How Empire State history – and King Kong – was resurrected through immersive design

VR, FX and film come together for a unique new way to experience the Empire State Building Observatory.

Relaunched in the last days of 2019, the Empire State Building’s Observatory Experience exhibition now transforms the humble queueing experience into a carefully choreographed journey, seamlessly integrating digital elements that help immerse, educate and entertain visitors on their journey from the entrance to the observation deck on the 86th floor.

Creative digital studio and consultancy Squint/Opera has used technology to take visitors on a voyage spanning the building’s history, from construction in 1931, to its current relevance in contemporary pop-culture.

Callum Cooper is a creative director at Squint/Opera, based in the studio’s New York office.  A specialist in the convergence of content and technology, Callum answered some of our questions on how Squint/Opera resurrected King Kong and the building's history through immersive design

What was the brief given from the first step, and how daunted were you initially?

"The brief was to create a permanent museum experience that would be as good as the views of the building. We were given the opportunity to help transform the building’s queuing experience and worked with Thinc exhibition designers and Antfood audio studio to create a carefully choreographed journey for visitors.  

"The creative opportunity for this project outweighed any anxieties; millions of people visit the building and it's open 18 hours a day, 365 days of the year.  As media and technology designers on the project, we were given a tremendous opportunity to bring the experience of visiting this 20th-century icon into the 21st century."

What animation elements are at play here?

"As visitors venture through the Empire State Building, they can now experience over 40 different media pieces throughout a 30,000 square foot museum. They can engage with a variety of media from tactile/programmatic animations created in unity, 3D, 2D, green-screen to traditional documentary video."

How does one tell the (hi)story of a building? And convey its 'personality' beyond the physical structure?

"Our aim with the media was to stay true to the building as much as possible - particularly because the Empire State Building is the most famous building in the world. We did this through thorough research; from historical accuracy of the 1933 cityscape in the background plate of our King Kong recreation to arranging nine languages translations, something that was informed by demographic research."

You used your own custom, studio made VR tool here, Spaceform. Tell me more.

"When Squint/Opera started planning this project we were still looking at how technologies might be leveraged to empower the work. This was the basis for Spaceform, which is a data-driven design tool that allows people across the world to collaborate in virtual reality. Imagine a virtual workshop space where site images, maps, data and 3D models can be uploaded, viewed and manipulated in collaboration. 

"An exhibition such as at the Empire State Building has a number of large media pieces, for instance a 74 screen array that curves across a room and around a corner into a hallway. The best way for both ourselves and the client to review the edit was to review the media in VR."

How did you reimagine King Kong for the 2020s?

"We did plenty of research around the original 1933 King Kong and the processes of the original stop motion animator Willis O’Brien and model maker Marcel Delgado. Using this as a base we developed our own characterisation.

"Much consideration was given to Kong’s personality as a means to create empathy. With this in mind, we focused on a moment of curiosity and gleefulness, rather than his original character which is generally quite aggressive."

How did you bring history through life using photography?

"When people envisage the construction of the Empire State Building, they often think of black-and-white photos of workers balancing on girders high above the New York skyline. These iconic images were taken by the photographer Lewis Hine, and one of the exhibition rooms we worked on, called the Construction Gallery, is designed to honour these images. 

"In this exhibit, the visitor steps into an immersive experience that transports them back into the 1930's constructions site, where all the walls (and part of the roof) are screens that engulf visitors in this experience. Back in 1930, 3000 workers created 4.5 floors per week, and we recreated this energy with life-sized construction workers hurriedly building around you, with the 1930’s New York streets below.

"The immersive 1930’s Construction Area room, was reconstructed using CGI and green-screen live-action. The cast was chosen based on their likeness to the original Lewis Hine construction workers portraits. The costume designer Allison Wyldeck (Brave Heart, Phantom Thread) worked from hundreds of archival references that showed the workers uniforms."

What was the biggest challenge?

"The most exciting challenge was creating content that can be engaged by a richly varied audience. The Empire State Building is open from 8 am to 2 am every day of the year - so the same content that engages a family of five visiting on a very busy holiday weekend, is also appealing to a couple on a spontaneous post-cocktail midweek evening visit.

"What has been really rewarding is observing this wide range of visitors engage with the content."

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