Remaking the Monitor
The virtual USS Monitor docked at New York.
by Michael Burz
In 1995 my studio initiated a project to digitally recreate the battle between
the Civil War-era ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. We set
out to examine an event that had become a well-recognized but not deeply
understood symbol of the Civil War. Our goal was to present a detailed and
accurate historic recreation of the ironclads in order to more fully appreciate
their significance. We wanted the computer screen to serve as a window into
1862, a virtual time machine.
It took six months of research into the history of the battle and Civil War-era
ironclads, and eight months of digital modeling, to reconstruct the two ships
in precise detail. (Only the Monitor reconstruction appears here.) The
challenges were enormous. There are only eight known photographs of the exterior
of the Monitor, and none of her interior. No known photos of her
construction exist either, probably because no one save her designer John
Ericsson expected her to actually work or survive. Her brief existence did not
provide many photo opportunities: She sank in a storm only nine months after
her initial battle.
The team that created these models consisted of talented artists from both
Hollywood movie studios and San Francisco's "Multimedia Gulch." They had to
become historical engineers as we worked out, using period engineering
drawings, how the ship was constructed. First we had to gain an understanding
of arcane mechanisms, then model and install them into the ship. We created a
complete working digital model of the turret rotating mechanism, from
the gears below deck in the galley area, to the donkey engine that
powered them, to the control levers in the turret. We also reconstructed
Ericsson's steam engine in operation, its configuration carefully worked out
and its action taken from the inventor's patent model.
A view from the
captain's cabin to his stateroom. We worked hard on aspects of light, from the
candle and its reflection at left to the shaft of dusty sunlight streaming down
from a skylight in the stateroom.
In Tour the Monitor, you see one part of all this effort—the
animated panoramas of the Monitor. Details to look for in the virtual
rooms include light shafts streaming down from deck-mounted portholes; the
tools and gauges in the engine room;
the working parts of the massive Dahlgren guns in the turret; and the safety
lanterns on the berth deck.
On deck, look on shore for the
large shed, a reconstruction made from a photograph of the actual shed in New
York in which the Monitor was built, and the ship's boats, which we
meticulously modeled from original Navy drawings.
The team crafted interiors with great care as to color, lighting, textures, and
historical artifacts. Most of our guidance came from just two sources: The
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies During the War of
Rebellion, an extraordinary 26-volume compendium of every memo ever written
by the Union and Confederate navies, and the remarkably detailed letters of
William Keeler, who served as paymaster aboard the Monitor (see
Eyewitness to the Battle.
As a tribute, you can visit Keeler's
cabin, complete with his writing desk, bunk, and one of his letters to his
a view of Keeler's cabin. The letter on his desk contains an actual extract
from one of his letters to his wife Anna.
The Monitor's captain, Lt. John Worden, had two rooms to himself as
befitted an officer and a gentleman. Worden's cabin and
stateroom are accurate as to their configuration and furnishings,
though we did take license with their decoration. The desktop, for instance,
contains a map, a model of a cannon, and other artifacts, which are conjecture.
The shaving equipment and sword are of the period, however.
For textures, colors, and environmental effects in the engine room, we paid a
visit to the USS Jeremiah O'Brien. The last surviving D-Day troop ship,
now a museum in San Francisco, her steam engine was based on one designed in
the late 1800s and thus provided us with the right atmosphere.
The most elegant of the simulations is the officer's wardroom, complete
with dinner service and candles. Zooming in, you can see the gilt decoration of
the plates, which, Keeler tells us, Ericsson paid for out of his own pocket.
This room stands in sharp contrast to the crew quarters (berth deck), which
also served as a mess and storage area.
We lavished detail on the
officer's wardroom, from the fine gilt chinaware to the swirling grain of the
In attempting this historical recreation, we were fortunate to have the
assistance of a fellow enthusiast, the naval historian Colan Ratliff. We were
also grateful for the generous and valuable support of the Monitor
National Marine Sanctuary through Ms. Dina Hill. The Sanctuary supplied us with
many documents, including a book of Ericsson's drawings lovingly prepared by
the late U.S. Naval Historian Capt. Ernst Peterkin. We would also like to thank
our spouses and partners, who supported us during this endeavor. I especially
want to acknowledge my wife Christi, who provided much-needed support and
guidance throughout this project.
We, the team that rebuilt the Monitor, hope you enjoy your tour.
Ron Cobb, Art Director
Mitch Suskin, Digital Effects Director
Sean Wagstaff, Chief 3-D Artist
Craig Lyn, Senior 3-D Artist
Evan Pontiero, Senior 3-D Artist
Emmanuel Shiu, Senior 3-D Artist
Brian Flora, Backgrounds
Steve McEntee, Interface Art
Michael Burz, Producer, Chief Engineer
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