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Meet the Digital Artist Who Wants to Project onto the Moon

For Travis Threlkel, everything is a canvas.

SLIDESHOW

Travis Threlkel in his company’s Dogpatch office. The three-story building, a former furniture warehouse, is the site of raucous parties.

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Obscura Digital pays the bills by building commercial art, above. This interactive sculpture of touchscreen Google Chromebooks, Pixel Tree, was created in 11 days.

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An inspiration board of personal art and found objects in Obscura Digital’s art department.

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“We realized you could do something that feels intimate to skyscrapers,” says Threlkel of his projection onto the Empire State Building last year. That intimacy was achieved with fifty 20,000-lumen projectors, each the size of a small refrigerator.

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Graphics processing units are used in its playback servers. Modern processors, like 980s or Quattros, are common.

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A cam lock supplies temporary high-voltage power to Obscura Digital’s installations.

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“I want to project onto the moon and holographically raise the dead,” announces Travis Threlkel, an avant-garde artist with the makings of a God complex. After viewing his work, you can hardly blame him. As the cofounder of Obscura Digital, a creative studio that produces larger-than-life video and light installations, Threlkel has projected mesmerizing works onto City Hall, the Empire State Building, and the Vatican. His art requires him to think big.

Threlkel’s career path—from dropping out of high school to overseeing million-dollar art installations—was circuitous. At 21, he moved to Cincinnati for love, but quickly became bored by the Midwest. “There was nothing to do but go thrift shopping,” he says. Threlkel amassed a collection of more than 100 projectors and boxes of 16mm films. It was in Ohio that he discovered his first video projector and realized its potential for immersive art. He bought a geodesic dome, arranged a slew of meetings with computer science professors, and moved back to San Francisco in 1998 hell-bent on producing his projections.

Since then, what started out as a guy with a 30-foot dome has grown into a hub of 65 animators, software developers, graphic designers, and technologists. This year, Threlkel is setting his sights higher still: He hopes to project onto the moon using a powerful series of reflections. “In the end, the impact comes from the combination of the projection and the canvas itself,” he says. “When you paint something like the Empire State or the Vatican—or the moon—with light and video, you’ve created a supercharged, super-scaled art form.”


Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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