The throng of Manhattan nightlifers and unsuspecting tourists who found themselves south of the Empire State Building last night spent a chunk of their evening crowded against street corners and rooftop bar ledges in awe of a massive light show projected right onto the NYC icon. Larger-than-life images of snow leopards, tree frogs, coral reefs, and a menagerie of nature's most treasured endangered species paraded across the facade, courtesy of production studio Obscura Digital.
The images come from Oscar-winning director and Oceanic Preservation Society executive Louie Psihoyos, whose upcoming documentary Racing Extinction provided Obscura Digital's Travis Threlkel and team with a wellspring of images to dress their 1,454-foot subject. Obscura Digital is known for creating projection-mapped eye candy on a large scale: giving the San Francisco Exploratorium a digital paint job, animating Cleveland's Public Auditorium with 370-foot-wide images of nature, and covering the Guggenheim Museum in YouTube videos. For their 2014 project illUmiNations: Protecting Our Planet, they projected an animated call to action about climate change onto the United Nations building in New York.
This show, titled Projecting Change enlists a battery of 40 projectors and 40 computers to blast the skyscraper with a triple-layered digital canvas that keeps 400-foot whales, tigers, and a tribute to the icon Cecil the Lion crisp enough to see from Union Square to Penn Station. It's one of the largest scaled projects in a long line of Empire State Building light shows, from green lights on St. Patricks Day to Mark Brickman's illuminated ode to the Whitney's classic American artworks.
Yet, Threlkel sees it as more than just a spectacle. "Everyone's got a big heart, and people really fucking care," he says at 230 Fifth's rooftop bar, which has a spectacular view of the ESB. "Sometimes it takes somebody with balls to make this big gesture, to say what everybody wanted to fucking say. Which is that we love our world, and all the life on this planet is ours! And we care about it very, very much. That's what everybody wanted to say. But no one's fucking saying it."
"The thing is to increase people's awareness of the issue," adds art director Marc Melzer. He and audiovisual artist Emmett Feldman designed the visuals themselves, using a hyper-detailed laser scan of the tower to create the illusion of flatness—and the illusion of a giant ape swinging from window to window—in 400-feet of detail. "If we're being didactic and telling people what to do, I think that's less effective than them finding the beauty in these animals and letting them do their own homework," he continues. "We're going to lose all these incredible, beautiful animals if we don't change our behavior. And I think people watching this get that."
The plan is for a billion people to watch Projection Change on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the worldwide premiere of Racing Extinction, slated to air on 10 Discovery channels in 220 countries across the globe. A campaign with social justice-oriented film studio Vulcan Productions will use the attention around Threlkel's spectacle to build an educational campaign on how to do your part for the endangered species.
"This art activism is actually working," he explains. "We're past awareness and into real action, real solutions. It's like, awareness is great, but what are you actually going to do about it? I know this is getting a lot of attention, but we've got a lot more coming."
What else does "a lot more" entail? Threlkel leaves us with a hint of his wild ambition. "Next time," he says with a boyish grin, "I want to do an entire skyline."
See more of Projecting Change in the images and video below.