Scanning the Diefenbunker – Part 1

Scanning the Diefenbunker – Part 1

[This multi-part series will document photographing the Diefenbunker in Carp, Ontario. In this first part, I’ll talk about my reasons for embarking on this journey, and my first experiences with the Matterport camera one hundred feet below ground.] 

Part 1: I love a challenge

Even before receiving the first Matterport camera, I was dreaming of what locations I could capture with it that would be not only interesting, but historically relevant. I may be a photographer by day, but my hobby is History. Combining these two passions was one of the primary reasons I decided to become a 3D photographer: To preserve and share the Past in a new and innovative way.Even if that Past is 100,000 square feet!

Living in the National Capital region, there’s a few obvious locations on my short list. In reality, my first and only true goal was Canada’s Emergency Government Headquarters, also known commonly as ‘The Diefenbunker”. I’ve been fascinated with the place, ever since I heard there was a nuclear bunker built into the side of a hill. The reasons for its construction and the lengths they went to in order to preserve our government.

Let’s get ‘down’ to business

I originally made contact with the current tenants of the Diefenbunker over the Summer. The Diefenbunker Museum is a not-for-profit museum that aims to preserve history and promote better understanding of the Cold War. They offer guided tours, event space rental, escape rooms and many, many awesome experiences. Why wouldn’t they want to have their museum turned into a 3D model?

I had some concerns about scanning the bunker. For starters, I had never scanned any space even remotely that large. It was well over five times the recommended space limit of 20,000 square feet. I would have to divide the work into at least five models: one per level and one for the blast tunnel. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to do one model per level. The corridors and exhibits require lots of extra scans just to get it to align properly. If I couldn’t get a single level done in less than 300 ‘sweeps’ (individual 360-degree scans), I was going to have to divide it even more awkwardly.

Luckily I had two things on my side: a supportive client and almost unlimited access to the space. We decided to start with the infirmary on Level 400 (the top-most level) just to give me a baseline of what I could expect if I scanned the full space. The popular Escape Manor nights meant I could be in any part of the museum that they didn’t need until Midnight most nights. The greatest advantage I had going for me was the fact that being underground meant the light would be the most consistent environment possible. No chance of sunlight down here!

A small experiment gone awesome

I started my scanning journey in the corner of the operating room of the infirmary wing. I quickly discovered my first real obstacle: actual obstacles! They had barriers put up in certain doorways to keep people out of staged rooms with lots of relic items. As I went on, I would get a lot of practice manoeuvring the camera into awkward spaces. This was only the beginning.

It was slow going, but I managed to get the infirmary – which takes up about a quarter of Level 400 – done in about an hour. What to do with the other seven hours of access? I figured since that went so well, why not just keep going? I put the camera out into the long square corridor, and started to scan towards the next room.

Rather than scanning each room in sequence, I wasn’t sure what the best way to test the theory that I could get each level done in a single model. The suggestion actually came from the Diefenbunker employee (thanks Mike!) working the night shift. He pointed out that I could scan the outer corridor first, and go back and get each room. Genius! Of course. So I started by working my way down the hallway. By the time I had gone ’round the horn, I had already done over 100 scans, but if my estimates of each room proved accurate, it could be done.

224 Scans Later…

Several hours and many, many scans later, I had captured almost all of Level 400. It was a very taxing yet educational experience! I learned many interesting quirks of the Matterport system along the way. I was surprised how difficult it was to scan ‘boring’ hallways. I would do a scan and it would align the image in a completely different location! The fact was, with its repetitive and systematic design, the bunker would prove a challenge every sweep of the way.

I emerged from the bunker at around 11pm, sore, exhausted, and elated. I had managed to get an entire floor of the Diefenbunker in a single model; just over 220 individual scans. Within 24 hours I would have my first proof that not only was this endeavour possible, it was going to be fun. It was pure joy to be able to crawl around areas normally inaccessible to the public and capture a piece of history using a new and innovative technology.

One level down, three (and a tunnel) to go.