May 27, 2018
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3-D light show to cast optical illusions across Portland City Hall

Contributed image | The Forecaster
Contributed image | The Forecaster
With projection mapping technology, virtual, 3D "pinballs" appear to run across the the facade of a historic Orlando building.
By William Hall, The Forecaster

PORTLAND, Maine — The 40th Old Port Festival will include a gigantic optical illusion.

On Saturday night, the eve of the annual daylong celebration of music, crafts and food, the facade of City Hall will be transformed by an animated light show that seems to alter physical reality.

Portland’s Downtown District, the festival organizer, has hired PaintScaping, a Los Angeles-based video projection company, to “paint” the building.

The free, three-minute show will debut at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, June 8, and will be repeated every half hour until 10 p.m.

PaintScaping and PDD aren’t saying exactly what viewers will see, but officials dropped a few hints.

“We’re going to leave it as a surprise,” PDD Events and Marketing Manager Rachel Irwin said. But she described the show’s theme as “resurgence,” in keeping with the city motto, “Resurgam” — Latin for “I will rise again.”

Philippe Bergeron, PaintScaping founder and president, warned in a telephone interview that one point in the show may even be frightening.

“But don’t worry,” he said. “It’s not real.”

Such confusion would be understandable.

The show uses projection mapping, a technology that creates the illusion of multidimensional movement across or around any surface, regardless of its shape. Unlike the 3-D special effects used in movie theaters, projection mapping requires no special eyeglasses. Images appear three-dimensional because they’re designed to be projected onto three-dimensional objects.

The results of blending physical and virtual reality are often uncanny. Landscapes can be populated with imaginary creatures; buildings can appear to crumble and then magically reassemble themselves.

“The world becomes your canvas,” Bergeron said. “This is Disney magic in the real world.”

Bergeron and his company have staged similar light shows in Canada, Europe, Mexico, South Africa and across the United States. But despite often visiting Portland and summering in Old Orchard Beach, Bergeron said he has never before created a show in New England.

“I love Portland, but I never thought we’d get to work here,” he said. Bergeron worked in Hollywood as a computer animator and part-time actor before founding PaintScaping in 2009.

Many of the company’s clients are hotels, resorts and other commercial organizations looking to create a dramatic visual effect with a building. City Hall will be PaintScaping’s first municipal project.

City Hall is a “fantastic building” for large-scale projection mapping, according to Bergeron, because the building’s rich architectural details provide a mix of surfaces and shapes that play up the images as they change.

“You want a lot of variety, you want windows and doors and ledges,” he said. “The worst thing [for projection mapping] is a plain white wall.”

To create the Old Port Festival show, PaintScaping worked for two months with a budget of more than $15,000, according to PDD. Bergeron and his team began by meticulously photographing and measuring dimensions of City Hall’s facade. PaintScaping then created a virtual model of the building that allowed Bergeron to plot exactly how the lighted images should change, depending on their location on the facade.

“In some ways, we get to know a building better than its architect,” he said. “We can spend three hours just looking at a building. The building becomes your best friend and your worst enemy.”

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