BBC News

Animating the palace

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter


What's been this week's most innovative use of technology? My vote goes to the extraordinary animations projected on Buckingham Palace during Monday night's Diamond Jubilee concert.

The palace became a canvas for images illustrating everything from Shirley Bassey's Diamonds are Forever to Madness's Our House. And the company behind this dazzling feast of visual trickery is a great example of the creative industries where Britain excels.

media captionHighlights from the Diamond Jubilee concert

Treatment Studios, a small business based in Bermondsey in south London with just seven permanent staff, was approached by the BBC to work on the concert. Like many production companies it pulls in teams of directors, animators, and other creative people for each project, whether that's video content for U2's world tour or the projections for the Diamond Jubilee concert.

It was Sam Pattinson who masterminded the palace projections, and coordinated the other contributors, including Trunk Animation which made the Madness Our House films. Sam told me that projection mapping - the technology involved in mapping the surface of the palace so precisely and then making it appear to come alive - had come a long way in recent years. "You're able to make a building appear to come crumbling down" he explained, "but we decided not to try that with the palace."

Sam and his team only began work in earnest three weeks ago. They arrived at the palace with a Lidar laser scanner, and after placing hundreds of reflective holographic markers on the building, generated a 3D model of the building.

image copyrightTreatment studios
image captionEffects such as this would not have been possible without projection mapping

Then, using systems from another London company, D3 Technologies, they set about working out how to map the images commissioned from the animators onto the template generated by the 3D scan. First, they worked on the virtual palace in the studio, and then, from the Wednesday before the concert, the team turned up to practice on the real thing.

"We were there from 10 at night until four in the morning," Sam explains. Night after night, using 36 projectors in six blocks of six, they rehearsed - without disturbing the occupants or giving too much away to passers-by. "We put up window mesh so lights didn't shine inside, and obscured parts of each image so you couldn't really piece it together."

On the night, some of the animations were triggered automatically by audio cues, but others had to be started manually. So, when Elton John got the audience to join in the "la la la" chorus of Crocodile Rock, "la, la, la" sailed across the palace on a manual cue. "We turned Buckingham Palace into a karaoke machine driven by hand," Sam Pattinson explains with some satisfaction.

A great British collaborative success story then, but before we get over-excited it is worth pointing out that much of the pioneering work on projection mapping for public spectacles was done in France, where son et lumiere has been a long tradition. But London is teeming with small creative businesses spanning the worlds of media and technology - perhaps they offer the best hope of making the capital a hi-tech hub.