Ukrainian pop singer, Max Barskih, performed ‘Tumani’ (Fogs) in concert for a huge sell out audience at Kyiv Palace of Sports on October 27, 2017. This show marked a milestone in both the artist’s career and the history of Ukrainian show-business. An eye-catching ‘live’ 6.5-meter (21ft) skull was used as an unmissable prop on stage. The amount of lighting equipment was record-breaking for a solo performance of any Ukrainian artist.

Front Pictures was in charge of the video engineering, skull prop design and projection mapping. Though Front Pictures has a vast amount of international exposure, with many successful projects in its portfolio, this one was indeed quite unique. The idea of having a giant transformable skull on stage that served as a projection mapping surface fascinated us. It was not just unique, but also technically and creatively extremely challenging.

Idea – Client Brief
At the initial project meeting, when Alan Badoev told us about his idea of skull mapping, we demonstrated experiments with projections onto a small plaster skull created by our interaction designer Andrey Yamkovoy back in 2011.

Alan liked the demo but asked to extend the projection area to cover not just the front but the sides and top of the skull prop as well. This would allow the audience located to the sides of the stage to enjoy the show regardless of where they were sitting. He also told us that he planned to make some parts of the skull movable. For example, he wanted the frontal part of the skull to open and reveal the artist at the beginning of the show. In other words, the skull was supposed to work as a multi-level, transformable stage structure.

Alan also shared his vision for the content. Our task was to create much more than an ordinary stage decoration. The skull was to look as good as an object of art while also projecting amazing dynamics and volume.

Skull Modeling and Fabrication
We started by making a 3D scan of Max Barskih’s head with the help of photogrammetry. We needed to make sure the proportions of the skull’s size corresponded with those of Max Barskih’s head. It was critical because we planned to project an image of the singer’s face onto the skull during the show and we wanted it to fit perfectly.

The artist’s head scan made with photogrammetry

Using the 3D scan, we adapted a 3D model of a typical human skull to the real proportions of Max Barskih’s head. Then we adjusted convex parts in order to minimize possible blind spots not covered by projection.

Next we defined the optimal projection layout. It was designed to use four 20K projectors. We precisely calculated exact positioning to cover the maximum surface with minimal distortion.

Projectors layout

We also simulated pixel sizes and distortions. We paid special attention to the areas where the projected light falls at a sharp angle. To minimize those we slightly changed the 3D model of the skull and finalized the positioning of each projector.

We calculated the illuminance levels taking into account the projector layout and brightness and reproduced them with the help of an office-class projector.

Luminance map

Pixel distortion simulation

To make the projected image as bright and rich in contract as possible, we researched and settled on the optimal tone for the prop surface.
We conducted a series of tests and determined the most effective color for the prop surface.
Once we made sure the model of the skull decoration complied with all our requirements, we handed it over to our prop production company.

The skull prop was made of foam board and covered with a few layers of fabric and paint.

Pixel map creation

A human skull is quite a complex surface for projection mapping. The common problem for such a shape is that there is no single observation point. Normally, you place a virtual camera and render your content from that ‘ideal’ camera position. That’s the way it’s done when you map a building. This challenge was much more complex than mapping a building.

Following a number of experiments, we decided not to render all content from a single camera but to unwrap the 3D model of the skull onto a flat map.

This process is called UV mapping and is typically used to create static textures for complex 3D models; the human body for example. In this case we decided to render all animations as flat unwrapped textures.

The difference here was that our textures were mapped 25 times per second not onto a virtual 3D model. Instead, we projected onto the actual 6.5 meter skull prop onstage. To precisely combine a 3D model and animated textures in real-time, we used a Screenberry media server.

The UV map was divided into a number of separate patches of teeth, lower jaw, and the upper part of the skull. This pixel map was our final template to create all motion graphics for the project.

UV map

Mapped 3D model of the skull

Graphics Production

We wanted to breathe life into our skull :). To achieve this, our motion graphics team employed both 2D and 3D animation effects, and simulated physical processes such as fluid dynamics. The skull seemed to be made of liquid metal, thick paint, glass, or paper-mâché. We covered the skull with patterns, muscles, even Max Barskih’s actual face combined with visual effects. And sometimes the skull looked like… surprise… a real human skull.

Most of the graphics were computer generated. But some parts were hand-drawn. Creating those high resolution patterns manually required mastery, expertise and patience on the part of our artists.

Another challenge was to make sure the video content would seamlessly blend in with other elements of the the stage setup. There were LED screens, and tons of lighting equipment that is not always projection-’friendly’. At early stages of content creation, we relied on our experience in similar projects. But when the stage prop was set up in Kyiv Palace of Sports, our team conducted the first live tests and got back to the studio to make the final color correction and adapt the graphics to the actual lighting conditions on the stage.

Technical setup

The next stage of our work began after the skull prop was set up on stage and projectors were in place.

We map our UV maps onto the skull directly on the Screenberry media server. It’s support for 3D model integration was essential to the outcome. We then aligned virtual projectors with their physical positions at the venue. Next we reprojected corresponding parts of the texture onto the real skull from four projectors. To achieve maximum precision, we projected a high contrast multi-colored calibration grid and aligned the virtual UV map with the prop.

Calibration grid

Calibration grid aligned with stage prop skull

Rehearsals

At the rehearsal stage, we used a timecode to finalize synchronization of all elements. It had to be perfect for the show: sound, light, projection and LED walls.

We also applied the final color correction and made sure that all the visual elements were in total sync with music cues and choreography.

The show and reviews

The buzz about using this unusual prop at the concert started building long before the event took place. When Max Barskih told the press that his head had been specially 3D scanned for the show, word got out and anticipation ramped up.

The biggest Ukrainian indoor arena, Palace of Sports, was full with about 10,000 concert goers. Tickets for the event were completely sold out five days before the show.

The concert started with the skull appearing out of pitch darkness and entertaining the audience with a jaw-dropping projection mapping show. Then the upper part of the prop opened and unveiled Max Barskih. The effect was as if the audience was being invited into the singer’s mind. For the rest of the two-hour event the skull was lit up with different colors creating a distinct mood for each part of the performance.

The show received tremendous reviews from both fans and media. Many called the 3D mapped skull one of the highlights of the event.

“The crowd’s favorite songs and Max’s dancing were incredible. But the giant shining skull was especially impressive…” TSN

“The first association with the show is the 6.5 meter skull weighing 3 tons that visualized the concert slogan, ‘Dance in My Head.” Segodnya UA

“The giant pink skull was standing in the very center of the stage. This huge stylish prop set the tone for every act performed by Barskih and his dancers. And it looked truly amazing.” khochu.ua

Max Barskih took the prop to the M1 Music Awards in December 2017 where he performed a medley of his hits and was awarded the ‘Singer of the Year’ prize. The skull also toured with Barskih as a major part of his concerts in other big cities.