Picture a screen 87 feet high by 37 feet wide, covering the entire wall of a massive public lobby. On the screen people cavort – flying through the air with a cup of coffee in hand, somersaulting while talking on a cell phone – photo-real and magical. You are transfixed, and no matter how long you watch, nothing is repeated. This is "The Comcast Experience," a public art installation in the new 57-storey Comcast Corporation headquarters and a gift of Comcast chair/CEO Brian Roberts to the people of Philadelphia.
To create this 10-million pixel screen and the enchanting imagery that flickers across it, HD pioneer David Niles came on board with some groundbreaking ideas and the creative and technological team (Niles Creative Group) to execute them. “This is not a billboard,” Niles says. “This is not digital signage. We’re able to suspend disbelief.”

A very early adopter of the HD format, Niles has continued to produce, direct and edit original programming for TV networks, consults with Fortune 500 companies, develop new technology and create large-format projects, such as the Comcast one. His other large format work include projects for Radio City Music Hall, Federated Department Stores, Walt Disney/Imagineering and Madison Square Garden.

Niles began work on “The Comcast Experience” more than a year and a half ago. “This was a huge job and the most unforgiving job we’d ever worked on,” he says. “We did everything from design the wall, choose the supplier, engineer how to put it in, and then create all the content and create a content delivery system that represented a new way of doing things.”

The mandate was to create a new destination. “It is the Comcast corporate headquarters, but it’s also a public space,” says Niles. “We were also tasked with creating wonder for this audience in transit. To give the person walking through the lobby an experience that would change their day.”

That’s a tall order for the 20 to 30 seconds it takes someone to walk through the lobby, but Niles’ original concept and design does just that. The initial idea, he said, was to come up with half-minute stories that inspire and enlighten, and that seldom repeat. “We made the creative pitch of creating a photorealistic environment where we could change the lobby, like a chameleon, into other spaces,” he says. “We would take people places, bring them back to the lobby, and then create other spaces.”

The idea was so complicated, says Niles, that he built a “rather elaborate scale model of the structure of the lobby. We were able to simulate exactly what this thing would look like, and that’s what sold the project.” He elaborates, “If you isolate images from the wall, they’re meaningless. The way it plays in context in the lobby is what makes it so interesting.”

The Magic Screen

The trick was to create images that would hold up in broad daylight, in an enormous and irregularly designed space. After researching all the LED wall makers, Niles chose an 87-foot by 37-foot Barco LED screen, “because they had the best product and were able to engineer it to our expectation. The screen disappears entirely into the lobby when we want it to,” he says. “It materializes when we want it to. All day long, every minute, it’s disappearing and changing with all kinds of interesting things to look at, interesting stories to tell.” Niles enthuses easily when discussing the results of The Comcast Experience’s 10-million ‘ pixel screen. “When you’re in Times Square, you’re looking at an LED screen,” he says. “Sometimes it’s bright and sharp, but you can always see pixels. When you look at this screen, you can’t see them. All you see is pure, high-contrast picture – that’s remarkable.”

Because the screen takes up an entire wall, it’s also a very odd aspect ratio – almost 3:1 – with a cut-out for doors and other anomalies on the surface. “Creating something that would fill the canvas properly was a challenge,” he admits. “The shape didn’t lend itself to any existing camera.”

Office Theatrics

Once Niles chose the screen, he had to design the overall concept of what to put on it 18 hours a day. “I’ve made features and special effects and I know that people bore of visual effects and flash,” he says. “But they never bore of watching other people. We had the idea of creating a cast of what appears to be ordinary people doing extraordinary things. These people dance, do skits, fly. It’s put together in a way that every time you see it, they’re doing something new. And they’re all endearing because they’re incredibly talented actors, dancers and acrobats putting on a show.”

Co-director/choreographer John Dietrich, who met Niles in 2005 when he was a director/choreographer for the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, worked with Niles to develop all the scenarios, with the additional assistance of producer Emmora Irwin.

“The initial goal was to approach it from a theatrical standpoint,” says Dietrich. “First, it was going to be ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Then what came into being was all the acrobatics, being done by everyday people. The idea of dance came out of the fact that dance has universal appeal. And we discovered in our research that in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, a lot of the national dance crazes, like American Bandstand and Chubby Checker’s The Twist, started in Philadelphia. That gave us a tie-in. We knew that not only would people appreciate music and dance, but there was a historic connection and a sense of pride.”

Dietrich auditioned Broadway dancers and also found a New York City-based acrobatic troupe. Then production began, but it was unlike any ordinary production. “There were many components,” says Niles. “For one part of the shoot, we tied three HD cameras together to create super HD panoramas that we used for nature footage, waterfalls, the skyline of Philadelphia.”

