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Projection plotting – painting with light

Paddy Baker 21 October 2010

Tailoring projectable video content to the different surfaces within a space has been taken further than ever by Spitball Media and so-called ‘projection plotting’. Paddy Baker finds out more

"What’s really cool about projection plotting is that I know that I can go into a space, large or small, without ever having been in there, and be able to set up these projectors and spend an hour or two doing some programming and come up with some really cool effects,” says Andrew Wade Smith, creative director of Spitball Media – “industrial artists who paint with light” – in a video on YouTube.

The video shows the technology in action in a conference room at the US headquarters of projector manufacturer InFocus. Come show time, it’s a thing of beauty and complexity: light patterns dance on two walls; each sheet of paper on a ‘washing line’ across the room shows a different clip of movie footage; and photographer’s umbrellas attached to the curtains on one wall are displaying moving InFocus branding tailored exactly to their polygonal shape. Oh, and the pelmet above the curtains appears to be on fire. Amazingly, all these images come from just two InFocus 5100 series projectors.

Spitball has been working with digital video since 1997, although the move to computer-based video serving – which Smith says is one of “the two key technological advances that are pivotal to our success” – came when Macbook processors hit the 1.5GHz mark.

“We originated ‘projection plotting’ in 2005 to describe a process we had developed that enabled us to ‘plot’ multiple video compositions on various surfaces within a space,” he explains. The process originally involved projecting a numbered grid into a space, and using the lines, as they fell, to guide how the video was to be composed. The shape of the projected grid would be used as a guide layer in the video software.
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Technological advances
The process for doing this was very labour-intensive – involving making notes, taking photos and drawing sketches – until Spitball came across Modul8 software from Swiss company GarageCUBE. “Modul8 has become our main video controlling software and has been a real game-changer. It excels in the exact field in which we had been struggling: the precise placement of multi-image, multi-aspect video display within our media environments.”

The other key advance, says Smith, is digital projection. The relationship with InFocus began in February 2010 with the demo featuring the flaming pelmet and the washing line. InFocus was so taken with this that it gave Smith and his colleagues  two projectors to work with, there and then.

“With the 5500s the 1920-wide WUXGA resolution is pretty critical to the multi-image stuff,” he explains. “The expanded ‘pixel real-estate’ provided is pivotal to image quality with our creative displays. This is especially critical with our multi-image work in that any single composition is limited in scale by the projector’s resolution.”

A recent installation that really shows off the capabilities of the technology is at the Doug Fir Lounge, a music venue in Spitball’s home town of Portland, Oregon.

“It is incredibly satisfying to be able to integrate media into a space as uniquely themed as the Doug Fir, and to feel like you are flexing your own creative muscle to vividly enhance the playful design work that went into the venue before you arrived,” says Smith.

The installation features two InFocus 5534 projectors – one for the stage display and one to project images onto some of the log-ends above the main bar. “The 5534’s dual lamp means there is no downtime and its robust quality means very low maintenance. Its network control gives us remote access to multiple projectors via the web and a real aesthetic strength is its customisable skins,” he adds.
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Mysterious work
One of the joys of projection plotting is the element of mystery that it produces, says Smith. “We’ve done certain effects where even someone who’s pretty tech-minded will walk in and go, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ They’ll walk up to it and try to figure out if it’s projected or not, how many projectors there are, where they are – particularly with the angles that we can achieve with perspective correction.”

This means, though, that the projectors need to be stably mounted. This is more of an issue with live events than fixed installs, says Smith, because set-up time is much less and projectors may be mounted on trusses alongside moving lights, for example.

Finally: Spitball is using projectors and software that are available to anyone – does Smith worry that others could do something similar and steal his thunder?

Smith has two answers to this. First, the artistic response: “No new video technology, hardware, or software dictates the application, concept or most importantly the content itself. This remains my work.”

Then there’s the argument that nothing stands still for long: “We’ve been kicking around this notion of projection
plotting for a few years, and perhaps we’ve got a little bit of a jump on it – but there’s no stopping the flow of technology and tools, and that’s the way the world is supposed to go, I guess. There’s nothing stopping anybody – but what’s the next thing I’m going to be doing that’s going to keep me interested and having fun? Because I’m having a lot of fun with what I’m doing.”

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