So You Want To Be A Projection Mappist, Do You?
10 minute read
Difficulty: Absolute Beginner
You’re here because you’re brand new to projection mapping and want to try it for yourself. This blog post is not a nuts-and-bolts tutorial on how to use a piece of software to do Projection Mapping / VJ Software.
This springboard will introduce some basic vocabulary, considerations, suggest software, and sources to find some excellent media. My hope is that by the end of this blog post you will have a general sense of what you’re getting yourself into.
What is Projection Mapping?
Projection mapping is a technique that uses the form of a subject, whether big, small, uniform, irregular, organic as a display for projection light based art. Through this technique any complex physical form becomes a canvas to make art on. Landscapes, architecture, concerts, sculpture, dancers, and household objects are common subjects that are projection mapped. There’s tons of variation and technique!
What Does it Take?
Projection Mapping is comprised of three large focuses: Hardware, Media,and Software.
Hardware is the gear to make the project go: Your computer, cables, projector, power source, midi controllers, peripherals, etc.
Software is the glue between the gear and the user enabling control over the output. This would include your VJ software that has projection mapping tools in it as well as a video mixer of some kind.
Media is the aesthetic portion of the experience, a series of videos or images typically, to be enjoyed by your audience on your chosen subject.
What is Resolution?
The screen on which you read these words is comprised of pixels laid out in a grid. It might not look like a grid because when viewed together the collection of pixels reads as a single recognizable image, beloved movie, or text on a screen.
When we mention a pair of numbers in the world of projection mapping, such as 1920x1080, we’re referring to a common resolution pairing. These numbers refer to the number of pixels running the width and length of a given display. The higher resolution the image the more defined the image. The lower the resolution the less defined it will be.
Resolution appears across Hardware, Software, and Media: Let’s say you want to play a piece of media that is a “high resolution”, for example 4096x2160. This means you’ll need videos and image Media made at a resolution of 4096x2160, configure or control your vj Software to read the imported Media at 4096x2160, and be using Hardware that can handle the transfer load of the 4096x2160 Media data through the Software and out to your projector.
Since Resolution gets used across Hardware, Software, and Media humans like to create nicknames to refer to different pairings. It’s a good idea to become familiar with a few common ones. The following is, by no means, an exhaustive list:
What is Frame Rate?
Video is comprised of a series of still images, called frames, that when viewed in quick succession give the illusion of motion. When we talk about Frame Rate we refer to a number of frames passing in quick succession within a second. Some examples of frame rates at 24 FPS (Frames Per Second), 30 FPS, and the professionally coveted 60+ FPS.
Frame Rate appears in Software and Media and in both disciplines the number of frames passing in quick succession within a second defines the steadiness of playback. Media made at a specific frame rate, for example 30FPS, should then logically be played back in your VJ software at 30FPS or above.
Not that many VJ programs come with a lot of excellent filters. The more filters you stack on or the more “expensive” filters you add the more likely you are to see a drop in your performance FPS. Generally it’s a good idea to shoot for a performance FPS at a minimum of 30FPS. Professionals generally shoot for 60+ FPS.
One approach is to lessen the amount of filters you’re using. Another thing to consider when building your VJ library is to source materials at different resolutions and aspect ratios. Less pixels means less calculations. More pixels require beefier Hardware in order to handle the load of many calculations.
What are Display Connectors?
You’ll usually encounter a display connector on the side of your computer, at the end of a video cable or adapter, or in the back of your projector. There are tons of different types of display connectors, all used to transmit large amounts of digital data from the source to projector. It’s a good idea to become familiar with common connectors.
There are adapters which are used to format one signal to another. If you’re looking for an adapter it’s because there isn’t a common display connector between your computer and your projector.
How Do I Choose a Projector?
Lots of factors go into choosing the right projector for your home, concert venue, whatevs. Starting out I’d recommend either purchasing or renting a home theater projector in the 1,000-3,000 lumens range. For reference, professional technicians work with 20,000 lumens and above projectors for large subjects. If you’re not sure where to start, try and answer the following questions for yourself:
What connectors are on the back of your projector?
Are those connectors of the same type on your computer?
Will you need a video cable adapter to get signal from one video connector to another?
Check what resolutions are possible to achieve with your projector. Generally it’s a good idea to stick to whatever the projectors Native Resolution is.
What’s the power draw of your projector? Will an average home DC plug be enough to power it?
When light shoots through a projectors lens the distance and size of the projected image plane changes based off of the specifics of the lens. Because of the varied nature of your projector throw, we refer to relative size and distance in ratios when we talk about lenses.
Inspect the physical space you’re to install your projector.
How much room do you have to install it?
How big do you want your piece to be?
Where is feasibly possible to mount your projector?
Are your cables long enough or work over the length of where your projector will be from where your computer will be?
How big is your subject?
How far away will it need to be from the projector to get enough “coverage”?
Average home theater projectors come with a fixed lens and for that reason there are some projector calculators online that you can use to narrow down what model might work for you. Even if you can’t find the model you’re looking for, take note of the specs you see associated with a compatible projector and search for a projector with the same specs. Projector brands I’ve found to be reliable are Epson, BenQ, Optoma.
Where Do I Get Video Content to Show?
There are two approaches to gathering Media for your project. For most beginners downloading free-use content from the internet will be sufficient to grappling with the basics of software operation. Some of the above softwares offer VJ packs to their users for free use in VJ shows.
There are also people out there who make video art explicitly to be used for VJ shows. Always check the credits of the piece of media you’re interested in using. Support artists and credit them. Some free resources are public domain footage and hubble telescope content. My personal go-to for VJ loops and secret crush always has and forever will be Beeple.
How Do I Make My Own Visuals?
If you’re thinking about creating your own VJ loop, image edits, or dipping your toe into the world of creative coding I recommend looking into these programs. This rabbit hole goes quite deep and for that reason I’ve crudely grouped software by groups.
Adobe Photoshop, Gimp, Corel Painter, Adobe Illustrator
Image Editing / Post Processing
Adobe Photoshop, Gimp, DaVinci, Adobe Lightroom
Video Editing / Animation
Adobe After Effects, Adobe Premiere, Avid, Final Cut, Avidimux, ToonBoom
VFX / Video Post Processing
Adobe After Effects, Nuke, Houdini
3D Modelling / Animation
Cinema4D, 3DSMax, Maya, Houdini, Blender, Rhino, Unity
Procedural / Creative Coding
TouchDesigner, OpenFrameworks, Processing, Unity
What VJ Software Do I Use?
Luckily there are multiple out-of-the-box VJ solutions for controlling visuals and tons of friendly, knowledgeable people willing to teach you how to use them. As mentioned, this blog will not focus on the specific operation of these tools, but merely provide a small list of recommended tools.
When considering a piece of Software it’s a good idea to cross-check the software’s basic computer requirements with your own computer’s capabilities and download a free trial to play around with. See what sort of video and image formats are compatible with your chosen software too.
You may need an additional piece of software to convert your video file type to another type. In my experience I’ve found Adobe Media Encoder, Adobe After Effects, and Adobe Premiere to be reliable. There are other converters available too. A quick google search will show you a few options.