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Light Casters: Projection Artists Reveal Their Secrets

By Dustin Driver

Projection mapping is unlike any other artform, merging real-world environments with extraordinary displays of light and motion. Large-scale projection-mapping creations can dazzle large audiences, but artists are using projection mapping on a smaller scale as well, in hypnotic, otherworldly video projects. As projector prices fall and lamps become brighter, this artform is becoming more accessible—so we spoke to three veterans of the artform to see how it’s done and where it’s headed.

Projection has broken free from flat surfaces—we’re not talking about projecting onto a movie screen. With projection mapping, you’re not limited to a single flat rectangle: the world is your canvas—especially if your projector is bright enough. Most projection-mapping projects make use of buildings, sculptures, or other structures. Content—whatever’s being projected—is customized or “mapped” to that structure or object. A projection-mapping artist will often measure and chart the projection surface before creating any media. In this way, the surface can become part of the art itself. For example, an artist projecting onto a building may map certain images or graphics onto windows or balconies while mapping other images to the rest of the building.

TAKING VIEWERS OUT OF THIS WORLD

The results can be incredible. “You’re taking people into a different space,” says veteran projection artist Bart Kresa (of BARTKRESA studio) “You’re changing the landscape to create something new and almost otherworldly. The first time I experienced a large-scale projection project, it was like walking inside of my own brain. I fell in love with that experience.”

Designed by BARTKRESA studio, Magic Lantern 3D is a permanent projection mapping installation on the facade of the San Mateo County Museum in Redwood City, California. Click on the image to watch.

Large-scale outdoor projection dates back to the invention of the movie projector in the 1880s. Mapping images onto complex objects, however, wasn’t really popularized until the famed Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland opened in 1969. The ride features several stunning optical illusions made with projectors—such as the disembodied heads, known as the “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” singing the ride’s theme song. To create the effect, Disney’s techs projected 16mm movies of actors singing onto carefully modeled busts. Later, large-scale projects were popularized by Krzysztof Wodiczko, who projected artwork on buildings around the world to spark conversation about the corporatization of government, architecture’s role in society, and much more. These kinds of projected art installations continued into the ’90s and started to become more widespread as digital projector technology became more affordable.

Today there are dozens of top-notch studios that specialize in projection art—creating either outdoor experiences or immersive indoor experiences. Kresa started creating large-scale projects in the mid-1990s—simpler times, in some ways. “We had to do things by hand; masking was done with pieces of paper and photographs. Today, we can start with a computer, start conceptualizing, and visualize things using software. It's much easier,” he says.

Designed by BARTKRESA studio, light projections on the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

STARTING WITH A BLANK CANVAS

Kresa now starts with an in-depth survey of the space—photographs, videos, and so on. For him, the “canvas” plays an integral role in creating the piece. The architecture dictates the animation and drives the piece.

Longtime projection artist Dylan Roscover of The Experiential takes the same approach. “How things move on a building is very different from how they move on a screen,” he says. “On a building, you're limited to very specific framework, how the façade interacts with the content. You have to work inside that.”

In some cases, the buildings become artwork. Warner Brothers asked Kresa to transform buildings into animals using high-powered projectors. He visited the site and was immediately inspired by the architecture itself. "I thought, ‘This arch is going to become the trunk of an elephant, and we can use those circular elements as eyes and build a monkey face around them.’ In that case, definitely, the architecture influenced our design.”

Shogyo Mujo is a transient 3D projection-mapped skull—a collaboration between BARTKRESA studio, artist Joshua Harker, and staging company WorldStage. Click on the image to watch.

Once the canvas, or “screen,” has been examined and cataloged, the artists map out their visuals. In Kresa and Roscover’s case, concepts typically take shape in Adobe Photoshop CC or Illustrator CC. Digital sketches are presented to clients, and once the concept is approved, visual artists get to work. In the world of projection mapping, digital tools abound. Kresa and his team use a mishmash of Maya, Cinema 4D, 3D Studio Max, and Zbrush for 3D work. Flat visuals are handed with a combination of Photoshop and Illustrator. Kresa’s team brings it all together in Adobe After Effects CC for final animation. Files are exported for each projector (if there are multiple projectors) and synchronized with timecode. In some cases, Kresa runs a video server on site that lets him manipulate animations on the fly, create one-off live performances that match current conditions.

GREAT LOCATIONS, INGENIOUS SOLUTIONS

Locations offer inspiration, but they also present challenges. In many cases, there simply isn’t a good place for projectors. Most commercial projectors pump out enough light to blind bystanders, so they can’t be placed at eye level. Adjacent buildings often offer great perches, but even then there can be conflicts. “Projectors are designed to protect 90 degrees onto a flat wall or screen. For us, sometimes the projector sits on a 20-degree angle or a 30-degree angle, so we have to do a lot of modification or extra work to get a clear image,” says Kresa.

The Infinity Wall was a projection collaboration between David Corwin and his company, Megavision Arts; BARTKRESA studio; Vincent Rogozyk; and animators Maciej Bałauszko and Michał Czubak. Click on the image to watch, or read more about this project here.

