Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission

December 14, 2010

Today we continue our guest blog series with the Zimmerli Art Museum focusing on their current Water exhibit. We hope you enjoy hearing the story of Scarlet, an amazing robot performing valuable research and how it helped bring together the Oceanography and English departments at Rutgers University for an extended partnership.

Filming in a Zodiac for Atlantic Crossing

By Dena Seidel

On a sunny Sunday in October, an oceanographic hero awaits her public in the lobby of the Zimmerli Art Museum. The doors open and children rush to stroke her long, sleek yellow body.

RU27 or “Scarlet” is the first autonomous underwater robot to cross the Atlantic. For 7 months, she continually sampled this critical ocean basin experiencing the effects of climate change. The college students, museum staff, faculty and deans now gathering have come to witness Scarlet’s remarkable adventure in the award winning feature documentary “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission.” This unique event (robot hero accompanied by film) is part of the Zimmerli Art Museum’s Water exhibit, an opportunity for artists, scientists, writers, environmentalists and filmmakers to express and imagine our multi-various relationships to, and with, life’s most essential substance.

Scarlet the Robot at the Smithsonian

Scarlet’s historic mission has inspired and amazed people around the world. A glider robot (sans propeller), she is the prototype for a future fleet of ocean observing vehicles. After she was recovered off the coast of Spain in December 2009, the White House recognized Scarlet as an historic artifact. In a matter of weeks she will be moving to her new home in the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall.

Rutgers group shot with Scarlet the Robot for Atlantic Crossing

Our film “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission” features world-renowned oceanographer Scott Glenn and his scientific team at Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS). I teach documentary filmmaking as creative writing in Writers House, Rutgers English, and on this day my students and I will present our feature length science-in-the-making story to the Rutgers community. Never has an Oceanography department and an English department worked so closely together for so long.

Writers House, like IMCS, is an undergraduate learning community. Just as oceanography and engineering students helped build, test, and navigate Scarlet, my students in Rutgers English were involved in every stage of the documentary film’s production and post production. Our filmmaking team had the privilege of documenting the oceanographic team for more than a year, collecting over 400 hours of high definition cinema verite footage. Told entirely with the scientists’ own words (without imposed written narration) “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Missions” documents the trials and successes, emotional highs and lows, tension, disappointments and ultimate euphoria of this historic scientific mission.

Filming Atlantic Crossing in Spain

Rutgers Filming Atlantic Crossing in Spain

My students learned many things during the making of “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission.” They learned technical skills including camera and sound recording, video editing and complex long-form story structure for the screen. They also learned how to work together as a team and how to work with the scientific team. Ultimately, they learned ocean and engineering science, and they learned how to communicate science.

Documenting the moment of recovery for Scarlet the Robot

I, too, learned a great deal making “Atlantic Crossing.” Most importantly, I learned that teaching, like documentary filmmaking, is about listening. Just as we, the documentary team, need to listen to the people we are recording, I, the teacher-filmmaker, need to listen carefully to my crew – a team of young, enthusiastic, smart, Rutgers students with creative ideas that broadened and shaped the project. Film language is always changing. As a filmmaker, communicator and educator, it is vital that I keep learning the evolving screen grammar of the younger generation.

Our film, like Scarlet’s scientific mission, is a success because of collaboration. The Rutgers premiere of “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission” that sunny Sunday was a success because the Zimmerli Art Museum actively connects art and science and seeks to bridge academic departments to the museum.

Water connects all of us. Life, past and present, is joined by a finite water source.

Cut to:

December 9th, 2010 – Smithsonian’s Ocean Hall.

After viewing our feature film, representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Eva Pell, the Smithsonian Institute’s Undersecretary for Science, along with others, cut the ribbon opening Scarlet’s exhibit. Excerpts from “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission” play on monitors within her case.

Scarlet, an 8 foot yellow robot, has shown us that our academic, artistic, and scientific pursuits are exponentially greater when we combine and connect our varied talents for a common creative goal.

Learn more about “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission” including movie trailer, awards, and student crew profiles.

You can also learn more about Scarlet’s mission.

Dena Seidel is the Director of Digital Storytelling for Writers House, Rutgers English. She is also the Producer-Director of “Atlantic Crossing: A Robot’s Daring Mission”

This series will continue next Wednesday.

Images courtesy of Dena Seidel