Dark arts

Using landmark architecture as its canvas, projection mapping has taken digital art away from the small screen and onto the streets…

Projection mapping can be thought of as the trompe l’oeil tradition brought bang up to date. Armed with high-powered projectors, various hardware and software packages, and the permission to digitally ‘map’ and project onto a particular building,

a selection of studios are capitalising on the creation of 3D outdoor spectacle. But as more projection-based work appears, anchored to yet more brands, are we simply witnessing advertising’s latest infatuation with high-tech creativity? Or are these experiments actually paving the way towards fully realised augmented realities?

If you’ve encountered projection mapping before (also known as ‘video mapping’ or ‘architectural mapping’ when conceived on a large scale), it’s highly likely you saw it on the internet, rather than on the streets. But for brands, ad agencies, even the creative teams involved, that’s another part of the appeal of this emerging medium. Documenting the projection and the subsequent distribution of film and imagery online are almost as important as the event itself. A few hundred people might watch a performance – a landmark building changing shape and colour, even collapsing into rubble – but thousands, potentially millions, can see it online.

While much of the technology involved is certainly high-end and expensive (there are few places that even hire out the requisite equipment) the basics of projection mapping involve the generation of a 3D model of a given structure; the creation of an animation or motion graphic piece to beam onto it; and the projection of the work back onto the building itself. Packages such as Cinema 4D, Maya, Autodesk 3ds Max (formerly 3D Studio Max) and After Effects are commonly used to create the visual content. Through mapping the exact contours of a building – using architectural plans or digital surveying – the resulting projection can manipulate depth, colour, apply moving type or messages, animate the entire structure, or make it react to its environment in real time. Essentially, the architecture comes alive.

In the UK, Evan Grant, founder of London-based studio Seeper, is leading the way with this nascent technology. “It’s a bit of a dark art,” he says, sitting among bits of electronic gadgetry crammed into Seeper’s offices. “But that keeps it fun and exciting. It’s still in its infancy and there’s only a fairly small industry of people doing this.” By way of an introduction to the collective’s recent work, earlier this month the studio ‘froze’ the outside of the imposing Senate House in Russell Square in London, as part of Ogilvy & Mather’s new campaign for the Ford S-⁠MAX. Onlookers watched as a climber negotiated the wall of ice, before chunks of it were broken off by members of the audience armed with one of five ‘laser ice cutters’.

Ford Seeper Project from Strip Studios Ltd on Vimeo.

The projection, essentially a theatrical film and supporting interactive sequence, replaced a traditional outdoor campaign from Ogilvy and was also staged at George’s Dock in Liverpool. From an agency standpoint it’s an interesting change of tack. Instead of relying on a fixed stand-alone billboard site to launch the new car, the agency put on an event that, while filmed ‘officially’, is also guaranteed to be captured on mobile phones, uploaded to blogs and distributed through social media. Coupled with the fact that Seeper’s S-MAX work is also breaking new ground as an interactive mapping piece (complete with Arctic-themed performers, sound and lighting effects), the event at Senate House provides an indication of how fast the medium itself is moving.

Only a few years ago, mapping found its way into various arts projects and since then has been rapidly adopted commercially. Artist and architect Pablo Valbuena exhibited his ‘augmented sculptures’ at Ars Electronica in 2007, which involved mapping projected light onto a series of static cubes. In 2008, Amsterdam’s Maxalot Gallery presented the Processing Light group show via a series of large scale digital projections on the VROM building in The Hague.

The exterior of the structure already had a natural appeal for designers: its ceramic tiles creating a pre-formed ‘grid’ for them to work to. For artists such as Tina Frank and Karsten Schmidt, their work appeared as if rooted in the architecture, rather than merely overlaying it.

Similarly, Istanbul-based Griduo’s Quadrature project from May this year explored, as co-founder Refik Anadol says, “the relationship between architecture and media”. Their collaboration with Due3 was a live audio-visual performance that, says Anadol, “interacted with the perception of the SantralIstanbul Art and Culture Center’s main gallery building. It showed how large scale video projection techniques can transform, create, expand, amplify and interpret spaces.” Griduo’s performance featured a series of animated monochrome shapes that matched the actual size and form of the modules on the building’s façade. The visuals were also accompanied by Due3’s digitally produced soundscape, synchronised to the movement of the imagery.

