Projection mapped films: an interview with Lori Ersolmaz

Lori Ersolmaz

Lori Ersolmaz has a long and wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary career, including working as an educator, photographer, and documentary filmmaker. In 2014, she became interested in making poetry films. Public art engagement is a very important aspect of her practice, and her poetry film work has expanded into the arena of immersive experiences and projection mapping. Good Natured is a film series encompassing “kindness to animals, nature, the environment and humanity using poetry and poetic essays to address climate concerns”. Since 2020 it has been screened in a range of “immersive 2-and-3D public art exhibitions projected on buildings, objects and in pop-up gallery installations”.

 

How did your Good Natured Project and working with Mercato (the retail and restaurant venue in which many of the Good Natured films are featured) come about? Did the ideas come first, was it a response to a commission, or something else?

Shortly after moving to Florida from the northeast I began to see the effects of climate change on the Everglades and water quality on the west coast of Florida. White beaches with clear water from the Gulf of Mexico that had been teeming with birds and wildlife mysteriously became engulfed in a blue green algae outbreak and a familiar sign of fish kills. I took an out-of-town guest to the beach one day and as we set up our chairs I immediately had trouble breathing and started coughing. I heard other people coughing, too, and was confused about what was happening. I asked a couple walking by why people were coughing and they educated us about blue green algae. We left immediately as it was impossible to continue breathing-in the fumes. After going to quite a few public meetings with officials and learning more about the problem I realized I needed to do something.

Prior to moving to Florida I owned a production company and worked with non-profit organizations supporting advocacy and policy initiatives. While my experience in short documentaries has influenced me, I instead decided to take a different approach and created Good Natured, a film poetry series about climate change and environmental issues. In early 2020 I began pitching ideas to nonprofits and arts organizations about projection mapping my films as pop-up installations. Projection mapping is a technique using projectors to project media onto city buildings and other objects, transforming flat surfaces into dynamic visual displays at night. The people I spoke with were interested in the project and suggested I create mock-ups so others would understand what projection mapping was. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Once the pandemic hit I immediately switched gears from explaining and pitching to creating. The first three films were based on poems in an anthology, From the Ashes, edited by CS Hughes, about the Australian bushfires in 2019. I was affected by so many animals who lost their lives in those fires, and chose a few poems for my climate and environmental concept.

In August of 2020 I approached the marketing director of a large mixed-use shopping mall near my home. There were quite a few empty retail spaces at the time and I noticed one with community-based art displayed in the windows, so I had a feeling they would be open to my project. While Covid-19 shut down a lot of social activities, the situation provided me with a unique opportunity to launch my project. The marketing director, who is a progressive thinker and poetry fan, provided me with a pop-up retail space pro bono for National Art & Humanities Month in October 2020. The 1500-square-foot space was absolutely perfect, as it had multiple 3-D objects in the space which provided a cool look, and there was an excellent location in the window for projections on the nights that the space wasn’t open. On the weekend there was the full, open-door, walk-in installation, and during the week the projector was moved to the window without sound. The reception was positive and provided the documentation needed for others to see what projection mapping looked like in an indoor space.

You’ve got a long track record of making poetry films. At what point did you come across projection mapping?

I learned about projection mapping years before I started creating film poetry. Around 2008 I was considering how to use projection mapping to bring more people together for grassroots advocacy around addiction and prison reform issues. I wanted to show short documentaries in at-risk neighborhoods like Trenton and Asbury Park in New Jersey. It never got off the ground. Projection mapping has been on my radar for a long time, but I never had an opportunity to develop it until a few years ago.

 

Did you immediately see its potential for poetry film – either in general, or specifically for your own work?

This is an interesting question. I began experimenting with the genre in 2014 as an additional creative outlet and hadn’t considered projection mapping the film poems at that time. However, subconsciously I may have kept it in the back of my mind. Once I moved to Florida and decided to focus my creative expression solely on poetic films, the projection mapping became a major aspect of the work because I wanted to reach a wider audience of people with eco-poetry. I also wanted to amplify the work in my local community. Making an impact and encouraging citizens to stay engaged in democracy has been an overarching theme throughout my career. I think of projection mapping as a creative distribution system, like a billboard or advertising. Having a strategy, as well as understanding the place and audience are important in making public art, especially locally.

