Why Study History at UW-Madison? by John Zwick

An image of the state capitol in Madison, WI with the words "Why Study History"

COURSE: History Department

MEDIUM: Video/Film

A winner of the UW-Madison history department’s “Why Take History?” video contest, this project combines live-action videography with CG animation. The purpose of the competition was to promote history course and the history major to students. My approach was to portray the time-machine effect that knowing the history of a familiar location can have. I downloaded historical photos from the UW Archives and reconstructed them as 3D environments. This allows the camera to traverse them in a lifelike manner, creating a compelling pairing with live-action shots from the locations today.

With this project, I wanted to convey my belief that history, rather than being a static memory, is in fact a dynamic force that inhabits the same spaces that we do today. My video functions as a fast-paced tour of the Madison campus and beyond, showcasing the notable changes and striking similarities that persist between the modern world and the past. Technically, producing this video pushed my boundaries by incorporating CGI. My biggest project of 2020 was teaching myself to use the 3D suite Blender. To transform the historical photos into 3D environments, I used a camera alignment plugin to match the perspective of the original camera. I then modeled the entire photo’s environment in Blender and projected the original image onto the geometry from the camera’s perspective. With the image now attached to the environment as a texture, the virtual camera can now be animated to traverse the environment with all degrees of freedom (within reason, as the effect comes apart if it’s pushed too far), with the environment’s depth demonstrated through realistic parallax. Aside from being an interesting effect, these CG shots connect back to my broader thesis for the video: to portray history as something that continues to live in the places around us by turning static artifacts into spaces the viewer can be immersed in and explore.