Projection mapping is now the most commonly applied term for transforming spaces and structures with projected, controllable light pixels. However, it’s also referred to with terms, such as: video mapping, pixel mapping, monumental mapping, architectural mapping, scenic projection, environmental projection and large- scale projection.
The specific art form of transforming a large surface using projections traces back several decades, but the influences go back centuries.
We find references to pinhole cameras, projecting images of their surroundings, dating back more than 2,000 years to ancient Greece and China. In 17th-century Europe, candles and oil lamps were used as light sources for “magic lanterns” that projected images painted on glass slides onto surfaces.
Going back some 80 years, people started using slide projectors to transform concert and theater stages. Productions on Broadway and in London’s West End dabbled with projection as early as the 1930s. By the 1950s, projectors were being used to blend theater, opera and dance productions with massive projected backdrops.
Also at the end of the 1960s, the “Imagineers” of the Walt Disney Company started applying projection technology to small, very focused surfaces. For the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, Disney’s creative engineers shot the faces of five actors singing the attraction’s theme song, and then projected the 16mm film output onto busts. The ghostly, disembodied singing heads were what some technical observers say was the first commercial instance of projection mapping onto a complex curved surface.
Visual artists began taking their work outside by the 1980s, using powerful, large-format projectors – the forerunners of today’s architectural projection spectacles.
While artists found ways to push the limits of slide projectors, the introduction in the 1990s of bright, computer-driven commercial projectors was the shining moment of the art form. Enhanced brightness led to greater possibilities, and ideas once constrained
by limited light became a reality. Computer graphics sped production and made full-motion video and graphics possible without film.
Corporations started working with staging and event companies by the early 1990s, using projection as the powerful, over-scaled backdrop for presentations to investors, customers and the press. Staging companies began keeping projection technology in rental inventory, allowing fast turnarounds on events, while controlling costs for event producers. Corporate presentations evolved over time and started to include product launches and splashy events, which allowed the general public see these ambitious shows projected onto flagship stores and public landmarks.
As the equipment became portable, brighter and rugged, mapped outdoor structures evolved beyond simple projection onto large buildings used as screens. Instead, intrigued artists began looking at the shape, contours and colors of a structure, and wondered how they could take this concept further.
Many of the best and most active imaging companies now have years of experience. The tools and technology are steadily getting better, and more visual artists are finding their way to this medium; intrigued by all the possibilities. Great projects now have storylines and visuals that fully integrate with surfaces.
Beginning from roots of using elemental tools to put visuals on an unusual surface, new technology, tools and bright, creative minds are reinventing and transforming our surroundings.
Getting started requires an understanding of the stakeholders, technologies and operating methods. Equally important is the ability to think beyond the use of a structure or object as a screen and to develop a big idea with a plan that has lasting impact.
Projection mapping as we know it is quickly becoming a catalyst for the way we approach visual communications, giving us a new way to market ideas and products, entertain in large masses; to simply tell stories on a much grander scale, while transforming and enhancing average-looking surfaces to make them more aesthetically pleasing.
The major driving force behind projection-mapping projects is the use of compelling visuals to blend stories, information and even calls-to-action, to create profound experiences.
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