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Billboards for Geeks




By Jamie Isbell.

How has projection mapping made such an impact on audiences? And, with increasing numbers of brands adopting the advertising method, is it a bright future for the digital delight? Or an already exhausted gimmick destined for a dusty shelf?

In plumes of digital fabric the angular relics of towns and cities are being mapped, re-faced, distorted and predictably commercialized. It’s architecture for animators. Dress-up for the skyline. But if anything it is pure hedonism for audiences, and nothing but a hit for viral advertisers. The techniques of projection mapping and projector trickery were prominent years ago with artists such as Bill Viola, Jane and Louise Wilson, Tony Oursler and Peter Campus amplifying the style within the gallery space. But it has only been in the last couple of years that fully dimensional projection mapping has transgressed the gallery walls, and utilized the vast surfaces of buildings and cityscapes.

This recent movement in technically-centred pieces that merge the physical with the digital has already established itself as a rapid web success. Not only is it captured from the point of view of the spectator, but it reignites a connection with its audience and elevates the use of animation and motion graphics to a level of much needed sophistication.

By Rube Goldberg

It was a project titled The Battle of Branchage produced by the visual collective Flat-e for the 2009 Branchage Film Festival that was one of the first examples to get the web charged with a desire for the aesthetics of projection mapping. Since then dozens of similar projects by Flat-e and other visual teams have emerged. The projection mapping scene is taking off with velocity, with reactions and viral buzz comparative to the Rube Goldberg aesthetic – a fascinating wonder which has its roots in the seminal 1980s experimental video The Way Things Go (Der Lauf Der Dinge, 1988) by Peter Fischli and David Weiss.

Over the last couple of decades the rusty, oil-stained template of their thirty-minute experiment has been transferred to commercials and music videos, the two most successful examples being Honda’s ‘Cog’ advert, and OK Go’s music video for ‘This Too Shall Pass’, along with numerous low-budget attempts to replicate the kinetic style. This experiment with household objects was a formula that proved a chain reaction visual could trigger a chain reaction viral.

Swap the teetering mechanisms of a one-shot wonder, for the underground city scene of street art and territorial tagging, and you arrive at something not only more seductive than on-screen trickery, but something more personal beyond the frame. The projection mapping scene has turned up just in time, and the inclusion of famous and distinguishable building facades mixed with powerful visuals works perfectly at reviving the importance of the spectator.

Much like numerous successful video campaigns, the philosophy behind projection mapping is simple, and something that has lingered since the era when people first gathered before a brightly lit screen. The beginning of the 20th century saw the moving image become a beloved social scene for communities; small city theaters would screen short films, slices of life, and jovial observation. There was an allure in seeing your neighborhood, and sometimes yourself, projected via bewildering means in front of you. Regular exposure to these projected images helped feature films in securing business inside purpose built screening rooms years later. This saw cinema become a lifeline for a country’s people, and a social necessity which today is so grand and so crucial both economically and socially, that when the flame of old tradition glows people react.

Although the growth of feature films and the studio-based industrialisation of cinema extinguished these street screenings, and narrowed the public involvement in film to simple ticket sales, the fascination with the trickery of projection inherently hung around. Projection mapping, which is hugely reliant on these early principles, appears to be offering something back to its audience. Interactivity is key to any great viral campaign, and with the immersive nature of projection mapping it is quickly becoming the people’s format.

Since the web began fostering short, idea-centric filmmaking, and bite-sized slices of camera trickery to millions, it was not long before large scale film marketing joined in with bigger budgets and grander ambition. It is the presumed, and almost unfortunate, inevitability that intelligent and understated video work will eventually see its formula as a veil for brand promotion. Maybe it’s selling out. Perhaps it even spoils the fundamentals of video as art. But regardless of the predictability of these advertising trends, the imagery sells and, if anything, creates the market for creative minds to achieve maximum velocity.

But what is different about projection mapping as an art form, and a marketing platform, is that it has explicitly removed itself from the predictability of the film frame. It is working with the exteriors and urban structures in towns and cities with an approach that reminds us to not just look but also to feel part of it. The production of a projection mapping campaign still involves weeks of animators and motion graphic experts slaving over computers; production crews measuring, calculating, and fine tuning projectors; and producers wondering whether they are about to bring a city to life, or shower it in a big iTunes visualizer.

Luckily the majority of large-scale projection mapping productions look good. The animation is crisp, the execution is exact, and the crowds that stand and cheer them on (whilst also lighting the social media wildfire on their phones) all come together. But the execution is expected now, what advertisers can’t predict is how their clever light display will make consumers behave.

So far projection mapping is a talking point. It is something people want to scour the Internet for, hoping to stumble upon its numerous incarnations, discover how it is created, and most crucially work out how they can see it in the flesh (or concrete). The trend is not just about being clever with a projector, nor is it actually about demonstrating a product’s potential brilliance. What is most dazzling is people’s love and admiration for it. In the face of 3D films dividing their audiences and exhausting the technology, and IMAX the stomping ground for cinema’s heavyweights, projection mapping offers something more generous to its audience, even if it only lasts a few minutes.

To those devoted to the short and sweet trends of the web, then, it is another yardstick by which a large portion of digital projects will be compared. However, for the client it demonstrates the appropriate amount of sophistication, and this sophistication creates the trust that consumers will usually favor over companies unwilling to fully embrace similar digital media routes. For the bulk of what projection mapping is about is the forgotten exteriors of the city, and centuries of architectural change adopting a new personality. For a few minutes the contours of the cityscape can go under the knife of the digital artisans, and a dark towering city block, usually incandescent with orange street lighting or lit up with pixels of office lights, can be something superbly refreshing, even if it is superficial.

There is no doubt that the attention towards this visual trickery, which inhabits an intrinsic social media buzz and utilizes already available technology, will push designers and creatives to advance and develop quickly. But there are also the worrying outcomes to consider. After all this is a style with massive breadth to astonish, but equal vulnerability to be spoiled by poor efforts to exploit the formula, subsequently littering our urban landscape with massive, digital spam. The question is whether the public decide to embrace these immersive exploits as serious, forward thinking marketing moves, that could have the capacity to be an environmentally friendly, and clutter-free alternative to large-scale print campaigns.

This could see the end to old school billboards, revolving movie posters, and exclusivity to the wealthiest brands, and instead prompt a move towards more dynamic and constructive advertising. This path could allow the public to experience on the hour changes, relevant product promotion, and interactive city street shows. There is also the concert market; with musicians embracing every form of video niche and social media it is only a matter of time before the inaudible chaos of pop music needs a big distracting safety line that someone else has sweated over.

On the flip side, like anything sought after, the projection mapping scene could go sour; ideas could run dry, audiences may become disinterested, and weak, cheap imitation might dominate. The future will probably be a measure of both, hopefully a much stronger hit of the real, genuine digital mastery that has already made a name for itself. But, like many ventures into the surreal, experimental world of digital media we might just have to put our faith in the geeks and nerds for this one, hoping that the next time you’re lucky enough to catch one of these shows, you are left in awe and amazement, not scrunching your face with disappointment.

Jamie Isbell is the 2010 winner of the Frank Capra Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Film Criticism. His winning essay, ‘The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and the Cognitive US-Mexico Border’, was published in Film International 52, vol. 9, no. 4, 2011.

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