I found and resuscitated a Flash demo I made some thirteen years ago, when I worked for Videosonic, regarding one of the most daredevil art projects I’ve ever been involved with. A 25 foot high video wall, projecting footage shot by Thomas Edison himself, with a hand cranked camera. The video had to be split between four projectors, shooting at insane angles, installed in a historically protected landmark building. We couldn’t just start drilling. The screen ran from the second floor, through the staircase and down to the first floor. My job: make it work. Miraculously, it did! Here’s how.
This is the 25 foot high, 6 foot wide video waterfall that I created on behalf of VideoSonic Systems for the Cooper– Hewitt National Design Museum, which is the New York branch of the Smithsonian Institution. The footage was a 30–second video loop of Niagara Falls, filmed by Thomas Edison himself in 1898 with one of his original hand-cranked cameras. The clip was provided by the Library of Congress archives.
This installation was part of the museum exhibit on “Frederick Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran, Tourism and the American landscape” at the turn-of-the-century. The last century, that is.
The project began, like any good project, with a detailed specification of what we were going to build. We worked closely with the Leven Betts architectural firm, the Tsang Seymour design firm and the museum staff to “measure twice, cut once” and ensure the feasibility of the ambitious plans. This scene shows some of the original elevations for the project.
Each frame of the video had to be cut into four equal sections to create four separate MPEG video clips that played in frame-accurate sync through a series of four projectors — two on the first floor, two on the second floor, including one that shot over the banister between the two floors. To maintain synchronization, the four clips were fed to the projectors through a dedicated Alcorn–McBride video server.
Because the museum is a federally protected landmark (it’s Andrew Carnegie’s former mansion), great care had to be taken in the placement and mounting of the projectors. We worked very closely with the museum staff to come up with viable solutions. Here a projector is seen mounted to the ceiling on a wooden track that would not damage the delicate molding on the ceiling, yet provided a drastic enough angle for us to shoot the image over the staircase railing between the first and second floor.
This view from behind the screen shows the location of the four projectors. The screen was made of white spandex stretched over he wouldn’t frame, with a gobo lamp projecting the logo through a cut glass stencil from the rear.
Because the angles of the projectors were so extreme, each frame of each video had to be distorted trapezoidally by varying amounts to make it project as a square image. This required a considerable amount of calculation and batch processing using Photoshop, Director and Final Cut Pro. 30 seconds footage at 30 frames per second = 900 frames per clip, times for clips = 3600 individual pictures that had to be manipulated, recompiled and recompressed as MPEG. This scene shows the four individual distorted clips running in sync.
These drastic distortions also meant that we had to install the projectors before being 100% sure that it would all work. I had to know how far to distort each quadrant, and only way to tell was with the projectors installed. When projecting from up to 18 feet away, a difference as little as the width of the cat whisker (literally) in any direction would have been plainly visible. Here is a view of the installation looking over the banister from the second floor down to the first.
Naturally, everyone was very nervous about such a high profile installation, and the entire project took about three months to complete. Happily, it all worked perfectly from the moment we threw the switch. Here is a shot from halfway down the staircase, looking into the adjoining gallery.
For more about the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, visit their website. Or better yet, visit the museum in person!