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‘A canvas of endless possibilities’: Inside the world of projection mapping

Tatton Jacob, senior support specialist at disguise, explores the world of projection mapping

Projection mapping surfaces tend to be the largest and most complicated video canvases around. Often entire (or multiple) buildings are painted with light, requiring large arrays of individual projectors. There are shows touring arenas that are loading, calibrating and disassembling 20+ projector rigs daily now, with one of the most complicated shows last year using nearly 100 projectors in a fixed installation setup.

Unsurprisingly, projection mapping onto a complicated, unique surface necessitates an equally complicated route to develop content. There is an aspect of 3D vs 2D at work here, where the artistic vision and final output are in 3D, but then elements of creation and physical/technical delivery are in 2D. This requires an understanding of ‘UV maps’ or ‘unwraps’ in similar ways that content is developed at the level of video game animators and programmers.

Specialist skills in installing projection mapping include rendering out LED displays at pixel-perfect accuracy, generating projection studies that indicate placement, as well as collective heatmaps to efficiently utilise resources.

A key element in this process is a solid understanding of 3D space. If each parameter involved in the process (projectors, surfaces, possibly even movement) can be accurately portrayed in the digital space at perfect accuracy, there’s no practical limit to the shape or scale of a projection project.

The nature of the surfaces being projected onto can be a bit more of a challenging variable, as ultimately, we’re talking about light output in a physical sense, and highly textured or semi-transparent surfaces can introduce light loss or occlusion. These variables need to be accounted for and visualised at an early stage, which allows both technical and creative decisions to be made well ahead of a full scale load in.

At the end of the day, all methods of calibrating projectors are trying to figure out exactly how to make the digital simulation match the real-life physical object as precisely as possible. If that can happen, the rest becomes relatively easy.

A unique specialty of our disguise platform is that whether you’re engaging in creative concept development on a laptop or driving projection from our hardware, it’s the same software from start to finish.

This allows creatives to quickly and flexibly demonstrate a vision that can quickly be analysed for accurate technical information, while giving broader team members and executives visual feedback to reinforce decisions. This same environment is then used for show programming and playback, remaining dynamic, flexible and visually accurate during the whole process.

Indeed, we have reached the point where the biggest challenge of all is human error; when a projector is slightly rotated from the simulated values we’ve been given, the maths doesn’t work.

Most of the time it does though, and some of the most visually impressive projects we’ve been involved in in recent times have involved projection mapping. ‘The House of Dancing Water’, for instance, is an immense theatre and acrobatic water show in Macau, China with hundreds of technicians and production of the grandest scale. A wide range of projection surfaces, including fabric and water presented unique challenges both towards planning and executing the overall creative idea.

The ‘Apollo 50: Go for the Moon’ production celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission by projection mapping scenes onto the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. It told the story of the first moon landing through jaw-dropping full motion projection mapping artwork which even included a 363-foot Saturn V rocket projection. Another unique projection job was,‘Voices for the Future’, which lit up the United Nations Building in Manhattan ahead of the talks on climate change.

And, as we mentioned, projection mapping is also making an impact with touring productions too. Ariana Grande’s  2019Sweetener Tour was touring, rigging and calibrating over 20 projectors on a near daily basis in a couple of hours, including calibrating projection mapping for an inflatable sphere. Typically, wholly curved surfaces, such as domes or spheres, can be some of the most difficult to accurately project onto, as there are lesser identifiable, known points of reference (on this particular show, the disguise OmniCal system was used for camera based projector calibration, drastically cutting down on overall calibration time, while simultaneously providing a high level of accuracy).

We’re only still at the start of what can be done in the field too. With the arrival of laser projectors, and an increased ability to accurately project onto large scale objects with sub-pixel accuracy projection surfaces will continue to grow to larger and larger scales, with complicated and dynamic moving surfaces that require a level of precision that seems almost unattainable today. Laser scans, camera calibration systems, 3D tracking systems and an overall enhanced understanding of the 3D space will allow us to push boundaries at creative and technical levels every single day.

The cutting edge today won’t be close to what we’re researching in as little as a few years. That’s what keeps a lot of us here as an industry, to find out what is next.