Turning On The Lights - How Customs House Was Turned Into A Digital Piece Of Art

If you've been in Sydney's Circular Quay after dark over the past couple of weeks, you would have noticed the spectacular lightshow that's transformed Customs House and the Opera House from architectural icons to digital canvases as part of the Vivid Sydney festival. But what actually goes into creating a show like that? We spoke to Peter Milne from The Electric Canvas, the company that created the light production.

The Electric Canvas is a specialist projection company based in Sydney who create projection-based artworks all over the world, with productions as wide and varied as the Vivid festival to the Vancouver Winter Olympics. As a company working in a highly competitive industry, the team of 12 staff has made a name for themselves by creating all stages of the projection process.

There are essentially three tasks involved in creating a building projection like the one currently adorned over Customs House after dark, as Peter Milne from The Electric Canvas explains to us.

"For instance, the projection side itself, which is the technical overlay that sets out what equipment's used and what creative opportunities will be presented; The content creation, which is the second stream and the third one is the implementation of all the equipment - provision, setup and running of the show," Milne said.

Before the show could be designed, the team from The Electric Canvas needed to create a 3D laser mapped model of Customs House in order to understand exactly what they would be projecting on. But while the virtual model of the building was in 3D, the projection itself is only in 2D to maximise its entertainment value for the audience.

"The model's 3D, but a lot of the design techniques we're using are 2D because it's important for us that no matter what angle you view it from you get the same experience. When you design purely in 3D, it's only works from a limited sweet spot or from one point of view," explained Milne.

All production is done in-house on Macs running between eight and 12 core processors, but the actual projection itself is run from six PC media servers running Intel Core i7 2600 1155 CPUs and two Intel 120GB SSDs each. According to Milne, the use of Intel's SSDs in the machines this year has led to a performance boost of at least 5x last year's presentation. The six servers pump out the show to the eight projectors, which display the show at a resolution of 2000 pixels high and 3,500 pixels wide.

The process of creating a show like the one on Customs House is a long one played out under a relatively short deadline, with Milne telling us it took them about 30 hours to create the Customs House model, about 1000 hours to create the content and hundreds of hours of rendering.

When it comes to the show on the Opera House, The Electric Canvas has a pretty big role to play in that as well. Designed by French artists Super Bien, The Electric Canvas used its expertise in understanding the Opera House's design in turning the artwork from a file to a moving artwork on one of Sydney's most iconic landmarks.

"We worked with the artists to provide the templates so they could design to, and some measuring when it came to local knowledge about the Opera House and the way it interfaces with its environment. We have a custom projector array that we use on the Opera House, because the distance we have to project over is 450 metres, which is quite a long throw for any projection, and we use an array of 14 projectors fed out from the same sort of media servers we're using at Customs House," Milne told us.

The Vivid Sydney Festival ends on June 13, so there isn't too much time left to head down and enjoy the eight minute spectacular of lights and sounds being projected across Customs House. If you're in Sydney, you owe it to yourself to head down to the Quay to check it out, if only to appreciate the technical wizardry that goes into producing something like that.

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