Mari Boghossian wasn’t convinced the person on the phone was serious. He was describing a project to write something on a dry lake in Nevada. He needed to write it big enough to be read from high above the ground — very high.

Mari manages office operations for George G. Boghossian and Associates, an engineering and surveying firm in Glendale, Calif. She handed the call to her husband and company vice president, Eric Boghossian. The caller was Johnny Lee, a producer with Duo Films, a production company in Los Angeles. After speaking for a few minutes, Eric knew that Lee was quite serious about a very intriguing project.

Lee explained that his company produces commercial films for the automotive and electronics industries. One of their clients, Innocean Worldwide, had approached them with a film concept for Hyundai Motor Company. The story would highlight a 13-year-old girl from Houston named Stephanie. Her father was an astronaut onboard the International Space Station (ISS) and was on a mission that would keep him away from home for more than six months.

Stephanie wanted to send a message to her dad. Innocean developed the idea of taking a handwritten note from Stephanie and making it large enough to be read from the ISS orbiting roughly 248 miles (400 kilometers) above the Earth. The letters in the note would need to be more than 1,000 feet tall (300 meters) and written with the equivalent of a pen 100 feet (30 meters) wide. But how could they write a message that big?

The producers and creative teams threw around several ideas. One approach was to use lights that were visible from space — another involved ropes and structures. The team considered other ideas before the concept emerged to use Hyundai cars to carve the message into the ground. The project would use 11 cars choreographed to drive in formation along precise paths to write out the message. Land and airborne camera crews would film the activities to create the commercial.

The first task was to find a suitable location. Duo Films has produced numerous commercials in desert settings and Lee thought that a dry lake bed would serve their needs. After considering sites in California and Texas, they worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Nevada. The BLM suggested Delamar Dry Lake, located 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Las Vegas. Delamar has long been used as a testing and training ground for military flights, and the BLM was comfortable with the plan to write Stephanie’s message onto the dry lakebed. The location met technical criteria as well, including the logistics of reasonable access, as well as lodging and support for a large production crew. There was little worry that the project would cause permanent damage to the lakebed. The BLM knew that wind and rain would quickly erase the writing, a fact that would cause significant concern for Lee and the Boghossians.

Next, Lee tackled the work of accurately reproducing the handwritten message. He knew the job would require a surveyor to handle mapping the landscape and keeping everything in scale. Beginning in autumn of 2014, Lee pitched the project to several local engineering and surveying firms. “I felt most comfortable with the Boghossians,” Lee recalled. “I told Eric that we are trying to write large letters on a dry lake bed, large enough to be visible from the air. I gave them the area of the location that we had in mind and let them know we were trying to fill three or four miles of dry lake bed with carved lettering.”

Eric said that initially the project didn’t seem complex, but soon recognized that the scale of the work would carry challenges. Using a scanned image of Stephanie’s message to her dad, they digitized the lettering. They needed to digitize enough points to scale the message from a letter-size sheet of paper to cover much of the lake bed’s approximately 2,200 acres (890 hectares). “We maintained the irregular slopes and breaks of her note,” Mari said. “We didn’t want it to look like a standard font. It needed to look like her actual handwriting.” Lee provided additional information, including the width of the cars that would drive on the lake bed and the desired size of the letters.

For the Boghossians, working in the remote high desert on a site nearly two miles across would be much different than their customary projects in urbanized southern California. They would need to survey the existing site and then work with art teams to determine the message’s location on the lake. Eric and Mari knew they would be on site for several days to conduct the mapping and layout. The schedule would include some unusual constraints.

Wind, Orbits and the Air Force

The orbital path of the ISS with Stephanie’s dad onboard passes over Delamar Dry Lake at irregular intervals, with many passes occurring at night. The message needed to be ready in time for a daylight pass with the station nearly directly overhead. The next suitable pass would occur in late January 2015 — not a pleasant time of year at Delamar. Winter in the high Nevada desert brings cold temperatures and biting wind. The strong winds scour the lake bed to produce the smooth, flat surface the teams needed. But a windstorm at the wrong time could obliterate the writing before the ISS could see it. Any clouds could obscure the view from the space station and produce unwanted shadows on the ground. The film team and surveyors knew exactly when the ISS would pass over, but the project would remain at the mercy of the weather.

