Interview with Mr. Filip Sterckx Of Skullmapping On How Projection Mapping is Changing Storytelling

by Itika Singhal

Projection mapping is a form of spatial augmented reality and lately is being experimented a lot to innovate story telling.

In projection mapping, a video is projected onto a surface, which is generally has a character of its own. The surface and the projected video together create an immersive experience for the user. The surface can be any building, wall, table, human body, water and sometimes even air! Projection mapping technique is being used to create tourist attractions, customer engagement, to spread a social message, entertain during live concerts, advertising & marketing, gaming and more.

We interviewed Mr. Filip. Sterckx, who is the creative director at skullmapping and has 15+ years of experience. Skullmapping is an artistic collective specialising in projection mapping. Their Le Petit Chef video was an in-restaurant engagement and activation via projection mapping went viral and got tremendous traction from world over. You must check out it on their website and social media pages. Meanwhile, read on what Filip has to say –

You have done some incredible work with projection mapping. La Petit Chef, which by the way is incredible work of art has gone viral on social media. Please tell us a bit about your experience working on projection mapping projects. How did you get into it from directing music videos?

I started my first experiments with projection mapping in 2003, when I was studying animation film in Brussels. At the time I was using a slide projector, and I was really captivated by these early projection experiments. I continued to use projection mapping through out my studies in different ways, and some time after I graduated I created a sculpture of a man lying down on which I projected: 

When I presented this art installation, I got in contact with Antoon Verbeeck, a fine arts painter who lives in the same city as I do, and we decided to start creating large scale projections on buildings, and named our artistic collective ‘Skullmapping’. At the same time I was directing music videos, and was using projection mapping in my music videos as well. I also continued using projection mapping in my own art installations.

With Skullmapping, we started out creating large scale projection mapping shows on buildings, but soon got tired of the bombastic visual language, which is needed to entertain large crowds. We were looking at creating more poetic, smaller-scale projects, and that’s how we ended up projecting a miniature character on a table. We created the first Le Petit Chef video, invited some friends over, and filmed their reactions. Afterwards we put the video online, and were hoping to have this at one event, or possibly at a restaurant. But then that video went viral, and we realised the potential of this, so we decided to develop more Le Petit Chef videos, and we even created several multiple course dining shows with Le Petit Chef.

Since this is a new technique for a lot of our readers, will you be able to describe what kind of people and work expertise is required for someone trying to do projection mapping?

I think you need an understanding of film/animation film. A lot of the techniques that are being used in filmmaking can be transferred to projection mapping (scriptwriting, storyboarding, animation, filming, editing, sounddesign…)

I’ve noticed over the years that artists who are working in projection mapping have a very diverse background. Some are engineers, other graphic designers, some are architects, and so on. Everyone has their own approach, and their own set of tools, but if you are interested in doing something in projection mapping, it makes sense to get an understanding of compositing software such as After effects, 3D software such as Cinema4D, and mapping software such as Madmapper.

Please tell us a bit about your personal favourite projection mapping project?

The projects that I’m most proud of, which we have created with Skullmapping, are the Le Petit Chef dining show we’ve created, such as:

‘Le Petit Chef in the footsteps of Marco Polo’ 

‘Le Petit Chef & Friends’

What I love so much about these is that they are longer format. The total animated content is around 20 min, but the total experience of guests including the dining itself is around 2 hours. Usually projection mapping projects are quite short, around 5 min, and this is a very short time to tell a story, or to take your audience on a journey. The above dining shows allow me to tell a story that has more characters, and it allows me to go deeper into a certain story. They take a long time to develop, but when I see a full restaurant having a big smile on their face while they watch this magical projection on their plate, it makes it all worth it.

Projection mapping is a king of spatial augmented reality yet very different from what tech companies today are trying to achieve with AR (like retail and office work). What future do you see for both of these technologies.

I think AR, in which the audience uses a phone to look at a reality that is augmented on the screen of the phone, is at this point too limited for me. The first limitation is the screen, even with bigger phones the screen is relatively small (certainly compared to a projection). I don’t think it is a very ‘immersive’ experience at this point, as in the end you are looking through a very small ‘window’. Secondly everything needs to run in real time, and not knowing what the processing power of the phone of your end user will be, as a developer/designer you have to take this into account, so you can’t add too many details, or it won’t run properly on your phone. With our projects we spend a lot of time on adding small details, so for the moment it is impossible to transfer this level of quality to AR. AR on a phone feels very much like a gimmick to me, I don’t see a lot of future in this for us to develop projects in. The upside is that you can easily get the experience to users in their own homes. 

Projection mapping is great when it is done right, but it requires a lot of expertise and a lot of expensive hardware. This is not something you can easily bring to users at home, which is why big tech companies are far more interested in AR.

But there are companies such as Microsoft who have developed the Hololens, which is a much more immersive way to enjoy AR. But at this point they are too expensive for widespread use. But it is certainly a very promising technology for the future.

I think both projection mapping and AR will be around for many years to come, they are both related technologies and aim at overlaying a digital layer onto reality. I think for artists, in order to choose between the two technologies, it is key to figure out which technology is more suited to tell the story they want to tell, since both have their downsides and upsides.

We also read that you work in holograms and VR experiences. For me the very first reference that comes to mind while talking about holograms is Princess Leia in Star Wars. Do you think that’s what the future of holograms is? Will holograms act as a future ti VR or a pre-cursor?

A true hologram is really still a dream at this point. We’ve done a project with a sort of hologram, but this is really based on a very old principle (pepper’s ghost). I think when the technology for real holograms will be developed, it will fall into the same category as AR and projection mapping, in which you overlay a digital layer over the reality. VR is really a different animal, as this technology takes you completely out of reality, and transports you to a different world.

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