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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Unlike a stereotypical natural history display of static objects, the Ocean Hall is alive with movement. From all corners of the hall, video presentations bring ocean critters, ocean processes, and ocean peoples to life. How does the museum put all these fascinating presentations together? That’s the job of the exhibit’s audio-visual producers; in this case it is managed by a company called Northern Light Productions. Would you like to know more about this kind of work, and the kinds of careers in this field? Tim Lay, a project manager and senior producer at Northern Light, offered to share some of his background and thoughts about working on the Sant Ocean Hall’s media.

Tim Lay brings the ocean to life through multiple audio-visual elements in the hall

When Tim Lay was 12 years old, he made a film about a ball bouncing and rolling around the streets of downtown Boston. But it wasn’t until he had finished college and worked for seven years in his family’s printing and graphics business that he realized he wanted to make filmmaking his career.

Tim Lay
Tim Lay of Northern Light Productions Image courtesy of: Northern Light Productions

Now, as a producer at Northern Light, Tim works with museums and visitor centers as well as broadcast television companies around the country to produce shows on a vast array of topics ranging from spies to Civil War prison camps to urban sprawl. His prior work for the Smithsonian has included the video elements for the Mammals Hall and African Voices exhibit. Unlike producing shows for television, where the audience is more or less segmented into children or adults, museum shows must appeal to all parts of an audience and have something for everyone. Museum shows are also a challenge because producers have to deal with the fact that – because of acoustics – some shows must be silent. This means that producers have to return to the “era” of silent films but still keep presentations appealing to today’s modern audience.

“People are inundated with media these days,” Tim says. “In museum work, we’ll never be able to compete with the budget and standards set by a $5 million TV advertisement. Instead we have to use the quality of the story. We have to go back to basics and entice out audience with a strong story.”

Though he has worked with a large number of visitor centers and museums, working for the Smithsonian is particularly exciting because of its immense visitation. More than 6 million people walk through the natural history museum’s doors each year. And unlike television work, which is shown and then gone, a museum like Natural History provides a venue for his work that will be shown for millions of people year after year. In a sense, “you are laying your canvas out before the world,” Tim says.

North Atlantic Right Whale
North atlantic right whales will be the stars of one of Northern Light Productions' films for the ocean hall. Image courtesy of: NOAA
Tim produced 11 different media pieces for the hall, including those on bioluminescence, ocean systems, and hydrothermal vents. Each film had its own unique goals and challenges. For the film on the North Atlantic Right Whale, which plays beneath the full-scale model of Phoenix, Northern Light aimed to use one animal as an example of the challenges individual creatures of the ocean are facing.

Though it is, of course, difficult to choose among one’s children, Tim says that one of his favorite pieces will be the Science on a Sphere®. This piece, projected through four projectors onto a six-foot diameter fiberglass sphere , offers a unique display format. “Science on a Sphere® is going to have enormous power,” he says.

Science on a Sphere rendering
Preliminary artistic rendering of the Science on a Sphere® experience Image courtesy of:Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History
For Tim, working on ocean hall media has been tremendously thrilling because of the importance of the topic. National surveys show that most people have only a superficial knowledge of the ocean; they do not yet understand its importance to their everyday lives. Because of the huge numbers of people who will see his ocean hall shows, he and Northern Light feel they can play a small part in increasing that understanding – and that is a tremendously satisfying feeling.

Did You Know?

The National Museum of National History receives more than 6 million visitors a year from all over the world. About 70% of our visitors are from outside the Washington, D.C. area.

The National Museum of National History web site receives more than 14 million visitors a year.

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