In addition to wind and clouds, the sky harbored another, unexpected issue — the U.S. Air Force. The area is frequently used for aerial training. “Every morning at 6 a.m. they would come around with fighter jets for practice,” Mari said. “We called it our daily aerial show.” As part of the planning, the BLM contacted the Air Force and learned that Delamar Lake was slated for a landing practice exercise. “The day after the filming was scheduled to wrap up, the Air Force was coming in to do their test landing,” Eric said. “So, wind or no wind, whatever was on the surface of the ground was going to get ripped up.” Given that information, missing the schedule simply was not an option.

A Clean, Flat Canvas

Eric and Mari, together with colleague Mark Price, arrived at Delamar Lake in a rented recreational vehicle that would serve as their on-site residence and mobile field office, equipped with a desktop computer, printer and large-format plotter. The team was struck by the variety of conditions. At an elevation of 4,550 feet (1,390 meters), the January nights at Delamar are very cold, often dipping below 20°F (-7°C). Mari became adept at conserving the propane fuel that the RV used to keep the people and equipment warm. The desert setting supplied a unique benefit. “Living in Los Angeles, we don’t get to see the clear sky,” Mari said. “At Delamar during the day it was crisp and clean, blue sky. We had spectacular sunsets and then later, when it got pitch black, we got to see the Milky Way.” 

The surveyors’ first task was establishing control for the mapping and layout. With no cellular service in the area and no requirement of ties to geodetic control, Mark set a few reference points and used a pair of Trimble R10 GNSS receivers to capture their positions. Then he used the GNSS data to devise a local coordinate reference system for the project. From there, the team started mapping the site. They collected data on the perimeter of the lake bed, a large rock outcrop and a power transmission line passing through the site.

With the mapping complete, the Boghossians worked with the project art director to orient the writing onto the lake. They needed to maximize the size and obtain optimal lighting angles from the sun. The art director also wanted to incorporate the rock outcrop into the message; it would serve as an apostrophe. To add one more twist, representatives from Guinness World Records would witness the event to certify the work as the “Largest Tire Track” image ever created. The lettering became even bigger, and Eric, Mari and Mark plotted several options before the final layout was selected. They then created centerline alignments for the lettering and computed coordinates for stakeout.

The smooth lake bed was the canvas onto which Lee’s team would write the message. Because a vehicle would leave tracks that might distract from the writing, the surveyors were not allowed to use a truck or ATV. Every time they went on the lakebed, they walked. “I think that was difficult for everybody,” Lee said. “The area was large, but we couldn’t access it by car or we’d leave tracks everywhere and then our canvas wouldn’t be blank. So we had the surveyors and art department marking the path of travel for the vehicles. They were walking on the surface eight to 10 miles a day for a whole week. That was probably one of the hardest things.”

The surface was a powdery dust that got everywhere. “Every night we would try to clean it,” Eric recalled. “If you plopped down on the couch in the RV, you’d let off this big poof of dust.” When dampened by overnight frost, the lake bed became very sticky. “As you’re walking, every step of the way you build up a 1/8-inch of goo on your boots. You get taller and taller until you finally slide off or you can’t lift your feet up. You’re stuck to the lake,” he said.

The surveyors used a Trimble R10 GNSS receiver and TSC3 controller running Trimble Access software to lay out the points. They were accompanied by a team from the art crew. Each letter was assigned a group of points, and Eric and Mark divided the field work. Eric said that the stakeout process was straightforward. “We’d decide where to start for the day and tell the controller, ‘I want to go to, say, point number 1,400.’ The controller display tells us, ‘Okay, go about 5,000 feet this way and 4,000 feet that way and that’s your start point,’ and we just start walking. Lots of walking.’” When the surveyors set a point, the art crew would measure and place offset points 50 feet (15.2 meters) on each side of the centerline. The points were marked with pin flags, which would not be visible in the film. A film crew accompanied the surveyors, shooting video for the commercial and a companion film about how the commercial was made.

The team worked long hours, starting well before sunrise. Each morning, the surveyors needed to wait for the film crew to set up to film the work. The production staff was housed in hotels in the nearest towns, which were a 90-minute drive from the site. “I think we filled almost every hotel room within a two-hour radius of the project,” Lee said. The production crews would leave in mid-afternoon and the surveyors then worked on calculations and setting up and checking their equipment for the next day’s work. “Once everyone had left, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment. We’d work until about six or seven o’clock and that was about it; we’d eat and go to sleep,” Mari said. Mari also worked to produce plans and technical images for the film’s art director; often staying up until early morning hours. She could then sleep for a few hours before resuming duties to support the field survey teams.

