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Obscura Digital: Art Spectacles and Other Remarkable Things
by Karl Cohen
Sidney's Spectacular Opera House made even more magnificent by San Francisco's state of the art spectaculizers, Obscura Digital. photo: courtesy Obscura Digital
We live in a world that loves spectacles—the "Society of the Spectacle," according to French philosopher Guy Debord—and one of the latest developments in that department are spectacular light shows with music. During performances in the 19th century, Handel’s “Water Music” was often accompanied by fireworks but today’s events use carefully planned, computer generated projections using “architectural mapping to precisely to fit the performance space they were designed for. Companies like San Francisco's Obscura Digital are providing the visuals for these elaborate programs and, just as important, corporate and civic- minded sponsors see value in supporting these events.
YouTube Orchestra Does the Sydney Opera House
One of the most elaborate recent events was YouTube's weeklong celebration of traditional and classical music in Sydney, Australia which climaxed on March 20, 2011 with San Francisco's Michael Tilson Thomas conducting 101 young musicians in a two plus hour concert. Musicians from 33 countries on five continents auditioned online to be in the orchestra and the concert was viewed live around the world over the Internet.
Obscura Digital spectacles often blanket both the inside and the outside of the edifice, the latter using dozens of super-high lumen projectors. photo: courtesy Obscura Digital
Obscura Digital was hired to design and present the light show months in advance so their staff could have enough time to develop the appropriate visuals to accompany each piece of music to be performed that night. To make the project even more incredible as well as complicated, the digital visuals would be projected both inside AND outside of the enormous and landmark Sydney Opera building, which stands just off the harbor. Conuctor Thomas wasn’t kidding when he announced, “This will not be just an ordinary concert.”
To project the images, ten 20,000 lumen digital projectors were installed inside the opera house and seven of these enormous projectors were aimed at the building's unusual looking exterior, some from a raised walkway of a ferry terminal across the inlet, which required renting special lenses to accommodate the long throw.
Obscura Digital’s artists and engineers had to develop the needed images and software to run the show. Two directors connected to their teams using headsets directed the teams of light show artists and the 17 digital projectors. Not computorized, perhaps because the live performance made that unfeasable, each director used cue sheets and video feeds of the conductor to make sure visuals changed on the right musical note.
A wide variety of visuals were used in the show, ranging from live video feeds of the conductor and musicians to abstract images, animated effects and figurative elements. There is both a five-minute short showing highlights of the evening and a copy of the entire concert as it was broadcast live around the world on Obscura Digital’s
The Images and Software
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Colin Miller who designed and animated many of the elements used, including in the concert’s finale, Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” He used Adobe After Effects to manipulate lots of images including cutouts, watercolors, floral images, and dozens of other things. Each image had to be simple enough so the visuals would be free flowing and to avoid slowing down computers by being too detailed. As a result the firebird was represented by hints of moving feathers and wings and the goblins were represented by dark fabrics and claws. Glimpses of the “Firebird” visuals can be seen on the video of the concert starting at 1-hour 59-minutes.
To create elements that moved spontaneously and to make them more interesting, Miller sometimes used multiplane effects or images painted with watercolors on textured paper to get interesting and unexpected results. Whatever he did he needed to keep the forms simple enough so that the audience can understand his elements quickly, he told me. He used simple silhouettes of forms rather than “fussy” depictions in order to give the audience a “quick read.” He added that it is a real challenge to create a visual narrative at this point but he is learning how.
Prior to joining Obscura, Miller worked with traditional animation companies including WildBrain, Colossal Pictures and Carl’s Fine Films. His present work is presenting lots of new challenges. There were other designers working on the event who had different backgrounds. Some are masters at developing technical effects that can be mixed in by the director with the animation and/or live video feeds as desired. For the Sydney show, there were two to three live feeds at any given time that could be added to the established digital imagery.
The CG effects the Obscura can create range from kaleidoscope images mutating slowly or quickly, streams of geometric forms, rivers of color and so many hundreds of other incredible visuals that, rather than my trying to describe them, just go thier footage on their website of the Sydney concert and of other events.
Obscura uses a FireFrame server platform to make their big “architectural mapping” events run smoothly. It allows them to synchronize and map multiple, high-resolution video streams. The digital mapping software compensates for geometry and provides corrections in real-time, resulting in a seamless image on virtually any surface, with almost limitless resolution and brightness.
The relaunch of a Google building in New York is highlighted by Obscura Digital. photo: courtesy Obscura Digital
Obscura Digital was founded in 2000 by Travis Threlkel and Chris Lejeune. When they teamed up, Travis was experimenting with surround cameras and new types of projection and Chris was exploring innovative ways to use Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome. What started as an adventure in immersive media and a few technological inventions has expanded today to a company of sixty and a compelling portfolio of intellectual property.
Much of their work is creating unique things or experiences that will build brand awareness for their clients. Much of their work is for major corporations (3M, GM, Audi, Adobe, Microsoft, HP, IBM, Honda and many more leading brands). Obscura Digital is not an animation company, but they use animation extensively in some of their projects.
