Using balloons as projection surfaces

A combination of weather balloons for lighting effects, and custom-made, vinyl balloons designed specifically to work as projection surfaces helped British Airways unveil its new seating plan with flair in ballrooms around the country.

In an industry that often embraces the unorthodox, a number of prominent staging companies and event designers have dared in recent years to use actual balloons, or balloon-like airborne spheres, as unique surfaces for projecting video and spectacular lighting effects.

While the results are often stunning, what these staging companies and event designers have discovered is that unlike a child's balloon, these balloons are neither simple to use, nor toys. In fact, the intrinsic whimsy of a balloon's carefree flight can spell all sorts of trouble when it transforms into a video projection surface. Focus, framing, and hot spots are all complicating issues, along with a variety of unexpected challenges.

SRO recently talked with representatives from four staging companies who reveal the tricks they used to produce, postproduce, and project video and lights onto balloons at four major, recent events.

AV Concepts/British Airways

During a multi-city tour in late 2000, British Airways staged a show to unveil new seating plans for passengers in all classes on BA flights. With a design from staging company Jack Morton Worldwide, and technical expertise from AV Concepts, Phoenix, Ariz., the show featured an unusual use of balloons, both as projection surfaces and as part of a spectacular reveal.

At the beginning of the show, a facade of balloons became a projection surface. Video was projected onto two balloons, while custom gobos of the British Airways logo were beamed onto surrounding balloons using a group of Vari-Lite 2201 spot luminaires. At the climactic point of the show, the balloons were released upward to form an arching facade over a ramp leading to actual examples of the new seats being offered by British Airways, creating a lane for audience members to walk up and examine the seats.

In addition to dealing with the requirements of balloons as projection surfaces, the show presented another challenge.

“The venues were not standard hotel ballrooms,” says Mitch Teitelbaum, the project's account executive for AV Concepts. “In Chicago, for instance, we were in the Union Train Station with a huge glass atrium. We did it in the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. with a 125ft. glass ceiling, and the Crystal Tea Room in Philadelphia with an 18ft. ceiling.”

Those involved with the show say simple trial and error led them to their eventual method for making the dramatic reveal airtight. Shooting the video for projection, in Beta SP, was the easy part. Encountering unexpected physical and projection-oriented challenges, however, was trickier.

Creative Technology built this balloon out of rear-projection fabric, placed it inside a second balloon, and inside that, operated a complex projection system for the Sony Playstation launch.

In prepping the event, Jack Morton Worldwide organizers first tried balloon projection at a local video shop, where they inflated some 3ft., 6ft., and 10ft. latex weather balloons. That experiment quickly demonstrated that the inherent transparency of the weather balloons would prevent them from presenting images clear and bright enough for both the video and lighting effects.

Next, they tried putting a balloon inside a balloon, which worked well for lighting effects, but because there was a slight distance between the two balloons, the approach created a fuzzy, out-of-focus look for the video.

“We went back to the drawing board and tried different materials,” says Teitelbaum. Ultimately, two 10ft. balloons were fashioned out of vinyl, which is traditionally used for advertising balloons and doesn't expand as it inflates, but simply fills to size. The choice worked, but it also required technical director Bill Jakab's team to spend considerable time carefully calculating and procuring the exact amount of helium necessary to fill each vinyl balloon in such a way as to transform them into even, 3D spheres.

Projecting video was the next challenge.

“Unless you produced the video anamorphically, you're going to get distortion as it wraps around the balloon,” says Jakab. “But we couldn't do it anamorphically because every balloon inflates slightly differently. So we went with the distortion; it had an energy to it. The majority of the image was still in focus, just the corners went out of focus.”

Fitting the lighting effects on the balloons was a simpler matter. AV Concepts purchased the Vari-Lite 2201 spot luminaires for their zoom and focus features and then combined them with the use of four 3000 lumen Proxima projectors — two stacks of two; one stack for each balloon — with 7in. to 12in. zoom lenses that allowed them to find a happy medium between focus and framing.

“Most of the sites didn't have any hang points, so we had to build a truss-work behind the audience to shoot [both light and video] forward,” says Teitelbaum.

The team also had to find a good release mechanism that allowed the balloons to soar upward, forming an arch. In the beginning, they used a ripcord with cotter pins, but discovered the vertical pull was so strong that the line would snap before the cotter pin would release. Finally, they custom designed an electromagnet system whereby each tie-down point was held with a magnet, with six magnets mounted across the width of the ramp.

Because each show was located in a different venue, set up required time-consuming trial and error to focus and frame each time. Complicating the situation even more, when the balloons were released in rehearsal, they had to be painstakingly realigned.

“Because the projection balloons rose with the rest of the balloon wall, every time they went up, we had to pull them back down, and the balloons would move forward or backward, left or right,” Jakab says. A supervisor was drafted to wrangle the balloons, pushing them inch-by-inch into place.

“I could design a tour like this much better now that I've learned the variables,” Jakab says. “There are a lot of factors, such as air flow, gravity, and physics of the balloon, that you have no control over. But even though they're time-consuming, the final visual look was very pretty.”

Creative Technology/Sony Playstation

To introduce Sony Playstation at the 2001 E3 video game convention in Los Angeles, Creative Technology, San Francisco, created a complex balloon that allowed the projection of game footage in 360 degrees, via five seamless bands of video game footage.

Special projectors and lights projected unique video and lighting effects onto a floating Airstar balloon for the Christian Dior party.

First, the crew built a balloon 28ft. in diameter made of rear-projection fabric. That balloon was placed within a second transparent balloon made of plastic, with an 18in. gap between the two surfaces. Four fans kept the two balloons inflated, while a custom projection and lighting system was placed inside the inner balloon. That system consisted of a five-sided tower with five levels, housing five Digital Projection 15SX DLP projectors (heat from the projector lamps was vented out of the balloons), each with a .8 lens that accommodated the short throw distance, and 24 Vari-Lite fixtures, along with tri-color lasers. With the inside of the balloon divided into five segments, each projector filled a segment, which overlapped to produce a seamless image.

Working closely with Creative Technology, Shout Creative, based in San Mateo, Calif., produced the video in 4:3 aspect ratio, relying on existing Playstation game footage and unreleased game images from future Playstation projects.

“Shout Creative needed to work with us on how the video was laid down in safe areas, allowing us room to manipulate it,” explains Stephen Gray, Creative Technology's general manager. “It was very difficult because a balloon shrinks and increases in size as the air changes temperature.”

Because the game footage could not be distorted in any way, Creative Technology used an Abekas DVEous Digital Effects system on the images prior to projecting them. The system allowed the crew to shrink the images and correct for skew, while avoiding stretching the aspect ratio, distorting characters, or cutting off titles, prior to the event. The images were then burned to a Fast Forward Omega hard drive that played them in a loop during the show.

“What we did was build a mask, or map, for the video, and we used one channel of the DVE for each projector,” explains Gray. “Using a remote panel controlling the DVE, we shaped the video until it was perfectly aligned in a ring around the balloon, into an image approximately 9ft. tall around the circumference, but made up of five different images.”

The plan worked although there was one prominent, unanticipated issue that arose.

“We vented the heat from the projector lamps outside the balloon, but there was no way to vent the 24 Vari-Lites,” says Gray. “We didn't realize how hot it was going to get inside the balloon, and it got up to 140 degrees.”

The day before the show, the team experienced a balloon failure due to heat stress. A spare inner balloon was swapped out, but it was clear that the crew had to figure out a way to bring the temperature down. They came up with a system to pump liquid nitrogen from the parking lot at the Convention Center through a specially constructed, 12-cylinder manifold and additional piping into the center of the balloon, where a showerhead device slowly released liquid nitrogen into the balloon to stabilize the temperature at 75 degrees.

Projection on, and light from a giant sphere highlights the Texas State Fair.

To keep the balloon cool all day long translated to lots of liquid nitrogen — 140,000 cubic feet a day, to be exact. That required twelve 7ft. tall cylinders that were replaced three times a day. To pull that feat off, Creative Technology worked closely with officials from the Los Angeles Convention Center and the show's organizer, Pinnacle Exhibits, to allow storage of the liquid nitrogen, something that required careful monitoring to meet health and safety standards.

“It was a big learning curve for everyone,” admits Gray. “The show went through a few revisits in terms of the correct number and type of projectors, and then, on site, we became plumbers to figure out how to keep the balloon cool.”

Scharff Weisberg/Christian Dior

Last year, when Christian Dior wanted to celebrate the first anniversary of its new fragrance, J'adore, the perfume company pulled out all the stops. Set in the dramatic, top-floor Magic Room in Manhattan's LVMH building that includes 30ft. glass walls from floor to ceiling, the event overlooked the Manhattan skyline.

“We wanted to take advantage of the spectacular room and felt we needed to do something dramatic and big,” explains Chris Hoover, producer for Ted Inc., which staged the event. “It was suggested we use an orb device that we had used in the past as a projection background.”

Ted Inc. collaborated with the staging division of Scharff Weisberg and lighting company Bentley Meeker, both based in New York. While Ted Inc. created a compilation video reel of Dior commercials, making-of videos, behind-the-scenes footage, and graphics, Scharff Weisberg found its sphere in a floating Airstar lighting balloon, provided by rental company Seal, New York. (Airstar technology was originally created for airport and emergency rescue use, and has since been adapted by companies like Seal for use in creating lighting effects on movie sets and at special events.)

