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'Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West' & 'NAVIGATING WITH LEWIS AND CLARK'

Blazing the trail with Lewis and Clark

Friday, June 20, 2003

By Adrian Mccoy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Two hundred years ago, a guy named Meriwether Lewis was in Pittsburgh, overseeing construction of a boat and gathering supplies for a long trip into uncharted territory. He spent the summer here, leaving in August for St. Louis.


WHERE: Carnegie Science Center, North Side.

WHEN: Through December.

ALSO: "Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh ... and Beyond" runs through June 16, 2004.

INFORMATION: 412-237-3400.


The rest, as they say, is history.

To mark the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Carnegie Science Center is the first of several local cultural institutions to celebrate these trailblazers' legacy with new exhibits and programming

This weekend, the Science Center opens new Omnimax and planetarium shows, along with an exhibit devoted to the journey. They tie together many significant aspects of the journey into one package -- the expedition's contribution to scientific knowledge, its role in expanding the American frontier and its roots in Pittsburgh's three rivers.

"Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West" brings the sweeping Western vistas as Lewis and Clark saw them to the large Omnimax screen. It follows them across country, giving audiences the same sense of awe the explorers must have felt.

National Geographic has gone after the Lewis and Clark story in a big way, including producing this film with Destination Cinema, Inc. It traces an 8,000-mile journey to the Pacific Ocean and back and the pioneering steps of the exploration party led by Lewis and Clark as they set off in search of the fabled Northwest Passage.

The focus is on the hardships and obstacles the team overcame. It highlights the contributions of Sacagawea, the young American Indian woman who guided the expedition through unfamiliar territory.

Like their subjects, the filmmakers tackled many problems in shooting "Great Journey West." A lot has changed in 200 years, and one of the challenges was finding the pure, unspoiled vistas the team traveled through -- places without anachronisms like railroad tracks and power lines. They scouted for remote areas and used computer graphics when the 21st century got in the way.

Smoke from the large wildfires that plagued Idaho and Montana in 2000 was a problem: They had to go back and finish some filming later.

Time was another constraint -- they had to compress a big story into a 40-minute film.

The research behind the film was painstaking -- down to details such as equipment and clothing used on the trip. The film researchers turned to the journals Lewis and Clark kept as a guide and consulted with history experts and native tribes.

Even the actors used in the film had some connection to their ancestors who made the trek. The American Indians portrayed in the film are played by members of the same tribes. The Corps of Discovery team members were played by whitewater rafting guides: They needed skilled river pilots to make the scenes convincing.

Although colorizing filters aren't usually used in Omnimax films, here they experimented with some to add a new dimension. Some scenes have a sepia-tinged, old-fashioned photo look to them, while others cast a cold blue tint on the bleak winter scenes.

The result -- a compelling look at the frontier as Lewis and Clark saw it and an amazing story of human triumph.

The Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium has produced a companion piece -- "Navigating with Lewis and Clark." It covers much of the same narrative ground as the Omnimax film but focuses more on the expedition's scientific discoveries and Pittsburgh's role as launching pad.

"Navigating" shows the expedition as an unique combination of several scientific disciplines -- including anthropology, botany, zoology and astronomy.

It begins with the first chapter of the journey -- the construction of the keelboat Discovery here, which Lewis rode to St. Louis, where they began the uncharted portion of their journey. At the time, Pittsburgh was the edge of the colonial Western frontier. Lewis used it as a base to gather supplies, and recruited several members of his team here.

"Navigating" shows how Lewis and Clark used celestial navigation to guide their cross-country path, the instruments they used to determine latitude and longitude, and how their copious data collecting produced the first accurate guide maps of the region.

"Navigating" outlines the different eco-regions they traveled through -- woodlands, plains and mountains, and the many Midwestern and Western native tribes they encountered. They documented many new animal and plant species through accurate drawings and preserving specimens.

The Buhl staff has also produced a short video pre-show that outlines Pittsburgh's role in the expedition. It will be shown in the lobby outside the Omnimax theater to give film viewers a sense of the local connection.

"Meriwether Lewis in Pittsburgh ... and Beyond" is an exhibit that complements the two screen presentations, documents some local aspects of the adventure, and shows many of the early recorded images of the tribes Lewis and Clark met in their travels.

The exhibit is a collaboration between Photo Antiquities and the Science Center. Some of the images also appear in the planetarium show.

It includes many works by two noted 19th-century figures who pioneered in documenting life in American Indian tribes -- Edward Curtis and George Caitlin. The images come from collections at the Library of Congress and Yale University.

There is a map of Pittsburgh as it looked when Lewis was here, and a wooden model of the keelboat.

There are some artifacts from Eugene Gass Painter, a Washington County resident and great-grandson of Patrick Gass, one of the expedition members. Painter will be at the Science Center at 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday to talk about the expedition.

Adrian McCoy can be reached atamccoy@post-gazette.com .

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