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Obscura Digital's Massive Projection Series Turns San Francisco's Exploratorium Into A Technicolor Canvas

The tech design team at Obscura Digital have created another spectacular projection piece. This time the new Exploratorium in San Francisco is the canvas.

Opening day at San Francisco's new Exploratoriumworms squirmed, microbes divided, and foliage enveloped the facade of Pier 15. Emergence, created by the team at Obscura Digital, was the latest endeavor by the creative technology  studio that had already covered the Sydney Opera House, Guggenheim Museum, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and other world-famous architectural structures in projection art of a grand scale.


Obscura took on Emergence with the intention of bringing biological imagery to a projection mapping project, something, they claim, that had never been attempted before. "Well, fundamentally –– and this is true not just of Obscura, but of all graphics-based companies –– typically all the graphics are done in CG. What was different about [Emergence] was that we used 100% real, analog, natural phenomena," says Creative Director Garth Williams. "The Exploratorium is the museum of science, art and human perception," adds Barry Threw, Head of Interactive at Obscura. "We wanted to put something on the side of this building that was about perception, and sometimes the things you can't perceive."

Talking about the relationship between Pier 15 and the exhibit, Threw emphasizes that the two are inherently intertwined.  "You want to tell the story of the place that you're doing the show on. You want to marry your content with the architecture in a really strong way. The Exploratorium opening—it's a San Francisco institution that's been around for a long time. A lot of this work sprang from the kind of work that goes on in the Exploratorium itself."

The team took inspiration for one sand-based sequence from Lawrence of Arabia. "The color is unbelievable. It's legendary, the chemistry in that film stock. We used those colors to echo throughout the things we had to colorize," says Williams.

When approaching the interactive exhibit the team took care to avoid thermal imagery that we've seen before. "The FLIR camera on the side posed a big design challenge. You've probably seen Predator. You get this 'vomiting Skittles on a beach blanket' –– this sort of gross rainbow look. To resolve this, I analyzed all the plates from the front of the building and made pallets and gradient maps to match the exact imagery." The results are images that blended together in beautifully merged washes of color.


In order to make sure that the imagery lined up correctly with the Exploratorium, the team had to construct ten scale models of the building that recreated its architecture with exacting detail. "It's a hairy thing to do," says Williams. "You're dealing with a CAD file that was built after the fact. You don't know if someone made a mistake. We had to go back out on site and measure windows to make sure [the files were accurate]. And there actually were some small incongruities we had to take into account."

Aside from the detail that the team had to adhere to when creating its models, there was the matter of actually capturing the imagery that was to be projected in the first place. For Williams, this meant getting to know an entirely new set of tools. "I started off doing deep research on microscopy and getting familiar with the micrometer scale," he says. "We did a lot of stuff in microscopic enclosures that were custom made with a picosecond laser. Essentially [they were] microscopic aquariums in the shape of the Exploratorium."

This attention to detail was brought to every aspect of the project from micro to macro. For a time-lapse shot of plants growing inside the building, the team was originally going to use bamboo, but instead turned to Wisconsin Fast Plants–– a species originally found on the foothills of Tibet and hybridized to grow from seed to flower in thirty days. "Bamboo will grow thirty inches in a day," says Williams. "But we don't have a jungle and they aren't very aesthetic to look at; they're just spikes." To get the shot of the Wisconsin fast plants, the team built an acrylic terrarium to house them while they shot the plants as they grew.


Things didn't always go smoothly. "It was on a Sunday," begins Williams' tale of one of his more harrowing adventures. "One of the shots involved a microcosm biopsy of a temperate forest floor, which had mushrooms, salamanders, and millipedes. The shoot was the following week and there was no time to get them. In the middle of creating enclosures, I had to get in my car and drive all over the place digging up newts and throwing them in tupperware, digging up dirt and logs in panic and fear that I wouldn't get enough for the shot. I never thought I'd see a day when I was digging worms for my life."

After the shooting commenced, the editing began, itself a laborious and painstaking process. "We had to edit and do the transition pretty much on pure theory, because a five minute or four minute piece of rendering would take five hours to see. We couldn't nimbly transitioning these things. I'd wake up after two hours of sleep on a couch and the rendering would be off," says Williams talking about one of his many sleepless nights.

Williams gives a lot of credit to Obscura's sound design team that created the ambient music that soundtracks the event, which he describes as "Incredible, provocative, and strange." All together, the team scored 23 pieces that accompany the entirety of the installation.

Asked what he wants people to take away from the exhibit, Williams says "The hope is the analog aspects strike a chord that resonates deep within someone. They might not be able to articulate what they're feeling from what they see, but they know it's there. We want people to wonder about the nature of being itself. The common thread is how order emerges from chaos and goes back again. It doesn't matter whether you're a hardcore atheist or religious, the questions remains of how things organize. We want to shake people out of the mundane permanently." Threw agrees."This is about getting hands on. It's about being analog. It's about the artistic presentation of science phenomena. It's about having fun and being able to see the wonder and mystery of natural phenomena."

Upon seeing the final product, Williams feels like Obscura accomplished their goal. "It was everything and more that we hoped it to be. You know how it is with these things, you visualize them, you hope and pray, and wonder if it's all going to work out. Seeing it all actualized and having the sound match up with it –– we couldn't have been happier."

All images courtesy of Obscura Digital