“I knew these balloons were often used for film shoots,” says Scharff Weisberg project director Guy Bostian. “Cinematographers illumine the inside and float them over a set for lighting effects, and it's very cool. But we'd never tried projecting video onto those balloons.”

In Scharff Weisberg's warehouse in New Jersey, Bostian and his team tested the balloon as a projection surface. “It worked out great,” he says. “There were no problems with focusing whatsoever.”

They still had to deal with other concerns related to the demands of projecting video onto a sphere.

“A balloon isn't typically an optimal projection surface,” says Scharff Weisberg president Josh Weisberg. “You lose a lot of light on it, so you need to use a very bright projector. The good news is that there are now relatively inexpensive LCD projectors available that produce between 5000 and 7000 lumens, and they are small and easy to position.”

The 14ft. diameter balloon floated above the bar, while three images from Ted Inc.'s compilation reel were projected onto three different areas of the sphere, using three NEC 5000 DLP projectors set up in three corners of the room. The system incorporated a Sony DFS-300 control system that enabled Scharff Weisberg to adjust the video to fit the balloon with no spillover.

“When you shoot for projection onto a balloon, or any spherical object, it works best if the object in the frame is on a black background,” says Weisberg. “Then you can place that object onto the balloon, letting the edges fall off. If you don't do that, you see the frame, and the image looks like a postage stamp on the balloon.”

Some of these issues will be easier to grapple with in the future. Weisberg points to warp processors from Barco, Folsom Research, and Christie, which were tools originally developed for the simulation market that are beginning to make inroads into the presentation market. “These devices will allow you to dial in enough change in the image to reverse the curvature [in the future],” he adds.

Stone Mountain Productions/Texas State Fair

Texas has a reputation for big and bold initiatives, and the State Fair of Texas, held every fall in Dallas' Fair Park, is no exception. Within the 277-acre city park, there is an esplanade area, at the center of which is a fountain that measures 700ft. long and about 60ft. wide. There, earlier this year and for the fourth straight year, Georgia-based Stone Mountain Productions produced the TXU Energy Extravaganza, featuring a 40ft. sphere.

“The genesis of the state fair show was a desire to break down the barrier between an audience sitting in a designated area and a screen,” says Steve Carroll, director of marketing for Stone Mountain Productions.

To create a stage setting with greater depth and interest, Stone Mountain Productions first introduced large-format projection with static slides and laser art. The next step was to enable large-format video projection, and the idea of an inflatable sphere soon became a compelling notion.

Organizers added the element of surprise by keeping the sphere uninflated until just before the show. Then, in front of spectators, they inflated it in 30 seconds. Lasers were projected from inside the sphere, but all the video imagery was front-projected using four Digital Projection International Power 5dv DLP large-format, high-resolution projectors, causing a seamless 360-degree effect. Each projector was responsible for filling a quadrant of the sphere.

The projectors' DLP-chip was an important part of the mix. “[The projectors have] such good depth of field that it allows us to project on a non-flat surface and still hold the focus,” says David Groves, Stone Mountain President.

To create such a complicated show, with synchronized video projected from four projectors, audio, and lighting effects, preproduction was crucial. That was particularly true for the four images projected onto the sphere that, during the show, spun around the surface to give the illusion that the balloon itself was spinning. Lots of storyboarding and number crunching was required to make the illusion work.

“The masking was key, and we worked it out through the CAD process,” says Groves. “To create the illusion of spinning, we had to carefully plan camera angles, number of frames, and figure out exactly how many frames ahead or behind each projector has to be in the imaging.”

“We design all of our imagery in-house and we have to keep various things in mind,” says Carroll. “Everything has to be designed with the thought that the ‘live’ area will only live within a smaller area on the screen. We have to be careful that one projector doesn't create an ambient light problem for the next projector.”

The first two shows using the sphere, in 1999 and 2000, utilized stock footage as well as computer-generated images, but for the last two years, the imagery has been produced entirely inhouse. “We've gone into a more 3D CGI look, using [Discreet's] 3D Studio Max [animation software],” says Carroll. “That's converted into QuickTime files, then edited in an Avid system, mastered to Beta, and then converted into the Digital-S format for the projectors.”

Techniques Future?

Using balloons as a video projection surface is obviously a niche effect, and hardly the right solution for every event or venue. But for those brave souls who have used them for a spectacular effect, the learning curve was worth it. Having figured out how to use balloons as a projection surface, these adventurers have opened the door to using other non-traditional projection surfaces to create unique looks.

“I think you'll see more of it over the next five years,” predicts Scharff Weisberg president Josh Weisberg. “With projectors so much brighter and more flexible, we'll see people projecting on all kinds of unusual objects more and more.”

Debra Kaufman is a writer/consultant who has been covering the entertainment industry for 14 years.