person with a laptop setting up lights for a plant display at night

Nightscape: The Art of Projection Mapping

By Heather Coletti, on

The return of Nightscape: A Light and Sound Experience by Klip Collective means the return of the Friday night Artist & Friends Speaker Series. The first of three installments, on Friday, August 12, included Ricardo Rivera, founding member of Klip Collective and creator of Nightscape, and Thom Roland, Art Director at Klip Collective. Both artists discussed the basics of projection mapping and various uses for this medium; the overlap of their respective roles at their studio and behind the scenes of Nightscape; and a few of the changes they made to the 2016 version of Nightscape.

Rivera introduced the fundamentals of projection mapping by showing a few of the major projects Klip Collective has tackled over the years. These run the gamut from installations in New York’s Central Park, the University of Texas, Temple University, Philadelphia’s City Hall, and major corporate events for well known brands such as Target. In nearly all of these examples, Rivera and his team projected animated color and light onto passive, architectural surfaces. Typically, these surfaces are mostly flat and those that are outdoors remain unchanged in all types of weather and over extended periods of time. An artist is able to measure the intricate details of surfaces like walls, facades, stages, and runways and use these numbers to precisely target surface areas with light projections.

man holding a laptop creating the lights for the displays in the Silver Garden

Use of projection mapping by Ricardo Rivera of Klip Collective in the Silver Garden. Photo by Kevin Ritchie.

The artistic project of Nightscape has additional layers of challenges: while projecting onto buildings, columns, and walls presents one set of challenges, projecting onto plants like bismarckia palms is another. Even the most ordinary plants and trees do not grow into large, flat canvases. Rather, they typically have intricate surface textures and fine details. Additionally, the components of constant growth and organic change factor into considerations of the projection surface. In the year leading up to 2015’s opening of Nightscape, Rivera and his team tackled all of these large and small challenges with an open-mindedness toward trial and error.

Rivera turned to projection mapping at the beginning of his career when he realized that the expense of equipment would force him to economize when choosing everything from computers to projectors. Like any artist, he didn’t want practical decisions to shortchange his final work. “I came up with projection mapping because I want to do these pieces where it looks like I’m using multiple projectors, but really I’m only using one,” he says. For Nightscape, Rivera has managed to cover enormous surface areas from the trees surrounding the Large Lake, to the Topiary Garden, to expanded coverage in the Conservatory with only twenty total projectors.

Rivera demonstrated how much one projector can handle based on the work accomplished on another kind of flat surface: a computer screen. For both installments of Nightscape, he and his team worked initially with Longwood’s horticulturists to study the range of plants, leaves, and trees on the grounds, and then they would return to the Klip studios to create a projection map for large swaths of the Gardens. “The horticulturists would come in and show me all these different plants, and we’d take walks through the Gardens and they would ask me, ‘What things appeal to you? What do you like or dislike?’” recalls Rivera. The Klip team treated the living surfaces at Longwood with the same basic rule as their other projects: “Always work with the architecture, not against it. You have to study the architecture, process it and digest it. We worked with the plants with a lot of trial and error.” This process depends upon a seemingly intuitive relationship between Rivera and other artists like Roland.

green checkered lights on a tree with a black back drop

Installation of Nightscape. Photo by Kevin Ritchie.

After absorbing the details of the Gardens, the team had to create what would be projected into and onto them. “Rick would say, ‘I want something that kinda looks like this’ and then we would come here and project it onto various types of plants, and one thing would work on some plants but not on others,” describes Roland. “So we would film that so we would have documentation, take that back to the studio, and then adjust [the projection] because maybe it was too fast or that shape didn’t work, so there was a lot of adjusting.” On a computer, Roland would create many different “weird, wavy circle-lines that change colors” among other designs.

“Thom makes my paints, if you will,” says Rivera. “These are my colors or tools that I use. So he would make tons and tons of these files, and then I would take that and make a projection map.” The flat projection map on the computer plays through the projector and takes on a new life on the external surface—in fact, the image on the screen and the external surface hardly resemble each other. Additionally, it is this map concept that allows Rivera and Klip Collective to make their magic. Rather than using a projector for every component in each section of the Gardens, one projector can project one map that encompasses various “paints” to cover a large surface with multiple variations, colors, and movement. As a result, Rivera requires less equipment and the audience still views an amazingly detailed installation.

Rivera’s team worked overnight “vampire hours” for an entire year before the 2015 opening to perfect the endless details of the initial Nightscape project. Opening night arrived and the major editing and rethinking had to stop—the team had to find satisfaction in what had been completed even though there were loose ends that bothered them, even if they went unnoticed by guests. Taking another stab at Nightscape proved just as challenging. “This year was hard,” says Rivera. “I struggled with it. Last year was like a feverish dream.” Roland also enjoyed the second opportunity to keep working despite the challenges: “We got to unify everything this year and make it tighter. We didn’t have the time to do that last year.” Rivera notes that the Large Lake and Topiary Gardens remain mostly the same between 2015 and 2016. “I tried to change the Large Lake this year. I tried to add to it, but everything we made just wasn’t as good, and if it’s not broke, why fix it?”

person with a laptop setting up lights for a plant display at night

Projection mapping of the Rose Arbor. Photo by Kevin Ritchie.

Rivera did dedicate many hours, however, to modifying the Rose Arbor and Flower Garden Drive for this year. “This year the Rose Arbor is actually syncopated to music. I spent a lot of time working on that one and I really like where it ended up.” Rivera’s favorite spot this year is Flower Garden Drive. “It’s massively huge and it’s tall, and there are so many beautiful moments as you walk through it,” he describes. “I encourage people to stop and look up and what happens is that you get this beautiful play on the vegetation that’s really interesting. I added the gradient bar lights from last year. It actually reveals the trees in a really subtle way.” Roland’s favorite for both installments has been the Palm House. Additional lighting fills this space and the show now spills over to the Mediterranean Garden and the outdoor Waterlily Display.

For guests who saw Nightscape last year, 2016 provides another opportunity to see a new version of this walk-through story experience. For those who missed last year entirely, they have until October 29 to see and hear this installment in its newly modified form.

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