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Empire State Building Turns into a Screen for Endangered Species

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 01:  A view of general atmosphere during Projecting Change: The Empire State Building at The Empire State Building on August 1, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for The Oceanic Preservation Society)
The projection of endangered animals on the Empire State Building (photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for The Oceanic Preservation Society)

Last Saturday, anyone in New York City who could see the south facade of the Empire State Building probably noticed massive projections of endangered animals covering the 1931 skyscraper. Created to raise awareness about the global environmental crisis, the project included an image of a giant ape that climbed to the 71st floor (shades of King Kong), expressive animal eyes looking out at viewers, psychedelic faces with spiritual yogi symbols, floating sea life, tigers, and a whole array of other threatened species.

The project, Projecting Change, was conceived by Louie Psihoyos and realized by Travis Threlkel’s Obscura Digital design firm. According to the New York Times, the event cost around $1 million to produce and involved 40 stacked 20,000-lumen projectors on the roof of a building on West 31st Street that beamed 5K resolution video onto a space covering 33 floors — roughly 375 feet high and 186 feet wide.

The group is also releasing a film this fall called Racing Extinction, and during Saturday night’s event two film crews in helicopters circled the building to capture footage of the projected images, some of which were from National Geographic’s extensive archive of animal photography while others were created by various artists.

Cheetah (
Cheetah (all photos by Joel Sartore and Ron Robinson/Obscura Digital unless otherwise noted)

There was a musical component of the project but it was only available to those attending the preview party on the roof of a 27th Street venue. Each image was synchronized with one of two songs that will appear in the final film — one features singer Sia (“One Candle”) and the other musician Antony Hegarty (“Manta Ray”), both of whom collaborated with composer J. Ralph.

“One of the biggest challenges, artistically, was that the pictures can handle themselves as a slide show and create wonderful reactions along with the music, but we worked on a reinterpretation of the images, trying to recontextualize them into visual poetry,” Emmet Feldman, senior art director of the project at Obscura Digital, told Hyperallergic.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 01:  A view of general atmosphere during Projecting Change: The Empire State Building at The Empire State Building on August 1, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for The Oceanic Preservation Society)
(photo by Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images for The Oceanic Preservation Society)

The images of faces were created by artist Android Jones, who lives in Colorado and is known for his psychedelic style. “What was interesting is that he consulted all his yogis to make sure he put specific images out there that were representational of mythological symbols,” Feldman said.

Face by Android Jones.
Face by Android Jones

The ending shot, which flowed along with the song by Sia, displayed sets of eyes looking out, and later, flowing images of animals. “We basically took all the luminescent pictures and created this radial mandala structure to show the diversity of life by echoing their forms around a circle and layering them up so that they become something bigger than themselves,” he said.

Fish swirling. (Photo by Josh Brott/Obscura Digital).
Fish swirling (photo by Josh Brott/Obscura Digital)

An image of Cecil the Lion, the endangered animal killed last month by US dentist Walter Palmer, was also included in the parade of animals and the inclusion sparked criticism on social media. Some people tweeted they were upset, echoing what many people were saying all week, namely why black people shot by the police in the US aren’t honored in the same way as the poached lion in Zimbabwe. The Empire State Building, which commemorates various landmark events and social causes, has up until now completely ignored the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

While the visual impact may have greatly impressed the crowd — and made a splash on social media — New Yorkers won’t be able to see lighted animals crawling up over buildings on a regular basis. Given the city’s strict laws regarding projection of images it might take years for the next event of this type to take place.

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