Arts + Design

Sharing ideas at massive scale

Dec 4, 2015 /

Travis Threlkel paints in light. His canvas: the largest buildings he can find.

For one magical night this summer, the Empire State Building turned into a massive movie screen for giant projections of leopards, tigers, golden tamarinds and honeybees, playing above Manhattan from sundown to midnight. The projection was part of the promotion for the film, Racing Extinction, directed by Louie Psihoyos (he also made The Cove). And when you have an earth-focused message this urgent, well yes, you do want to project it on the side of a 102-story building. We talked to the projection artist who made it happen, Travis Threlkel, about his vision for using mega-sized art to help people see beyond their everyday.

From inside a rock venue to outside the Empire State. As a teenager playing in rock bands in the 1990s, Threlkel would set up multiple movie projectors behind his band, overlaying cinematic images into a psychedelic cabaret. That early interest in creating immersive sensory experiences evolved into Obscura Digital, his company that puts on large-scale live events using cutting-edge light projections.

Threlkel calls himself “a scale person,” which means he often envisions his projects at staggering size. Backed by a team of sixty-plus engineers, designers, architects, musicians, animators, coders and machinists, Obscura’s projections have lit up the United Nations, the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Museum and the Empire State Building. “With scale, it’s evident that someone is trying to tell you something,” he says. “I want to turn adults into little kids asking, ‘What are they doing? How did they do that? What are they trying to say?’”

Threlkel's projections on the Guggenheim Museum. Photo: Joshua Brott
Projections on the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, designed to celebrate a competition put on in conjunction with YouTube. Photo: Joshua Brott.

Think big. But make it special. When Psihoyos hired Threlkel to project images of endangered species onto large surfaces in New York City for his organization, the Oceanic Preservation Society, and the film Racing Extinction, Threlkel considered projecting onto billboards, onto buildings, even onto the Statue of Liberty. Then he started thinking really big. He proposed projecting from river to river on a swath of midtown Manhattan, covering 20 or so skyscrapers including the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Turns out this would have been too difficult and expensive, so he “settled” on the Empire State Building, which had never been used as a canvas before.

Using forty 20,000-lumen projectors stacked on a nearby roof, the projections of animals covered 33 floors of the southern face of the building on the night of August 1, 2015. As much as Threlkel would have liked to go bigger, he was thrilled with the project. “It’s not just, ‘Let’s do something big.’ It’s, ‘Let’s do something unique,’ which is what the Empire State Building was. That building is iconic. It’s a part of New York City’s psyche. It is imbued with meaning.”

Our small screens have big power. Threlkel’s dream is to get us to see beyond the small screens we carry in the palms of our hands — to look up. “We have this instinctive way to block out and self-edit anything in our peripheral vision,” he says. “In order to capture people’s attention, you have to hijack imaginations by doing something that people have not seen before.”

But of course, Threlkel is aware that however many thousands of people actually looked up at the Empire State Building on that one night, many millions more saw the images on their small screens via social media. (He says that the projections trended on Facebook for four days.) “It’s obviously very different for people who are not there. But the concept of how big it is still gets attention,” he says. “Them not being there doesn’t change the significance of them saying, ‘What is that huge thing?’”

Threlkel's projections on the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Joshua Brott
For the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, Obscura Digital mapped the Sydney Opera House and connected the external projections to the performance going on within the building. Photo: Joshua Brott.


Got a powerful idea? Blow it up.  Threlkel says that he has always “been driven by the idea — but as I have matured, I’ve seen how my really big megaphone could be used for a greater purpose,” he says. “Whether you’re an artist or activist, you are trying to express something that has meaning. And the biggest message is to reconnect humanity with our own world. We have a distorted relationship to our planet. When you look at how our planet is burning fossil fuels and people are starving, we are acting insane, disassociated from reality.” So for 2016, Threlkel is plotting a truly gargantuan nature-focused artwork that could cover three miles of farmland in Northern California. To create the image, he’ll plant digital flowers that will bloom in the spring, unfurling a massive artwork that can be seen from the air. When people see it from airplanes, he hopes they’ll feel a shared sense of ownership and pride in humanity … and will think, “We can do cool things.”

A three-mile-wide artwork not big enough? Ask Threlkel about his dreams for “off-world art.” Yes, he says he has spoken to NASA representatives to explore the feasibility of projecting images onto the moon from a space station or probe. And as you might expect, he says he hasn’t yet been dissuaded. “It would be a very small projection. Maybe we could fill a crater,” Threlkel says, clearly reveling in the role of the dreamer. “It would literally be a moon shot.”

Featured photo of a tiger adorning the Empire State Building by Joshua Brott.