Every summer, the Vivid festival briefly transforms Sydney into an enchanting wonderland of light, color and music. At the center of the event is Lighting the Sails, the Sydney Opera House’s tradition of turning its unique architecture, which resembles sails or shells, into a breathtaking canvas.
This year’s Lighting the Sails production, Audio Creatures, was directed by Sydney’s Ash Bolland with soundscapes by renowned Brazilian sound designer Amon Tobin. The elaborate projection-mapped show, which required 16 projectors, reflects Bolland’s interest in the relationship between nature and humans and offers viewers a glimpse of abstract creatures, otherworldly plants and a futuristic chrome world.
Tim Clapham, creative director of Luxx, a Sydney-based motion graphics and 3D animation studio, says Luxx was very privileged to be invited by Spinifex Group to create visuals for Audio Creatures. Working with Mike Tosetto, creative director of Sydney motion design studio Never Sit Still, and using Cinema 4D, After Effects, V-Ray and X-Particles as well as custom code, Luxx collaborated with Spinifex to create about 8 minutes of the 15-minute production in seven weeks.
Here, Tim Clapham and Mike Tosetto explain Luxx’s work on Audio Creatures.
How did you get invited to contribute to this prestigious event?
Clapham: It was a huge honor to be asked to do this. It gets millions and millions of views, and is probably the most viewed projection mapping in the world. It was a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this. We had a couple of other great artists working with us and everybody put their all into it. You could tell people really knew it was a privilege. The Spinifex Group and Ash Bolland approached Luxx independently to collaborate on the project. It was a wonderful coincidence and great to know that both the production company and the director had plenty of faith in our abilities. The project was pretty vast and Luxx produced around eight minutes of the 3D content, all rendered at 4K. That’s a lot of material to create in seven weeks, which required many long days and nights to craft.
What kind of direction did you get from Ash Bolland?
Clapham: Ash gave great direction and was a pleasure to work with. He had some very specific ideas but he was open to our interpretations, too. If there was a cool way to execute his concept, he was open to that. Ash also had some wonderful references for how he thought the creatures should look, and it was our job to interpret them. He created style frames for each creature, some montaged in Photoshop using 3D renders, and others were hand-drawn sketches. We worked together to rebuild those fantastic creatures in Cinema 4D.
Tosetto: He wanted the creatures to feel big and heavy, like Godzilla stomping through a city. The opera house is huge, and the creatures needed to convey weight through slow and substantial movement.
What kinds of creatures did you make?
Clapham: We built many of the creatures and components, including a butterfly, a chrysalis, a jellyfish, ice pods, an octopus, parasites, shells and a magnetic core. Each creature presented its own unique challenge. One shot in particular starts with a chrysalis tearing open to reveal a butterfly. Ash wanted to reveal the butterfly’s wings as individual segments from the wing patters. We ran Cloth simulations on each segment, creating flags flapping in the wind as they unfurl to reveal the butterfly wings.
Talk about the challenges of getting everything to fit on the opera house’s sails.
Clapham: The opera house’s sails are an incredible canvas but it is quite an unusual shape, kind of like pieces of an orange. We needed the animation to be constrained within that shape so it didn’t break out and kill the illusion. We had a 3D model of the opera house and the hero projection in position but we needed to make sure all of the elements fit perfectly. We did a lot with deformers in C4D, and also used reshaping tools in After Effects to ensure everything was pixel perfect to the shape.
We explored multiple avenues in Cinema, which gave us the flexibility to experiment with the ideas we had. For example, when we were working on the magnetic core, which is more like geometry and swirling shapes than a creature, we thought it was going to be a simple shot but it turned out to be really challenging. We used a custom Python Effector that allowed us to arrange objects using the Fibonnaci sequence. [A series of numbers wherein the next number is found by adding up the two numbers before it.]
Describe the projection setup for this?
Tosetto: The projections were split into four separate parts and projected all the way across the harbor. Four projectors were used for the two sails on the left, six projectors for the center sail, three projectors for the right sail and three projectors for the two smaller sales for a total of 16.
What did you think when you saw it actually being projected?
Clapham: Ash really had a crazy vision. He walks though life seeing things most of us take for granted but he stops and looks and sees so much beauty in nature and he sees how some creatures are almost like alien beings. Watching this, I thought the creatures felt really accessible, abstract and beautiful. We went out on a limb with this because the whole subject matter is abstract and bizarre but we kept it fun and light-hearted with creatures that aren’t spiky and aggressive, but kind of fluffy and bouncy.
Clients: Destination NSW & Sydney Opera House
Sydney Opera House: Brooke Webb, Ben Marshall https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/
Destination NSW: Adam Lowe, Julie Turpie
Interrogate Director: Ash Bolland
Interrogate Executive Producer: Tara Riddell
Audio: Amon Tobin
Spinifex Managing Director: Cyril de Baecque
Spinifex Creative Director: Jason French
Luxx Creative Director: Tim Clapham
Never Sit Still Creative Director: Mike Tosetto
2D / 3D Artists: Tim Clapham, Mike Tosetto, Dan Braga, Alex Barnet, Nejc Polovsak, Rich Nosworthy, Will Skinner, Duncan Dix, Roy Christian, Pepin Portingale, Nicholas Hunter, Marcus Coblyn.
Sound FX: Marcus Longfoot – Full Circle Audio
Projection Company: The Electric Canvas.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota