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Illinois scientific visualization team helps show impact of ‘The Great Flood’ for premiere at ELLNOR

Grammy Award-winning guitarist and composer Bill Frisell and Obie-winning experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison will premiere “The Great Flood,” a 75-minute multimedia work of original music and film inspired by the 1927 Mississippi River floods, on Sept. 10 at ELLNORA | The Guitar Festival at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Members of the Illinois Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute (eDream) and the Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) collaborated with Morrison on the film, creating data-driven visualizations of the Mississippi River Valley showing the extent of the destructive floodwaters.

“This was a novel collaboration between an inspired artist and data-visualization experts,” said Donna Cox, director of eDream and AVL.

In the spring of 1927, the Mississippi River surged over its banks in 145 places after 15-inch downpours followed the heavy rains of the previous summer. Levees across the Midwest and the plains failed, and the surging water inundated 27,000 square miles to a depth of up to 30 feet. Part of the flood’s enduring legacy was the mass exodus of displaced sharecroppers. This Great Migration of rural southern blacks to northern cities saw the Delta Blues electrified and reinterpreted as the Chicago blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Morrison’s film employs documentary footage from the era, showing people coping with and fleeing from the flooding. The eDream/AVL team drew on a 1920s map of the river and contemporary geospatial data to visualize a journey along the Mississippi, providing context for these historical images.

University of Illinois geography professor Shaowen Wang, a frequent NCSA collaborator, and members of his research team (research scientist Yan Liu, visiting scholar Kai Cao, and students Su Han and Yanli Zhao) helped access and process the GIS data, which was scattered across multiple government websites and databases. The geography team also helped to assign coordinates to the historical map so the contemporary data could be aligned to it.

AVL’s Alex Betts developed custom plug-in capabilities for the Maya animation software to enable integration and visualization of large geospatial datasets, including high-resolution elevation data, land use data and the historical flood data. This will provide capabilities for future GIS visualization projects.

“We interactively designed the cinematic journeys down the Mississippi using our ultra high resolution 3D visualization environment while playing Bill Frissell’s music,” said Bob Patterson, AVL senior research artist and eDream associate director. Morrison spent several days working with the team at NCSA.

“While a film about a disaster that took place in 1927 will naturally be driven by archival film footage, we felt it was important that there be a bridge for viewers—a sequence that would contextualize the piece geographically and serve to take you into the world of the footage,” Morrison says. “With all the flooding that has been felt in much of the nation this year, this contemporary footage lyrically introduces this historical moment as one that has relevance today, and frames much of what is to follow.”

ELLNORA | The Guitar Festival kicks off Sept. 8. During the opening night celebration, members of the eDream/AVL will discuss their collaboration with Morrison and will show 3D versions of some of their Great Flood work in Krannert Center’s Studio Theater. eDream associate director Guy Garnett, Illinois post-doctoral researcher Ben Smith, and graduate student Tony Reimer also will present new interactive performance works.

eDream and AVL contributors
Director, Donna Cox
Research Artist: Robert Patterson
Research Programmers: Alex Betts and Stuart Levy
Media Specialist: Jeff Carpenter

CyberInfrastructure and Geospatial Information Laboratory
Director, Shaowen Wang
Staff Scientist: Yan Liu
Postdoc Researcher: Kai Cao
Graduate Students: Su Yeon Han and Yanli Zhao

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