To Capture The Imagination: Sea Studios and the Visual Art of Biology

Sea Studios is a company of colorful distinctions. It is one of only a handful of video production companies nationwide that specialize in natural history. It is a visual arts organization that took twenty years to form. Even more unusual, though, it is the only video company in which all the artists are trained biologists. This mix of art, biology and video has led to some surprising exhibits for aquariums and museums, as well as several lines of popular retail video and photographic products.

Although Sea Studios was not a registered business entity until 1985, this company of strange coincidence actually began in the early 1970’s. Back then, Mark Shelley, Sea Studios’ current president and principal videographer, was a biology undergraduate at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station and two of his favorite professors, Dr. Robin Burnett and Charles Baxter, were exploring innovative ways to communicate the excitement and beauty of natural history. As Mark left for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Robin and Chuck continued to brainstorm, and in the late 1970’s with the help of other friends — natural history photographer Nancy Burnett and marine biologist Dr. Steven Webster — came up with the idea of developing an aquarium that specialized in the natural history of an oceanic ecosystem. Hence was born the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

During this time, Mark had left Woods Hole for New York City and began a career as a freelance filmmaker. For nine years, he worked on a variety of projects, including a documentary on India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and several National Geographic Society specials (“Dive to the Edge of Creation” and “Polar Bear Alert”). In 1983, the Hopkins crowd asked Mark to return to Monterey to work with the exhibit designers for the then-in-progress Aquarium. His return and interactions with Nancy, Robin, Chuck and Alexandra Edwards, another natural history photographer, resulted in the seven video exhibits on display at the Aquarium. Recognizing that they had hit on something special, Mark, Robin, Nancy, Alexandra and Chuck founded Sea Studios.

Their video productions at the Aquarium also gave these principals an opportunity to develop and express what has become a company philosophy: that biology and natural history are best communicated by integrating visual, audio and written media and that the aim of this communication should be both to motivate and teach people how to observe nature.

“We see our work as artists and educators,” says Mark Shelley. “We want to create beautiful and new images that capture the individual’s imagination. Then we want to give the individual the tools to answer the questions his imagination presents. We want to involve people in the science of ecology.”

Take, for example, their plankton video at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a whimsical study of phytoplankton and zooplankton, including the larval stages of crabs, sea urchins and various sea creatures. Choreographed to the music of Shadowfax of Windham Hill recording fame, the feature brings to life through video microscopy the beautiful and unusual world of plankton, something rarely seen but captivating and provocative. You need only stand by the exhibit a short time before you hear the ohs and ahs followed by myriad questions: what is that spinning, how big are these things, what is going on inside that.

In this instance, the technology behind the art is substantial. The plankton video was shot with a small Sony camera on both dissecting and compound microscopes. A tracking device was designed especially for following the plankton under the compound scope. In another case, to shoot intertidal animals at the macro level, tanks were made to recreate tidepools.

The other Aquarium displays capture the small and large of the ocean, from feeding and reproduction in the intertidal, to the seasons of the squid and the flukes and flippers of marine mammals. Those who have seen the exhibits — and there have been nearly eight million of them since the Aquarium opened — marvel at the interaction of the other worldly cast of characters and contemporary music.

In addition to video microscopy, Sea Studios developed other new video technologies during the two years of exhibit filming, including time-lapse capabilities for the Betacam. By letting the time-lapse run for twenty-four hours, the movements of animals were captured in a way that otherwise would be impossible to perceive — from an anemone dividing asexually to limpets grazing on a rock. Once the technique was perfected in the laboratory, the time-lapse equipment was moved to the field: to show the tide ebbing over a mudflat; to capture underwater the changing cast of animals over twenty-four hours; and to show the march of starfish feeding on a dead fish.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium videos were as much a challenge in developing techniques and equipment as they were in composing stories and images. In contrast, the twelve video programs Sea Studios produced last year for the California Academy of Sciences’ “Wild California” exhibit in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park presented more of a logistical challenge.

During the year-long shooting, Sea Studios made use of a mobile van and boat to film habitat scenes throughout California, from flocks of migratory geese at Tule Lake in the north, to ocotillo blooming in time lapse at Anza Borrego desert in southern California, to elephant seals giving birth on the Farallon Islands, to migratory deer in the high plains of California’s Great Basin. More than 25,000 miles were covered and more than forty hours of original Betacam footage was shot for the final twelve three-minute videos.

