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Blue Mountains museum using virtual reality to tell local history

Two new films premiering next month will give viewers a virtual reality experience at two historic sites in Craigleith.

There’s a new, fully-submerged and immersive way to tour the wreck of the Mary Ward at the bottom of Georgian Bay without getting wet. But you’ll still need goggles.

A new film commissioned by the Craigleith Heritage Depot, called Mary Ward, features virtual reality technology and footage shot on a 360 camera by a diver exploring the wreck to give audiences the closest thing to a first-hand experience they can get without a wetsuit.

Local filmmakers Tom and Tracey Strnad, owners of Mountain Goat Film Company, created the underwater film as well as another virtual reality (VR), 360 film called Pathway, which follows an Indigenous elder as she experiences the walk to the Village of Souls, a spiritual site, and home of the sacred rock Ekarenniondi, first inhabited by the Petun people in Craigleith.

Though the Strnads had worked with 360 cameras before, until their work on Pathway and Mary Ward, it had been experimental.

Tom does much of the camera work for Mountain Goat Films, and said working with a 360 camera for a VR film means there’s no way to hide.

“You see everything,” he said. “You can’t use lights, you have to use existing, practical light … essentially, you [the film crew] end up being in it.”

Tracey directed both films, and said it was a different experience from her past directing work.

“I had trouble wrapping my head around what the experience would be for the viewer,” she said.

Mary Ward features 360 footage from under the waters of Georgian Bay, all shot by a diver named Lee Munson. The filming was done “blind” meaning Tom and Tracey couldn’t see what Munson was shooting while they waited on the water’s surface in a boat. The Mary Ward was a steamship built in 1865 that hit a shoal called Milligan’s Reef off the coast of Craigleith in 1872 while carrying cargo and passengers to Collingwood. The ship was fully grounded, but its passengers decided to wait for help to come. Instead, a storm came and destroyed the boat entirely. Local fisherman managed to rescue 19 people from the ship. The Mary Ward film also includes some green screen effects using a model of the Mary Ward, which was created by Ian Bell based on the single existing photograph of the ship. In the film, the model of the Mary Ward is superimposed on Milligan’s Reef (now called Mary Ward Shoal) to show where the ship ran aground in 1972.

Pathway follows Strong White Buffalo Woman (Shirley John) of the Saugeen First Nation as she walks the path to a sacred site, a journey she was experiencing for the first time. The rock Ekarenniondi was believed to be the entrance to the after-life by Indigenous people who made a home in Craigleith, based on the research of archaeologist Charles Garrad, and supported by the ancestors of the original Petun people, the Wyandots, who reside in Oklahoma. Chief Jan English of the Wyandot Nation has visited the site, and participated in a conference call with Strong White Buffalo Woman, which is featured in the Pathway film. 

Tom used a camera cable system to take the 360 camera through the pathway and rocks as if the viewer was there walking it with Strong White Buffalo Woman.

“Nature is a really good storyteller,” said Tracey. “These natural spaces were the most beautiful and made the most sense for the 360 cameras.”

When it came to editing, Tom said creating a VR film actually requires less editing than a traditional 2-D HD film.

“You would just hold a shot for so long, then move to the next,” said Tom. “Traditionally, you choose what an audience looks at. Instead, we chose the front facing view, and the audience decides where they are looking.”

As a documentary medium, VR adds a new and different experience, one that is more unique to the viewer.

“Every single person will have a different experience because you’ll look at different spots at different times,” said Tom.

Tracey said she expects it will take time for people to get used to this new way of experiencing stories, but she’s excited at the potential VR has when it comes to documentary films.

“It shining more light on life and on stories and on documentary storytelling,” she said. “You can’t cut and manipulate it as much as 2-D HD footage to create an expository … you can’t hide anything.”

Though the technology is new, it reminds Tom of his experience with film cameras. Because the footage is captured in pieces by cameras with two lenses, or a cube containing six cameras, the footage takes a long time to upload, and special software is required to piece the images together to create a 360 image. The result is a virtual reality film viewed through a pair of goggles that can be disorienting for a viewer experiencing the technology for the first time.

Tom likens it to the invention of films by the Lumiére brothers, who showed a room full of people a moving picture of a train approaching, only to have most of their audience run out of the theatre in fear of being hit by an oncoming train.

“You’re in an immersive world,” said Tracey. “It’s not like going to the theatre. You’re in your own world.”

Mary Ward and Pathway are the first VR films produced by the Craigleith Heritage Depot. Both will premiere on Saturday, May 4 at the Beaver Valley Community Centre. Tickets for the premiere are available at the Blue Mountains Public Library and the Depot, and are $25, and the evening includes a cash bar with all proceeds supporting future Craigleith Heritage Depot film projects. The event begins at 7 p.m. with doors opening at 6 p.m.

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Erika Engel

About the Author: Erika Engel

Erika regularly covers all things news in Collingwood as a reporter and editor. She has 13 years of experience as a local journalist
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