There's endless Super Bowl hoopla happening in New York right now, what with the big game just hours away. But attendees might miss one of the coolest if they don't look up: The projection-mapping specialists at Moment Factory have turned the grand Herald Square facade of Macy's into an orgy of light. It's incredible. Here's how they did it.
Moment Factory is a Montreal-based collective of video, design, and technology nerds. They're experts at turning buildings into animations, and they use their own propriety software to do it. In one recent recent show, they projected glorious imagery onto La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí's masterpiece cathedral in Barcelona. The Canadian company is no stranger to American football, either; they helped design Madonna's half-time show at the Super Bowl in 2012.
This year, Moment Factory is back in the NFL fray as part of Super Bowl Boulevard, a 10-block entertainment spectacle that's been carved down one of New York's busiest thoroughfares. Their contribution is the Super Bowl Virtual Theatre, a 314 square-metre projection-mapped wonder.
Across Macy's Broadway facade, the installation plays an overwhelming eight-minute barrage of swirling images: Cubist footballs, crazy confetti, and, confoundingly, licks of flame that melt down the side of the building like oozy cheese. All this imagery is combined with real footage of NFL gridiron, and backed by an epic mashup soundtrack of orchestral music, electronic beats, and the words of barking television announcers calling football games.
According to Moment Factory's multimedia director, Nelson de Robles, the idea was to show the fusion of the two host states — New York and New Jersey — as well as to illustrate the contrast "between the heat of the game and the cold outside." Indeed, when I was standing in Herald Square watching the projection, the temperature was hovering in the low twenties.
De Robles says that designing the projection for the Macy's building was enormously challenging. As a site for a major installation, the middle of New York City is just about the worst spot you could pick for logistics. On the other hand, if the requisite characteristics for a projection surface are iconic status and a long horizontal face that can be used as a canvas, Macy's Herald Square is perfect: It's famous, it's wide, and the space across the street is clear because it's a park. The building is an architectural icon, too, built over a hundred years ago. Until recently, it was the single largest retail space in the world, and it remains the biggest in America.
But the project was a terrible challenge for another very simple reason: The Macy's building on 34th street is just blocks from the seizure-inducing light pollution emanating from Times Square, not to mention the Empire State Building and loads of skyscrapers that are all exploding with light. And then there's the latent sound of Manhattan's crushing gridlock. The latter problem was solved by convincing the city to let Moment Factory crank up the volume to 100 decibels rather than the normal 85 decibel limit. "85 decibels is basically the sound of the traffic," says de Robles.
Beating the light pollution was more complicated. Since you can't tell the big city to dim it down a little, the Moment Factory had to outgun the limelight with the most powerful hardware it could find. The images are blasted over Herald Square from 12 2K40 Barco projectors from the Courtyard Marriott on Sixth Avenue, where the NFL rented out two floors of the building just for the production company. The projectors have 2K resolution with lamps rated at 40,000 lumens. Originally, Moment Factory had hoped to use the same 20,000 lumen Barco projectors that it used for La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but they proved too dinky for the task.
But no matter how much power was thrown at the project, Moment Factory had to work within some unavoidable constraints, and in the end, the visual content had to be tailored for the site. For example, the video contains very little negative space — everything had to be filled with a colour, because you're never going to get a deep, cold black in the middle of New York City.
The Macy's building's design posed another problem — because it doesn't have a totally flat facade, and the NFL wanted to project actual football footage onto the building. Usually, projection maps don't shy away from the intricacies of a building's architecture. As de Robles points out, La Sagrada Familia is one of the most complicated buildings in the world, and Moment Factory took advantage of all that weirdness to make a more interesting presentation. But if you want to use real footage of real human beings doing things, you need a flat surface — which gets screwed up by the Macy's building's huge recessed windows.
The solution was to drop huge draped screens over each of the windows to make the surface a flat canvas:
In the end, though, everything fell into place — the theatre is a wild, vivid spectacle above one of the city's busiest squares. The Super Bowl Virtual Theatre can be viewed from 5:30 to 10pm, every 30 minutes, through Saturday at 34th and Broadway. If you're in New York, it's not to be missed. You'll never see a projection like this in the middle of Manhattan again.
Photos and Gifs by Nick Stango. Video by the Moment Factory.