—By: Marty Peck – An article for Lighting Design + Application—
Some people think it’s a brain, or a pumping heart, or an amoeba under a microscope. Watching it has been compared to seeing the Northern Lights. Radio announcers report about it, saying traffic is backed up “watching the chicken chase the egg.” Visitors watching the kinetic movements swear that the hypnotic flow of light and color is choreographed to the music—any music. Some call it art, or a light show, and others think it’s just plain weird. But almost everybody has talked about it.
What is it? That question has several answers. Il is light of infinite colors, like an artist’s palette, splashed on the side of a building. It is a dynamic composition painted with expressive illustrations of light on a “canvas” of architecture. From unexpected splashes of color to playful images of abstract art, it is shifting colors and moving projections that create abstract images, a kinetic art piece that is always different. It is called The Mural of Light, a permanent outdoor application of moving light technology.
The Mural of Light was born from an architect’s challenge. The five-story facade of a medical complex building under construction was left windowless due to anticipated parking structure expansion. The facade was perfectly positioned for view by southbound expressway traffic, on the edge of downtown Milwaukee. “What can be clone here with light?” was the question that opened the Pandora’s Box or ideas for me.
The client was a medical center that was being consolidated into one campus, located between the main business district and an area of older homes. The architecture was somewhat varied, and my lighting design firm, Creative Lighting Design & Engineering, was helping develop a master plan to bring an identity to the campus. An ambience or warmth and friendliness was needed to counter the institutionalism of some of the older buildings, and the idea of using light with a theme color was suggested. This theme color would also tie the buildings together at night into a campus. The concept needed a “gateway” to establish the beginning of the campus, however, and The Mural of Light would eventually become the perfect local point to bring attention to the medical center.
From that first challenge, I suggested a concept of using light and color to create something similar to a mural. With the help of the architect, the medical center staff became intrigued with the idea. A study was commissioned by the client to determine what that concept might be, what it could do, and what it would cost. Initial brainstorming sessions with the advertising, PR, and corporate staff yielded further encouragement toward creating a mural chat was somehow based on light. The interest in such a wild idea was a pleasant surprise, considering the conservative heritage of the city and the medical community in general.
A report was then prepared that provided additional information and justification. A mural created with light would suggest a vibrant, progressive art form that was in keeping with the medical centers desired image. It could suggest a benefit and return to the community. Perhaps most importantly, though, it could bring attention to the medial centers sign, the building and the campus; a classy yet subtle “billboard” that couldn’t help but be noticed by passers-by, teasing the eye with moving color.
The next step in the report was to define and render three concept levels of complexity and cost. The simplest, dubbed an Economical Scenario, would create splashes and washes of changing colors on the Facade. It called for stationary outdoor PAR64 fixtures to be located on the roof of the two entry foyers beneath the five-story facade, along with two stationary outdoor color-changers. The PAR fixtures would be equipped with color filters and aimed up and across the wall, and all fixtures would be controlled by dimmers and a program of sequenced fades.
The next level of complexity, named An Expressive Scenario, added ellipsoidal stage lights for projecting graphic images on the facade. A “lighthouse” in the parking lot housed the
indoor fixtures and others with color changers. Finally, An Elaborate Scenario examined high-intensity Pani slide projectors and animated laser imaging. Predictably, the economical scenario won out.
But wait!! Somewhere between the completion of the study and the beginning of actual design and development, I was turned on to robotic moving light technology after having had considerable success implementing it in a professional sports arena and in a sports/dance complex. For about the cost of the two fixed outdoor color changers, two of the highest intensity and quality robotic moving lights could be used. These computerized fixtures, called Cyberlights, have motorized mirrors to control the beam location and other parameters. Not only would these give an infinite range of color, but they could move across the facade, and could project images from a selection of 12 templates, some of which could even be rotating. If only these robotic projectors could be used outdoors.
Being known for making crazy ideas into reality, I worked with the architectural firm to design a “doghouse” to house the projectors. A low T-shaped wall in the parking lot was perpendicular to the facade, and by adding a small L-shaped wall, a rectangular enclosure could be constructed. The doghouse was created in the far end of this rectangle by adding a concrete cap, with the vertical opening under the cap (inside the rectangle) being covered by an access door with a window. Beams from the projectors would angle up toward the facade through the special super-clear, low refractance glass window without obstruction by the low wall of the rectangle. Unless someone climbed up on the wall, they wouldn’t even know the dog- house was there and people wouldn’t figure out where the light and projections would be coming from.
The next concern was the operating environment for the robotic fixtures. Although the doghouse was sealed to protect the fixtures from rain, there would still be temperature extremes and possibly dust and moisture to contend with. Convective ventilation was provided through the doghouse to minimize high temperatures in the summer months. Keeping the electronics continuously energized would pre- vent low temperature extremes in the equipment during harsh Wisconsin winters and keep moisture problems down.
Finally, the initial budget could be satisfied by eliminating some architectural trim between the entrance foyer rooftops, which was planned LO hide the rooftop PAR fixtures from daytime view. The fixtures were instead painted to match the building to make them barely visible, and the short “top hats” were added to the fixtures to prevent nighttime glare so that the fixtures couldn’t be located at night.
