] puts on Dropbox, like rendered passes, it makes me feel a lot happier. Because when you’re working on a big, personal project, if you stop working for a day, nothing gets done. There’s no, ‘Oh wow, someone’s worked on it.’ But you can leave for the weekend, you’ve had something rendering, you come in and think, ‘Hey, present.’

R: It’s interesting because everyone inside the production unit here at the museum is an artist. And so we’re all very familiar with working in our home offices and studios or wood shops and creating things and knowing what it’s like to sort of toil away for ourselves — and then you come into this environment where you know other people are working on the same project.

H: It’s nice. And you’re held accountable, too. This way you know you have to get stuff to people and it encourages you to be like, ah, hey, if I don’t get this done, then – hey, this is familiar.


R: Roger gets mad?

H: Well no, you send like a polite email like, ‘Hey Hannah, how’s that stuff coming along?’ ‘It’s going. It’s going.’

R: ‘You’ll get it by Friday.’

H: ‘It’s great.’ It’s like Grandma. ‘You haven’t written in a while!’ ‘Sorry, Grandma, I’ll send you cookies! I’ll send you a picture!’

R: ‘Here’s some krill.’

H: Yep. That’s what all grandmas want. Krill.

We’re growing quite proud of our recipe for krill here – no, not to be eaten! Our recipe, that is, to create krill. And more krill. By the hundreds of thousands. Now our animation team, holding hands up to their heads to steady their many hats, will get back to work on that great task. For Grandma.

To be continued…

–Kelsey Gobroski (UAMN Digital Media Producer)

How to Train Your Ocean

twinOtterSunset_0140Once upon a time I was an oceanographer, and many mist-shrouded years before that I had some fragmentary dream of designing ships for a living. I thought of it as something called hydrodynamic engineering. Now I know it’s called marine architecture. Needless to say I moved on from these dreams onto others, better and cooler and dryer. But imagine my joy when the UAMN production unit found itself working (or was it pushed, maybe, at least in part by myself) on both an animated film about bowhead whale migration and on an exhibit about the UAF-managed and newly being-constructed research vessel, Sikuliaq. And then, this last summer, I had the good fortune of joining our Earth Sciences team for a week on the Yukon River in search of dinosaur tracks. AND THEN, this week it snowed and melted and there were puddles in the road.

But forget the puddles. Forget the dinosaurs; that was time on the river, with cameras, powering downstream for 500 miles — looking at water. A lot of our endeavors seem to concern water these days. THIS YEAR seems to be all about water. Let’s not even get into the soon to be advertised Polar Voices project. There’s lots of water and coastlines in that one too. Check back soon for a blog very close to this one.

But this one is all about computer generated water, and we’ve looked at our rendered water critically for more than 6 months now and still, continually find things to nit-pick (at least I do). But here is where the Yukon River comes in: looking at the very real water on the river – and looking very critically at that very natural effort, I found flaws there too, especially in the raft’s wake and in some of the turbulence behind the outboard motors when coupled with the river chop. Sometimes it did not seem as realistic as it should have been, given it really was quite wet and quite cold. Seriously. Sometimes, you stare at something for too long.

Is there a lesson to take from this? Yes, I think we’ve achieved some darned good water for this show. About time.

A couple years ago we invested in some robust fluid simulation software for the animated rendering of tundra ponds for a museum film about the collections in the museum galleries (it’s a long story. About half an hour).  This year, we updated the software to handle the  projects at hand. What’s good for the pond is good for the ocean – WITH UPGRADES.

Whether our film camera is below the water, looking at an angle near the water surface, looking down from thousands of feet in the air or even hundreds of miles out from satellite, or seeing a strip of water wedged between great sheets of Arctic pack ice — OCEAN appears in more than 90% of shots in our little film about whales. Each and every one of these perspectives requires something very different from the fluid simulator.

Not nearly as sublime as floating the Yukon, most of our simulated water begins as as infinitely thin sheet in the shape of a square. A “square” skin of water such as shown below is constructed of between 1 and 5 million triangles, is fully animated according to the laws of fluid dynamics, and can be reconfigured for any windspeed, the presence of whitecaps, etc…


The square of water shown above is also only 100m wide, and while it is significantly larger than a bowhead whale, it is also quite inadequate when it comes to filming said whale. When filming arthropods and zooplankton, the camera depth of field and “fogginess” of the under-water ensures we never see as far as 50 meters in any direction (and usually much less), but when when we film a whale moving through and on the surface of the ocean, it runs out of surface width very quickly. Luckily we are far from the first production crew to run into such problems. The above ocean square is also very thoughtfully designed to be perfectly, infinitely tileable. Swim off one edge and you instantly appear on the opposite edge and never know the difference. Computers do INSTANTLY very well. Taking the subtle magic of computer processing even further, we can duplicate our already rather detailed square and extend it out to something closer to 2 kilometers square. Wash, rinse, and repeat.


