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The purple-hued cranes towering above South Lake Union’s twinkling tech hub — or the glowing Space Needle standing out against a fading sunset — were no match when it came to light shows in Seattle Wednesday night.

At the southern tip of Lake Union, a unique festival called “Borealis” was gearing up to take over that part of the city for the next few days. A behind-the-scenes look and preview of the event showed off what spectators can expect from the high-tech light and sound show.

Using video mapping technology, event producers are turning the facade of the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) into a pixel-filled and pulsating projection surface. The free spectacle, running nightly from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, features a first-of-its-kind-in-the-U.S. competition between six global light artists.

Lake Union Park will be filled with food trucks, beer and wine gardens and live music. And the neighborhood around MOHAI will feature 25 light art installations as part of a walking tour throughout the neighborhood.

Tamas Vaspori, co-producer of Borealis, explains how the high-tech projectors behind him overlay images onto MOHAI in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
A technician at the servers that power Borealis in a control tent at Lake Union Park in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Tamas Vaspori is the Budapest, Hungary-based co-founder and co-producer of “Borealis,” and he’s managing director of the projection mapping technology company Maxin10sity. He joined Mark Wilson of Michigan-based Bluewater, the technical projection specialists, in explaining to GeekWire how the show came together.

“Basically what we have on this show is eight 20,000 lumen projection systems, true DLP 3 chip,” Wilson said, rattling off the video tech necessary to put on such a show. “Each one is there for the purpose of brightness and redundancy, but it’s to do a 4-to-1 aspect ratio edge blend. And the pixel resolution is 6000 x 1000.”

Each pixel of the production is specifically mapped to the uneven surface of MOHAI so that it looks like the building is coming alive. The 2D animation almost takes on the look of 3D to the naked eye, without the aid of special glasses.

The Museum of History & Industry before dark, when the light show started. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
The Space Needle is visible west of MOHAI as projectors map a video display onto the museum. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Vaspori, who is used to working on grand structures in Europe, Japan, China, Dubai and elsewhere, said they liked MOHAI for a variety of reasons. The space in the park around it helped, so that a large crowd can assemble, much like in a European plaza or square. The columns on the former Naval Armory Reserve building also play well in the production as they appear to move, falling side to side and forward.

While Maxin10sity produces shows all around the world, “Borealis” is site-specific for Seattle.

“Every building is different, so if I do content for here, it works only here,” Vaspori said. “You cannot project [this show] on another building.”

After a building is chosen, the process starts with laser scanning all points of the structure within 1 millimeter accuracy. Those points are loaded into software to create a digital 3D model of the building. That model is then shared with the artists making work for the specific building.

A light show is projected on the side of the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle Wednesday night as a preview of the Borealis Festival of Light event. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

With frames of 6000 x 1000 pixels, and 30 frames per second, a 3-minute file is about 40 GB. Wilson and Vaspori joked that the show isn’t being produced and projected off somebody’s laptop. “Borealis” relies instead on a Pandora’s Box server made by the audio visual company Christie.

“It’s massive,” Wilson said of the file sizes. “You don’t want to compress that. You want to leave it authentic from the artist. Any time you compress it you take all the quality out of it, you take all the depth and content and color.”

The show opens with about six minutes of introductory content created by Maxin10sity. Speakers positioned around the park deliver pumping sound that matches the movement happening on the building. A giant whale appears to swim behind the MOHAI columns, a pendulum swings in the main entryway, and giant fireballs explode from side to side.

The other light show nearby — Seattle’s ever-growing South Lake Union tech hub. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The show then transitions to the works that are in competition, and viewers are asked to pay close attention so they can select a favorite via online voting. Six finalists were chosen out of 40 applicants and come from Bratislava, Moscow, Istanbul, Shanghai, Tokyo and Chicago. Those pieces last about about 3 minutes each, and the entire projection show lasts about 30 minutes. It will play four times each night of the festival.

“It’s really interesting to see how different cultures, how different people are thinking, how they interpret the same building,” Vaspori said. “All of them are really different and it’s really cool because people will get a different view of how somebody thinks about the same thing on the same canvas.”

“Borealis” is presented by Comcast and other sponsors, including Amazon, and runs Oct. 11-14. The event is free, but tickets are necessary for the video mapping presentation.

Festival information can also be viewed in augmented reality with the festivAR app.

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