QUADRATURE from Griduo on Vimeo.

For Grant, there’s no longer a need for much separation between the purely artistic and commercial ventures. Indeed, he sees many of today’s brands effectively acting as the commissioners behind this kind of work. And done appropriately, this sort of patronage can work, too. One of Seeper’s initial attempts at large scale architectural mapping was a piece called The Battle of Branchage, shown at the Jersey International Film Festival last year. Seeper chose the 13th century Mont Orgueil castle as their canvas, the aim being that they would extend the metaphor of the fortress to, as Grant says, “attack it in a passive way, with light”. Abbey International (the offshore version of Abbey National, as was) was involved in funding the project and, Grant implies, got kudos from their association with the work. “We’re part of a movement that’s transforming the logic of brands from old media to new media,” he says. “Brands are the new commissioners, that’s the shift.”

Battle of Branchage from seeper on Vimeo.

Tom Burch, managing director of Projection Advertising, the London company behind the AdTrace video mapping system used on projects for clients such as Sky and Nintendo, has also seen a change in how mapping technology is used.

“It’s worth noticing how this is rewriting the rule book,” he says. “We used to look for large plain walls, so the projection was like a billboard ad. But now we’re seeking out all different types of buildings because the content can be mapped around its various features. The interest now is in animating a static structure.”

AdTrace Waterloo from Projection Advertising on Vimeo.

Of course, as Valbuena had shown, the structure doesn’t necessarily have to be a building’s exterior. Paris-based studio, Superbien, created a stunning installation for communications company Alcatel-Lucent that appeared at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. Envision, commissioned by agency Auditoire, saw an immersive, brightly coloured animation projected onto a stack of innocuous-looking white blocks. The vibrancy, not to mention accuracy, of the graphics hitting the planes of the various blocks is entrancing – it’s difficult to believe that the colours themselves aren’t actually solid.


ENVISION : Step into the sensory box from SUPERBIEN on Vimeo.


It’s little surprise that in talking about his own studio’s work, Grant often likens these kinds of experiments to illusions, projects that succeed in tricking the eye. “It’s creating that Victorian sense of magicianship,” he says. “Even before that, with the birth of scientific experiments people would unveil things like they were magic. These days, we think that we’re a bit savvy. But with mapping, people are able to understand it on a level that gives them a comfort. If you show someone something so far out of their understanding, it’s intimidating, people don’t know how to interact with it. But there are fundamentals here. When they see it, the audience has a concept of what’s going on; we’re projecting light and aligning it with the building.”

That said, it looks as if Seeper are about to venture into new untested territories. “The future of this is happening quite fast,” says Grant, “and the current rush behind it won’t last, I’m sure of that.

For us the important thing is what’s coming next, which is why we’re focusing on the interactive side and working on 3D technologies, tracking and visualisation techniques. We’re getting to the point now where we’re pushing the limitations of the technology and the suppliers. But I think that’s a good place to be.”



The darker the surroundings the better, so avoid staging an event during a full moon. No, not because of the werewolves, but the moonlight means there is more ‘white’ light around. Streetlighting also throws a lot of light up into the air, and this can cause an orange glow on buildings, particularly in city centres.  To counter this effect, projectionists often alter the colour balance of the graphics.

The lighter the surface colour of the structure, the brighter the projection will appear. Clients like ‘classical’ structures with pillars etc, but a less ornate canvas may be better. Avoid using buildings with lots of windows as the projection will go through the glass. The best illusions created with mapping are usually achieved when ‘depth’ is manipulated, so map areas set back from the building’s front, too.

A potential obstacle to staging a projection mapping event is getting the necessary permissions and licenses to beam onto a particular building arranged in advance. The gear involved in staging a decent large-scale projection (projectors, laptops, cabling, for example) usually means that the ‘guerrilla’ option just isn’t feasible. Getting permission to stage a one-off event may also be easier than you think.

Be sure to film your event and upload it to a video hosting site. Commercial projects often rely on the fact that the projection will go viral with the film potentially reaching an audience of millions.




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