The National Geographic Society, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary, enjoys seemingly limitless high-definition video content of the natural world. It wanted to celebrate that universe of content with displays at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.
The task, in a nutshell, for the video editor? “We said to her, ‘Show us everything that’s beautiful in the world,’” says Thomas Oelberger, one of the museum’s exhibit designers.
Even with access to a ton of great content, there still remains the creative and technological challenge of how best to present it. A video wall that visitors encounter almost immediately upon entering the exhibit space seems to meet that challenge.
The oddly configured video wall displays an animal-themed tribute to the work of the society’s explorers, photographers and scientists. Much of the six-minute long content loop that greets visitors upon arrival at the exhibit is culled from the seven-episode “Great Migrations” nature miniseries that was originally broadcast on the National Geographic cable channel.
“We knew we had a huge range of content in-house to choose from, so very early on the issue became what form it would take,” recalls Oelberger. One existing shape offered a direction: The society’s flag, whose three stripes represent earth, sky and sea, which would lend itself to a video wall that could portray some of that vast content. But the idea of a typically rectangular flag shape seemed too static to the design team.
“We’re presenting nature, which never really happens in a square box. So it’s about having the ability to present it in these more organic shapes,” says Oelberger.
That led to the idea of a 12-panel video wall configured in a 4 X 3 arrangement but with the three horizontal “stripes” staggered rather than uniform. “Everyone is used to seeing a rectangle, but when you take that,” says Bill Apter, senior consultant for special projects for Avitecture, pointing as displays illuminate strategically to capture the movement of an animal, “you give the editor an incredible canvas to work with because she could develop this building block look.”
The team chose a Planar Clarity Matrix MX46HD LCD video wall display whose mounts offered the ability to set each display in the video wall at the exact right position in relation to the others, so that the video would flow properly. “Accurate placement was exceedingly important but thanks to the well-designed mounts it ended up being quite simple,” Oelberger notes.
The content architecture is complex—scenes flow from one display to another, with scenes sometimes taking up the entire 12-screen array and then suddenly fragmenting in a dozen distinct ones. That effect “makes it more dynamic,” Oelberger says. “Physically, it’s morphing in a way.”
This was accomplished by using one BrightSign XD1030 networked interactive player for each display, synchronized using BrightSign’s software. This also allows the video wall to fully use all of the pixels in each display, resulting in certain scenes that have resolution approaching 8K.
The Planar screens had one other benefit—they’re fitted with ERO protective glass covering that keeps the displays “vandal-free,” in Oelberger’s words. “These days when people see a video screen they assume it’s interactive and they try to touch it,” he says.
In fact, as Apter adds, “Audiences are getting to the point where they’re almost becoming numb to plain-vanilla video walls. They’ve become ubiquitous. You need to do something to make them stand apart, as they did at the [National Geographic] museum.”
Bill Apter, senior consultant for special projects for Avitecture, discusses the unique content distribution strategy for the National Geographic Museum video wall solution.
Inside the Content Strategy
To edit the content, the museum hired Jamie Lee Godfrey, a former National Geographic staff video editor who now works as a freelancer. Oelberger says that given the large amount of content it was an advantage to have someone who was already familiar with much of it do the edit. “That saved us a lot of time, Jamie was able to hit the ground running and bring a myriad of creative ideas to the table,” he says.
In order to edit in such unconventional format, Oelberger created a grid in Adobe After Effects that converted the physical layout to a pixel grid. Godfrey then began to experiment with using the grid to her advantage and created several iterations that were brought back to the museum for evaluation. “The staggered compositions sometimes looked unnatural on a laptop screen but when we ran it through a projector in our auditorium at full size, the larger scale allowed the same effects to work wonderfully,” he explains.
One creative point in the final edit stands out: with museum’s endorsement, Godfrey was encouraged to use the bezels of the display as a design element. Furthermore, in certain scenes a number of the 12 screens are intentionally blacked out.
“You’d think that if you spent $100,000 on a video wall you’d want to use all the screens all of the time,” he says. “But by using the geometry and negative space to our advantage the overall effect more interesting and engaging.”
The installation is accompanied by an enveloping audio track, created by merging a subtle soundtrack with the live sound effects from the original footage. The installation is slated to run through June 2014. The video wall will be taken down but Oelberger says the individual displays will be reconfigured and used again in other exhibits in the future.
“The great thing about video walls like this is that you can reconfigure them in a number of ways,” he points out, adding that for an upcoming marine life exhibit that can be used in portrait mode in a single row of twelve displays to create a shoreline effect. “What we’re increasingly looking for in AV technology is whatever can give us a stronger multimedia presence, ways that can link the brand in the museum, online, on television and everywhere else.” Reporting by frequent CI and TechDecisions contributor Dan Daley is used throughout this article.