Lori Ersolmaz – Earth Day 2022, Florida

What excites you about projection mapping?

I’m willing to take risks at this point in my life. My creative mantra for projection mapping: highly experimental and imaginative, learn-as-I-go, and a high tolerance for the unknown and for failure. Projection mapping provides an unusual delivery system. The poetic films are the content. They have to work together and for me, while there’s anxiety attached to a high rate of failure, it tends to drive me to solve problems. Not everything works, and technically there are many variables. It requires thinking quickly on your feet. With 3-D objects there’s distortion, which makes me think about how to successfully create content to fit the spaces. Each location has different technical issues in need of resolution, literally and figuratively. I’m not simply creating images for projection, but meaning-making that offers multiple layers of thought process for the audience and also reads on the objects. Hearing people’s perceptions about the work can be satisfying, especially when whatever it is I’m aiming for with the content, they totally get, or they come up with an astute comment I hadn’t even noticed. Kids love it and I enjoy that as well.

Do you feel projection mapping contributes to the public engagement aspect of your practice?

Absolutely. I specifically create the work to be in the public sphere and for the public good. The entire reason I’m creating public art exhibitions is to talk with people one-on-one who I would not meet otherwise. I decided not to wait for a museum curator to choose my work for installation. I’m confident about the quality of my films and I have a strategy to engage people. So, out to the streets I go with my Poetic Films.

Lori Ersolmaz – Earth Day 2021, Florida

 

How much do you think a more immersive experience contributes to drawing people in to watch poetry film who might not otherwise experience it (over and above other ways of presenting public art)?

People are curious, and since the popularity of the Van Gogh immersive installations, the technology has credibility and people get it. My audience isn’t paying admission (not yet) to my installations, so they can decide whether they are interested in the experience or not. Most people have no idea what film poetry even is. I’m educating them about a medium they aren’t aware of and they get to experience it in a unique way. If there’s a 20’x20′ dome in the middle of a public square, lit up with images and a voice, people want to know what’s happening inside. Sometimes they’re unsure, but once they go inside they more often than not appreciate it.

Lori Ersolmaz – projection mapped dome interior

Is there a novelty factor at work or does projection mapping really deliver a more engaging experience?

Projection has been around for quite a long time. It’s as novel as what has always made up the arts and sciences. Since the time of the Lumière Brothers films, people are captivated by moving images and cinematic storytelling. Spoken word poems are small stories and when combined with moving images in unusual spaces and objects there’s a unique and mesmerizing appeal which I don’t believe is simply a novelty. It’s a device to get people to see and hear in a different way than at a movie theatre or at home watching TV. It’s immersive, intimate, larger-than-life and allows for personal interpretation and meaning-making. Some people will only watch for a minute and others will re-watch a 5-minute installation repeatedly for 20 or more minutes.

 

How do you make your approach to public organizations in order to set up your events? How do you ‘sell’ your ideas to them? How difficult is it to get them on board with your ideas? How receptive are they about projection mapping?

Like anything else, there’s an audience type, depending on the community and location. Let’s take Florida for instance: in Miami projection mapping is common, there’s the Van Gogh immersive exhibit and Art Basel takes place annually. The Wynwood Art District is known for experimental and emerging artists. There’s an East Coast, hip, international crowd and vibe. Miami, and towns near it, have a long history of arts and culture. One can be more outrageous and push the envelope content-wise.

I live on the southwest coast of Florida where the audience is different. It’s an affluent, sophisticated community and while there are also international tourists, there are ‘snowbirds’ who come down during the winter months and return to their hometown around April. There are fewer full-time residents and it’s considered a vacation resort area, although that has been changing in light of shifts due to the pandemic. And not a lot stays open past 10:00 pm. From an arts and culture standpoint, the community takes a slower approach to green-lighting public arts projects. Receptivity depends on the perception of elected officials and business owners in the town or community. Recently, the city underwent an arts and culture study that is in support of arts as an economic stimulus for tourism. When a city spends money and undergoes that type of study with community feedback, more opportunities tend to slowly grow.

