Noah's ark atop Empire Building

Iconic landmark in the Big Apple will be illuminated with animals to convey the message that endangered species are dying out

The Empire State Building lit in green in New York City to mark the end of Ramadan. A looping reel showing different creatures will be projected on it.
The Empire State Building lit in green in New York City to mark the end of Ramadan. A looping reel showing different creatures will be projected on it. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Mr Travis Threlkel was standing on the roof of a building on Fifth Avenue and 27th Street looking uptown at his canvas.

It is hard to miss: It is the Empire State Building. This evening, he and his collaborator, film-maker Louie Psihoyos, will project digital light images of endangered species onto the building in an art event meant to draw attention to the creatures' plight and possibly provide footage for a coming documentary.

Mr Threlkel explained: "We're going to try to create something beautiful. Not bum people out."

Using 40 stacked, 20,000-lumen projectors on the roof of a building on West 31st Street, Mr Threlkel and Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary The Cove, will be illuminating the night from 9pm to midnight with a looping reel showing what Psihoyos calls a "Noah's ark" of animals.

A snow leopard, a golden lion tamarin and manta rays, along with snakes, birds and various mammals and sea creatures will be projected onto a space 114m tall and 56m wide covering 33 floors of the southern face of the Empire State Building - and beyond, thanks to cellphones and Internet connections.

Mr Threlkel, who designed the euphoric lighting for the Grateful Dead's recent farewell concert, excitedly described plans for a cascade of animal images, some moving, including a sequence involving human hands that will morph into a kinetic blooming, ending with a representation of Mother Earth looking "not angry, but powerful".

He was particularly enthusiastic about a projection of a giant ape, not unlike King Kong, that will appear to climb the building up to the 71st floor and set off the top spiral lights, which will be in sync with the images throughout the performance. Two real helicopters will also circle the building.

For years, the landmark Empire State Building has been drawing the city's attention with changes to the lighting scheme on its spire, and the displays have been growing more adventurous. Last year, in honour of retiring New York Yankee Derek Jeter, the building put his number, 2, up in lights at the base of the antenna. And this spring, to note the Whitney Museum of American Art's move downtown, it interpreted famous paintings, such as Warhol's Flowers, with a light show running from the 72nd floor up.

But actual moving images have never been displayed on the building and never with the clarity of 5K resolution.

Four years ago, Psihoyos' Oceanic Preservation Society hired Threlkel's San Francisco company, Obscura Digital, to put on elaborate light shows to help draw attention to the alarming rate at which species are dying out in what Psihoyos contends is Earth's sixth mass extinction.

The men began discussing "the most dramatic thing we could do to get the world to know about what we're losing", Psihoyos said. They wanted to use the photography of Psihoyos' colleagues at National Geographic, incorporate a musical element and project the images on a newsworthy facade.

The city has strict laws regarding the projection of images on buildings and Psihoyos' efforts to get approval were frustrated for three years until television producer Norman Lear, supportive of liberal causes, stepped in to assist, using his connections to Mayor Bill de Blasio's office.

Psihoyos and Mr Threlkel finally got the green light with just four weeks to put together the production. Over the previous three years, they had scouted the city for sites and put dozens of smaller, guerilla- style street projections on billboards and institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum, some with approval and others not.

The biggest so far was at the United Nations last year. The events are a part of Psihoyos' next documentary, Racing Extinction, which is to have a theatrical release in autumn.

The images on Saturday night should be clear to anyone within 20 blocks downtown of the Empire State Building. But Psihoyos said he was counting on extending the show's reach well beyond downtown.

"The whole planet could be on the same page for once; anybody with a cellphone or computer would know about it," he said. "To create a tipping point, you probably need 10 per cent of the population. With the film and this event, we are trying to reach that number."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Noah's ark atop Empire Building'. Print Edition | Subscribe