After calculating the illuminance on the mural from the projector’s 1200 W MSR lamps, a lens system was selected that yielded an approximate “straight on” image diameter of 25-ft to assure lots of punch. The projected images, even from two robots, would not paint the entire facade, however, and a back- ground wash of complimentary colors was desired. Fourteen 100 W PAR64 flood and spot fixtures were finally included in the design, outfitted with special dichroic glass color filters, aimed to both scallop and streak the facade. These were located on the entry rooftops as originally intended, and controlled by a small rack of (12) 2.4 kW dimmers.
The mural should always be varied and different, with ever- changing “snapshots” as viewed from the adjacent interstate. To avoid a repetitive sequence of movements, an inexpensive yet versatile theatrical control console called a MicroVision was specified. This console allowed two groups of cues to operate independently of one another. One sequence of cues was dedicated to control of the color, fading the dimmers for the background PAR fixtures and the three-color channels for infinite color mixing of each robotic projector.
The other sequence of cues would only control the movement of the robotic projectors, being assigned to the other 17 data channels for each. These channels control such parameters as X and Y location of the mirror for aiming, zoom, intensity, focus, speed, template selection, rotation, strobe, etc. In this way, the movement and images would be changing independently of the colors and background, for a truly infinite palette of paintings.
One last issue for the engineering of the mural was to control the hours of operation. The theatrical console had a real time clock option for starting cues automatically, but this was not seasonally corrected. The solution was to turn on the console through an astronomical timeclock, and allow the internal clock to shut off the mural at different times during the week. The clock only controlled one of the two cue sequences, however, and so one dimmer was dedicated to turn on a “remote go” console input to start the other cue sequence. The first step in the program sequence after the console turned on each night was to turn on the extra dimmer, which then started the other cue sequence.
With the engineering issues worked out and construction almost finished, the fun part could begin: painting the mural. The stationary colors were chosen to complement each other and the medical center sign. Design or selection of the templates, called gobos, for the robotic projectors was challenging since they needed to have variegated abstract images that could be used in a composition next to each other, or superimposed from both projectors, or in multiples from the same projector. A total of 22 were installed, some using new multi-color dichroic patterns that were somewhat hallucinatory.
Now, the programming of the mural could begin. Obviously, this could only be done outdoors, after dark, and it was February! The back of a minivan made a great light booth out-fitted with a video game screen, the console, monitor, and a heater (and a thermos of hot chocolate) and was located toward the back of the parking lot which afforded a comfortable, full view of the facade. The first night of programing did get lonely, though, especially packing up when the tailgate closed accidentally and I was locked out at 2:00 AM. (Did the mural really need to be finished before the building opened? The answer turned out to be no, it wouldn’t be dedicated for 3 months.)
When the weather warmed a bit (and with a spare key), programming resumed. First came the simpler cue sequence for the colors, with various PAR combinations, fade times, and durations. The movement cues were much complex, since each projector motion had to have a beginning cue (fade up), a movement cue (go here or do this), and an end cue (fade out), and then move somewhere else and change gobos or something (while staying dark). The other projectors movements also had to be included within the same cue. Usually one was fading up as the other was fading out. Having two sequences of cues to program (color and movement) made it even more complex, for example the robot colors had to be up to see the beam, but had to be at zero to record each cue.
More than 100 cues were programed in this manner to yield a movement sequence of over 30 min before it repeats, although there is room for more cues in the sequence. Next time though, the colors of the images and background splashes are in different combinations for an infinite variety of compositions.
The tempo of the mural is evolutionary to keep it a mural instead or a light show, with consideration to traffic and the clients tastes. Colors and images usually slowly fade and move without being too distracting. Often images both projectors fade in and out of focus, creating the appearance of a three-dimensional tunnel through the wall. Sometimes the patterns rotate like a giant kaleidoscope, occasionally shifting focus to fool the eye. In one movement, huge beach balls of color roll toward each other and collide in a colorful explosion. Some images seem to chase one another around, and get larger or smaller to fool the eye into believing the images aren’t stuck to the wall. The possibilities are almost endless.
The lack of required maintenance of the mural has been a pleasant surprise. Relamping of the robotic projectors has been required about every 5 months. A “ghost” cue was cleated to aim each beam onto a single point to aid in realigning them after maintenance. There have been no problems due to the environment of the dog house, and the console and dimmers have worked flawlessly.
The results has given passers-by an album of ever-changing “painting” to talk about. Visitors to the medical center also can enjoy the dynamic movement of the mural from the parking lot, viewing the hypnotic changes and dramatic fades of the deep, rich hues and wild images. I have now literally become an artist, with precisely composed colors, images, and movements at any speed, direction, focus, or intensity, with a variety of kinetic illustrations for the mural which are thematic, kaleidoscopic, or abstract.
The Mural of Light is a permanent addition to Milwaukee’s skyline, inexpensively creating an artistic, vibrant, and progressive identity for the campus with the energy and vitality of projected light.
Marty Peck‘s passion for light can be found in innovative lighting designs for museums and art galleries, retail centers, industrial and commercial spaces, sophisticated homes and landscapes, historic renovations and churches, night clubs, restaurants, and performance theaters, as well as dramatic special events and thematic environments. He is an IESNA member, holding an electrical engineering degree with previous experience in lighting manufacturing as engineering manager. He has received numerous top lighting design awards and holds several innovative lighting fixture patents. Mr. Peck is principal of Creative Lighting Design & Engineering, Germantown, WI.