Making Light Years: the art of combining story and spectacle

A render from the film From the Sails: Light Years.

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It struck me the other day, squarely and a bit awkwardly, that I’d had a connection with Sydney Opera House for a fifth of my lifetime. From that first encounter with the threads of its story, it’s been like following a rabbit hole ever deeper and making things along the way. 

From an ABC documentary and onsite video installations, to curated exhibits in place and online, plus a book, this year all these projects led up to the ultimate canvas when it comes to Sydney Opera House: its western sails. 

These have been lit up for many occasions over the past decade and more. Memorably, by a pantheon of visual artists for the Vivid Festival, which annually inhabits central Sydney and is focused around Circular Quay, and the Opera House is lit with vibrant projections.  

Still from the eclectic performance section of the film.
Still from the eclectic performance section of the film.

This commission, however, was a little different. For this was the story of the House itself as artwork: an opportunity to launch a year of celebrations, on the occasion of the 50th, with a visual interpretation of that half a century.

Sydney Opera House and Tubowgule/Bennelong Point, architecture and design, engineering and construction, controversy and national identity, the incredible legacy as a diverse performance venue... there’s so much to touch on.

Matrix of themes, narrative beats and visual aesthetics that Light Years attempts to cover.
Matrix of themes, narrative beats and visual aesthetics that Light Years attempts to cover.
Composing ballet: Kelvin Coe in Graeme Murphy's 'Beyond Twelve', 1980. Original photograph by Branco Gaica.
Composing ballet: Kelvin Coe in Graeme Murphy's 'Beyond Twelve', 1980. Original photograph by Branco Gaica.
Visualising 6,000 doves.
Visualising 6,000 doves.
Although they didn't make it to the final cut, I loved this sequence of 60,000 balloons all colliding as they rise on the wind across the Sails.
Although they didn't make it to the final cut, I loved this sequence of 60,000 balloons all colliding as they rise on the wind across the Sails.
Visualising the audience as they take their seats in the Concert Hall.
Visualising the audience as they take their seats in the Concert Hall.

My prior expertise in the many facets of the story was never more useful than beginning to think how best to visualise and represent, in an inclusive manner, the creativity and abundance of this world-renown performance venue: a World Heritage listed masterpiece of 20th century architecture known for its controversies, tragedies and innovations, and fairly universally adored for a sculptural expression that refuses to date.

Dancers become pure motion. From an original photograph by Jeff Busby.
Dancers become pure motion. From an original photograph by Jeff Busby.

Sound and vision: from projection art to film

With such an extraordinary canvas to work with, here at Art Processors we were instantly compelled to give this opportunity the dual function of projection art and cinema by inventing a seamless way for anyone to sync live with the soundtrack from wherever they were. My colleagues Rob Keniger, Adam Phin and Anders Rasmussen developed the LiveSync function that allows anyone with a device in their hand to listen to the soundscape of the artwork. The technology itself is impressive for its ease and accessibility—essentially, you take a link and you're listening: no app, just a couple of taps on a screen. But it’s the magical quality of being onsite and suddenly listening in sync that is the transformative experience, and allows for the artwork to fully serve its dual purpose. It was a truly transporting experience testing the function onsite, and added so much immersion to the general publics’ experience of the artwork. After an interview onsite on one of the first nights, I particularly remember driving away from Circular Quay, passing under Sydney Harbour Bridge with the Opera House in the rear view mirror, and the soundtrack playing on the car’s speakers, thinking, ‘yes, this is magical!’ 

The incredible soundscape of Light Years came together in the deft hands of my long-term collaborators, Hylton Mowbray and Andrew Stevenson, of Sydney sound studio We Love Jam. In filmmaking, the relationship between sound and image is so crucial, and in this case even moreso, as a silent light show is completely transformed into a film. We moved very quickly through the sound design and production, with its mix of diegetics and abstractions as the film moves through its various stages. Two of my favourite parts are when we show a visualisation of the audience flowing to their seats and we hear a melodious play on the bell that announces the beginning of a performance. Another, during a montage of early performances, a beautiful seeping nod to Elgar’s Nimrod.

Construction workers on the Sails.
Construction workers on the Sails.
The Spherical Solution describes the geometry of the roof.
The Spherical Solution describes the geometry of the roof.

Visual collaborations

I had a series of wonderful collaborations with two other artists who contributed to making the finished artwork. I’d wanted to collaborate with Jake Duczynski since coming across his work while I was tutoring at the University of Technology Sydney. Jake is an animator, writer, director and co-founder of Studio Gilay, and a proud Indigenous man with Gomeroi and Mandandanji descent, who explores Indigenous culture through animation, revealing how this can establish cultural collaboration, facilitate preservation and visualise unseen worlds and untold stories. Light Years became the ideal opportunity for us to work together and Jake’s stunning impressions of the land opens the film, with Wéllema Tubowgule, a celebration of the textures and forms that are abundantly found across Gadigal Country, from flora to midden shells, fish hooks and nawi.

Jason Poley is a Melbourne-based CG artist and animator, who collaborated with me on elements of sequences, including where we peel back the western facade of the sails and peer into the building, and the colourful visualisation of the audience streaming into the House to take their seats in a lidar-inspired image of the nestled Concert Hall, and setting off thousands of doves across the sails.

Animatic pre-vis for the audience Concert Hall sequence.

Animatic pre-vis for disarticulating the Western Sails to reveal the eastern soffit and interior.

Motion graphics, animation design and production occurred across a number of tools and disciplines, from filming at the Opera House front and backstage, to Cinema 4D and Houdini, Photoshop and Premiere, and, at least for me, it always comes back to After Effects and a sea of compositions, pre-compositions, cameras and timelines, whirring fans and punishing render times. It’s hard to talk about these aspects of the project without getting into the weeds, and which might very quickly become a bit of a bore. But we motion artists love our tools and even the grueling nature of planning these things out. Suffice it to say, this was a commission where the art and craft unite. I had to stop myself from publicly thanking my computer on the opening night!

TDC, Sydney Opera House’s projection partner, made projecting the work wonderfully easy and it’s been an utter privilege to interpret this half century and more in the dual mediums of projection art and film beamed into the night onto one of the most recognisable building profiles in the world.

It’s been a tremendous honour to see Light Years through. A commission and collaboration that’s been one of the highlights of my design career.

From the Sails: Light Years was shown nightly from 19-30 October 2022. For more about this project: Sydney Opera House light years ahead with magical AV sync tech and Transforming the Sydney Opera House into an outdoor cinema with AV sync tech.

Watch Sam’s incredible film From the Sails: Light Years on the Sydney Opera House's streaming platform Stream.