In early May, the New York Times published an essay in which Harvell chronicled the trip to Hawaii's Mauna Lani Reef, where the filmmakers encountered a variety of species, including another cephalopod known as Octopus ornatus. "It sat stolidly in the light of the camera, thirty feet below the surface, unfazed by the attention," Harvell wrote. "I reached out a finger and it touched me with its suctioned tentacles. When it scuttled in the other direction, I herded it between my cupped hands as it watched me attentively with searching golden eyes. As if levitating, it smoothly lifted off and tried to jet over my head, but slowly enough that I could catch it gently in midair—like handling a large bird, albeit one with eight sticky tentacles." The online version of the story included a multimedia element that allowed visitors to rotate the glass models as well as view the real animals in their natural habitat. (Brown came up with an innovative solution for the Blaschka photo shoot: after unsuccessfully searching for a Lazy Susan that would turn perfectly smoothly, he put the models on a gerbil wheel laid horizontally.)
Future research trips are planned to the Mediterranean, to Indonesia, and to Cornell's Shoals Marine Lab off the coast of Maine, where they'll film Atlantic species. Brown also hopes to shoot on a sailing vessel in the open ocean, to capture a sense of what Leopold Blaschka first experienced more than a century and a half ago. "I love these critters," Harvell says. "This is my passion. Just to go find them and see them alive is exciting—and filming them is fun, because we get to see them in ways that we normally wouldn't." The filmmakers have received enough grant money to get started on the project, but not enough to complete it, so they're currently soliciting donors; similarly, progress on restoring the models has been slow due to limited funding, with about 220 of the pieces completed. (In addition to Corson Hall and the Johnson Museum, Mann Library has a Blaschka display, and many can be viewed online at blaschkagallery. mannlib.cornell.edu.) "The marine biodiversity recreated by the Blaschkas is a phantasmagorical view of life in the oceans," Harvell wrote in the Times. "For they were artists as well as keen natural historians, with an eye for the forms that would enchant in glass and that were too rare or fragile to be seen readily."
Brown aims to film Fragile Legacy in "4-K"—about four times the resolution of current high definition—to capture the glass models, the real-life creatures, and their habitats in vivid detail. He envisions a series of modules, each focusing on a different category of invertebrates. He'll also describe the restoration process and tell the story of the Blaschkas, arguably best known today as the makers of Harvard's collection of more than 3,000 botanically exact glass flowers. ("Harvard stole them away from the marine invertebrates to do the lousy flowers," Brown jokes. "I don't know why.") The modules could be viewed as individual webisodes or joined to form a feature-length film, to be screened in venues like museums and aquariums. It could also air on PBS—where, Brown imagines, the subject matter could attract both the "Nature" and "Masterpiece" crowds. "I'm finding art to be an unusual vehicle," Harvell muses. "As a scientist, I didn't understand how powerful art can be in motivating and exciting people. Some people aren't that interested in marine invertebrates—but then they look at one of these squid or a jellyfish and they're like, 'Wow, are you telling me there's something that looks like this that's alive in the ocean? What does it eat? What does it do?' Somehow, seeing the art awakens an interest in the living creatures."
Fragile Legacy Promo (2:15)