Project Nimbus. Cinema in the clouds

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

Project Nimbus is the outcome of several years of collaborative research by artist and inventor Dave Lynch together with physicist Mike Nix and maker Aaron Nielson. Using off-the-shelf technology, the team built an experimental device that projects bright moving images onto clouds. Onto pretty much anything cloudy actually: clouds of course but also vapour from cooling towers or urban vents. A difference with a work like HeHe’s Nuage Vert and other projecting cloud projection pieces is that, with Project Nimbus, the technology is invisible to the audience. They don’t see the beam as it is flying in a plane a mile high above the ground. The illusion is total and probably also a bit unsettling.

Project Nimbus is based on the zoopraxiscope developed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1879 and regarded as the first movie projector. The zoopraxiscope projected sequences of images from rotating glass discs and was devised in order to prove the validity of Muybridge’s animal in motion research. Lynch team customized the device by using laser as a light source but they kept the image of a galloping horse, as a tribute to the photographic pioneer.

Interestingly, the project was also inspired by a US military paper about ‘non-lethal weapons’ (PDF) in which the author suggested projecting holograms to scare a target. The scenarios he gives to demonstrate the soundness of the idea include: projecting the ‘ghost’ hologram of the dead rival of a drug lord with a weak heart; screening images of troupes to confuse the enemy and make them think that you came in large numbers (which sounds very Ghost Army of WWII); or projecting the image of an ancient god over an enemy capitol whose public communications have been seized (what a condescending plan!)


Dave Lynch and Mike Nix

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Laser testing at the lab of laser zoopraxiscope Mk 4. Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

I first heard of the project a few months ago (big thanks to John O’Shea!), couldn’t find enough details about the work for my liking and thus contacted Dave Lynch to ask him my many questions. He kindly involved physicist Mike Nix in the conversation:

Hi Dave! Your motivations for the project state that you don’t intend to deceive and you don’t even want to exploit the project commercially. Project Nimbus is an ‘open source cloud projector to share with artists and activists as a means for creative expression.’ Did you receive some offers to use the work in commercial contexts?
Why do you think it is important to keep the idea into an artistic context?

You could see it a mile away, that glint in eye of the enlightened business mind, if I’m honest, I’m amazed we got there first. It would have been crushing for the pioneering act to be attached to the transient agendas of advertising, I partially fund my art practice though working in the commercial playground on large scale installations for international brands, commonly losing creative autonomy and artistic quality due to time and budgetary constraints, all underpinned by the necessity to focus purely on spectacle. The inspiration, process and model of collaboration that are fundamental to this project are rooted in artistic enquiry.

In 2007, I realised the potential of the projected image, the original idea was to project a symbol of hope, an Angel, taking stimulus from childhood archetypes in mass media and religion to create an ubiquitous icon in direct response to the US military’s strategy of fear. By projecting the image from the air, the projection beam had no earthly location, appearing to make the technology invisible and increase the power of both illusion and audience impact. The more I explored this concept, the notion of mis-interpretation i.e. an Angel of death, ignited the potential power of the image without media anchorage. How would this potential manifest if the idea for image was left open to originate from the people engaged in the journey and process?

This lead me to focus on the technological development, the idea of creating a non-lethal weapon of mass communication became the sharing of the device’s blueprints and subsequent methodology through open source structures. This was underpinned by the decision to keep the spectacle of the final image open for debate with collaborators and audiences to explore elements such as; our human relationship to the image, ownership of the sky and clouds, image saturation though advertising and potential use for creative expression as a mass media communication device.

Whilst we had multiple requests to project logos and all manner of social media concoctions throughout the 3 years, including a prime time mainstream Saturday night TV show aiming to project the images of the audience onto clouds! With all of these, we were hot to point out; the experimental nature of their ideas, the dangers associated with such activities and how this could be ‘disastrous’ for a brands reputation if (alluding more to when) it went wrong.

Although largely self-funded, with the exception of a little seed money from arts festivals, the project often fell on tight times and I’d be lying if I said the commercial side didn’t cross my mind in these dark times as it felt that multiple agencies were about to realise our dream. Yet key to the process of Nimbus was to honour the time, shared ideas and actions of all the collaborators who had given time in good faith, this currency transcended the commercial appeal. We were all on this adventure, it was intoxicating, chasing what many thought impossible, we were breaking new ground and certainly not going to fall to commercial temptation just to achieve a world first.

This kept the project rooted in collaboration, between experts in their respective fields, artists, scientists, makers, pilots, film makers, cinematic historians and more working together in search of something beyond the spectacle, the real success is in the model of the genuine collaborative act. The influx of money from commercial sources would have certainly muddied and potentially destroyed the collaboration, there was no measure on peoples time, as soon as what we did have a price, it would have removed us from the experiential process. In keeping the first projections on clouds from aircraft true to artistic endeavour is a testament to our process, we hope that our actions will inspire others; that we can all make big things happen thorough collaboration, alternative currencies and belief.

