April 4, 2017
By Peter Saunders
Projection mapping has the capacity to transform any object into a colourful screen with motion graphics, three-dimensional (3-D) animation and video. Driven by a new generation of digital projectors, the technology can cover not just flat walls and traditional screens, but also irregular shapes, objects and entire building façades, with dynamic graphics.
How light excites
One reason for the popularity of projection mapping is how light influences human emotions and moods. At the University of Toronto (U of T), a series of studies exposed participants to a variety of light levels while they judged a variety of sensations, such as taste. The results showed high levels of brightness correlated to heightened responses. In the brighter room, for example, participants favoured spicier flavours of chicken wings, along with feeling better about positive words and worse about negative ones. Bright lights, it turns out, excite the brain in many ways.
Public venues have long used lighting to great effect, from light-diffracting chandeliers over the dancefloors of the 1920s to the mirror balls of the disco craze in the ’70s to the laser light shows of the ’80s and ’90s. Projection mapping is the natural progression of this trend, allowing entire environments to be ‘painted’ with immersive imagery.
From niche to mainstream
Disney actually pioneered 3-D projections back in 1969 with the Haunted Mansion display at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., where plaster busts appeared to come to life, talking and singing to onlookers. The high costs of producing such effects, however, kept the technology out of the mainstream for many years to come.
Today, with more affordable high-lumen projectors, mapping has become increasingly common. Digital Light Processing (DLP) projection technology has been succeeded by brighter liquid crystal display (LCD) technology and, similarly, bulbs are being replaced by lasers. As the projectors have become smaller and lighter, they can more easily be transported and placed almost anywhere, including stacked and linear-linked configurations for seamlessly edge-blended panoramic and towering images.
At the same time, advanced software has been developed to simplify the process of creating images and synchronizing them with sound. And even reasonably priced notebook computers have sufficient power to render, host and serve up such multimedia content.
The great outdoors
Large-scale outdoor projections have perhaps garnered the most attention. Last fall, for example, Toronto’s Casa Loma—a Gothic Revival-style estate that has become a major tourist attraction and special event venue—was visually transformed for a Halloween attraction dubbed ‘Legends of Horror.’
Throughout the month of October, Liberty Entertainment Group commissioned video jockey (VJ) Scott Guy, lead video technician for EMD Show Systems, to projection-map Casa Loma’s 8,631-m2 (90,000-sf) exterior façade with a themed mix of graphics and video content, developed by Toronto-based Big Digital Studios.
Legends of Horror’s storyline featured such famous horror characters as Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Guy used AV Stumpfl’s Wings Vioso software to map the surface of Casa Loma, calibrate the characters’ images to the architecture and then display them on it via four high-definition (HD) digital projectors.
“It is definitely the single biggest project I have ever worked on,” he says.
“We were blown away with the vision and couldn’t wait to bring the castle to life,” says Michael Girgis, co-founder of Big Digital.
Elsewhere on the grounds, EMD Show Systems controlled several other projection effects and managed sound design through 10 separate channels. In total, visitors toured more than 1.5 km (0.9 mi) through the estate, including the lower gardens and tunnels, many of which has been previously unseen by tourists.
“We had been working on this concept for more than two years with a team of 30 show production crew members,” explains Nick Di Donato, president and CEO of Liberty Group. “The event featured a cast of more than 100 actors. We were excited to work with the best partners to put this project together.”
Indoor applications have also displayed much creative potential. Projection mapping at stadiums and arenas, for instance, has become a highly popular method for boosting the crowd’s energy during pre-game and halftime shows. With the affordability of the technology, even colleges have developed and staged full-court presentations.
Smaller-scale implementations have proven just as impressive. In 2013, as country singer Carrie Underwood performed at the 55th annual Grammy Awards, her dress served as a projection mapping surface, featuring butterflies, roses and other bright images.
“We had the dress specially made,” she explained backstage at the time. “I should take it home and we can watch movies on it!”
Indeed, there are many possibilities for custom-fabricating surfaces for projection mapping. Canvases may be made of paper or cloth, but one of the best options is corrugated plastic sheet, which is flexible, highly reflective, waterproof, more durable than many other materials and available in flame-retardant versions. It can be held together with tape or Velcro, so it can be folded up and stored easily. Producers are limited only by their imagination and modelling skills.
Doing it all
One company that has handled projection mapping projects both big and small is All of it Now (AOIN), a creative design agency that uses digital projectors for all sorts of events. Managing partner Danny Firpo came to the industry from the club scene, where he had developed dynamic visuals working with disc jockeys (DJs).
“I got into projection mapping about six years ago,” he explains. “Compared to my earlier work, it felt like a more cohesive set of tools for telling bigger stories. I started by experimenting with styles in nightclubs before getting into more outdoor events and projecting images on everything from trees to boulders. Even a brick wall adds so much texture to the content.”
Firpo describes his current role as equal parts artist and technician, requiring both right- and left-brain thinking, with an understanding of everything from content design to hardware rigging.
“One of the biggest challenges is testing out a new venue, which calls for a thorough site visit,” he says. “We take photos for previsualization (previs), which is great for composition purposes. In a perfect world, we have the architectural drawings for reference too, but that’s certainly not always possible.”
Based on the venue details and the client’s budget, Firpo determines what mix of projectors to use, in which configuration. He explains he often favours using a larger number of small projectors, rather than the more expensive proposition of relying on just a few high-end systems.
“We once stacked 10 LCD projectors on top of each other for a 6-m (20-ft) tall cylindrical projection at a trade show, whereas another company might have pulled too much power with a DLP system,” he says. “We used a previs ‘fly-through’ to win that project, as we were able to help the client understand why we needed what we needed and how bright it would be. It mainly comes down to calculating the throw distance. For a large outdoor festival, that might be to 9 to 18 m (30 to 60 ft), but indoors, there are very short distances for trade show and retail applications.”
In one example for a holiday charity event, AOIN digitally projected a cascade of candy and cookies that appeared to flow down a flight of stairs.
In another, the ceiling of the Jash Yellow Stage at the 10th-anniversary Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas, was mapped with six projectors to simulate a planetarium.
“When artists like Danny push the envelope for what can be done with projection mapping, they inspire other clients and help create further demand for the technology,” says Gavin Downey, a senior product manager for Epson, which manufactures digital projectors. “We solicit their feedback, which in turn helps us improve our products.”
By way of example, manufacturers of digital projectors have improved the ease of mounting and integrating them with third-party equipment.
“A lot of the impact comes down to the lenses,” says Downey. “You need to focus on the best optics, sharpness and lens shift. Having a wide array of lenses available with significant vertical and horizontal shift provides greater flexibility for artists.”
Most recently, AOIN rear-projected imagery onto the windshield and two windows of an Infiniti QX30, such that the person sitting inside views dynamic content from a driver’s perspective, as though he/she were moving along a road. (The windshield mapping is also visible to viewers outside the vehicle.) Given the size of each window panel, this project exemplifies the comparative advantages of projectors over the more typical formats for digital signage: LCD panels and light-emitting diode (LED) arrays.
“If those windows were custom-cut LCDs, the project would be cost-
prohibitive,” says Firpo, “and with LED screens, you’d feel like you were seeing the product, not the content. Part of the magic of projection mapping is how immersive it is.”
With files from Epson Canada, Big Digital and AOIN. For more information, visit www.epson.ca, www.bigdigital.ca and www.allofitnow.com.
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