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Ross Ashton, The Projection Studio

The Projection Studio has been creating large-scale projection events since 1994, specialising in architectural projection art and creating stunning visuals on a monumental scale. The company now has a worldwide reputation. Creative Director Ross Ashton talked to Installed Event about how science and art can be combined to create compelling experiences.

How did you get into the live events business?
I really enjoyed biology at school, and thought that might be my future. I went on to study it to degree level – but it quickly became apparent that, unless you became a research scientist, being a laboratory technician performing mundane tests was as much as I could hope for. That didn’t appeal, so I baled out.

But I’ve always been interested in the sciences – and I’ve also enjoyed being creative. It’s a real shame that, in Britain, there’s such a cultural division between artists and scientists – they just don’t seem to appreciate each other. I find them equally fascinating.

To me, photography was an ideal combination of the two: you have the science of working with chemistry, but also the ability to create something – and you don’t need to be able to draw, which I can’t. I decided to study photography, and went down to London. I found myself working for a projection company in the medical field.

After that, I went to France for four years to work for ETC, who make the PIGI projector. That lasted four years, and then I returned to London to set up a British operation for ETC. After eighteen years, I bought it out – and that was the beginning of The Projection Studio.

Like many people’s careers, mine has been a series of flukes and lucky breaks: I’ve been fortunate to have had the chances I’ve had. If I have a regret, it’s only that I didn’t finish my degree. I’d still like to get a degree – but I just can’t imagine when I’ll find the time.

The Projection Studio is now three of us, and we’re working on a wider range of projects than we’ve ever done before – which is possible now we’re no longer tied to a single manufacturer. A recent highlight was being asked to be projection consultant for the World Cup in South Africa.I spent three weeks out there, and had a great time. I had a watching brief over the projection company, helping them to deliver the best solution and the best value, liaising with the creative people, giving them advice – and managing the expectations of the producers. 

What is your favourite project that you’ve ever been involved in?
Like many people who do what I do, I think of myself as a building collector, and I’ve worked with some fantastic buildings over the years. However, probably my most significant project was the one that really brought The Projection Studio to the attention of a lot more people – put our ahead above the parapet, so to speak. It was the Queen’s Jubilee, and we’d been asked to supply the projectors for a son et lumière that was planned to happen on the façade of Buckingham Palace. I asked them who was doing the creative side of it – and they said they didn’t have anyone lined up. Of course, I volunteered! What we produced ended up being seen by a million people in The Mall – and many millions more when it was broadcast around the world. We’ve now worked on Buckingham Palace three times – we went back to do the commemoration of the end of the second world war, and again for Bob Geldof’s “Brightening Up London” campaign.

From a creative point of view, my favourite project was probably one we did for the Royal British Legion, when we projected images of falling poppies onto all four sides of the Wellington Arch. It’s not often you get the opportunity to project on all four sides of a building. The images were very simple, very effective – and, I think, very moving.

More recently, a project I really enjoyed was in York, where the ruined Abbey of St. Mary sits next to York Museum, and we projected images onto both buildings. York Museum was among the very first purpose-built museums in England. I loved the idea that a temple to science and knowledge had been built on the foundations of a religious building – two institutions with a common goal of trying to make sense of who we are and why we are here. Something that’s always fascinated me has been how we’ve got to where we are through our ability to pass knowledge on from one generation to the next. The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” really captures that concept of how our understanding of the research and thinking of the past enables us to build the future.

And, of course, it’s always nice to win awards – so the collaborative project we undertook with Himanshu Sabharwal of Delhi-based Two’s A Film Company to create India’s first permanent full moving image son et lumière – ISHQ-e-DILLI, which translates as ‘The Love of Delhi’ – for which we were recognised by Christie Digital at their Asia Pacific Partners Meeting has to be a memorable project. We were the technical, design and installation consultants for the projection hardware and control elements of the project and also responsible for overseeing the creation of the project’s show material, for which we specified the first Christie 20K video projectors to be used in India for a son et lumière application.

Is there a particular product that you’ve come to look on as ‘an old favourite’? 
I guess that has to be the ETC PIGI slide projectors, because they’re what I’ve used for perhaps 90% of my work. They’re so powerful and so flexible. You can achieve some wonderful effects with them – rotate images and so on – and their accuracy means that edge blending is no problem. Now, I’m a big fan of Christie’s Roadster projectors and I see them as the future.

Apart from them, I’ve also been a big user of various Adobe products – notably Photoshop and After Effects – over the years.

Is there a recent product that’s caught your eye that you think will be very useful in your business?
I suppose the products that I see transforming the industry are media servers: there seems to be a new one come out every day. Which one is the best really depends on the application or the event that you are designing for. For me there is no “one-stop shop” for design. they all have their strengths and weaknesses.