The projection that changed US law

A life-size, 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket, the rocket that first took mankind to the moon in 1969,was digitally projected on to the Washington monument in Washington D.C. to mark the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Some are old enough to remember those first grainy shots of the lunar surface broadcast onto TV sets that summer morning in July 1969. But for many, the landing of Apollo 11, one of humanity’s most historic and defining moments as a species, is a moment solely confined to the history books. However, 50 years later, the cultural impact of Apollo 11 can be still felt, to the point where its projected commemoration can change American law.

The projection was designed and created by UK based production company Fifty-Nine Productions in partnership with the US Department of the Interior and the Smithsonian‘s National Air and Space Museum to form part of the celebrations that took place on the east face of the Washington Monument. 

The project, titled Apollo 50: Go for the Moon was free to attend and featured music from House of Cards composer Jeff Beal. 

Richard Slaney, managing director of Fifty-Nine Productions explained the intricacies of the project: “It’s quite a complicated piece. We projected on to the Washington monument which is 169 metres tall. There’s 28 Barco UDX 4K 32 projectors and further away we have huge projection screens which we made and we’ve got more projectors to cover that as well as a d&b J series PA system and moving lights all mapped using disguise 4x4 media servers.” 

Astronomical Projection 

Fifty-Nine Productions has projection mapped several iconic buildings in the past, including the Sydney Opera House, the Guggenheim Bilbao and the UN building. 

Slaney said: “We also did an opening for the Smithsonian‘s national gallery of art two years ago, so we have a good relationship with the Smithsonian. They came to us and said, ‘if we were to think about the monument, how would we go about it?’ and the conversation went from there.”

Though projecting on to a flat, rectangular surface, the unique geometry of the monument presented equally unique challenges as Slaney clarified: “The mapping side is less complicated than some of the other buildings we’ve done, the monument’s a flat rectangular surface so it’s relatively straightforward but the aspect ratio, while great for a rocket is challenging for other objects -how do you get other things on it? How can we show more than just rockets?

Moon 2

“We added the extra screens to show more archive footage because we realised that the footage wouldn’t really work on the monument as it’s classic 4:3 ratio. It’s beautiful film so the screens allow the audience to be quite a way back from the rocket, giving that impression that the rocket is taking off and you are viewing it from a distance.”

"The fact that this hasn’t happened before is huge and only the story of the likes of the Apollo anniversary is significant enough for this to take place." - Richard Slaney, 59 Productions 

The projection installation also faced up against challenges from the local environment. Slaney: “We faced weather challenges all week, it’s a very complicated site as it’s a big public park that remained open, so all manner of challenges in terms of logistics and scale. We had around 70 trucks coming in and we had to be careful with when and how we rehearsed it to avoid showing the full show before the night.“

We also were not entirely sure who was going to show up but I got the sense that you might be watching it at the same time as 25,000 people who are standing around you, being part of that collective is something we were really embracing in the way we made the show, as we wanted it to feel as if you were watching the moon landings that very night and sharing that moment.”  

Changing the game

The Apollo projection project is a ground-breaking first for the Washington Monument, which had never been used for projection mapping before.

Slaney clarified: “Nobody’s ever done this before on the Washington monument. It’s a monument of huge significance in the US and the Smithsonian has managed to pass an amendment in American law, a joint amendment of the office of the president and the congress to allow this to happen for one time only, it’s a real moment.”

DWP Live was the system integrator for this project, overseeing the installation ahead of preview shows from July 16-18 from 9:30 PM to 11:30 PM.

The full show took place on the anniversary of the landing from July 19-20 with shows running at 9:30 PM, 10:30 PM and 11:30 PM as an integral piece of a 17-minute show centred on the Apollo 11 mission that saw Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins become the first humans to set foot on the moon.

Slaney concludes: “The fact that this hasn’t happened before is huge and only the story of the likes of the Apollo anniversary is significant enough for this to take place, I can’t think of anything else that this would happen for so it’s a real moment.

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