We wouldn’t want the computer to actually think about all those triangular faces we’ve just asked it to think about (as much as 2.2 billion). As far as the machine is concerned, there is still only the original square at the center of the instanced array, with its modest several million triangles. Technically, the method is called INSTANCING and it is a lot more efficient on computer RAM than the, in this case, 441x horrific alternative. This is all the computer need worry about even though the end result is so much more.


Of course, there are caveats. We would never want our camera frame to reveal a perspective such as this…


…where the repeated squares are obvious and artificial. For such a shot we would need to simulate a different square of greater scale and less resolution. Let’s face it, there are only 2.3 million pixels in the film’s final image. It is only moving animals and an animated camera that require more. But for a shot like this…


…with a quickly moving object and camera, variances in lighting and an ocean surface changing over time, it is very difficult to see the instanced nature of the squares, even though the repetition is “visible” in this scene. Even in the “obvious”array render above, we can see that the offending pattern is  broken up best where the sunlight hits the water.


For Arctic Currents, we have pre-simulated half a dozen water “squares” of varying scales and sea heights. The higher seas are used for open water shots and the more subtle skins for where the water exists between ice floes and in leads. We will likely simulate another half dozen for specific before the project is through.

A simulated ocean square requires about 30-60GB of drive space to store for later use, and about 2-3GB of ready RAM overhead to load and apply to an animated scene. Very manageable compared to the FOLLOWING and far more complicated ocean simulation.

What happens when a whale breaks the surface? This isn’t something we can simply instance across a wider ocean like we can do for wind-driven waves. A whale’s wake will not tile realistically. In this case, we need to extend the simulated ocean to a point where sleight-of-hand with cameras can hide EDGES. It’s horrible even to think of it, the ocean having EDGES, but these are the times in which we live.

More on these tiny nightmares later, but to tease, what better way to “hide” the EDGE of the ocean but to make an edge, an ice edge. Here, one of our whales is making waves in a lead between two big sheets of ice. To save drive space, memory, and calculation time, we make the ocean relatively shallow (only a few meters). Trust that the water ends abruptly just to the left and right of the frame; the full lead width is about 100 meters. The simulator is very accomodating. We can dial up the resolution as far as our tricked-out machines can handle — about 30 million calculated particles. It takes about a week to run through the various levels of watery domain from the core fluid to the splashes, waterline details, foam, and even mist, when and where they are needed. The real sticking point is the drive space. A 30-second simulation, calculated and data stored for subsequent in-scene rendering, requires something just over a 1000GB. Okay, I’ll say it. It takes a TERABYTE. Hmmm. Yes, more on this later.

It is very pretty though, and really, it would take about the same to simulate a rafting adventure on the Yukon, or even a puddle in the middle of a road — because we’d want the camera to come a lot closer, naturally, and NEED a fair amount better resolution — right up until the computers throw up their hands. Magically, right about THERE is where things begin to look about right, unless we train our eyes on it too long.

frame_00382 frame_00427 frame_00535 frame_00659

I’ve always liked water, even if it doesn’t always look right. Don’t let the math fool you. It can do strange stuff. It’s a character all its own.

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)

Render Time


The summer is coming to a close and with the coming of fall, the museum will be filled with school children as much as world travelers. We settle in for winter, and how we think of time and audiences shifts significantly. We stack our project wish-lists and wonder what we can achieve before November? What can we achieve before the new year? The task list that comprises any one project is extensive and often daunting. The UAMN Exhibits and Digital Media Production team is currently working on two major film pieces and half a dozen minor ones, four exhibits, and many smaller remediation and improvement projects in the museum’s galleries, public spaces, and behind the scenes.

Arctic Currents is scheduled for release in late spring, 2014, and while we are continuing to model and animate and program shots, edit vocalized drafts of the script and refine the ideas for shots still on the concept list, we are running completed shots out to the rendering machines.

