A rendering of a view from A Perfect Harmony showing the Peacocks from the Peacock room projected onto the Freer

© 59 Productions 2017

Behind the Scenes: A Perfect Harmony

This is a guest blog by our friends at 59 Productions.

59 Productions was approached by the Freer|Sackler to help tell the story of the Freer Gallery of Art’s genesis and to bring its collections to life in a fun and spectacular way. The aim was to create a large-scale public artwork to mark the museums’ reopening after a two-year renovation. Using animation and projection-mapping immediately seemed like the best approach: the technique allows us to celebrate the architecture of the Freer building by using its Italianate facade as a vast canvas for bespoke animations, inspired by the museum’s history and collection.

Behind the scenes: in the 59 Productions studio, two men discuss something while seated at a computer
© 59 Productions 2017

One of the main challenges was to find a way to tell the story of both the museum and its charismatic and visionary founder, Charles Lang Freer, in a predominantly visual way. We were keen to avoid voice-over and text to ensure that the piece felt exciting rather than didactic, and to make it appeal to international audiences and non-English speakers.

The Chinese character for Jade projected on the front of the freer (rendering)
© 59 Productions 2017

From a technical perspective, the 59 Productions team built on its experience of producing projection-mapping events for a range of iconic institutions around the world, including the Sydney Opera House, the United Nations Headquarters in New York, and Edinburgh Castle. We took a laser scan of the Freer Gallery’s facade, which allowed 59’s technical team to produce a very accurate 3-D model. This model was then used to generate “UVs”—essentially unwrapped nets that represent each surface of the building. Animated material was then created to fit these templates before being remapped onto the building’s architecture using a media server system. The piece could then be previsualized in 3-D, allowing the creative team to review animated content mapped onto a virtual version of the building from the comfort of our London studio.

A member of the team works on 3D animation
© 59 Productions 2017

From a creative point of view, 59 Productions’ team of writers and researchers worked closely with the Freer|Sackler Archives staff and curators to craft a narrative that does justice to the Freer’s complex history but is also visually powerful and easy to follow. This “shooting script” was then used to create a series of visual briefs for animators who, using a variety of 2-D and 3-D animation techniques, worked on separate chapters of the piece, each of which tells a different aspect of the museum’s story. The show also features a specially curated soundtrack featuring classical and contemporary music from around the globe.

A member of the team works on 2D animation
© 59 Productions 2017

The final result is a twelve-minute whirlwind tour of the museum’s history. The story spans the whole of the last century, from Charles Lang Freer’s industrial roots to his friendship with James McNeill Whistler, to the birth and growth of his collection of Asian art and the eventual bequest of said collection to the American people. The piece is not just a celebration of Freer the man, but also of his philosophy—that art has the power to enrich everybody’s lives. Freer believed passionately in cross-cultural exchange and that the appreciation of beauty is universal, crossing borders both geographical and temporal.

A detail from a Japanese print of an actor is projected on the Freer in this rendering
© 59 Productions 2017

A Perfect Harmony looks back at the Freer Gallery’s history, but it also looks forward to the continued exchange of ideas between America and the rest of the world. At a time of much uncertainty and division, we are delighted to remind everyone in Washington of the values that Charles Lang Freer enshrined in his museum. We hope that the piece will inspire people to not only visit the museum, but also to take some of its founder’s appreciation of beauty and his spirit of tolerance out into the world.

Don’t miss A Perfect Harmony when it debuts at the Freer|Sackler’s IlluminAsia festival. The piece will be shown four times on the evening of Saturday, October 14.

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