My approach is simply to understand my audience and what will appeal to them. I create multidisciplinary artworks and installations with a non-threatening approach. I select classic and contemporary eco-poetry that I feel will resonate with the community and people of all ages. In the past two years, I’ve had five installations and over 1,000 people have been engaged, receptive and appreciative of my work. Visitors and residents support what I’m doing and have told me they think I should have more projects/presentations throughout the city.

The reason I’ve had success with Mercato—the retail and residential mall—is because they are a privately owned development entity. I have found what makes projection mapping more difficult in a city is that the elected officials and the owners of the real estate have to provide permits and authorize imagery to be mapped onto the buildings. I am slowly in the process of expanding to other areas and pitching presentations. It takes a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance—like anything else.

What have been the biggest difficulties in the logistics and technology side of installation/projection mapping?

There are quite a few technology and logistics challenges to consider well in advance of the events. I spend a great deal of time in testing stages. I test the image quality numerous times especially when the objects are oddly shaped or will be projected on a darker color or highly texturized surface.

Here are some things to consider:

  1. Equipment.

The #1 challenge is the projectors. Depending on the project, you’ll either need short or longer throw projectors. I had a 3500 square foot space where I used ten projectors, including one outside. The equipment can be expensive to own or to rent, and in fact, this could be the #1 deal breaker for creating an event. The more ambient light, the more lumens the projector needs to clearly see the image, especially when projecting from 20-30 ft away.

  1. Sunset/twilight/ambient light.

Depending on what time of year it is, I have to wait until sunset/twilight to begin the tests and presentations, especially if the buildings are white, as that reflects the light for longer. Then there’s the ambient light from light posts for wayfinding and illuminating the streets and sidewalks. This requires coordination to decide which lights are casting too much light/shadows onto the subject/objects. When you are in a public space there are code provisions for lighting so it’s important to work with organizations and businesses to ensure there won’t be a code violation.

  1. Distortion and pairing the right content for the object being mapped.

Depending on the building scapes/facades or objects being mapped it requires a tremendous amount of testing out the imagery and then deciding whether it’s effective for the final presentation. What looks great on a flat screen or wall may not read in a dome shape, or highly angled architecture. More now than ever I need to consider these things while I’m shooting.

  1. Time/energy.

I have to wait until sundown to see a result, even indoors when there are storefront windows. For indoor installations I create separate content for each projector/computer/device and then work on mapping to columns, walls and ceilings. Bigger space, more projectors and devices to map. When working in an outdoor space, unless there’s a budget to professionally install for outdoor weather conditions and securing the equipment, installations are put up and taken down in the same evening. Break-down is often under darkened conditions. An inside installation is better from the standpoint that once it’s up I only have to go around and turn-on/off the projectors and there’s less physical activity until total breakdown.

  1. Foot traffic and safety.

A high profile location and well trafficked area is critical. However, it also presents a problem: safety and security. Children love the installations and dance around all over the place. With every projector comes a laptop or other devices to play the media. Barriers need to be in place in a space with a lot of projectors and equipment so no one falls, tips or obstructs the image. Sometimes shadows and obstructions are part of the presentation, nonetheless, the space needs to be secured. Friends and students help with installations to ensure people don’t wander or walk on equipment. Putting on a presentation can be a high anxiety production. Staying alert, in-charge and directing the public are all important. In the end it can be a lot of fun and I’ve met some interesting people.

Protecting the equipment and the public from each other with barriers

 

Have you had to solve technical issues yourself or did you have support from the organizations you partnered with?