There are two kinds of Time in animation, personnel time, which is a well-described, sometimes civil animal often handled best with chair in one hand and key-lime pie in the other — and render time, which is both calculated and fickle.

An animated shot is ready for rendering once the models are molded and positioned, the cameras and lights are placed and tuned, the effects such as fog and depth of field and motion blur are set, simple objects are replaced with complex ones, instances are ramped up, the pre-drawn imagery is imported and mapped, the scripts are written and loaded, and the quality levels are compromised. Then a computer stuffed with RAM, more than a little bit of power, and lot of time to spare is told to draw pictures as fast as it can.


We’ve put a lot of work into making computers very fast, and so the drawing happens at a frightening speed. UAMN Production runs  i7 machines sporting 16 or 32GB RAM, 8 cores, and a few Terabytes of hard-drive space each. Not too shabby.

This image of our twin otter in flight at a finished pixel resolution 2160×1080, better than so-called “Full HD”, takes one machine 3 seconds to draw from scratch, not including the clouds and the airplane detailing, which while also from scratch were pre-drawn and imported into the shot to same time.


Not bad, but note the image (click to see details) is a little rough around the edges with aliasing, also known as the jaggies. The single rendering pass takes the model literally and paints the pixels crudely. This also results in the body speckling. The computer isn’t paying enough attention to quality. No matter. This is easy to fix. We’ll have the machine run 5 passes instead of one. Because the computer is programmed to do this efficiently, it doesn’t take 5 times as long, but understands which parts of the image require refining. Now the draw time is 10 seconds, and all the edges are smooth and polished to an acceptable degree.


Funny thing about surfaces in the real world. Every single one of them is in some part reflective, and this reflectivity increases inversely with the angle of the surface viewed. It is greater for glossy objects and less for matte surfaces. Our twin otter has several coats of gloss paint, and it would be nice to see it reflective, so we’re compelled to add this to the render engine – not to mention, for the first time we might see the ocean over which the plane is flying, reflected in parts of the surface. This scene chews up 4.5GB of RAM while rendering, and much of that is owed to the ocean below. The updated render takes 24 seconds to draw.


The ocean is barely visible in the reflection in this image (visible mostly in the far wing), but it becomes more apparent throughout the shot. The reflection of the detailing is clearly visible on the rear stabilizer.

Another less apparent effect in this shot, but important through much of the film, is limited depth of field (DOF). We all know the difficulties with getting photographs properly in focus, what with low light and camera shake. Computers have the opposite problem. Every pixel is in perfect focus – unless we do something about it – and we want to do something about it. Depth of field gives our minds subtle cues about the size of objects and the distances between objects in 3D space. Without DOF in cinema filmography, we could not have lived without 3D glasses for so long. So that we do not reintroduce problems with aliasing when we start computing for depth of field, we have to increase the number of anti-aliasing passes again – now to 9 passes or so (or so, because we actually specify a range of passes which the computer adaptively selects based on circumstances). The draw time is now a whopping 35 seconds for the image.


But now things begin to get serious. A photographer with a high speed camera might very well capture this image of the twin otter cruising along at 100 knots with its props spinning at some 2000 rpm. That’s a fast shutter to capture the props so clearly, freezing time so perfectly. Too perfectly. A video camera would never give us such a crisp image; we need to add motion blur to the shot. This will give a better feel that the plane and the camera are in motion and that the props are indeed spinning. Most of the shots in AC can get away with 3-5 motion blur passes, but for the props, we need something upwards of 11 to get the render to properly blur them in all their high-speed glory. The draw time is now 3 minutes, but these props are worth it. Hannah put that that detailing into the props. Thanks Hannah.


And we’re not done yet. Basic animated scenes in the computer employ cameras and lights, but in the real world, what is a light really? The sun? A bulb? An LED? The great blue dome that we call the sky? If you don’t believe the sky is a light, look at your shadow on a clear summer’s day. What color is it?  But the real world is even more complicated than that. In the real world, EVERYTHING is a light. Best example is perhaps right at your desk. Find a colored Post-it. Hold it close to a sheet of white paper. You just made a light, and it’s illuminating the paper, not very strong and very localized. Again, the computer doesn’t think that parts of the twin otter are light reflectors unless we tell it to do so, and it’s a very complicated process, requiring all sorts of programming cheats to make the effect remotely doable before the turn of the next decade. It is usually referred to as global illumination (GI), and it is basically the principle that any object in the scene acts as a weak reflector or light source that bounces and recolors incoming light rays. In some shots it is critical. In this shot, it is merely highly valuable, brightening the twin otter against the background clouds. It makes sure no shadow are completely black and gives objects better definition in the creases where less light penetrates.

