A few years ago, when the staff at the Field Museum in Chicago met to conceive a new permanent exhibit to open in May 1999, the collective mission was to engage the public in a scientific subject normally reserved for the realm of research labs. Called Underground Adventure, the new $10 million, 15,000-sq.-ft. (1,350 sq. m) exhibit would go beyond what we can easily see in nature to a microscopic world living right underneath our feet.

"The challenge the Museum set itself was to find a subject that was important to the way it works as a research institute and important to preserving the natural world and our relationship to it, but wasn't an immediately obvious way into it," says exhibit designer Ned Phillips, who worked the job as a freelancer for London-based MET Studios and is now with his own firm, At Large, also in London. "So it wasn't the rain forest or the coral reef, but a lump of dirt that might be out of your back yard or the field down the road. The challenge was to get across to people why there is so much interest and excitement in something most of us walk over and ignore."

Bringing the importance of soil ecology to the surface, the museum sought a design team to conceptualize an interactive walk-through experience that would "shrink" visitors to a microscopic level and take them on a tour underground. Exhibit design firm MET Studios was selected, in part because of its work on a geology exhibit at the Natural History Museum of London and various other exhibit projects in the Far East. Phillips was placed in charge of the design, calling on lighting consultant Bruce Kirk of London-based Lighting Technology Projects, which was also involved in the Natural History Museum project, as well as exhibits at the Museum of London and the British Museum. Novato, CA-based Academy Studios, another frequent MET Studios collaborator, was the exhibit contractor in charge of creating the underground experience. Francie Muraski-Stotz was the museum's project director. Midland, MI-based Design Craftsmen was the exhibit contractor. Electrosonic provided audiovisual elements. Local firm DLK Architecture of Chicago orchestrated the design and construction teams as program manager, while the Chicago office of Barbizon was the local lighting contractor, led by project manager David Daugherty supported by Tobin Neis.

Collectively, the concept was to gradually transport visitors from their above-ground environment to the world they are about to see below, beginning in an entrance area called Base Camp. Here, visitors see how soil plays a part in the production of everything from a pair of jeans to penicillin, and then enter a reception area where monitors show scientists at work in a Micro Soil Lab. "It looks very high-tech, like the entrance to a scientific building site dig," says Kirk. "So it was very important to get the aesthetics of the lighting fixtures right so they looked suitable for an industrial environment."

Kirk found the industrial aesthetic in a wide mixture of commercial-grade lighting fixtures, but a greater challenge lay ahead in a room called the Transmogrifier where visitors are "shrunk" to 1/100th of their normal size. Phillips laid the groundwork in creating a false perspective room. "When you walk through the room, you see yourself shrink to half of your normal size, and that is achieved by walking into a tapering artificial perspective space," the designer explains. "The second part is a corridor mirrored on both walls, the floor, and the ceiling so you are walking on an industrial walkway through an apparently infinite space."

To light the sci-fi-style room, Kirk used a mixture of Irideon AR6s from Electronic Theatre Controls, Derksen USA projectors, and RS Components industrial strobes. "It is all distorted by the mirrors on the wall and the different angles of projection so that the sense of perspective and scale is constantly changing," he says. "By the time you get from one end of the space to the other you know you are a different size and proportion from when you went in."

In selecting the Irideon AR6, the lighting designer received several results. "We wanted the fixtures to be as discreet as possible," explains Kirk. "So we used the Irideon AR6 because it is a recessed light, but also gave us the opportunity to have different colors, gobos, and movement. There are very few recessed moving lights available that can do that."

After getting transmogrified, visitors end up in the Micro Soil Lab, ready for a bug's-eye view of insect life. Academy Studios created the underground environment, including the main attractions--a series of gigantic animatronic insects with robotics by JEX FX. There is a 13'-tall crayfish climbing out of a water table, an 8'-long undulating centipede, an earwig protecting her brood, an 8'-long, 4'-tall wolf spider squeezing a larva in its pinchers, as well as the personal best of Academy Studios president Dean Weldon. "My favorite is the root rot which is the awful area in the corner where we talk about decomposition," he laughs. "We've got a huge root that is covered by a bacterial fungus and the whole thing heaves up and down."

Researching such earthy matters sometimes required "putting our noses in places you don't really want to go," says Weldon, who adds he and his team relied on the bacterial, fungal, and insect experts at the museum, including scientific content specialists Gregory M. Mueller and Petra Sierwald. Most of Academy's staff of 100 worked on the project, including team leader Tami Stewart, who was in charge of the large models; Peter Gibbons, Stewart's "second in command;" Denni Schabel, in charge of plants and roots; and fabrication manager Chuck Edwards, Academy's vice president of design and fabrication.