Since 2020 I have handled the technical issues mainly by myself with some support from partner organizations. In the beginning I wanted to learn projection mapping on my own and experiment with ideas and situations. As I began presentations, it was clear support from the organizations was needed. I’ve had support with cutting/dimming and sometimes adding ambient lighting. Barriers are supplied by the organizations and their crew help set them up. While one wouldn’t think of parking necessarily as an issue, for an outdoor install/break-down in the same night, parking spots nearest to the install location is a must, as there are many components to having a successful outdoor presentation in a heavily trafficked area. On occasion I get additional A/V equipment, and the organizations help out the most when it comes to marketing and social media. They already have leverage with PR and relationships they’ve built with their own customers or patrons. I have also had signage donated and typically security people are available in case a rowdy situation arises.

 

What do you have to consider about the use of sound in public spaces?

Sound depends on the size of the installation space indoors and whether it’s competing with outside and peripheral ambient sound like musicians and music from restaurants. When I’m projecting on a building outside I also need to consider the mixed use of public spaces. In Florida, people are dining outside all year long and they may not want to hear a poem with eerie sound effects and music on perpetual loop during their dinner. There’s a fine balance to take into consideration.

 

What are the things to think about with projection mapping and subtitles?

Projection mapping distorts and obscures typography and imagery in general and largely depends on the backdrop material. Text and subtitles are tricky. I use Madmapper and VPT 8 software which provides control mechanisms to adjust for angles and distortion. In the end it is trial-and-error to get it as good as possible, not perfect. I use typography sparingly unless I’m projecting on a more simple 2-D wall. The size of the type is important; large, bold/heavy typographic face projected onto a flat, simple and light colored surface works the best for me. Otherwise, it could become a mind-bending challenge.

 

What is your next projection mapping challenge? What are you working on at the moment?

I’m now at a point where I’d like to rely on a technical director for the mapping, especially as I expand. I prefer to focus on the creative filmmaking and less on the technical side of things. There’s an additional anxiety in managing to do both. I’ve been fortunate to live close to where I’ve created the installations. More travel time will be added as I venture out to other locations, which makes me careful in deciding how to expand. I’ve been toying with the idea of possibly starting a poetry chapter of the Florida State Poetry Association to collaborate with local poets to add humanities/language arts aspect to my events and presentations. I am in the process of creating animations from cyanotypes of algae and botanical plants. The animations will be abstract, and conceptually I believe this approach will be a great conversation starter to talk about water quality in a different way.

Overall, I enjoy creating the poetic films more than anything else. Second to that is engaging the public in a dialogue in unusual ways to help them connect to nature and become better ‘local’ stewards for nature and the environment. Projection mapping provides the space to do both.

Biography

Lori H. Ersolmaz is an award winning filmmaker who creates poetic films combining contemporary poems and creative writing as a tool/modality for meaning-making, especially related to critical analysis of social, political and cultural issues. Her work is influenced by Jungian psychology which is concentrated in depth psychology, inner work, the conscious and unconscious mind, archetypes, dreams, synchronicity and symbolism. Lori encourages the viewer to consider a personal and collective act of responsibility for the past, present and future. 

With over 20 years of multidisciplinary experience, Lori has worked with leaders from Fortune 500 corporations, nonprofit/governmental organizations and policy think-tanks on varied media in support of policy and advocacy initiatives. In 2014 she became interested in combining poetry and visual moving imagery to convey emotions and feelings as a social commentary. Born out of short documentary work, experimentation led to collaborating with poets and writers to create poetic films.

Her work has been seen in New York City at Anthology Film Archives, in Minneapolis at the Weisman Art Museum, and at International film festivals, events, pop-up exhibitions and street art installations held in Australia, Croatia, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Nepal, Slovakia, United Kingdom, United States and West Africa. Her work can also be seen in the digital online environment, including literary and visual journals. 

From 2011-2016 Lori was an adjunct professor at Rider University where she taught film and media studies courses. She also worked with youth media-makers, and won an award from the National Association of Media Literacy Education for working with youth and adults to analyze and make media. She has also been an Assistant Examiner for the International Baccalaureate program marking Collaborative Film Projects and Film Essays.

 Lori is an active social justice, education, health, environment and media reform advocate with a Master of Arts degree in Media Studies and Film from The New School, a university with a history of progressive thought and service to others.

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