3D in the 21st Century. Holography Artist Ikuo Nakamura on "Aurora Borealis"

The artist and filmmaker explains the tremendous difficulties that had to be surmounted to create his 3D film.
Ikuo Nakamura

Aurora Borealis

My recent films are 3D images of nature and people in the environment.  There is no narrative or no scripted work along with 3D images.  I may call my films visual essays or poems.

My approach to 3D films is to visualize and experience actual existences substances that are real in normally impossible ways without using any CG.

I am originally a Holography artist.  Holography is a totally different medium, and has different vocabulary.  It invades our space yet co-exists.  It creates an illusion and that is why holography is so special.  But very few holography works are taken seriously by the world of art.  I am afraid that 3D films might have similar fate.  Amusement park-type 3D effects are still wanted by many.

By contributing part of the technical side of my work, I hope you find my aesthetic intention.  I also hope that by sharing technical methods I used 3D films will be elevated to a different layer above the ones you see at amusement parks or science museums. 

Shooting Aurora in 3D was really tough and a technical breakthrough was the must.  Mr. James Pugsley, Aurora expert at Astronomy North, says that many have tried to shoot the Aurora in 3D, but not many succeeded.  As far as James knows, there are stereoscopic still pictures of Aurora and a very few 3D movies for scientific research facilities only.  My Aurora in 3D was not created for scientific purposes.  It was created with an aesthetic intention by the artist who is a holographer, a sculptor of light.  A stereographer I met at a stereoscopic convention told me that my Aurora 3D was the holy grail and a shot from god’s point of view.  He asked me how I managed to make such an impossible dream come true.

It wasn’t easy to make the impossible possible.

I had two cameras 5 - 10 kilometers apart requiring specific alignment and synchronization in a -30 to -40 °C environment.  Please picture a huge person with eyes separated by 10 km.  His two eyes are my two cameras.  His face can be 4 times taller than Mt. Everest (altitude 8,848 m).  He cannot breathe the air even when he sits. 

I started researching telescope alignment system using GPS and a star database.  I was also looking for a shutter release system with ultra-accurate atomic clock.  Alternatively a wireless shutter release system with a very long range could be used.  In order to protect cameras, lenses, and batteries, I would need a small clear dome to keep the surrounding air warm for the system to survive.  I would need at least two 4WD trucks specially modified for -40 °C arctic conditions, and at least one strong-willed assistant who was patient enough to stay in a -40 °C degree environment every night for five weeks. 

Although those were my original ideal plans, they did not materialize due to technical difficulties and financial deficiency.  So, I had to figure out realistic solutions to make it happen.

In January 2013, I made my first trip to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories in Canada.  Brutal coldness in Yellowknife is beyond comparison to Iceland, Finland or Alaska.  Its coldness, however, makes the sky clear in a wide area.  I chose Yellowknife also because of its flat environment.  The success rate of shooting near mountains or oceans is extremely low, but Yellowknife is located inland.  If there is a single cloud over one camera, any clips from that camera cannot be used as stereo pairs.  Yellowknife’s ice roads over frozen lakes are perfect for 3D shooting. 

Telescope alignment systems do exist, but they are very expensive and do not work in arctic environments well.  The electric system shuts down, electric wires are snapped, and fires start.  The gears stop functioning because oil turns into sticky candy.  No system works as expected.  Even LED displays on cameras stop working right away.  Once the cameras start, I cannot change their settings.  All I could do is to pray for the cameras to keep working.

I had to depend on my own eyes, a compass, and a star chart.  Actually, even the compass, which is filled with liquid, froze immediately, and the gap between the magnetic north and the geographic north is significant in the arctic field.  By the way, the iPhone compass was totally useless under -40 °C.

There was a snag.  I could not find a long-range wireless shutter system.  It had to be made to order or I had to build one myself.  Even though I have one, there is a good chance that it would stop working at the temperature of -40 °C.  In addition to that, no one was willing to help my shooting without getting paid.  So I decided to start two interval shutter trigger systems simultaneously.  I set up one camera at the first location.  At the same time, I started the second camera and hopped in a truck to drive 5 - 10 km to the second location.  While I drive from the first location to the second, the second camera kept shooting with its lens cap on, as two cameras need to be turned on absolutely at the same time.  Upon arrival at the second location, I set up the second camera.  

At the beginning, it took me more than 25 minutes to set up two cameras.  Once I got used to the procedure, I got better and I was able to minimize the whole setup time to 15 minutes. 

Both cameras were connected to heavy deep cycle batteries to be used for solar/wind generation. I taped a heater to the cameras and batteries, and covered them with a thermal insulated blanket.  That was the best I could do to protect my equipments as I could not afford an environment-controlling dome system.  I did invest and bought a heavy-duty jacket, pants, and boots intended for arctic conditions.  It was really challenging when I had to work over a frozen lake under -30 °C.  I made a lot of mistakes especially during the first week.  There were unexpected malfunctions due to cold temperature (including malfunctions of my motor skills and brain).  There were numerous trials and errors.  Frostbite was a serious danger.  I was not supposed to touch anything with my bare hands as everything including cameras and tripods were all frozen.  Car engines should be kept running.  Having a frozen engine in the middle of the arctic area would be nothing but a disaster.

Despite all of that, I managed to achieve what I wanted.  Time lapse photography by two still cameras was transformed into 3D film.  My previous 3D short film “Atmosphere” in 2013 includes some of those.  In 2014, I visited Yellowknife again.  This time, I brought highly sensitive 4K live recording cameras to capture real movement with me.  The footage, real-time 4K movie from my second trip to Yellowknife, is featured in this film “Aurora Borealis 3D.”

There are beautiful astro-photographies or 3D movies from the Hubble Telescope or other large telescopes.  Those artistically-rendered pictures are amazing.  However, a 3D depth has been added to each flat photography by CG artists.  We simply cannot see 3D that far in the distance, light-year-scale away.

Early in 2014, I had a chance to visit Atacama Desert (Northern Chile near the Bolivian border), the world driest highland where European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s ALMA (The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) sits.  A group of 66 radiotelescope dishes scan deep space over 5,000 m altitude, where oxygen tanks are always available to avoid high altitude sickness (yes, I needed an oxygen tank during my stay).  ALMA opened an entirely new “window” on the universe, allowing scientists to unravel longstanding astronomical mysteries in search of cosmic origins.

It is simply impossible to place two cameras light years apart in space where humans have never reached.  By setting two cameras 10 km apart, I can at least overlook the shores of the universe, where the Northern Lights dance, shooting stars fall, rocket debris drift, and space stations fly by, from a new 3D window.


Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Aurora Borealis plays on May 3 accompanying Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

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3D in the 21st CenturyIkuo NakamuraBAMNew York
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