To build the environment, the crew at Academy first drew sketches and story boards. Scale models came next, which, after approval from the Field Museum's scientists, were graduated to 6' clay models using a CAD/CAM system. Details were added, fiberglass casts were made, and robotics were set in place. However, everyone realized lighting was crucial to making the animatronics come to life.

"If the lighting was done wrong you would see all of the areas you shouldn't see and the illusion would be broken," says Weldon. "We also needed dramatic lighting to help accentuate the sculpture of the soil and the roots, and we have something like 7,000 smaller insects [4-8" long] completely covering the walls. So, the lighting had to create shadow, highlight, and drama to lead your eye through the exhibit."

"We appreciated very early on that lighting this in the correct way was going to add a huge amount to the impact of the space," adds Phillips. "The lighting changing and really keeping the space very dark and using limited amounts of light to create dramatic effects heightens the effect of the models."

Kirk agrees that the Underground Adventure was more about darkness than light. "I was trying to make it as dark as possible, using as much shadow and shape by having a lot of light sources at very low levels and 10 or 15% intensity," says the LD, who also added Canlet fixtures to give the glimmering feel of building site work lights. "So the whole space was changing, fading up and down very slowly in different areas so that as you walk around maybe a feature is lit and then light fades away so you don't quite see it and have to go back and have another look."

Adding atmospheric effects are DHA animation disks, run in Altman Master and Micro Ellipses, to simulate light filtering through holes in the ground, leaves, and running water. A wide variety of fiber-optic light sources was used to light minute details of the Underground Adventure and other exhibit areas. Additional lighting was supplied by Altman Stage Lighting, Cooper Lighting, D'AC, Encapsulite, Halo, Lighting & Electronics, Lumark, Metalux, MicroLite, Square 1 Precision Lighting, and Wildfire.

Because lighting was crucial, Barbizon shipped equipment to Academy Studios facilities in Marin County, CA, where they were tested with the animatronics. Then came the effort to synchronize the lighting and movement of the models, as well as a soundtrack. "Everything runs into a show control system and the sound and the lighting system runs into that," says Weldon.

For the lighting, Kirk says: "We used an ETC Unison control linked to an ETC Express LPC (Lighting Playback Controller). So we had a mix of a theatrical show, which is remembered by the LPC, and the Unison acts as an environmental and architectural controller." ETC also provided an Irideon DMX Interpreter, Source Four jrs, a Sensor SR24 rack, and a Unison DR12 dimmer rack. The Unison also interfaces with the fire and security system.

After visitors complete their Underground Adventure, they are returned to normal size in the Mud Room, the main gallery space which features exhibits of what they have just seen and computer interactives provided by Chicago-based Angle Park. Curved sweeping Lucifer Helix tracks connect each exhibit area in the Mud Room, which leads to the Connections Theater, a small cinema featuring entries from the Underground Adventure Film and Video Festival.

The final area of the exhibit brings together many of its elements in a back-projection AV screen, called a quadroscope, supplied by Electrosonic. "It's a kind of tapering giant kaleidoscope which creates a virtual sphere," says Phillips. "You look into the opening of a series of mirrors and you see a sphere of video images, all flowers, all clouds, all water, and so on, forming a planet."

Museum project director Francie Muraski-Stotz

Program manager DLK Architecture

Exhibit design firm MET Studios; Ned Phillips, exhibit designer

Lighting consultant Bruce Kirk, Lighting Technology Projects

Exhibit contractors Academy Studios, Design Craftsmen

Audiovisual supplier Electrosonic

Lighting contractor Barbizon; David Daugherty, project manager

Lighting equipment (9) RS Components strobes (9) ETC Irideon AR6s (1) Square 1 cold cathode UVA source (115) Metalux SN Series fluorescents (3) Derksen USA graphic projectors (144) Lucifer Helix track lights (18) Lucifer recessed downlights (6) Halo Power track lights (4) Halo recessed downlights (15) D'AC wall fixtures (6) ETC Source Four jrs (2) Lighting & Electronics PAR-56s (13) Canlet PARmates (64) Canlet vaporproof fixtures (6) Lumark wash fixtures (29) LTG PAR-20s (1) ETC Express controller (1) ETC Express 192 LPC (1) ETC Unison control station (1) ETC Irideon Composer control (13) Altman Micro and Master Ellipses (13) DHA effects wheels Encapsulite surface-mount fluorescents ETC Sensor dimming ETC Unison dimming MicroLite Relay