Projection mapping comes of age

Savvy consumers might be numbed to traditional methods of grabbing their attention, but for many, the novelty of having their physical surroundings transformed in front of their eyes is yet to wear off. Done properly, projection mapping enables you to do just this – mould reality like putty in your hands.

“When used on existing architectural structures it can change them and take you on a journey in a beautiful, site-specific way,” enthuses Tim Bird, creative director at Knifedge, a digital agency that works across theatrical set design, film, animation and live events – spanning everything from Broadway shows to rock concerts and sporting events.

Bird recalls a very early foray into what could be called ‘mapped projection’, in Norwich Cathedral back in 1999: “The setup was basic in the extreme – VHS video players, lots of gauze and lengthy negotiations with the dean,” he chuckles. “These days, projection is brighter and more affordable, and media servers make playback much more straightforward.”

Associated technology has developed very rapidly in the last few years in particular, and agencies such as Projection Advertising have begun to specialise in the field. The London-based company started as what account manager Emily Gibson dubs a “guerrilla production outfit” in 2005, and first started to experiment with projection mapping three years ago. The company has since grown into one of the UK’s leading experts, with a roster of clients including Coca-Cola, Nokia, Disney, Carlsberg and even Beyonc.

“We’ve recently started gearing projections towards interactivity,” reveals Gibson. “Last year we worked with Grey for Sensodyne and created an accelerometer-loaded punchbag that enabled event-goers to test their strength against the projection. The harder they punched, the more of the video-mapping sequence was revealed.”

The technical learning curve is pretty steep: besides After Effects CS5.5, Projection Advertising makes use of 3D animation package Houdini and high-end rendering and compositing tool Derivative TouchDesigner, not to mention plenty of render farms to output the necessary visuals. Besides a strong light source – usually a powerful projector or LED panel – other hardware, according to Bird, will include a media server; a control mechanism, often a lighting console, to co-ordinate proceedings; and of course a complex network of cables. “Ahead of setting up, you need to consider the physical design – making it from scratch, or understanding what’s already there using CAD software and models,” he explains. “Then there’s content design, generally using Photoshop and After Effects; content creation, using film-making, animation and matte-painting techniques; and pre-visualisation. We use a lighting pre-vis system called ESP.”

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