Inside the Battle Theater at the new USS Monitor Center, the screen is blank and dark. But the two faces gazing up from the front-row seats are rapt and attentive.
After more than 12 months of messaging across the Atlantic, the creative director and primary artist behind "Ironclad Glory" -- the 13-minute video expected to be one of the center's leading attractions -- are eager to sit down together for a last-minute look at the fruits of their digital labors.
For artist Andy Simmons, who flew in from England just this week, the screening marked the first time he had seen his high-definition images anywhere but the 19-inch monitor of his computer. So when they finally began to move across the curving 7-by-27-foot screen, the panoramic succession of scenes depicting the fabled March 9, 1862, battle between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia -- also known as the Merrimack -- all but left him breathless.
"Here I am on the other side of the world -- working on these little pictures almost every night and weekend for the past year -- and, finally, this is the result," Simmons said, the morning before today's opening. "That we were able to do something like this by e-mail -- with all the to and fro we went through over every little bump, ding and dent in those ships -- is really fantastic. I couldn't be prouder."
Such attention to detail is exactly what creative director Bruce Hornstein hoped for when his Richmond-based Pyramid Studios began working on the job almost four years ago.
Charged with re-creating one of history's greatest naval battles, he jumped at the chance, believing his firm could conjure up this mostly poorly depicted chapter of the past with a kind of accuracy that had never been seen before.
He began by bringing Monitor Center curator Anna Holloway, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston and Virginia War Museum director John Quarstein to his Richmond studios, where he asked them to take part in a decidedly low-tech re-enactment. Spreading two 8-by- 8-foot maps of Hampton Roads out on the floor, he gave his consultants primitive photocopied markers representing more than a dozen vessels involved in the battle.
Then he asked them to reproduce the two-day conflict minute-by-minute and step-by-step, tracing not only every movement of the combatants but also the vantage points from which thousands of spectators watched them in action.
"We didn't let them out of the room until they all agreed on where each of the ships should be," Hornstein recalled. "That was the beginning of trying to put it all into a digital world."
The same team of consultants helped Pyramid and a Vancouver, British Columbia-based digital modelmaker translate the Monitor, Virginia and other ships into an increasingly accurate fleet of cyber replicas.
Gun by gun, bolt by bolt, they pecked and tweaked at every conceivable detail, trying to make these imaginary images of the past as true to life as possible. Only then were the three-dimensional digital models and a provisional storyboard sent by e-mail to England, where Simmons began working on what would become some 120 digital paintings of the battle.
"The level of detail is absolutely impeccable," said Johnston, an authority on the Monitor and its construction. "For about a year, we'd get a new batch of images every Monday, make our comments and shoot them back and forth. Then we'd send them back and start all over again the next Monday."
Working closely with Hornstein and the storyboard, Simmons used the models to re-create the battle from a dramatically new cinematic perspective, including the use of aerial shots as well as other unexpected camera angles. Back in Richmond, other artists produced about 50 related close-up and interior scenes, basing their images on photos of carefully constructed stage sets and costumed actors.
Dramatic dialogue and a specially commissioned musical score added to the mix, which included narration by veteran actress Salome Jens -- best-known for her roles in such popular TV shows as "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Reproduced with 20 speakers and 16 channels of audio, the immersive soundtrack also features various battle effects, contributing significantly to the impact of the video.
Still, it's the production's ambitious visual resurrection of a spectacle that hasn't been seen for 145 years that satisfied Simmons and Hornstein most at Thursday's viewing.
"It's a lot to see -- and it's something you're going to remember the next day," Hornstein said.
"I've seen it a lot of times now -- and I've never started it up without being excited about seeing it all the way through," he added. "I wouldn't change any of it -- and that's the first time I've been able to say that about anything we've done." *