Binghamton isn’t known for being a major tourist destination. But since 2015, the small town in upstate New York has increasingly attracted crowds, as well as international attention, for the LUMA Projection Arts Festival. Founded by a street photographer, a film editor, and an event planner, who had no idea how popular the festival would become, LUMA is currently the only visual arts festival in the U.S. focused primarily on projection mapping. This year’s fourth-annual event will be held September 7 – 9 in downtown Binghamton where the city’s historic architecture makes the perfect canvas for the show.
Billed as a celebration of immersive storytelling, LUMA attracts crowds just shy of Binghamton’s population of 45,000 people. Artists from around the world submit proposals to participate in the three-day event, and those who are chosen craft their tech-infused animations using a combination of elements, including Cinema 4D, Houdini, MotionBuilder, high-powered video projectors, live music, moving lights, and more. “This is the biggest festival we’ve had so far, and we’re really pushing the boundaries of using new technology to tell stories in brand new ways,” says Tice Lerner, who co-founded LUMA with his friends, Nick Rubenstein and Joshua Bernard.
An Unexpected Success
The three of them never had an elaborate plan to start a festival. Instead, the story went more like this: It was a cold early-spring night about five years ago and Lerner, a mechanical engineer turned photographer, asked Bernard if he knew anything about projection mapping. He didn’t, but being a photographer, designer, and videographer, he found the idea intriguing enough to do some research. “I was blown away by the possibilities the technology offered,” Bernard recalls. Working as a local event planner, he’d long been trying to come up with a unique attraction that Binghamton could call its own. Maybe this was it?
Without the money to hire a production company, they reached out to friends and colleagues for help. “Luckily, we knew a lot of geeks who could build computers, run software that had to be operated in specific ways, and fake their way through using technology they'd never touched before,” Bernard recalls before adding that, fortunately, they also brought on their friend Rubenstein, an experienced art director and motion graphics artist. “That’s how LUMA really started out,” he says, “us hanging out in my apartment with some office projectors, mapping my kitchen cabinets.”
It wasn’t long before they realized that beyond projection mapping, what they really wanted to explore was the intersection of art and technology. And figuring that there had to be others who felt the same way, they pulled off the first LUMA festival by having an electrician do some rewiring at a friend’s place and set up three projectors in his living room to map the show onto the buildings across the street. “We never say, ‘that can’t be done,’” Bernard says. “There’s always a way.” (See LUMA’s 2018 Kickstarter video here.)
But while the whole community had been very supportive, nobody really knew how this whole festival thing was going to turn out. Lerner, Bernard, and Rubenstein imagined they’d get a crowd of about 3,000. When nearly 30,000 showed up, they were just as shocked as the local police, who had to quickly block off some of the surrounding streets. “We were so surprised by our success,” Rubenstein recalls. “I think it really showed how hungry people were to see something new and vibrant. By the second year, we had grown considerably and nobody could move so, last year, we relocated the festival to downtown Binghamton. We also got a lot more sponsorships and community support.”
Bigger than IMAX
Pulling together 3D projection-mapped animated stories that will be shown on sizable buildings is no easy feat. The motivating factor for artists, Rubenstein says, is the chance to work on ideas that have often been percolating for years. “This is art on an enormous scale, much bigger than an IMAX screen, and that’s so exciting for them, and for the crowd,” he adds. “The expressions on people’s faces as they are watching are amazing.”
While some artists have shown their work at LUMA in past years, each event also features a few newcomers. For 2018, the main lineup includes Maxin10sity, a world-renowned projection mapping company based in Budapest, Hungary; Light Harvest, a New York City studio known for their award-winning projection mapping work for clients including HBO’s Game of Thrones and Burning Man; Barcelona, Spain’s Onionlab, specializing in projection mapping and VR, who introduced stereoscopic mapping to LUMA in 2017; and Binghamton, New York’s own design studio and production company, Favorite Color.
This will be Onionlab’s second year participating in the festival. Jordi Pont, co-director of 2017’s project, Axioma, will be returning in the same role for this year’s projection-mapped animation, Transfiguration. Both pieces offer very different experiences, Pont says. While Axioma was a red/blue anaglyph animation that explored geometry by taking viewers on a journey through different stages of dimensionality, Transfiguration is an immersive show that will be accompanied by 44 members of the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Through the interplay of lights and music, the United Presbyterian Church will turn into a magical place,” he says, explaining that, just for the occasion, Onionlab designed a “complex WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) lighting control system that uses Cinema 4D to modulate different sensations in real time throughout the show, creating a delicate and hypnotic choreography of lights that will be elegant and solemn at the same time.”
Collaborating with Artists
Artists are always welcome to submit ideas for future festivals, and all three organizers spend time looking at demo reels and reaching out to people whose work seems like a good fit. “It’s a very collaborative and organic process,” Lerner explains. “I keep a library of the buildings downtown, so I have measurements and photos to send to artists. I also encourage them to go on Google maps and look at the street view to see if there are other buildings they like.” Blueprints are rarely available, so once a building is chosen and an idea has been approved, photogrammetry is used to take more exact measurements and generate point cloud data that’s used to create a 3D mesh of the building’s façade in Cinema 4D.
Light Harvest will also be participating in LUMA for the second time this year. Ryan Uzilevsky, Light Harvest’s founder and creative director, says the studio got involved after Lerner contacted them in 2017 because they liked the “grassroots spirit” of the festival and the fact that the event is driven by artists’ creativity.
This year’s immersive film, The Truth Shall Set You Free, is a follow-up to their 2017 project, Shoulders of the Past. Both feature motion-captured dance performances, with the first film telling the story of how older generations can inspire the young. “This time, the story is about information overload in modern life,” Uzilevsky explains. “It’s about the struggle we all have when deciding what information is important in our lives, and what is just distracting noise.”
In addition to being one day longer than past LUMA festivals, this year’s event also includes a Theremin concert, opera and beer, an orchestral light show, exhibitions by local artists, a late-night after party and much more. How the festival will grow from here remains to be seen. But the three founders feel committed to making it happen. “I moan and groan and stamp my feet sometimes when I have to go find the money for one more light fixture that somebody needs,” Bernard says. “But I know this year I’ll be standing in the back of the church watching Onionlab’s Transfiguration and about 10 minutes in, something extraordinary will happen, a magical moment, and Tice will turn to me and say, ‘That’s what the extra light was for.’ Our artists are extraordinarily good at detail, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.