The company is a remarkable think tank and laboratory that creates and delivers physical, immersive and interactive experiences. They try to make each new project more exciting, meaningful and impressive than the last. The determination of their staff to reach new heights is at the core of their creative philosophy.
A visit to Obscura Digital’s website shows stills and video clips from dozens of amazing projects from their past including more impressive light shows. In 2009 they worked on the first YouTube concert. It was held at Carnegie Hall in New York and was also conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Then in 2010 they covered both the insides and exterior walls of the Guggenheim Museum in New Your for the YouTube Play Awards Show.
In San Francisco, they covered the two block long City Hall with imagers in 2010 for a four-hour Black and White Ball party that benefited the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. For an event for McAfee, a computer security software firm, they covered the facades of two historic San Francisco Mint buildings with projections. Inside the buildings the government once had giant presses that were used to make coins. Visit their website to see images from these and other events for Eastman Kodak, Google and other corporate clients.
Visiting Obscura Digital
To better understand what this unusual company is and to discover other impressive kinds of things they have done I was invited to visit them. The company is located in an old block long warehouse that has a nice contemporary steal and glass façade and inside the space has been turned into a modern innovative looking three story 40,000 square foot structure designed by Iwamoto Scott Architecture. This is a great space where visionary ideas can become real.
On the ground floor, we walked past a large sound studio that is under construction and then entered a giant dimly lit space full of state of the art things the company has created. Inside a 30 foot dome, there is a high-powered digital projector that can fill the dome with imagery. Sit back and enjoy a journey into outer space, through forests or into abstract worlds. The company uses this small theatre to wow clients. They have created larger dome experiences, up to 90 feet across, for Google, Cannon and other corporations.
Surrounding the dome are samples of several amazing interactive touch screen displays built by Obscura. The one for Heineken was used in 2010 at four high-end parties (in Miami, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles). Party goers viewed new and old beer advertisements, saw lots of new and historic photos, and explored the heritage of the brand while enjoying the tasty brew. The six-foot tall, holographic touch screens displayed images of Heineken assets in vivid color and with excellent sound quality. It engaged party goers in a futuristic and memorable way.
A more impressive experience for me was playing with their Rock Wall developed for the Hard Rock Café chain. They are in daily use in several of their businesses around the world. Looking at the16 feet long by 4 feet high touch screen you see lots of rock and roll memorabilia floating in a dark space. By seemingly touching one of the images it enlarges the picture so you can see it better. A second touch brings you information about the history of the item. Obsucra Digital says they use the most advanced 3D user-tracking system in the business to control this display.
Other high tech amusements were on display including a pool table with a digital projector above it. Roll a ball across the table and the surface appears to turn into water and the ball seems to be plowing through it with quite realistic looking animated waves being created as the ball moves through. Although I didn’t spend much time looking at this item for the ultimate bachelor pad, the company’s website says, “Obscura’s projection, sensor and tracking system reveals images and animations that ‘follow’ the movements of the pool balls as players hit them around the table. You supply the pool table and we supply the system and customized content designed to create any type of experience you can imagine, from relaxing to rockin’.”
If you go up an extremely wide grand stairway to the second floor and you find yourself in a totally different space. There is a large glassed in conference room, the comfortable screening room where Colin Miller told me about his work, offices and lots of open space with floor to ceiling picture windows offering spectacular views of San Francisco.
The third floor is where the creative team develops current and future projects. Some of the comfortable work areas are full of the staff members’ toys. One person had an extremely impressive collection of robots. There were also several Kinect units used with the Xbox 360 scattered around the studio as several staff members were studying how the company could develop new things inspired by using this low cost technology.
Obscura Digital brought 45 of its super-projectors to Atlanta to honor the 125th anniversary of Coca Cola. photo: courtesy Obscura Digital
When I visited the studio they were developing a giant outdoor show to be projected on all four sides of Coke-Cola’s headquarters, a 29 story skyscraper in Atlanta, Georgia. It took place on weekends in May to honor the 125th anniversary of the company. The resolution of each projected image was 7000 pixels by 4000 (digital movies in theatres have a lower resolution) and whopping 45 projectors were used to literally embalm the entire building in light. Videos of the event are on Digital Obscura’s website and on YouTube.
The Society of the Spectacle's Future
Obscura Digital is the kind of company Marshall McLuhan could barely imagine existing when he wrote about the future half a century ago. Their products are emerging from ideas that were barely envisioned in the early SIGGRAPH shows in the late 20th Century. They are a young company just beginning to create new ways to advertise and promote corporations, new ways to entertain patrons at the most trendy of clubs, and to create new things for individuals who want to own the most amazing high tech devices money can buy. Just a few years ago such spectacular objects and displays could only exist in dreams, but now the technology is beginning to exist that lets the company’s designers, artists and engineers turn those dreams into reality.
Just as important, modern society has enough discretionary income to afford such luxuries. In the present corporate climate it appears that despite the recent economic problems of the US and in other countries, there is a need and the money to make corporations and businesses stand out from their competition. I expect companies like Obscura Digital will prosper in this environment and that we are at the beginnings of a remarkable period where visionary concepts are going to be turned into actual objects or spectacular events.
Posted on Jun 27, 2011 - 05:22 PM