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August 12th, 2008
Spark Blog: Shooting MRI Scenes -- It's Magnetic!
Volunteer in the MRI 

Volunteer Brian Moore receives instructions via a sign language interpreter before sliding into the scanner.

Today we’re in Eugene, Oregon. We started in the morning with what turned into a rather chaotic fMRI scene — six people in two locations. We were working with a deaf volunteer for a fascinating investigation into language and how the human brain understands grammar. The researchers are trying to figure out how we talk to one another — all over the world and in so many languages.

Caution!!! Very Strong Magnetic Field 

Warning sign outside the scanner room

What parts of our brain process language and its syntax? And what connections are there to other activities we humans pursue? What makes our species so good at gab?

Our volunteer went into the MRI and had to communicate with his sign language interpreter through a combination of mirrors and small video cameras. Because I had turned off all the overhead lights to create a more dramatic look for the scene, the volunteer had trouble seeing the interpreter in the control room via the mirrors and video screens.

The problem turned out to be that we had inadvertently turned on the neutral density filter on the camera so the monitor was dark not because of the lighting but because of human error…

We also can’t go very far into the MRI room with the camera or any ferrous (iron) metal. Because the MRI is a huge magnet, it sucks metallic objects from your hands into the donut of the MRI. If there is a person in there, there could be serious injury or death. Not to mention it would be the end of a very expensive piece of research equipment!

Filming in the Doorway 

Larry Engel and John Garrett record picture and sound from just inside the doorway, while Graham Chedd keeps an eye on the monitor.

So we all tread carefully when entering the room. I can set a light at the perimeter and stand only a foot or so inside. We marked my forward limit with gaffers tape.

But because I enter a strong magnetic field even at the doorway of the MRI room, I still have to worry about the tape itself since it’s magnetic. So we always start with a fresh tape to make sure we don’t lose anything we shot before if the magnetic field erases the tape.

Also, the camera’s viewfinder gets instantly distorted — squeezed — by the magnetic field, making framing hard. Another step into the room and the image goes fuzzy — making it really hard to focus as well. Fortunately, these problems are only in the viewfinder, not on the tape. But I did have to rely on Graham just outside the door looking at the field monitor for focus and framing adjustments.

Nonetheless it was a good shoot and we got Alan into the MRI as well — got to see his brain at work from the inside!

More later, and thanks for reading.

Larry Engel
Director and Director of Photography



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