The stakeout took four days, but Eric believes they could have completed it in two if not accompanied by the film crews and art teams. By the time the surveyors finished their work, they had staked 47,000 feet (14,000 meters) of centerline at 100-foot (30-meter) intervals. They also worked with the production team to plan the routes the cars would take between letters to minimize any visible tracks. Finally, the Delamar lakebed was ready for the team of drivers to etch Stephanie’s message into the ground.

The New Record

The weather cooperated. When the message was complete, the Guinness team certified it as a new world record, covering more than 2.1 mi2 (5.5 km2). The Boghossian team remained at Delamar Lake during the driving and filming. At the height of the project, there were more than 100 people on the site. “We pretty much just stayed out of the way,” Eric said. “We couldn’t follow the crews because we might end up in the shots, and they didn’t want that. They were constantly taking ground shots and filming from the helicopter.”

As the driving and filming wrapped up, word went to Stephanie’s dad aboard the ISS, advising him to look for the lake bed at a certain time. He captured the scene with a digital camera and radioed a thank you to his daughter and the crew. Eric, Mari and Mark could finally pack up their equipment and return to the warm climate in Los Angeles.

Duo Films had accomplished their mission. “We got through it with no missed deadlines and didn’t have any weather issues,” Lee said. “The film was obviously a big hit this year. I honestly didn’t think it would be this successful. But it turned out great. The director, ad agency and the creatives involved did a great job putting the footage together and telling a heartfelt story.” The work reinforced his belief in working as a team. “Nobody could do this alone,” he laughed. “It’s always a collaborative effort. I have learned not to micromanage. Let the experts do what they do best and trust them to do their job.”

As Eric reflected on the experience, he was glad they had taken that first phone call from Duo Films. “What sounds like a far-fetched project can turn out to be interesting and even fun,” he said. Most of his company’s projects don’t require GNSS and he saw the Hyundai commercial as a good opportunity. It was an ideal project to use GNSS and gain a new client. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Out-Of-This World Map

For your next trip, you might want to take along a map. If that trip includes SpaceX founder Elon Musk, you could be shopping with the UK’s Ordnance Survey (OS) which has produced a Mars map.

Musk has been widely quoted on his optimistic timelines for travel to Mars, and David Henderson, OS director of products, acknowledges: “The private sector and space agencies are currently in competition to land the first person on Mars. Becoming more familiar with space is something that interests us all and the opportunity to apply our innovative cartography and mapping tradecraft to a different planet was something we couldn’t resist.”

The group used NASA open data to produce the map. Data was primarily collected by NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission. Names came from the International Astronomical Union. The data was translated into ESRI formats and then standard cartographic routines in GIS used to create contours, hillshading, colors, initial name placement, etc., OS explains.

Henderson continues, “We were asked to map an area of Mars in an OS style because our maps are easy to understand and present a compelling visualization, and because of this we can envisage their usefulness in planning missions and for presenting information about missions to the public.”

The new map covers a 3,672-by-2,721 kilometer extent of the Mars surface (3.8m sq miles or roughly the size of the United States) and has been produced to a scale of 1 to 4 million. Chris Wesson, the OS cartographic design consultant who designed the map says: “We have set out from the start to treat the Mars data no different to how we would treat OS Great Britain data or any other Earth-based geography. Even though the principles are the same, the design and the aesthetics of an Earth map differ considerably. The key ingredients to this style are the soft color palette of the base combined with the traditional map features such as contours and grid lines, and the map sheet layout complete with legend. Once I understood the datasets and projection properly, the process was the essentially the same [as producing a conventional terrestrial map].

Back on Earth in its home market, OS notes the depth and breadth of data it produces and manages is data so big, yet simultaneously so granular and accurate that the location of every fixed physical object in Great Britain, from the ground up, is registered. The huge database it maintains is kept fresh by a team of 270 surveyors and aircraft that produce more than 10,000 updates to the system each day.

As OS celebrates 225 years the organization notes it last created a map of outside of British shores in the mid-1990s.

With the level of interest in the Mars map, OS has created a printed version to hang on the wall. It is available from OS at https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/maps/mars-map.html.