Behind the glass, images, both horizontal and vertical, are constantly changing; one sees people at work, scenes of natural beauty, and moments of scientific activity — images range from Stonehenge to chemists poring over test tubes in a lab to closeups of people's faces. At the same time, words appear and disappear, in large and small print, and in several languages. Over this display, colored beams of light move in an endless number of patterns and configurations. The interplay of elements is seemingly infinite.
This installation is one of the most unique lighting design applications of the past year. Oddly, it will be seen by only a few, most of whom will not grasp what an unusual design and technical achievement it is. That's because it is in the corporate learning facilities of the drug manufacturer Pfizer, located at the Doral Arrowood complex in Rye Brook, NY.
The Pfizer project is a multimedia installation that runs the length of the 150'-long (46m) main walkway in the Pfizer building. As you enter the building, the right hand wall features a series of 10'-tall (3m) panels consisting of two layers of glass. On the first layer have been etched the installation's graphics, a lineup of words that constitute Pfizer's values (“Innovation” and “Integrity,” for example), and are written in several languages. The next layer is LCD glass, made of liquid crystal diode film laminated between two other pieces of glass; when treated with an electric current, the LCD glass changes from an opaque to a clear state. In doing so, it reveals a number of plasma screens, which transmit the many video sequences that complete the program.
There is one other visual element as well: The panels are lit from above and below by rows of Color Kinetics LEDs. Thanks to the sophisticated programming and control of this project, the lighting adds immeasurably to the final effect. Colors, patterns, and chases are constantly changing in a never-ending series of configurations. The interplay of lighting, text, video imagery, and sound effects creates a pulsing kaleidoscope that effortlessly attracts one's attention. It is a multimedia installation as an object of contemplation, a living articulation of corporate philosophy aimed at inspiring the company's employees.
The installation was designed by multimedia firm Batwin + Robin, with Linda Batwin acting as principal. The lighting was designed by David Weiner, a theatre LD who has recently earned Broadway credits on The Real Thing (co-designed with Mark Henderson) and Betrayal. While Weiner's background might not seem an ideal fit for this sort of project, in fact his skill at devising the installation's infinite patterns of light comes from many years of work on Broadway musicals.
The first challenge, however, was finding the right lighting units. The answer turned out to be LED technology from Boston-based Color Kinetics. The LEDs' color-changing abilities appeared perfect for the Pfizer project. However, the units required adaptation; according to Fritz Morgan, director of engineering at Color Kinetics: “They wanted to run boards at a relatively low intensity, and we had to accommodate that. LEDs have a very fast response time — when you turn them on, they're on, unlike incandescent lamps, which ramp up and down in intensity. But, at that low intensity, you can get a jitter — the LEDs aren't as smooth doing crossfades.”
For Pfizer, he says, “We worked with them to develop an intensity curve profile, which helped to give them relatively smooth effects at lower intensity levels. We added more resolution to the low end of the range — we sifted it down from the high end — which gave them more control.” In addition, says Morgan, “They were concerned about color consistency.” LEDs, he says, can vary slightly in color from unit to unit, which would be unacceptable in this context. So, he says, “We built all the boards from one batch of LEDs to make sure the consistency of color was maintained.”
RUNNING ON CUE
In many ways, says Weiner, the main challenge to the project was developing the cue system which allows for the myriad combinations of effects. The overall system is run by a Dataton show controller, which handles the video and audio cues; it also controls the Lutron system, which controls the architectural lighting in the walkway, and the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II, which controls the Color Kinetics units and the LCD glass. The Wholehog's main selling point is its ease of programming, and that feature was sorely tested here. “There are approximately 2,000 light cues,” Weiner says, adding, “The Hog was the only desk that could handle the multiple cue lists required to manipulate the LCD panels and the LED fixtures on independent timings.
“I learned so much about the Hog,” he continues, adding that he and programmer Tim Rogers set up operations in a New Jersey warehouse, with a mockup of the wall, to do a week of off-site programming before the installation. It was here that he worked out issues of color-mixing and patterns in advance. Nevertheless, the programming continued for three weeks more, working out cue sequences on Microsoft Excel spreadsheets while Rogers entered them into the control console.
The results are astonishing in their flexibility and variability. During the final week of programming, Weiner sits down and demonstrates what the installation can do. He executes a “soft color wipe,” in which a blue wash moves across the panels, until it is only one color. Next, he runs some patterns: Green light spreads across the tops and bottoms of alternating panels. Then comes a chase pattern that begins at the far left and right ends of the panels then moves into the center, where the patterns “collide,” and retreat to the sides again. This is followed by a circular pattern that circumnavigates the entire installation. Cues are designed, he says, to be “deliberate, leisurely, almost subliminal.” Even as the lights are moving in time to the cues, Weiner then activates cues on the LCD panels, causing them to frost and clear in patterns of their own.
This dimming function was not easily achieved. According to Josh Weisberg, of Scharff Weisberg, “The glass requires an unusual 65VAC to reach full transparency. The glass also possesses a very low impedance, which appears as a short circuit to standard lighting dimmers, ruling out their use of this function.” He adds, “To accomplish the task of running a fully independent DMX512-controllable, variable AC voltage to each of 43 glass panels, [the company] designed a DMX-controlled amplifier module [patent pending] that smoothly varies the opacity of the glass via lighting system programming.”
Given all the variables, the wall is programmed to run automatically for 12 hours without repeating itself. Weisberg adds, “This is not a random sequence but a programmed sequence, since a random pattern could conceivably contain repetition. It is also a very long program, containing almost 1,000 cues. Besides running automatically, users can select from a number of preprogrammed ‘moods,’ such as serene, atmospheric, and active, as well as other manual conditions, such as special event mode.”
“The interplay of lighting, text, video imagery, and sound effects creates a pulsing kaleidoscope that effortlessly attracts one's attention.”
Weiner says, “The main trick in developing this cue structure was making the installation appear random to the viewer. In reality, the Dataton makes logic-based decisions in real time to synchronize the hundred or so video sequences with the lighting and the LCD panels. Also, the Dataton bases its selections on time of day, video sequence length, and monitor output configuration, to name a few of the parameters. The cue numbers in the Wholehog are sequenced like an outline where each digit in the cue number represents a different logic parameter.”
Given all the possibilities involving 172 LED units and 43 LCD panels, Weiner says, “We almost maxed out on the Wholehog.” The result of this intensively detailed cueing work, however, is an installation that nearly appears to be a living thing.
Other personnel involved in the project include Marla Egan, associate producer; Michael Hoeschen, art director/exhibit design; John Ackerman, project manager for Scharff Weisberg; John Sacrenty, Dataton programmer; Barry Grossman, systems engineer; and Rich Krzesinski, site supervisor.
Following this project Weiner returned to his natural habitat, the theatre, to do Betrayal. Next up for him was the Theatre for a New Audience's revival of Edward Bond's Saved, followed by a new play at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot. However, after his experience with Pfizer, don't be surprised if he turns again towards other complex multimedia projects — that is, if anyone even attempts anything as unique as this one at any time in the near future.