Hello there. Now the image takes 7 minutes to render.


And that’s all we’re going to force the rendering computer to do on this shot. There are ways to optimize time on the render, but that’s a trade-off between render time and personnel time. We could ramp up quality of the antialiasing or the motion blur passes to very high values, ray-trace a more accurate shadows, and certainly give CPU a headache calculating a more perfect global illumination solution, but this will do it for us… because, this is 7 minutes for a single image/frame. We’re making a movie. The movie plays back at 24 frames per second, which for a 5 second shot of the twin otter (120 frames), now takes our rendering machine almost 14 hours.

Not bad. These computers are fast, even imagining everything we’re throwing at them. A job like this could be given to any of our machines to do overnight. Arctic Currents is more than 20 minutes long though, so we had better get started a month ago. If all the shots were this complicated to draw, and we only had the one machine, it would need 140 days (4.6 months) to draw the film.

Many shots are a lot more complicated. Exhibit this example…

We have a basic shot of Baelin, our senior whale, cruising under the ice. There are bits in the water. There is a near-field “fog” caused by the severity at which water filters out light from the sun and sky, and there is water and ice and a cool looking whale with the custom scarring of a 100 years of life spent under the ice.

Render time: 2:20


We add the anti-aliasing passes (Click image to see details).

Render time: 3:47


We add the ray-traced reflections and refractions crucial to rendering the caustic effects of ice and water.

Render time: 8:34


We add the limited depth of field necessarily to establish depth and take the close “bits in the water” out of focus so they add to the atmosphere without distracting from the whale.

Render time: 8:34 (Unchanged because our AA is already high enough to compensate)


The whale and the camera are moving at a brisk pace compared to the ice and the “bits in the water.” We add motion blur, but only 3 passes this time as the camera movement is much slower than the twin otter propellers.

Render time: 24:34


And we’re good… except for the little issue of our water object (pre-simulated over about 6 hours) not knowing that it’s supposed to stop where the ice begins and ends. All the ice appears as if it is floating above the water. To solve this without needing to simulate the water and ice together (Witness that expensive beast known as personnel time), we render the scene three times, once like we have done, once without the water, and once as a series of matte images that will tell our compositor where to draw the water in the final composited (combined) image.

Render Time: 24:34 (for full image)

Render Time: 17:51 (for waterless image)

Render Time: 1:49    (for matte layer)

Total: approximately 44 minutes.


Mix and combine. Add salt and pepper to taste.


A five second sequence would take 89 hours to render. Sounds a like a job for the Labor Day weekend, but since we want at least 15 seconds of this shot, better budget the better part of a week (not all the shot reveals the ice and will need the extra layers). Regardless, this is why we have 3 machines that can render frames 24/7 and up to 3 more staff desktops that can be leveraged for nights, weekends, and holidays. Spring will be here before they know it.

– Roger Topp (UAMN Head of Exhibits and Digital Media Production)

Seven Shades of Grey


Well, a lot has happened since our last post!

Firstly, we were lucky enough to meet with North Slope Borough Department of
Wildlife Management Senior Wildlife Biologist Ph.D. John C. ‘Craig’ George, who is wise in the ways of the Bowhead. We discussed everything from Bowhead tongues to scarring patterns to mating behaviors to baby butterball whales.


Feedback on our whales included creating paler shading on the upper and lower palates, and switching out the tongue texture from a Gray Whale to a Bowhead Whale (Craig kindly shared a gorgeous tongue photo).


This diagram was sent to our marine biologist consultants to address other unknowns, like marking sizes on the chin and eyes, and where exactly a Bowhead’s genital markings should be painted (a subject that had me confused for days).


After a nice period of time, a few minor revisions and a lot of layering in photoshop, here is Mysti in all her glory. (The texture/colour map has 92 active layers in total, added to the bump map which has 43, equals a lot of RAM but an infinitely customizable Bowhead texture package).

What is a bump map you may ask?


This is what a bump map does (set to extreme levels, mind). It’s like a topographic map that coordinates with the colour map (refer to the clown whale post if you haven’t read it already).