The actors, acrobats and dancers were all shot, against blue or green screen, in a two-week period on a sound stage outside Philadelphia. Cinematographers Niles and Charles Slatkin used, almost entirely, Panasonic’s AJ-HPX3000 native 1080p one-piece P2 HD camcorder. Niles says he chose the camera for its ability to record to 10-bit uncompressed computer RAIDS with back-up recordings to DVCPRO HD tape. “The HPX3000 offers incredible dynamic range, signal-to-noise and colorimetry,” he says. “I consider it one of the top two HD cameras on the market. We own Sony, RED, Panasonic – all the cameras. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages, and for all the dancers and performance pieces, we used the Panasonic because it gave us the best pictures.”

“We developed many, many scenarios ahead of time,” says Dietrich. “Certainly things get adjusted and changed, but that was all done in pre-production. With the acrobats and dancers, we developed lists and lists of different ideas, and kept playing them out in front of the camera.” Niles, who noted that there are no close-ups of the performers, pointed out that they were trying to “develop personalities” for the characters by how they interact with each other. “They had to be compelling in some way,” he says. “So that you want to watch these people.”

There was minimal use of two other cameras. For slo-mo sports footage, shot in New York, Niles and team used the Phantom camera. And when he had to map the entire screen with one image, he used the RED.

Computer graphics were done entirely in-house in New York by Stanley Tang, Tsai Yuan Lin, Manuel Gonzalez and Osvaldo Andreaus. Among the CG scenes is a scenario the producers call “Where is My Dog?” “It’s an Escher-esque rendition of a forest with 10,000 moving leaves and fireflies,” says Niles. “It’s mind-boggling on a 10-million-pixel canvas, and it was all made in Autodesk Maya, with Cinema 4D and a fair amount of After Effects and Photoshop.”

A Bigger-Than-IMAX Workflow

Not only did the team have many hours of material, representing many components, but they also had to think about the composition of a bigger-than-IMAX screen. “On a canvas of 10 million pixels, each time a picture comes up, you’re looking at six HD pictures,” says Niles. “Each one is composed of five or six different keyable or combinable elements. They could be full canvas backgrounds, people, quotes or part of a picture, all combinable either through keying or insertion.”

Niles edited low-res proxies with Final Cut Pro. “There is no system that allows me to sit in the edit suite and compose 10 million pixels out of a box,” he says. “We used FCP as our editorial start-point, where we composed images in a 2K format. Then all the instructions I used during the edit process, of where elements go in and out and where they’re positioned, went into a second stage where we created a 10-million pixel canvas through Adobe After Effects. We then went back to the original images, scaled it to the 10-million pixel canvas, and then rendered it out into six HD screens (three above and three below, carefully mapped as to leave no seams), which were then rendered to the servers.”

Post production was extremely challenging. “Each time you’re seeing a picture on the screen, you’re seeing six full-resolution HD pictures,” says Niles. “Each scenario is composed of six independent pictures coming together. Once we established a workflow, it wasn’t hard to do, but intense.”

During the post process, they also had a section of the actual wall in the facility along with the entire content delivery system that would put the elements together. “For three to four months, there were 17 racks of equipment here,” says Niles. “A lot of our creative decisions were based on how it looked for real.”

Random by Design

Another challenge was how to put all these elements together, seemingly on the fly, and deliver them to the screen, in succession, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Though there are a lot of pieces in the puzzle – and it takes 45 days before a sequence is repeated – the elements are not combined randomly. “It’s not a screen saver,” says Niles. “It’s not random. There’s a consistent design.”

To make it work, Niles Creative Group designed a delivery system with built-in AI (artificial intelligence). A 1,200-page programming log combines all the elements, based on a comprehensive design of how they can come together. “We have created families or groups of things that can be brought together,” says Niles. “There are 12 different content bins, classifications of types of content based on the mood they evoke. It’s a bit like a bunch of Lego blocks with eight different colors, where all the red blocks are combinable and all the yellows are combinable, but red and yellow don’t combine.”

“There are quite a few fixed scenarios that recur,” he continues. “Then there are multiple combinations of elements that include people, backgrounds and actions that are brought together the moment you see them. There are thousands of permutations.”

According to Niles Medialon show control software is the top level of control; programmer Allan Anderson (aided by program manager Matt Howard, Dietrich and Irwin) wrote the algorithm, conceived of by Niles, for this installation’s application. This software controls three content delivery systems, from Barco, Dataton (which was programmed by Bill Lyons) and Mediasonic, which all pull imagery from 27 MPEG-2 HD servers. Each server has dedicated RAID arrays with hundreds of hours of content.

That’s Entertainment

“The Comcast Experience” is, however, so unique in its scale and scope and has been so successful in drawing the attention of Philadelphians that the project has already captured attention on YouTube, in cyberspace and from interested parties in Las Vegas and Dubai. Meanwhile, “The Comcast Experience” is enjoying its time in the sun as the unique public art destination it was intended to be.

“The whole idea of art in public spaces, branding or new media, bringing a kinetic element to architecture to change spaces with technology is something we’re very much interested in doing more of,” says Niles. “It’s not TV, it’s not a movie theater, and the idea of bringing [entertainment] into another venue is wonderful. It’s a whole new audience and just another extension of show biz for us.”