“You’d be surprised how much of it is actually done with mirrors,” says Roscover. “We often hide projectors and then reflect the projection onto the surface to make a seamless experience.” Likewise, Kresa makes ample use of mirrors. For one current installation, his team installed 18 projectors in the floor of a conference room and bounced their beams to the walls through custom-built mirrored towers. Nearly every projection project requires some form of custom fabrication to pull off.

The projection surfaces also pose challenges. In an ideal world, says Roscover, projection surfaces would be pure black and projectors will be almost infinitely bright, the combo delivering the highest contrast possible. In reality, even the best projection screens are light gray in order to produce bright images (without being washed out). And when you’re projecting onto brick walls, cement, or wood, contrast can be a problem. Black as we know it in print and film and on the Web doesn’t exist in a projection—the darkest part of the projection is the darkest part of the surface, yet a dark surface limits peak brightness. To compensate, artists again have to adapt their content to the canvas.

THE MAKING OF SHOGYO MUJO

In some cases, though, the canvas can be adapted to the content. Artist Josh Harker, Kresa, and Roscover created a 12-foot (3.7-meter) skull titled Shogyo Mujo specifically for projection. The skull can be assembled anywhere it’ll fit, and artists can create motion graphics to suit. “Shogyo Mujo means ‘nothing is permanent’ in Japanese,” says Roscover. “The idea was to create different skull animations and designs ranging from abstract to very colorful, floral patterns, geometric shapes, and transition between them to show this concept of Shogyo Mujo. Nothing is permanent; everything is always transient and changing in our world.”

Technically, Shogyo Mujo is a low-polygon skull surrounded by four projectors on towers. Each projector beams imagery onto the skull, creating a 360-degree canvas. Designing artwork for the project was a challenge, requiring some 3D trickery borrowed from game design. “We're trying to wrap a flat image around a 3D object,” says Roscover. “We use something called UV mapping. It’s like literally unwrapping an object onto a flat piece of paper.”

Images of Shogyo Mujo.

The team sketched imagery in Illustrator and Photoshop on the flattened skull, then mapped it to a 3D object in Photoshop for a preview. “We didn’t have much experience with 3D video games, so we made ends meet by rendering four views of the head, and we illustrated using these cause we could see the face and it was accurate and made sense. For almost every design, it worked really well,” says Roscover. Animations were handled in After Effects, with 3D previews courtesy of the Element 3D plugin.

PROJECTION FOR EDUCATION

Shogyo Mujo is undoubtedly a piece of projection artwork, meant to explore the themes impermanence and transition in human life. But projection can also be used to explore more concrete concepts, like science. Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a 3D projection project by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It’s essentially a six-foot animated globe that can display real-time climate info and other data about the planet. The project was developed by NOAA and is installed in dozens of museums and science centers all over the world. Visitors can see global weather patterns, temperatures, forest distribution, food crop density, population density, fault lines, tectonic plates, volcanic activity—virtually any global data collected by the scientific community.

SOS is an open-source project. In fact, setup info is available online for anyone to see. Datasets and visuals are also made available for download and are constantly being updated and improved. SOS has ongoing partnerships with other agencies and scientific bodies. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) recently provided datasets that show wind, solar, and geothermal power stations across the world. A 2D version of SOS is also available for download on Windows or Mac. The desktop app lets you examine all the datasets available for the full 3D SOS at home or in a classroom.

THE FUTURE OF PROJECTION MAPPING

Despite being around for more than 40 years, projection mapping is still in the early stages of development. We could, however, be on the verge of a revolution. Projection systems are getting brighter and cheaper, and new technology on the horizon could change everything. Laser projectors could potentially overcome many of the limitations of optical projectors. Instead of beaming light through a lens, laser projectors create images by sweeping or scanning lasers onto the projector surface. They’re brighter, they’re easier to focus, they use less power, and they last much longer than traditional projectors. Most standard projectors can run between 3,000 and 6,000 hours before needing an expensive (sometimes $1,000 or more) bulb replacement. Laser printers can run for up to 20,000 hours without maintenance. That’s about 40 hours a week for a decade. That means permanent installations featuring work by different artists, animators, and even filmmakers. Sort of like 3D projection theaters built for specific locations, says Kresa.

The same technology could make large-scale augmented reality projects, well, a reality. Multiple projectors and 3D position sensors could create an almost holodeck-like experience for large groups of people without the use of cumbersome VR headsets. Projection and video artist Vincent Rogozyk imagines a projection-based system for remote conferencing and communication. “I love thinking about spaces for people where they can interact with each other just like they would interact normally, using projectors and cameras,” he says. “In virtual reality, you don’t really see yourself or other people as they are. With something like this, you would see yourself in this fantasy world. We haven’t really been able to do that in the past.”

Automated focusing systems will also be a boon to the industry, says Rogozyk. These systems use laser scanners to precisely measure distances and focus projectors automatically, making on-location setup much easier and more precise. Projectors are also getting smaller, which will make impromptu outdoor projects more commonplace.

The one hurdle that projection has yet to overcome, however, will probably never be defeated: Daylight. “In the end, the biggest challenge is that you have to wait until dark,” says Rogozyk. “That has always been a problem and we’ll probably never solve it.”