Lighting The Sails: Behind The Scenes On Vivid Sydney’s Most Ambitious Project


Every year, Sydney’s best landmarks are converted from gorgeous colonial structures into canvases for incredible light displays as part of Vivid Sydney, with the centrepiece always built around the Sydney Opera House. This year’s Vivid is bigger than ever, but it’s also the most important, because it’s the first time that the lighting of the Sails has ever been done by an all-Aussie crew.

It’s a precise mixture of art, maths and science that goes into creating the beautiful displays of Vivid Sydney. Everything from the Museum of Contemporary Art through to the Sydney Opera House, Customs House and even the building that houses Gizmodo Australia will be transformed into a light painter’s dream.

Hai Tran is the head of Technology for Spinifex Group. Spinifex have been tapped as the first all-Aussie team to light the beautiful Opera House for this year’s Vivid, and Hai knows what an honour that is. You can tell just how much he and his team care about the project when you hear them talk about the precision they get into.

“There’s a lot of delicate image blending that needs to be done to get the whole canvas,” he tells me as we chat through the tech behind Vivid Sydney.

“Normally you’re projecting light from one point onto the front of a flat display, but the Opera House curves away and around so we need to do a lot of tweaking.”

There are 17 large-format projectors used to light the Opera House for Vivid Sydney, with the theme being based around “Play”. To get the colour right with what the Vivid people wanted, Hai and his team worked on a 15-minute projection loop of beautiful colours, patterns and images for projection onto the House’s mighty Sails. Making sure it will fit first time, however, is a delicate operation.

“We start off with a building model, and we normally have to get that laser scanned because buildings change over time. There are 15 guys working on getting the building exactly right. Tech guys, designers, scanners. They get the best 3D model they can get hold of, right down to the tiles on the Sails.

“Once we do all that, we map it onto the shape of the building. Not always is where we’re projecting from dead-centre or straight-on. We need to warp [the presentation] across 17 projectors spanning a width of 6000 pixels wide to make it look ok. We work on a massive size and mesh warp it to fit the canvas we work on. We have to accommodate for all the slight adjustments. this projector only covers the part of the sails, so the next one just needs to blend,” Hai explains.

Just one of the projectors that light the sails of the Opera House is worth in the realm of a six figure sum, and the bulbs — which need replacing almost every night — cost thousands upon thousands of dollars. This isn’t your standard home theatre projector.

Tonight, the Sails light up again for the Vivid festival, and stay lit for two weeks. To make sure nothing goes wrong at the grand unveiling, the Spinifex team work night shifts to test the projections on the Sails to see if last minute projector adjustments need to be made.

The wire-frame can’t be adjusted at that point because it’s too late, but because the calculations to build it were so perfect in the first place, all the team need to do is erect the 17 projectors to the exact specifications and switch them on.

“We’ve got pr-evisualisation software to show us the exact distances between the projectors and the Sails. It’s like previsualising stunts in a film. We do exactly the same thing to these incredible buildings.”

The Vivid Sydney festival runs for the next two weeks. Stay tuned for our gallery of all the beautiful lights!

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