During the filming of “Wild California,” Sea Studios pioneered the use of a new video technology called video-boroscopy. Using a boroscope lens, originally designed for medical and industrial use, the company was able to film startling new views of some of the habitats. For example, the boroscope and its fiber optic light followed the motion of a frog from underwater, along the water-surface interface, to a position on top of the water. In another instance, a tadpole swam up to and kissed the boroscope lens, adding a wonderful new visual dimension to the entire exhibit.

Sea Studios edited all of the final exhibits for “Wild California” with their own on-line Betacam post-production facility. The studio itself, located on Monterey’s Cannery Row in a renovated cannery, is also a place of distinction, being one of the last remaining canneries on the Row. The facility is capable of generating graphics, chroma-keyed effects, slow-motion, time-lapse and other special effects, and has eight-track audio mixing capability.

“The challenge with this project was to integrate our videos with the dioramas that make up the exhibit,” explains Natasha Fraley, another Sea Studios biologist and filmmaker. “Our goal was to achieve a consistent format among the videos while telling a unique story for each habitat. Having only one year to shoot and edit twelve diverse habitats in four different seasons posed a special challenge for us.”

Telling the interesting stories of the planet with artistic grace and scientific integrity is what has set Sea Studios apart from other video production companies.

“The history of wildlife photography is rampant with examples of scientific deceit,” comments Shelley. “We have long been frustrated with filmmakers who highlight particular mammals and birds because they are cute or easily anthropomorphized, while missing the important stories of less photogenic and ostensibly less important critters and their role and place in the habitat.”

As Chuck Baxter blithely observes, “Ecosystems are like Coney Island. Some people look good in bathing suits, others don’t. But they all go in the water.”

Sea Studios latest production, “Requiem,” a multimedia three-screen video produced for the St. Louis Zoo’s Living World Exhibit, is a bit of a departure from the video exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the California Academy of Sciences. The eight minute video, which features Charles Kuralt as its commentator and is set to Mozart’s powerful “Requiem,” juxtaposes stunning natural history video and still images with dramatic news clips to emphasize the serious environmental threats to the planet.

“A requiem is a mass for the dead,” explained Shelley. “The St. Louis Zoo wanted to communicate the urgency of understanding and facing global environmental problems. It is not a pleasant message, but it is one that needs to be spread.”

Shelley added, “This work is about the invasion of the earth by one species — man — and how the Eden that was once this planet has been imperiled. It is about our loss of innocence and benignancy and the new realities that face us. Entering the twenty-first century, we must learn to view the earth as a whole and understand that it must be managed as such. We must also change our concept of wilderness — those quiet and unclaimed places in the world become exceedingly valuable as they become increasingly rare. The film challenges each of us to change our thinking and take responsibility for the future of the planet. It was a bold decision for the Zoo to let us make such a strong piece and to choose ‘Requiem’ as it musical theme.”

“Requiem was an exciting challenge,” Shelley observed. “Not only was it our first three-screen video production, but we were committed to meeting the Museum’s ambitious schedule. I am proud that Sea Studios was able to produce “Requiem” within their six week deadline.”

In addition to their video exhibits for zoos, aquariums and museums, Sea Studios is also developing natural history products for home entertainment and educational markets. Their underwater video, “The Worlds Below,” is a wondrous sixty-minute journey into the undersea worlds of California’s Central Coast. Six lyric compositions of images and music, transport the viewer from wave-swept rocks, across vast submerged plains, into the depths of the Monterey Canyon. The second half of the video is a narrated, information-rich tour of these worlds. The video is among The Nature Company’s top three best selling natural history videos.

As with Sea Studios’ other productions, the art of “The Worlds Below” belies technological innovation. To film ocean canyon environments as deep as 3000 feet, Sea Studios had a special housing for the Betacam camera designed and built. In filming the deep ocean sequences for “The Worlds Below,” the camera in housing was mounted on Deep Rover, a one-person submersible. The resulting footage is unique and spectacular.

Sea Studios is looking to the future with great expectations. Explains Michael DeLapa, who as director of marketing is the most recent addition to the Sea Studios team and, not surprisingly, also a Stanford biology graduate, “We have great expectations for the future. There is a strong yearning for honest and thoughtful natural history presentations, not just in public displays, but in the schools and for home use. We have assembled an exceptionally talented team of professionals to respond to this need. ”

DeLapa continues, “Moreover, we share a common philosophy and vision of the future: to produce the highest quality, most intelligent and honest natural history products possible. We want to make ecology interesting, fun and accessible. With the incredible technical and human resources at our disposal, I am confident Sea Studios will be at the forefront of the natural history visual arts movement.”

A lofty and distinctive goal, to integrate personal and business philosophies in the field of natural history. But, then, Sea Studios has been a company of distinctions.