Digital projection transforms tented events into immersive journeys.
By Danielle Beurteaux
Tents have a sophisticated form all their own. But when you move beyond augmenting their architectural grace with elements such as lights and color washes to digital projection, tents become palettes for talented designers who can transform them into imaginative immersive environments.
“Other than a giant, white building, there is no better palette than a tent,” says David Smith, president of the Los Angeles, Calif.-based production company ShowPro Inc.
From simply creating stylized lighting effects to thrilling guests with photo-realistic moving video, digital projection can reinvent the tented event experience.
“All you need is a very bright projector, a couple of guys and a projection designer to create art for whatever physical structure you want,” Smith says.
Large-format image projection made it possible to bend, shape and wrap images onto any surface and project them as much as 360 degrees. Those massive images are impressive, but they don’t move. Digital projection brings visual content to life, and that’s what clients are asking for now, Smith says. Not long ago, ShowPro was a leading supplier of large-format projectors, but the company has now sold all of those machines to go digital.
Smith says the move to digital projection has been driven largely by advances in technology. “Less than 10 years ago, video projectors weren’t nearly as bright as large format, but now they’ve caught up and the price has gone down, so it makes sense that this is the way the industry is going,” he says.
Greg Christy, CEO of Brite Ideas, a lighting company located in Foothill Ranch, Calif., says his company has seen a big increase in requests for digital projection. For years, Christy used tent interiors as a canvas for color, texture and gobo images. But the convergence of lighting and digital projection has allowed Brite Ideas to offer clients options that could only be imagined previously.
Christy is particularly proud of the immersive environment Brite Ideas created in collaboration with Megavision Arts and event producer J. Ben Bourgeois Productions Inc. for an opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Resnick Gallery. The goal was to use digital video projection to follow the contours of the tent and create the feeling of a romantic, Venetian palazzo, or palace. The illusion covered the inside of the entire 140-by-160-foot tent, including the ceiling and both gabled ends.
“We started out with afternoon scenes with gondolas going by and artwork floating on the ceiling,” Christy says. The presentation got more dramatic with the transition into evening when one of the tent’s gabled ends opened to reveal entertainer Christina Aguilera.
“We projected a virtual fireworks show onto the inside and ceiling of the tent,” he says. “People couldn’t believe it.”
This is the way things are going now, Christy says. Where interior and exterior design for tented events used to be focused on the look, that focus now includes ensuring that guests have an experience—that they go on a journey.
These experiences don’t have to be extravagant. In fact, they can designed to simply bring back fond memories. Matthais Strobl, managing director of Bielefeld, Germany-based NightLab, used projection to illuminate the performance tent of cover band The Australian Pink Floyd Show at several stops on its tour. Visitors were treated to a continuously moving palette of morphing shapes in bright colors.
“Everyone was mostly 50 years old or older, so they knew Pink Floyd from their youth and were reminded of the psychedelic times back then and got right in the mood for the show,” he says. Strobl expects the future of immersive design to open up even more possibilities as the technology evolves, making it easier to do things such as panoramic projection.
Creating versatile content
Though the price of digital projectors has come down in recent years, budget remains a challenge with digital projection, primarily because creating standout video content takes time and is best handled by a skilled designer. But Smith has found a good way to help clients make the most of their design dollars. Yes, projection can be expensive, he tells them, but you can do some great things by trimming from other parts of the budget.
“People say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t afford that,’ but once I explain that the whole environment can change with the push of a button using digital projection, they want to know more,” Smith says. “So we look at their budget where they’ve often got $25,000 or more for greens or scenery, which I point out could be reallocated to cover the cost of a digital environment that would be much more engaging and versatile.”
ShowPro also suggests using digital projection to solve problems. Got an ugly building that guests will need to walk by to get to your tented event? Project something interesting onto the surface and that is all they will notice.
For an event at the Autry National Center, Los Angeles, Calif., a history museum of the American West, cocktails were served in the museum, and then guests walked about 250 feet to a tent for the evening’s festivities. Knowing there wouldn’t be much to look at during the walk, ShowPro projected colorful southwestern artwork onto the exterior of the tent.
“It was the same classic, watercolor style of some of the art in the museum, and it really did draw people and diminish the drudgery of crossing a barren field of grass,” he says. Inside the tent, digital projection was used to enhance the southwestern look with images such as wooden beams and wagon wheels.
The big picture
Asked to name the one thing that event planners and tent professionals need to know when it comes to digital projection, both Christy and Smith say that it’s vital to have someone on the team who understands technical direction—who can look at the big picture and connect technical crews and event professionals from the start. It’s also important to work with a projection designer when creating content because that person understands how to use computer software to get images to conform to surfaces and blend them in interesting and eye-catching ways that appear to be three-dimensional.
Most projects begin with measuring the surfaces onto which visuals will be projected and creating computer-assisted design (CAD) models that make clear where projectors should be placed at the event. With the CAD model as a guide, the designer uses software such as After Effects®, Final Cut Pro® or a 3-D program such as Cinema 4D or 3D Studio Max to get the look the client wants, ensuring that it maps onto even the most contoured surface seamlessly. Media servers (specialized computers) at the event are programmed to choreograph content from one or more projectors into one unified, moving canvas.
“Content is king with digital projection, so it’s worth it to have a designer with a good sensibility who can meet with the client right from the start,” says Christy. “What you want is someone with creative vision because fundamentally, it’s all about telling a good story visually.”