Art Beat: Bears in the UAA planetarium, Object Runway, Jack London

mdunham@adn.comJanuary 10, 2014 

If you're among the disappointed thousands who have applied for but never been picked for one of the coveted slots to view bears at the McNeil River State Bear Sanctuary, have a seat -- a seat in the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater in the Conoco Phillips Integrated Science Building. A documentary about the bears and the sanctuary debuts there on Jan. 17 and the 360-degree view of the scene promises to give viewers a good taste of what it's like.

Filmed this past summer, "River of Bears" is the first planetarium show to be produced by UAA. It's also the first "live-action, immersive full-dome wildlife documentary" ever, said professor Travis Rector, who served as the producer for the show.

"Four years ago, my wife and I went out to McNeil River through the lottery," he said. "It was about the same time that our planetarium was opening and we were thinking about what might make good shows. McNeil was one of the most interesting places I've ever been -- the world's largest congregation of bears."

As a professor of physics and astronomy, Rector wasn't looking at filmmaking as a career, so he teamed up with Tribeca award-winning documentarian Jonathan VanBallenberghe, a former Alaskan whose previous work included "In the Company of Moose," shot in Denali National Park. Rector supplied technical advice required for the planetarium format and Paola Banchero from the university's Department of Journalism and Public Communications provided audio and video equipment.

The film is the result of timing and luck, Rector said. "The technology has really come on just in the last year or so." Key to the filming was a special 360-degree camera able to shoot in six directions at once. Computer software meshes the images and morphs them so they can be projected onto the inverted bowl shape of the planetarium dome. A remote-controlled "quadcopter" -- sort of a hovering drone -- was used for aerial shots.

The result is "an immersive video that gives you the sensation of being there," said Rector. "Since many people can't get to McNeil, this is a wonderful opportunity to see what it's like."

Some may not want to see what it's like. Speaking for myself, when I spot any kind of bear, walking in the Chugach or wherever, even at a good distance, my inclination is to go the other way. The idea of being surrounded by a hundred or so of the bruins, some a few feet away, may not be something one wants to experience even via cinema.

That's the way most people feel when they arrive for their visits to McNeil, Rector said. "But after a few days, that changes," he assured me.

The narrative in the film stresses that the success of McNeil visits (no nasty bear incidents since the program began in 1967) has more to do with careful people management than with wildlife management. Because only a small number of viewers are present at a time, stay in a tight group, move slowly and behave the same way year after year, the bears have become habituated. Not habituated in the bad way, like learning to feast from garbage cans, Rector said, but in the sense that they come to accept people as part of the landscape and take no further interest in the predictable, nonthreatening and (I'm told) foul-tasting observers.

Nonetheless, experts interviewed in the film stress that the situation is very different at McNeil than with a random bear encounter elsewhere in Alaska. In other words, don't try this at home.

The half-hour show uses a mix of still and moving images, some surrounding the dome while key shots are presented front and center as screen inserts. At the upcoming shows, VanBallenberghe and sanctuary guide Tom Griffin will follow the screening with an in-person talk about the bears.

The first public showings of "River of Bears," 6:30 and 8 p.m. on Jan. 17, have already sold out, though a few no-show seats may become available. Additional shows are planned for 6:30 and 8 p.m. Jan. 18 with more to follow as demand dictates. It will show at the UAA Planetarium through the spring, and then move to the Thomas Planetarium at the Anchorage Museum for the summer.

Object Runway sells out

The fifth installment of Object Runway, the International Gallery of Contemporary Art's annual show of fashions that border on impracticality, scheduled for Jan. 23 at Bear Tooth Theatrepub & Grill, sold out last week eight hours after tickets went on sale. The good news is that the wearable art presented at the runway show will be displayed at the gallery, 427 D St., in February and, unlike the Bear Tooth adults-only event, all ages are allowed to take a look there.

Fairbanks show ends

Art Expo, a long-running showcase for Alaska artists, is being discontinued according to an email from the Fairbanks Arts Association.

The Expo began in 2000 and was "intended to be an extra selling opportunity for local artists, at a time when few opportunities existed," wrote Fairbanks Arts Association executive director June Rogers. For the first three years, the local Chamber of Commerce, working with the association, hosted the event. After that the association took over full responsibilities.

Times have changed, Rogers noted. There are now more "selling opportunities for artists. With more First Fridays and Bazaars than one can attend, the Monday Market and artist opportunities at the Morris Thompson Center -- among others -- we now find that it's time to recognize that Art Expo is not pivotal to the success of local artists."

Instead, the association is "channeling the energy and resources" of the show in new directions. "For starters, we are preparing artist workshops with the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and are looking into the possibilities of online promotions," Rogers said.

Remembering Jack London

Jan. 12, 1876, saw the birth of the most famous author ever associated with Alaska -- albeit briefly and in passing -- John Griffith Chaney. He later changed his name. Fans (and there must be a bunch of you; The Associated Press says he is still the most widely translated American writer, 98 years after his death) are invited to cut out the poem below and use it "To Build a Fire" in his memory.

Today is the birthday of author Jack London,

Whose lifelong wild callings were fraught and abundan'.

He dabbled in piracy, hoboed the rails,

Studied at Berkeley, spent time in jails.

He hied to the Yukon to find Klondike gold,

But only discovered that Canada's cold.

So back home to Frisco he shipped once again,

Hung up his parka and picked up a pen.

He hoped to write novels that critics called super,

The equal of Hawthorne or Fenimore Cooper.

Reviewers declared, when they took a first look,

"Jack London's concocted a dog of a book."

Adventuresome readers devoured his tight language

And sagas of blizzardly dread,

And schoolboys still yearn, their blood stirred by white fangage,

To frostbite their toes on a sled.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.


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