London Lights Up With Amazing 4D Illumination

November 29, 2011

When Ben Fender ran a circus he wanted to create the ‘greatest show on earth’. Twenty years ago he toured Europe using ten red fire engines to stage techno-spectaculars – each more daring, beautiful and exciting than the last.

“I’m a fireman,” Fender says, “Except we wanted to start fires, not put them out.”

Fender’s circus days ran their course, but now he’s combined big-top showmanship with an architect’s precision to create Britain’s biggest ever video-mapping 4D light show to launch the Nokia Lumia 800. A breathtaking four minute animation that splits open the Millbank Tower office block, and takes onlookers on a futuristic journey, will accompany the Nokia Lumia Live show with deadmau5 and TEED on the banks of the River Thames in London tonight.

Without giving too much away – it will look like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

“The Millbank Tower was very appropriate,” says Fender, “It has a very 1960s sci-fi feel to it.”

Episodes of Doctor Who have been filmed there.

The building also has some serious tenants: Millbank became synonymous with British politics in the 1990s when the Labour Party ran their electoral machine from an office in the base. Now Labour is gone, but the Conservative Party has headquarters there. They all had to agree to cooperate.

Across the river the security service MI6 has been monitoring Fender’s event carefully:

“We’re projecting across the river, and we’re close to MI6 headquarters…let’s say they’ve been watching what we’re doing very closely.”

Fender’s company, Drive Productions, has assembled a cast of hundreds to pull off what could have been a logistical nightmare.

Cecil B. DeMille called the circus a “massive machine whose very life depends on discipline, motion and speed . . . a mechanized army on wheels that rolls over any obstacle in its path”.

“This show is like that,” Fender admits. Weekly production meetings have been attended by 25 heads of departments, each with 20 people working under them.

In the Drive office ten animators have labored around the clock for three months to produce the four-minute film, while on the ground hundreds of carpenters and plumbers have been building a set – and shaking the leaves off the trees to make sure nothing obstructs the path of the projection. Every single window in the Millbank Tower has been fitted with a cover: “Without the covers the light would just shine straight through the glass.”

On the night three black D3 servers will power 16 precisely lined-up projectors – each fitted with specially imported lenses – to beam the illumination across the Thames and cover the entire length and width of the 118-meter building.

The stakes are high – if anyone leaves the office light on it won’t work.

“The show is about light, but what is essential is darkness,” Fender says.

Creating a 30-floor “lighthouse” is complicated. Street lamps around the building have to be turned off around the building for the duration of the show, and working out how many projectors to use involves a convoluted algorithm: “Each projector beams 22,000 lumins… and four projectors doubles the light…” Fender looks to his Head Producer Jim Hudson to complete the equation. No one can quite explain it. Let’s just say, it’s a lot more light.

This is a spectacular that involves pixels, lumins and computer rendering in almost unheard of dimensions – but it’s also a story.

“We started, like every other film, with a script,” says director Luke Losey. Losey’s grandfather was the legendary Hollywood director Joseph Losey who moved to Europe after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and went on to make films including The Servant and The Go-Between.

“After I wrote the script, and we talked about some ideas, we started drawing the storyboards and then I started working closely with the animators,” says Losey.

One of the most important elements was working with deadmau5 to complement his sound: “deadmau5 recorded his soundtrack for us and we worked the story around it. We had to make sure that the light and animation flowed with the peaks and troughs of the music.”

With a day or so to go before the Millbank event Losey is pacing back and forth behind Nico Cotta, who is in charge of finishing the filmed animation using Flame software. The blinds are drawn, and the computers are whining loudly. Cotta has been adding animations, and composting, for the duration of the project: “To be honest we could go and on, but there comes a point where I say that’s it – it’s good enough.”

When will it be ready?

Losey and Cotta look at each other. Cotta shrugs, “Monday?”

Last year Drive Productions staged 4D spectaculars at Battersea Power Station in London, and for Ralph Lauren in New York: “For Ralph Lauren we released scent onto the streets at the moment that the perfume bottles were moving across the front of the building,” says ringleader Ben Fender – although he refuses to speculate what the 4D element might be on Monday night.

It could reduce your expectations to rubble, which sounds perfect if you love the circus.

This article was written for Conversation by Nokia and Republic Publishing

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