It is basically a simplified, greyscale version of the color map, where white raises and black depresses areas of the texture too detailed to effectively model with polygons and splines. In this way we can create scratches and bumps and wrinkles without spending tedious hours modelling them into the actual model shape (saves a lot of time and effort). It’s like playing shadow puppets, except in a computer.

7-11CHIN It lets you create chin scratches…


…baleen with visual depth and body…

7-11fluketail …and bitten and beaten up tail flukes.


Here is Finnegan with the bump map applied.


Here is Finnegan without the bump map. As you can see, it adds a depth and realism that really helps make the whale feel like a living, breathing, scratched-up animal. The skin of the animal is just as smooth in both pictures, but the bump map fools the lighting into creating shadows and breaking up specular highlights.


Now, onto our main broadcast, and the topic of this blog.



Imperative to creating a recognizable and engaging cast of whales is making each whale individual and thus unique. Otherwise samey small whale is just interacting with samey big whale, in a sea of samey clone whales doing samey things. To keep them straight, we’ve named the whales. From left to right there’s Ghost (white and black phases), Mysti, Finn, Finnegan, Fluke and Baelin.


Mysti the mum whale with yearling Ghost (black and baby Ghost (white). Ghost’s baby and  yearling sizes have not been finalized/scaled at this point. A yearling Bowhead is usually about twice the length of a newborn.


The polyandrous group- Baelin (m), Fluke (m), Finnegan (m), Finn (m) and Mysti (f). Bowhead whales are quickly becoming my favorite creatures, because they are incredibly peaceful animals. They do not retaliate when attacked, but will simply swim at high speed to ice cover. They do not aggressively compete for a female either. In mating season, Bowhead males calmly cohabit with the female and share their time with her, allowing the sperm to determine the progenitor.

‘Ghost’ (White) Baby Bowhead

Bowhead whales are born very pale and very chubby, rather like oversized butterballs with flukes.

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‘Ghost’ (Black) Yearling Bowhead

By the time they reach a year old, Bowheads have entered their dark skin phase, usually with chin markings starting to emerge.


‘Mysti’ Matriarch Bowhead

Bowhead females peak in growth faster than their male counterparts, and often dwarf their male companions.



Female Bowheads have a distinctive butterfly genital marking- the two dots demarcate where the nipples are tucked away in the blubber, to protect from the cold waters.


Mysti bears some nasty rope entanglement scars on her tail. Sadly, many real whales (Bowheads and others) have been seen with such scars.

7-12Mysti3 ‘Finn’  the Grey

Finn is an older male with fading skin and some nasty scars.


Note the walrus-tusk scars and the larger white eye-patches.

7-12Finn4The age of a Bowhead can be gathered by the abundance of white on their tail flukes, rather like grey hair. In comparison, younger Bowheads will display little to no white phasing (see Ghost and Fluke).


The triangular genital marking of the male bowhead is visible here, though more immediately noticeable on Finnegan and Fluke.

7-12Finn2‘Finnegan’  the Blue

Finnegan is the middle-aged male of the group, with a recognizable blue tinge to his skin.


Each whale has a unique white chin and chin-spot pattern.

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He bears the mark of a boat propeller on his side, tough man.

‘Fluke’ the Young Guy

Fluke is the youngest of the breeding males, with very little scarification or white phasing on his tail. His eye spots are still quite dark, as Bowheads will not display fully-developed eye spots until they are 20 years old.


Chin patches and spots are a privilege, not a right. Not all Bowheads will develop chin spots in their lifetimes, and some whales will not develop the characteristic white chin patches either.

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Old Man ‘Baelin’

Baelin is the ancient whale of the group, based on an actual Bowhead thought to be over 200 years old. Extremely old whales can exhibit white phasing extending onto the caudal peduncle (upper tail). Their eye spots are also larger, and their pectoral fins exhibit more wear and tear, as well as whitening.

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5-10% of Bowhead whales have speckled bellies. It is not yet known whether this is due to cross-breeding with Southern Right Whales or if it is a genetic throwback sneakily coding for speckled bellies in certain individuals.


The concentrated scarring present on the rostrum (bony nose hump in front of the blowholes) is caused by the action of pushing up and breaking ice sheets to create breathing holes.


Now, I’m curious, who is *your* favorite whale?
– Hannah Foss (Project Lead Animator)