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‘Once These Species Are Gone, They Are Gone Forever': SF Tech Company Uses Empire State Building to Highlight Endangered Animals

Company behind digital projections on Empire State Building discusses inspiration for project

Travis Threlkel didn’t hesitate Saturday before hightailing out of a rooftop party that his San Francisco tech company was hosting.

Instead, he followed whispers of a sort of magic occurring below, on the streets and in the parks of New York City. People were staring up at the Empire State Building, some open-mouthed in reverence and others with smiles plastered on their faces and cameras working overtime.

Why? Because the landmark 102-story skyscraper was lit with digital projections of the world’s endangered species.

“We had no idea that the result was going to be like this at all,” Threlkel said, adding that onlookers were calm – almost as if they were gathered in church.

“There were thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people on the streets,” he added. “It was an absolutely magical, remarkable thing to see. There was this tone of a New York minute.”

The live video projection, titled "Projecting Change," represented a partnership between Threlkel, co-founder of creative technology company Obscura Digital, and Louie Psihoyos, the filmmaker behind “The Cove,” a documentary that explores Japanese dolphin-hunting practices.

Billed as a first-of-its-kind art event, the looping projections – towering images of animals at risk of being lost forever – were over 350 feet tall and 186 feet wide, and covered 33 floors on the south façade of the Empire State Building. Threlkel said that people reported hearing about and watching the show, which lasted from 9 p.m. to midnight Saturday, on TVs even in Paris and Russia.

In all, the show comprised 160 photographs of species, including a snow leopard, golden lion tamarin, birds, snakes, manta rays, and various mammals and sea creatures, and 30 video clips whose length ranged from five to 20 seconds. [[320844221, C]]

Veteran wildlife photographer Joel Sartore contributed the majority of images in “Projecting Change,” Threlkel said, adding that Louie Schwartzberg and Shawn Heinrichs were also showcased.

Obscura Digital members set up 40 computers on a rooftop atop Tower 31, a few blocks away from the Empire State Building. Each computer fed into a 20,000 lumen projector. Threlkel explained that one projector would be sufficient for an IMAX theater. But, due to the scale of “Projecting Change,” 40 were barely enough.

Threlkel and Psihoyos also teamed up with the Empire State Building’s own lighting team so the LED lights on the apex of the structure were synchronized with the projections.

According to Threlkel, the idea behind “Projecting Change” sparked four years ago.

He connected with Psihoyos over the idea of a so-called “reverse invasion.” Threlkel believes human beings typically infringe on other species’ natural habitats, so the pair thought of doing the opposite with bringing the “natural world into urban metropolises and environments.”

“Extinction is a profound idea because once these species are gone, they are gone forever,” Threlkel said. “Extinction is a natural process … but we’ve accelerated it … to a 1000 times greater than normal. So, by the end of the century, we are [on track] now to lose 50 percent of all life on the planet.”

For that reason, Threlkel stressed that people can no longer view the problem as disassociated from themselves. If anything, it’s “self-preservation,” he said.

“When we are asking people to care about endangered species and start to create a dialogue of mass extinction on our planet, which really represents shutting down our ecosystem, we are very much part of that – we are creatures on this planet as well,” Threlkel noted.

Toward that end, the duo has coined a “street-to-sky” style of visual technology that involves a robot projector, which pops out of the back of a Tesla Model S and can beam media content onto refineries, billboards and other locations. Last September, Threlkel and Psihoyos also projected images onto the United Nations headquarters building before the annual Climate Change Summit.

Thinking back to the inception phase of “Projecting Change,” Threlkel said the pair dreamed of projecting content onto 23 buildings and using the entire Midtown Manhattan skyline to raise awareness. But their naïveté gave way when faced with a complex approval process.

So they switched gears, raising money and obtaining permission from New York City’s housing department, mayor’s office and others, for a project involving the Empire State Building, which Threlkel highlighted has, despite its size, been successfully converted to a “green” or energy-efficient building.

That, he said, made the Empire State Building a “big domino piece” for the conversation-starter “Projecting Change” hopes to be, in addition to its “iconic reach and magnitude.”

When asked if “Projecting Change” had been able to “capture people’s attention and imagination,” as he’d set out to do, Threlkel replied with a resounding, “Yes.”

“It seems to have been a really, really great beginning to getting people to think … and talk about loss of life on our planet,” he said.

“Projecting Change” is slated to be part of an upcoming documentary called "Racing Extinction." Directed by Psihoyos, the movie will premiere on Discovery Network in December.

NBC Universal’s Adam Warner contributed to this report.

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