Having a Ball with Projection Mapping at St John's College

POSTED ON 07/08/2017

Described by Times Magazine as the seventh best party in the world, St. John’s College May Ball marks the end of the academic year for students at the prestigious college, part of the world-renowned University of Cambridge.

We once again provided full technical production for this year’s festivities including delivering stunning projection mapped content onto the side of St John’s Chapel. Featuring spectacular 3D architecture manipulation, the use of projection mapping has now become a quintessential part of the celebration and continues to wow guests year after year.

We chatted to Hawthorn Project Director James Hunter, Lighting Designer Jack Sayer and Motion Graphic Designer Jonti Rudd to get the low down on the projection this year, find out what exactly goes into putting it all together and ask for their advice for event profs who are considering projection mapping for their events.

What do you think the projection element brings to St John’s?

Jack: “I think it makes the Ball stand out. It’s really become an iconic part of the event.”

James: “Definitely. In terms of what you see and experience as a guest at St John’s, the projection mapping element is one of the stand out features. It’s a part of the event that as a guest you’ll always remember and I think the thing that makes it so special here especially, is the unique way it showcases the amazing architecture of the college. You really can’t get a better canvas.”

So you’ve used projection mapping at the Ball for the last three years, how has it evolved during this time?

James: “Well the biggest change this year was that we projected on to the side of the chapel rather than onto the tower as we have for the previous years. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and the Ball Committee was really on board with the idea which was amazing. It added a completely different twist to the evening.”

Jack: “We had constant interaction with the committee right from the offset. Now we’ve done it for a few years, they know the type of results we can achieve and that they can have an input on the concept.”

Jonti: “The students understand that visually it’s a massive part of their event and they want to steer it so that it’s in keeping with their theme, which for us is great as it turns into a very collaborative piece.”

Was there anything else you decided to do differently this year?

Jack: “We decided to put in controllable lighting around the court so that we could keep the ambient levels low and mimic what was going on with the projections which we haven’t done before. We matched the various effects or colours within the projection content with the lighting.”

James: “The aim was to extend the look and impact of the content throughout the rest of the court and it worked really well.”

What type of preparation goes into creating the final show?

Jack: “In terms of time, it’s difficult to define how exactly how long it takes to create. It’s not just physically creating the content in the software (the team use Cinema 4D & Adobe After Effects), it’s the research, learning new techniques and finding the various assets and plug ins. It’s basically building your toolbox to create the final product.”

Jonti: “There’s a lot of analysis of the building itself, so looking at the shapes, the amount of flat space and so on. Then we have a review of the brief so that we can make sure that we include any requests from the client and can deliver exactly what they’re looking for. This year, the committee really wanted to include cog wheels so I could go away, research this and find a way of interpreting it and including it in the finished projection.”

James: “Physically on site, we had three site visits beforehand to work out measurements, take photographs and work out factors such as projector locations. The work on site pre-event is actually relatively minimal as we are working from images with no 3D laser scan. There’s a lot of back of house work though in terms of the prep, design and thought processes that Jack and Jonti put into it to get to the end product. Then, of course, there's the need for a projectionist on site to perfect the line-up on the building.”

What did you think of the result this year?

Jonti: “I was thrilled with it! Each year we try and surpass the year before and I definitely think we managed to do that this year.”

James: “Absolutely, we had massively positive feedback from the committee on the preview night which was amazing. We worked very closely with the building structure and the content was very stylised this year with two very distinct styles of projection. Firstly, there was the opening sequence which saw the chapel turned into an aging greenhouse, then the main show itself which featured eight different sequences which all linked together perfectly to become one ten-minute piece.”

So have you got any advice to event profs who are looking to include projection mapping in their next event?

James: “There are a few considerations you need to keep in mind, mainly your budget and the amount of time you have before your event. You need to understand what you’re trying to achieve and how that’s relevant to your guests. Once you’ve decided to include projection mapping, you then need to look at the projection surface you're mapping on to. How big is it, where is the audience, what do they want to see and what is the message you’re trying to convey?”

Jack: “Within St Johns, it’s a creative art piece that is designed to engage guests and reflect the theme of the evening but there are other ways of doing it. For example, you can make it more corporate for a launch event or so on.”

James: “Definitely, there are limitless possibilities with it. From a practical point, it’s never going to be super cheap. You need high brightness projectors, media servers and time invested into content design and creation. This means that you always need to be aware of your aspirations versus your budget and that’s where talking to a trusted technical partner like us really helps. We have the knowledge and experience to advise our clients on what will work best for them within their venue and what exactly they can achieve with their budget.” 

You can read the full case study on St John's May Ball 2017 here