Erie, autumn 2012. This was a new and fascinating experience: designing and building a TV set to represent the inside of a tree house at the fictional Kiboka Research Station in central Africa. The set was housed in a seven-sided turret that had previously served as a hayloft for the first-floor animal enclosure, now converted to an education building. The Zoo would be broadcasting interactive programs to schools all over Pennsylvania.
Over the years I had hoarded lengths of giant bamboo, pieces of thatch, woven mats, an old barrel, lengths of worn rope, pulleys and other tackle and netting from dumpster-diving at various jobs, mostly Rainforest Cafés (I mean, how can you toss giant bamboo?) and finally had the job that could use it up.
We chose three walls to be opposite the main camera position, with the center wall hosting a panoramic window with thin bamboo for mullions, and the two side walls built to look like native construction using natural materials appropriately decorated with African artifacts. A few feet beyond the window hung a canvas mural, 4′ x 18′ featuring a broad view across the tops of the jungle below, with a river flowing out to the horizon, leafy branches intruding on the left, another tree house built into the heavy branches to the right connected by a suspension bridge and a foreground railing made of branch wood and bamboo. The key to the success of the illusion was installing a lot of lights above and outside the window to flood the mural with light that bounced into the room like actual daylight. Seen through the camera, it was very convincing.
Here’s a clip of a local news station interview about the treehouse.