I chatted with Nick Lynch, Executive Producer at Obscura Digital at the Digital Signage Expo. Nick has been at Obscura for 8 years, and has been involved in some awesome projection mapping shows along the way.
Q: You guys have been one of the first people on the scene in projection mapping. How did it all start?
A: We have two founders of the company Chris Lejeune and Travis Threlkel. They got together because Chris’ family makes geodesic domes. And Travis had been playing in bands, and doing visual for bands, where he’d grab old slide projectors or multiples of them, and throwing in visuals during band performances. And he came up with the idea that he wanted to projection map the inside of a geodesic dome to make this 360 degree immersive experience. So he started researching and he found Pacific Domes on the web. So he contacted Christ Lejeune and he was like “I want to projection map your dome. And he was like “Ok sure.” … And they hit it off and have been partners ever since.
Q: Walk me through your creative process, from the moment the client contacts you to the actual show.
A: We start with a concept design phase, which allows us to identify vary accurately what the client’s needs are, what the narrative is, what they want to get out of the job, the end result. It also allows us to really nail the budget, to know exactly what we are in for. So our budgets will be really precise. So that’s how we get started. Then we go from concept design to schematic design, design development, then production, then installation. So we kinda follow the paths that architects do.
Q: How much does do these experiences cost?
A: So something like this is a custom mobile kiosk that we sell for $29,000. That is the smallest scale, we will sell these to whoever wants them.
Big projection jobs can be up to several million dollars, a job like the Coca-Cola building to map all of the four sides.
Q: What tools do you use?
A: The tool that we use most is Derivative’s TouchDesigner. We used to use our own warping software. Our CTO was a PhD student at Stanford and worked on this warping technology. That is how we got that original technology. But then many people figured out how to do that. And now it is no longer, it is available to a lot more people.
Q: How do you get the model of the building?
A: Laser scan. We have our own systems.
Q: What about projectors?
A: We are pretty much 100% Christie house. So we are a re-seller. If we do installations, we usually buy their projectors. Sometimes it is not the right solution, like we need a consumer grade short throw. We just did a project where we projection map the inside of a Johnny Walker Blue Label bottle. So for that, to keep it in budget, we used Viewsonic $800 short throw projectors. And you know they’ve worked great. But for the big jobs we use Christie 20-30K, and lensing anywhere from 0.8-1.5 or whatever it takes to get the right throw.
Q: What is the hardest part of the process?
A: Unforeseen technical difficulties. Or inclement weather. You know the unpredictable. Because if it is a show and you have to go live at 11 o’clock, and someone unplugs a cable in the chain, when you have 50 projectors networked to 70 computers…one bad cable and you are toast.
Q: How do you guys deal with that? Do you have redundancies or do you have prayer?
A: Prayer. If we did have redundancies, it could double the cost of the project. We have some awesome techs. We’ve been fortunately enough not to have any major disasters, except for Atlanta when we did Coca-Cola. On one of the last nights, a wind storm came in and blew the scrim off the building. We have to put scrim on all the sides to catch the projection. So it was an act of god. “He’s like, Enough Coke advertising!”
Q: You guys were one of the first to do architectural projection mapping, but now more and more people are getting into that. So where do you see yourself going. What is the next big thing in projection mapping?
A: Have you seen the pool table, the Cuelight? (see below) I have a feeling we are going to be getting more involved in more mapping your home, mapping any surface, intelligent lighting. So instead of your average light, maybe it is a projector light, where you can interact with it and get information, a couple of little gestures, you maybe flick it away, and it goes to romantic lighting for a table of two. Getting away from the screen is something we are always interested in. You know right now the world is based on screens of all sizes, of course we have to work with those, but we see a future that is less screens.
Q: Do you have internal R&D?
A: A lot of R&D comes out of doing work. Ultimately, we are a service company. Our margins are what service companies have, so putting extra resources towards R&D is difficult, but yet we have to do it to stay on top. But often most of our R&D comes out of some crazy project with a client.
Q: Do you retain the IP?
A: IP is different on every job. It depends on how the statement of work is written. Generally we do. But if that is a deal breaker for the client, then we have to negotiate that, and it might cost them more money. For us it is all about the statement of work. Our SOW are usually pretty short… where anyone can read it and figure out what we are responsible to deliver.
Q: You’ve been with Obscura 8 years, what was your favorite project?
A: The mosque in Abu Dhabi, …we spent about a month over there. It was just really cool to do something on that scale that had nothing to do with advertising. Not that I’m opposed to advertising, but it was so cool to have it just based on art. It was a gift of the country to its people.
Nick: One thing last thing I’d like to say for the record. A lot of people talk about “Out of box thinking”, which we are kinda known for. But our founders, Chris and Travis, they were never in the box to begin with. So, that is how far out the thinking is, which is just awesome to be around.