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

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Laser zoopraxiscope Mk 1. Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

The team behind PN is made of an artist (Dave Lynch), physicist and laser expert (Mike Nix) and a maker (Aaron Nielsen.) What was the working process like? Did each of you have a specific role or task to perform, for example?

Dave Lynch: It was the foresight of Aaron to start prototyping from scratch upon presenting the Mk1 Laser Zoopraxiscope and asking for help to build a cinematic shutter. This radically altered the potential for the design process whilst opening up ways for anyone to recreate our work through sharing. Upon seeking advice on the nature and dangers of lasers with Mike and Prof. Ben Whitaker at their chemical physics lab in Leeds University, we realised we shared a common ancestor through the work of photography and projection pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. For me, Muybridge’s projection work of animal locomotion (a series of photographs in quick succession depicting the movement of an animal) has been a cornerstone of research for my work projecting animations from moving vehicles.

Mike Nix: It turns out that the field of ultrafast laser spectroscopy, which aims to ‘freeze-frame’ molecular motion, also draws analogy from Muybridge. Nobel prize winner Ahmed Zewail even referred to the same horse projection we used in his prize acceptance speech.

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

Dave Lynch: After a brief discussion about the pursuit to rediscover how Muybridge’s projector mechanism worked, we had the laser cut prototype zoopraxiscope Mk2 on the lab’s laser table, I was pushed to one side as Mike and Ben proceeded to ‘experiment’ or destroy the first prototype whilst suggesting ways the original could have worked. At this point we had a cyclic prototype process, through scientific experimentation and understanding of the zoopraxiscope’s mechanism through the physics of light, we could move the design process forward. With this knowledge, we could work with Aaron to construct the next prototype, which then returned back to the physicists for further experimentation. This was the catalyst for collaboration, it wasn’t long before we were all in one space.

Our process allowed each discipline to grow through genuine collaboration, to some degree, we all became artists, scientists and makers. In addition to our intuitive, creative aptitudes from the natures of each disciplines became our shared process. The ideologies associated with making enabled us to rapidly prototype ideas through; testing, construction and re-appropriation of other technology or methods. Science gave the knowledge, although rudimentary to science, it enabled the pioneering optics of the laser zoopraxiscope through physics by calculation. The art gave us a vision, focusing on the production of wider project and an umbrella to discuss the image’s social engagement potential in the spheres of both art, science and make, opening the doors to commonalities of how information is controlled, disseminated and scapegoated.

Our languages merged, whenever we became locked throughout the process of design or strategy, the natural approaches of enquiry from each discipline provided either direct knowledge or more often, inspiration from a radically different and sometimes absurd view point. This ability to inspire each other through our merged knowledge and languages gave rise to the projects progression across the board. There were no questions too ridiculous and no judgement when asking as could potentially be expected in our own professions or social circles.


Zoopraxiscope Machine © Kingston Museum and Heritage Service, 2010

You developed Project Nimbus over a period of 3 years (if i understood correctly). What was/were the biggest challenge(s) you encountered while working on the project?

Nimbus has overcome many challenges in both practical and technical terms, this is largely due to coincidental good fortune of the people and festivals we met on our journey. The project sat on the shelf since the original conception in 2007 until a seed residency from Abandon Normal Devices and the Octopus Collective back in 2012, Initially I was very lucky finding Mike, Ben and Aaron as collaborators in re-designing the zoopraxiscope. Thinking it would be straight forward, its arguably the first ever photographic projection device from 1887, so it couldn’t be that hard to figure out with two physicists, cinematic and engineering experts; could it?

We quickly had the mechanics of two rotating discs; one, the shutter disc compromising of 14 vertical slits, the second, an image disc holding a series of 14 frames of 16mm film with images of a sequential loop of Muybridge’s horse in motion. The laser light passes though the shutter disc, creating a flash on the image disc, thus creating a succession of flashing images that we see as animated motion, simple! Yet one key bit of information eluded us all, the rotation ratio between the two discs. It wasn’t till around 6 months later, we were introduced to Stephen Herbert, a cinematic historian who had worked on several zoopraxiscope replicas, he had the formula for the ratio.

1 : -1 – They rotate at the same speed in opposite directions. A week later, we had the zoopraxiscope Mk3 and soon witnessed the running horse in the lab for the first time, it felt like we were stepping in Muybridge’s footprints, It must have been quite something when he saw his horse in motion projected for the first time, for us it was truly magical until we realised we had to face our biggest challenge yet.

