Bringing (Virtual) Salmon Back to False Creek

Immersive cinematic spectacle Uninterrupted gives a glimpse of  B.C.'s iconic species to downtown city dwellers.

June 16, 2017

By Christine Beyleveldt / Photo: Michael J.P. Hall

False Creek was once fertile breeding ground for Pacific salmon, but industrial waste polluted the waters as Vancouver rose from the ground up. Then in 2010 locals spotted a grey whale swimming up the inlet to feed on herring, which marked the start of keystone species making their return. It was also the year that Vancouver filmmaker Nettie Wild stood on the edge of the Adams River, a Fraser River tributary running 150 km north of Kelowna, observing an unprecedented salmon run in which she saw a perpetuating cycle. “I was witnessing something that was way bigger than I was and had been going on uninterrupted for millennia, and if we play our cards right, it will continue to do so.”

This summer, nearly seven years after its conception, the cinematic spectacle Uninterrupted by indie docufilm company, Canada Wild Productions, will bring the natural beauty of the salmon run to the heart of Downtown Vancouver just in time for Canada 150 celebrations. The public art installation, which will project on the undercarriage of the Cambie Bridge, honours B.C.’s natural history. As the project’s artistic director, Wild hopes the beauty of the salmon run will encourage Vancouverites to preserve their legacy by working to keep the cycle uninterrupted.

Early footage tested on the undercarriage of the Cambie Bridge in 2013. (Photo: Scott Smith.)

On the Adams River

Wild found her inspiration during the largest salmon run in living memory in 2010 when over 30 million salmon migrated from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning grounds in numbers not seen since 1913. That was the year before a devastating rock slide at Hell’s Gate in the B.C. interior nearly dammed the Fraser’s waterway. “There were so many of them that they were stacking up, waiting their turn to go up the river,” says Wild, who had parked her car on the edge of the water with thousands of other spectators to marvel at the millions of bright red fish swimming upstream. “When they do that they start circling in these wild patterns in these holding pools that they find in the river, and when I looked at that, I just really thought I was looking at mesmerizing, colossal abstract modern art.”

Wild and editor Michael Brockington were committed to sharing her visceral experience and, inspired by public art exhibitions that used digital mapping, immediately looked for a public space to project her vision. The colossal glass towers that define Vancouver’s skyline weren’t reflective facades, so they decided on the undercarriage of the Cambie Bridge, with its smooth concrete surface spanning the water.

Two filmmakers dressed in waterproof gear admire the river they're gathering footage on.
Cinematographer Athan Merrick and Artistic Director Nettie Wild gathering footage for Uninterrupted on the Adams River (Photo: Sarah Butterfield.)

Bringing B.C.’s Natural Wonder to Downtown Vancouver

Canada 150 wasn’t the project’s intended milestone, but as the years crept by and the nation’s sesquicentennial approached it became increasingly relevant. “It takes you into an extraordinary history that goes back far more than 150 years, both in terms of the natural world and in terms of First Nations,” says Wild. “We think that the salmon are going to swim their way into a lot of hearts and be a really good centrepiece for what’s going on in Vancouver for Canada 150.”

Capturing high-speed footage of these silver swimmers and projecting it on the half mile-long bridge were exclusive challenges. In 2014 Wild got a team back on the site of the salmon run. They filmed in the heart of Little Shuswap Lake Indian Band (Secwepemc) territory situated along the Adams River and on Katzie lands at Corbold Creek, flowing from Pitt Lake. They also captured footage on Hupacasath lands along the Sproat River in Port Alberni, where she describes the fish, having just come from the Pacific Ocean, as an extraordinary silver colour. Then as they migrate upstream to the freshwater spawning grounds where they were born, they turn a brilliant scarlet.

The creative team, led by Brockington, then mapped out the path of their fish with the help of technical director Anthony Diehl of Colours & Shapes, and tested the footage on a three-dimensional Cambie Bridge in virtual reality. This was a formidable task given the salmon’s haphazard swimming patterns and that it was a previously untested editing system designed specifically for the undertaking. “You have to think of them as a cast of millions—none of whom take direction,” says Wild. “The trick is to remain open to the excitement of that as opposed to daunted by the challenge.”

A technician tests footage of salmon on the underside of a bridge at night.
Technical team member testing the projection equipment (Photo: Michael J.P. Hall.)

A call to action before each screening will encourage viewers to educate themselves about salmon conservation efforts. The Uninterrupted website will introduce various organizations, including the Pacific Streamkeepers Federation, a volunteer collective that works to sustain and revitalize salmon habitats in B.C. and the Yukon territory. Those who register and take action will have their names projected on the bridge before the show commences each evening.

Wild explains that the show is meant to be an experience that captures the hearts and minds of audiences, but they shouldn’t treat it as an environmental lecture. “The job of the film,” she says, “is to create that first wonder that mirrors what I felt on the edge of that bridge on the edge of that river.” Vancouverites can immerse themselves in salmon swimming all around them, featuring an original musical score by Vancouver composer Owen Belton. After its final showing on September 24, the truss spanning the bridge that bears the projectors will remain as part of a legacy project so other artists and performers can make use of the space and the infrastructure in the future.

The free 25-minute show plays in Coopers’ Park, located at the north end of the bridge along Marinaside Crescent, five nights a week. It starts at 10 p.m., showing Tuesdays through Saturdays from June 28 to August 14 and at 9 p.m. from August 15 to September 24. The viewing area can stand up to 800 people on a first-come-first-served basis. Limited accessibility seating is also available. Guests should arrive 15 minutes before the show starts.

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