The secret formula to special projects: Will Harkin, Creative Technology

Creative Technology’s Will Harkin sits down with Reece Webb, explaining the secret formula to creating special projects.

No two projects are ever the same, and some projects require an out-of-the-box approach to make installations at prestigious or architecturally challenging locations work.

Enter Will Harkin, special project manager, Creative Technology, a specialist at Creative Technology who excels at finding novel solutions to unique problems on the most challenging of projects.

For Harkin, creativity is in his blood. Harkin was practically born into the world of live events and technologies, hailing from a family that is steeped in the history of the live event business.

Harkin explains: “My dad was in the business, so I kind of grew up with it. He is most well known for designing the Glastonbury pyramid stage in 1971, so I kind of grew up with all of the madness of that, he designed stages for the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and others. I was hanging out in the studio as a boy, got into the industry with crewing agencies, focused on carpentry and set construction working with my dad.

“After a bad car accident where I came close to losing my left arm, I went back to college to study sequencing 2D AutoCAD, started working on 3D and it clicked that this was for me. My dad told me about Creative Technology, and that they had moved to a new headquarters that was local to me and encouraged me to get in touch, and 20 years later I’m still here.”

Harkin began to work with 3D modelling, projection mapping, and other technologies, working his way up from the warehouse all the way up to project management of special projects. “Today, I create bespoke solutions to complex creative visions. You tell me what you want to do, and I’ll tell you how to do it and how much it will cost,” adds Harkin. “I’ve worked on the Edinburgh Tattoo as project manager which we do every year, this was pivotal in enabling us to develop the technology that we are working with. A lot of projection mappings are ‘one offs’, but the yearly nature of the Tattoo enables us to develop and refine how we use projection mapping technology.

“I also worked on a projection at Buckingham Palace creating a projection mapping for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.”

Will Harkin on the Pyramid Stage built by his Dad, back in 1971. 

For Harkin, a unique approach is needed for venues of such epic proportions, combining the right technology with unorthodox solutions to create truly memorable experiences.

“I have made a career out of seeking out special moments,” says Harkin, “no matter the cost to myself. The aim is to build a team of the right people and find the right technical solutions for these things and pull it together. It’s about creating something for everyone that they remember, creating special moments in time and space.

“We’re in a world where everything is LED, projection is more complex and there are more things that can trip you up. There are potential shadows, brightness, ambience, time of day and the architecture itself. The way we line up projectors is critical. Manually aligning projectors onto Edinburgh Castle for example is a challenge, because there are a limited number of reference points, so we use structured light autocalibration – we put emitters on the building which gives us a reference for scale and position. We also run structured light which is a feature of VYV’s Photon’s media servers. As the technology improves, we can take on more challenges.”

Creative Technology delivered a one-off projection mapping experience for the National Gallery in the heart of London, celebrating 200 years of the institution, and requiring the  fastest projector setup that Creative Technology had ever attempted. The project was led by Harkin, who was tasked with delivering a celebration of the gallery’s history through a complex projection mapping experience.

Production company Nvisible worked with Creative Technology and content house Visual Edge, and Nonosone staging to deliver this unique projection-mapping show.

Harkin explains: “I had already concluded a projection study for the National Gallery’s building, so we were able to go up there, present it and the National Gallery felt that a projection mapping experience would be the best way of telling the building’s story. Projection mapping is a great way to explore the building’s history up to the present day, with a celebration at the end.”

This project required a unique approach to deliver a stunning display within a short timeframe, relying on Panasonic projectors paired with emitters and cameras to deliver a flawless setup in record time.

Harkin clarifies: “We used Panasonic RQ35s. These are a real game changer for us in projection mapping, as it overperforms. It’s a very bright projector with great image and colour representation, you can carry them around easily, and this is our go-to projector for our mapping jobs.

“We used 16 projectors on this job, and it covers most of the building. We had problems erecting towers on the outside due to public access and ongoing building works in the area, which was challenging. It’s one of the busiest places in London.”

For Creative Technology, this project represented the fastest line up that the company has undertaken, calibrating and setting up every single aspect in one night.

Harkin explains: “The biggest challenge was the time constraint. Usually we would have some breathing space, but we needed to get it nailed on the night, with a challenging location with the amount of people around you. We installed emitters onto the building; ideally, we’d have lots of depth and spread with emitters but that was hard to achieve due to access restrictions on site. We can now run simulations of the cameras and the emitters, which is very accurate. We had eight emitters on this project placed low, attached to the lower section of the building which gave us great simulation results.

“The system is calibrating projectors outside of the area of information as well where emitters are not present, which is very cool. We couldn’t do this before, and this is the latest tech that we are using. The simulations allow us to know whether the system would work with great accuracy. Buckingham Palace was the last of the great manual calibrations for us, and it took all night. When you’re using cameras, you can calibrate all of that with 20 seconds per projector. You can do that a lot quicker and to a level of precision that you can’t achieve by hand. You end up with an incredibly sharp and bright image! You get a crisper image and that you can do it much quicker.”

Creative Technology used VYV’s Photon’s structured light autocalibration feature, SLAC, to line up the projectors.“The server, in daylight, can project reference patterns on buildings and through a series of long exposures, allowing the cameras to see patterns that you can’t see with the human eye. It can then gather data during daylight so that, once you get to sunset, you’ve got enough data to perform a calibration.

“This is something that has been developed for Disney theme parks. It runs in the background and hides these patterns in video, so that it can be constantly looking at these patterns and running calibrations. If a projector goes out of set tolerances, it will then apply a new calibration in real time. If you have an installation running for a year, it will constantly be recalibrating itself to keep itself sharp. It's all about creating that iconic image that stands the test of time”, says Harkin, “In 100 years people will hopefully still be looking at that picture from that moment. We all know that this needed to be right, and that there are a lot of challenging with building work and public access, so we aimed to give them as much as possible.

“Ultimately, no one person puts these shows together, it really is a team effort. I would like to give special thanks to my colleague, Paul Seeger, for always believing in me and helping make these magical moments reality.”

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