With the current laser, a 2W 405nm blue laser from Ebay, you could just about see the horse in the pitch black, instantly Mike wanted to try a ‘proper laser’. The Millennium is 5W of 532nm green laser used in the lab for experiments, this produced a clear bright image of the running horse, caught easily on camera in the dark, yet not bright enough for the clouds and besides having a cooling system the size of a fridge, it costs £20k. Prof. Ben Whitaker pointed out that the blue 405nm laser is at the lowest part of the human spectrum of vision. The lab laser of 532nm green is at the top for human vision so it was unlikely that it was ever going to work with this setup. We called it a day and I seriously pondered if this was the end of this part in the adventure. A few days later, I received a phone call from Mike stating that he had an idea to make it work…

His idea was brilliant; As the light passes through the slits in the first wheel, this is where we lose most of the light, so by replacing the slit wheel with wheel of 14 hemispherical lenses we could achieve a 90% brightness increase. But to test this theory, we would need to spend a £1k on laser grade specially cut lenses! This coincided with a residency at the Full of Noises festival in Cumbria, offering us £1k to research the project further, we took it as a sign and went for it, without this fortuitous coincidence and deadline to present our findings that summer, its hard to say if we would have continued down this path. After the residency, the project was quickly leaving the realms of the ideal low cost approach, we had come so far at this point that I decided to take a loan to buy a 2w 532nm green laser to give us the best chance possible in the skies. We had the best projector our money could buy, it was literally make or break from here on in.

We were fortunate with the pilots, they are an inspiration to work with, calm, calculated and incredibly skilled at what they do, getting hold of a plane on the other hand isn’t always that easy. To begin with we had a great airfield and access to planes but there were no landing lights, so we couldn’t fly at night. Landing at major airports was way out of our budget and nothing happened for a year. Even though we found airports with landing lights which were in budget, we then had the issue of finding a pilot / plane owner who was happy for us to carry out our activity at that airfield. Luckily the pilot from our early attempts came across a plane in an airfield near Nottingham.

The other major challenge was getting everything in the right place at the right time, predicting the weather is one thing, predicting cloud cover over a specific area at a specific height is another, essentially its mark one eye ball. The cloud conditions we needed happened every 6 weeks or so, in addition, we had to align the plane, pilot, second passenger to operate the zoopraxiscope. Multiple times, we would arrive and the clouds would dissipate before our eyes as darkness fell.

When you finally get airborne, you have no idea of a clouds size or relative distance, many a time we would head towards a bank of clouds only for it to disappear due to; weather conditions, a change in altitude, it becoming too dark so you loose sight in the dark soup or the clouds were so vast in the first place, that you are no nearer after 20 minutes of flying.

When we finally found them, the pilots flight agility required for us to capture the images was second to none, circling round whilst weaving in and out. Filming a mile above the ground, with a horizon at 45 degrees, hanging out of an open window going 100mph with the parallax motion of multiple depths of cloud layers has to go up there as one of the challenges. It certainly gives adrenaline a run for its money.

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Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

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Zoopraxiscope Mk 6. Proof of concept cloud projections. Image courtesy of Dave Lynch

And could you briefly explain how it works? Because i suspect that it is more complicated than just bringing a projector on a plane.

I’m particularly curious about how you operate the projector once you are on the plane? Does it screen the animation through the plane window? Would any plane do? And do you need special authorizations to project from a plane?

We have the zoopraxiscope mounted on a tripod strapped down inside the plane, power for the laser and drill which powers the projectors mechanism comes from a marine battery and inverter tied down in the back. As we approach the cloud, the cue for turning on the laser is when the person in the front opens the window, after a 7 second safety delay the whole projector comes into life, its watched over by the person in the back in case of any issues. Our methodology has been honed over several years, through the design and multiple installations in the aircraft both on the ground and in the air, we have the install down to about 20 minutes, its a tight squeeze. The zoopraxiscope points our of an open the window, this removes the potentially dangerous back scatter from the laser being reflected back into the plane and due to the divergence of the beam, the projector is safe to look back at after 30m away. If were less than 30m away from another aircraft, we have other problems to worry about! Essentially, the light on the front of the plane is brighter than the laser projector.

What’s next for Project Nimbus? Are you planning to develop the work further? Exhibit it?

Following a small grant from the Arts Council England, we have been working with Mike Stubbs at FACT Liverpool on potential next steps. As part of the ACE app, we plan to write up the process and collaborative model with the aim to publish in a journal & finalise/ release the zoopraxiscope designs through open means. Following the success of the article and hilarious conspiracy theories, we’re planning a lecture tour and small bookwork from the 3 years of extensive documentation of the project and have some exhibitions planned in Yorkshire this autumn as part of the British Art Show.

As for getting back into the clouds, we aim to return to the skies with the zoopraxiscope later in the year for a piece with the discovery channel. Other plans include a large scale digital installation, which brings yet more R&D requiring serious flight time and here in lies a dilemma. Whilst we are looking at funding streams to push the boundaries in this kind of practice, we will likely require partnerships with commercial entities for in production. Finding a respectable, forward thinking partner or brand who is not solely about the exploitation of the idea now becomes part of the challenge. We can utilise this powerful form of mass communication for meaningful issues facing environment, society and culture, but in doing so we risk opening the door to what the project has fought against since its inception.

Thanks Dave!