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Bringing The Sydney Opera House To Life With Spectacular 3D Projection Mapping

We spoke with creative director of 59 Productions about his vision for the iconic building.
May 29, 2014, 10:00pm

Transforming the Sydney Opera House into a kaleidoscopic jewel, adorned with fireballs and snake skin-like coat, were just some of the effects during Lighting The Sails last week in the major Australian city. The event, in support of annual outdoor art fest Vivid LIVE, included a series of eye-popping projections bathed on top of one of Sydney's most iconic buildings—a spectacle met by a collective jaw drop.

The sails were turned into a digital light canvas by59 Productions—known for its visual work on the 2012 Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics, as well as the tour visuals for Jonsi's past live shows—bringing viewers on a dramatically-executed journey through space and time; conceptually exploring the early history of the building and projecting (pun unintended) an imagined future for it.


Leo Warner, creative director of 59 Productions, talked to The Creators Project about working from London on a series of 3D-printed models of the Opera House to test the project, how the team was informed by analog artistic processes focused on pure geometry, and how the light show is like a "cosmic life story."

The Creators Project: Vivid LIVE describes this work as a dramatic journey through time, "From the birth of architecture and civilization to the pinnacle of human and technological achievement." It’s a pretty huge concept! How did you develop it?

Leo Warner: One of the things we were very keen to do was to tell a story. We knew what and where the building is—everything else was pretty much open…Instead of treating [the building] as a series of inconveniently shaped screens, we treated it as a 3D object and explored where it came from, and where it might be going in an imaginary future. Can you bring us through the process?

Our first chapter is seeing how that building was conceived and brought into being from a design and construction point of view, which is an extraordinary process. We want back to Jørn Utzona, the original architect who won the competition to design the Opera House, and looked at his concept sketches. He had this extraordinary idea about it being based on what I suppose you’d call pure geometry. We’re kind of taking it from the most abstract expression of geometric forms through its construction process. Then we have the much more outrageous section where we experiment with the building. I guess the idea is that we’re kind of giving it a personality of an adolescent experimental identity. We played with various colors, textures and forms to create this fairly outrageous visual spectacle, imagining the building as though it was made out of a huge variety of different materials. Finally, we project into the future and imagine what it’s like if exposed to the ravages of weather and the environment over a vast chapter of time, and seeing it sort of slowly break down but keep fighting back. It’s kind of like a cosmic life story.

You recently enacted a live action shoot to create some of the content to project onto the Opera House. What did that entail?

We had a 3D print of the Opera House made which allowed us to visualize the projection in London on something that was accurate, then we had a number of casts made in many different substances including plaster; an ice-like material; wax; copper; aluminum; lead and other sheet metals. We then subjected them to various extremes—heating them, cooling them, pouring paint, pigment and ink on to them…We just had one made out of jelly which we exposed to various experimental forces, but tragically it didn’t make the cut.


There are bits [in the final piece] where you can’t quite tell whether it’s been computer generated, or whether it’s done on the scale model. It’s a lot of fun playing with the ideas of what’s semi-realistic, what’s totally fantastical and how we can make up bits of stories that are impossible, but weirdly look as though they could be documentary of some form. We filmed all these processes; some at high frame rates so we can slow them down, and these films are then projected back on to the real opera house to create the effects on the building itself. It’s super interesting that you use such an organic process to create something so visually high-tech. Despite working with these new and emerging technologies, is retaining some sense of analog creation important to your work?

Yes, it is. One of the things we’re very keen on is to not necessarily let the technology lead [our work], and make sure that we’re leading either with story or concept. And quite often that means disguising the technology, or at least making sure that it’s not the main ‘thing’ about a project. We’re interested in the hand of the artist—seeing the artistic process. You can really do that if you use real materials sometimes, you have a sense of the visceral, solid nature of things.

What kind of technology has been used to realize the Lighting of the Sails?

We’ve used quite a variety—most of the animation has been done with fairly standard tools. The 3D work was done in Cinema 4D and almost all of the 2D animation is done in AfterEffects. They’re all basic packages really, but it’s about using them in interesting ways and combining some of this live action material with it to give it a greater sense of visceral reality.


The pre-visualization is very important to us, because while you could do it on the computer very easily, we almost always find that if you have a physical model and that you can actually move around and look at from different angles, you’ll get a much greater set up. I’m so pleased we did it after having only just arrived in Sydney [a few days ago] and personally seeing the Opera House for the first time. It must be totally nerve wracking to only watch it run through for the first time on opening night!

To be honest having done the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics and sitting there watching a sequence work for the first time that had never worked before, I kind of feel like we can face anything!

For more on Vivid Sydney, watch our documentary on the amazing light show during last year's performance:

Images courtesy of 59 Productions. For more on the amazing studio visit their website here.

To find out more about Vivid Sydney, check out its website.


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