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Museum of Science, Boston

Apache Tracking Exhibit

The story behind the exhibit Apache Tracking is long and complicated. I'll try to condense it down to a Reader's Digest length.

I believe the whole idea came from Maureen McConnell, an exhibit planner at the Museum. She was looking for a way to demonstrate how an Apache Tracker could read the impressions left by feet or hoofs in the ground. This is more than just identifying what kind of animal left the print. An experienced tracker could tell the size, health and even temperment of the animal. This is done by identifying pressure releases which leave a 3 dimensional mark in the ground. The idea for the exhibit was to have an animal's image projected down onto the ground so visitors could view exactly how the tracks were made. The ground, in this case, would also be an imprint of the actual footprints left behind.

Maureen and I worked for a couple of months on finding a technique to display this. We tried different types of material to capture the footprints and we even called the FBI for assistance. Another thing that I had to work on was figuring out how to videotape the animal from above so that its image could later be projected onto the tracks. I experimented with mirrors and rigging. Eventually we began to get a good idea of what it would take to accomplish what we set out to do.

We decided to bring onboard a materials expert. Because of his experience as a claymation artist, local animator Mark Frizzel, was asked to assist us. We told him what we had done and he went back to his studio and experimented with materials such as dental stone, algenate and cement. After viewing the results we all agreed that the best mix to use was compressed dry cement with just a bit of fine sand. We'd let the animal walk through this mixture dry, (washing the animal's feet off after it left the tracking box) then use spray bottles to gently atomize mists of water upon the cement's surface.

One of our main concerns throughout this process was the safety of whatever animal was asked to create our tracks. We were afraid that a small animal like a turtle or porcupine would somehow inhale or injest the dry cement. It was thought that a slightly larger animal would be just as easy to control and less likely to get hurt. We were just beginning to look at some options when Maureen got a call from a friend and was told that the Southwick Zoo had a young mountain lion staying there for a few weeks. Maureen got in touch with Betsy Brewer, the Director of the zoo, told her our story and before we knew it, we had a beautiful animal who would be the star of our show.

What follows is a bunch of photos that I took of the process of capturing the tracks of Katie the mountain lion. In mountain lion years she was a teenager, that means curious, energenic and beginning to feel independent. I didn't know what to expect at the shoot so with every conversation I had with my crew I kept reinterating that we'd be flying by the seat of our pants on this one. We went over all the possibilities and tried to prepare for anything. I'm glad we did because Katie gave us only one chance for a successful video. It was done in one take and I must tell you - it was like magic. The animal did exactly what we were hoping she'd do. If we had blocked out the moves for an actor, it couldn't have been better.

Everything worked out fine. Our only problem was keeping her away from the tracking box and getting her back into a cage. You've got to understand that she's, well, she's a mountain lion. And a frisky one at that. After stepping out of the tracking box she realized that she wasn't wearing her harness and she did not want to put it back on. It took some convincing on Becky's part to get Katie into a cage and the whole time I was afraid that the tracks were going to get damaged. In the process of getting a closer shot of Betsy putting Katie into the cage, our 2nd cameraman, Jack Celli, got nipped in the back by the lion. Nothing bad, of course, because Katie thought it was all in play but it's something Jack will remember for awhile.

Tracking box before dry sand and cement mixture was added.

Looking up at the camera position above the ceiling in the building's attic. We had visited the site a week before the shoot and realized we would need more height than the ceiling allowed. Because we had to have the entire tracking box in the shot, we'd have to shoot from above the ceiling.

Saturday, December 13, 1999. Andrea Durham, Mark Frizzel and Ray Marcett preparing cement and sand mixture.

Mark and Ray preparing the Tracking Box. The side curtain had just been added as a backdrop for camera 2 which will be shooting from the side. Because we didn't know what was going to happen we thought this camera angle might be a good extra shot to have. As it turned out, although it wasn't used in the exhibit, it was used as a teaching aid in the Museum's classrooms.

Mark beginning the atomizing process. We had to use great care to keep the mist of water even and consistent, no heavy drips would be allowed because it would damage the tracks.

Maureen working on tracks. It took a long time to get the required amount of water on and into the cement. Imagine filling a bathtub one tablespoon at a time, that's what it was like.

Mark, Ray and Maureen working on tracks. I had to return everyday for the next week and spray the tracks so that the concrete would set properly.

Tracking box with the alignment cover before being draped with plastic for the night. Our first shot before we brought the mountain lion in was of this homemade alignment grid. This was used later when we set up the projector and mirror within the exhibit. As it turned out, we didn't need it because the image was clear and easy to align with the tracks.

Moving Day! Tracking box being loaded onto truck for transport to Museum of Science. Again, we weren't sure how this was going to work out in the real world. In theory it looked fine, we had a responsible and professional artifact moving company doing the transporting. That was good. We just didn't know for sure if our eight foot long track sidewalk would be solid enough not to break. As it turned out it held together for the trip but it did develop a small crack while being handled at the museum. This was easily fixed.

Katie and Maureen hanging out after the shoot. Before I left the zoo for the day, I also went over and thanked Katie for her help. When she rolled over, leaned up against the cage and then let me pet her, I figured it was her way of saying "you're welcome".

Click the picture to start QuickTime movie - 1,593k

This is a QuickTime movie of both camera shots that Carl Piermarini put together for Maureen. Both views run in sync and show Katie's body and foot motion. Maureen uses this video while teaching classes in tracking. The lower half shows the overhead shot that is projected down onto the captured tracks within the exhibit.

This was only a small part of what it took to create the Apache Tracking unit. Decisions about mirrors, large-screen projectors, fiber optic lighting, exhibit lighting, recording a narrator and a drive to New Jersey for a video shoot of Tom Brown, Jr. at his tracker school was still left to be done. But in April of 2000 Apache Tracking was ready and opened as part of the Natural Mysteries Exhibit. Whew! Let me catch my breath.. O.K., what's next?!

To find out how you, too - can be part of the exciting world of museum exhibits, call The Museum of Science's Human Resource Department, NOW! Tell them, "Katie the Mountain Lion" sent ya!

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This page last modified on September 15, 2003