Creator Q&A with SNA Displays: Fusion CIS

Continuing our series of articles highlighting the amazing digital art teams with whom we’ve had the pleasure of working, this edition of Creator Q&A with SNA Displays does a deep dive into Fusion CI Studios. We’ll learn where they came from, what they’re doing, and where they’re going.

Whether it’s a digital waterfall so realistic people actually call to complain about water waste or creative content proudly displayed to potential clients in our Times Square headquarters, we’ve been honored to have Fusion’s digital artwork on several of our screens.

Lauren Miller and Mark Stasiuk

Fusion CI Studios

With studios in LA and Atlanta, Fusion CI Studios is celebrating 20 years of designing & building digital art using visual effects for motion pictures, television and digital art installations. Fusion’s award-winning creations in digital art-installations reveal its unique blend of high-end physics, imagination, and art, where technology recedes and the human connection and experience is paramount.

Lauren Millar, Executive Creative Director & Co-Founder

Mark Stasiuk, Executive Technical Director & Co-Founder

How did your studio get started?

Well, it all started 20 years ago this year. With an explosion.

Fusion’s co-founders, Lauren Millar and Mark Stasiuk, met during an explosive volcanic eruption on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat. Lauren, a documentary filmmaker and Mark, the head geophysicist at the volcano observatory there. Soon after, design studio Fusion Computer Imagery Studios ignited, combining Lauren’s discerning artistic eye and Mark’s creative technical wizardry.

Fusion’s work began in motion pictures, making a splash on the silver screen with Poseidon, when a visual effects supervisor reached out to Fusion, as he’d heard Mark was a master of the fluid fx software, RealFlow (from creating lava and pyroclastic flow simulations). Fusion’s team created floods, leaks, and spewing water throughout the ship for that movie – which sparked a flood of requests for water fx for other Hollywood movies – The Guardian, Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, Girl with The Dragon Tattoo.

From the silver screen to the digital screen was a natural progression after Fusion was asked by Obscura Digital to design and build an enormous dynamic waterfall on the Salesforce LED display in San Francisco. While Fusion had created several digital installations by then – in Times Square and at LA Live – this was the installation that ignited imaginations and launched an era of art on digital displays.

What do you consider your specialty in terms of content generation? Is there a specific type of art direction you enjoy more than others?

Fusion’s team creates all kinds of digital art from animated characters to realistic looking environments. But our specialty, or really our art’s medium, is sculptural physical simulation within an environmental/architectural context. For 20 years, as a creative studio, we’ve been using cutting-edge computer-driven fluids, rigid body, soft body and particle dynamics to create our artwork.

Our co-founder, Mark Stasiuk, has a doctorate in geophysical fluid dynamics, so we have a deep fascination with the naturalistic beauty that grows out of simulations, as well as a deep knowledge of how they work. We also layer in specific, custom controls, so we can painstakingly art-direct our physical simulations, to achieve exact, unique, and magical results.

Typically, we design simulations to create dimensional, sculptural forms, and even use simulations to flow color in organic ways. That’s why we describe it as sculptural simulation. Our work is always created for and within an environmental or architectural context. We create art pieces to fit into spaces as a design element.

Our pieces have unique shapes to fit the unique shapes of LED displays, with the digital simulations interacting with corners and edges of the physical space. We create digital materials inside our pieces that emulate and reflect the materials of the surrounding physical space, so our art pieces feel integrated into architectural spaces.

The goal is always to give viewers a moment of magic, to provide thoughtful, mesmerizing distractions.

In terms of the digital art you have created, do you have a favorite? Why? (We’d love to hear a story about the worst digital content you’ve generated if you’re willing to share.)

Wow that’s a hard question! We pour heart and soul into each custom piece we design and create, so each one is really special to us, and each one tends to be unique. Of course, the first major piece we created for the digital display realm always has a special place – the Salesforce lobby waterfall in San Francisco.

It was not only our first massive digital art piece, it was also one of the first in the world that captured the hearts and imaginations of people as to what could be created on digital displays, beyond advertising. The key for most seemed to be that captivating allure of the digital and physical worlds interacting – the digital waterfall interacting with the physical space.

It was purely art for a digital display, created just for the pleasure of viewers passing through an otherwise austere urban lobby. Nothing beats the sense of awe you feel the first time you step from the busy financial district hustle into that lobby and are embraced by a massive waterfall.

And just to give a sense of how totally different our art pieces can be, and how difficult to pick a favorite, another one we particularly love is our projection show on the big volcano inside Margaritaville on the Vegas strip. We created a 12-minute show across five displays designed to complement three Jimmy Buffett songs (Volcano, Fins, and Margaritaville) – an event that plays every 90 minutes. First, Jimmy sings on one display while the volcano erupts, spilling lava down its flanks (Volcano). Then, when an ocean consumes the volcano, a mermaid swims around in an emerging coral garden, chased by sharks (Fins). In the grand finale, as Jimmy sings Margaritaville, a tropical jungle grows with magical ‘flip-flop’ flowers and margarita-glass trees, while parrots soar, carrying “that lost shaker of salt.” It was challenging and exhilarating to create and it turned out incredibly beautifully. Above all, to see Jimmy Buffett fans jump up and sing along, while recording the show, was really rewarding.

And the worst… the worst for us as a creative art studio. We created content for a Big Pharma booth at a medical congress. It started as a super creative and interesting project, but devolved into reams of animated pharmaceutical text and rotating 3D bar graphs. It became an exotic PowerPoint presentation with a lot of tiny text right at the resolution limit of the LED display. We learned during that project about all the intense rules governing a pharmaceutical booth – for example, if there’s an extra space between words or even a comma out of place, the regulators could shut down the booth during the congress! For a graphic design studio focused on pharmaceutical work, it would be an amazing project, but it wasn’t really our cuppa’ tea…

What is your favorite kind of digital signage content to create? For example, if you had no restrictions or guidelines, what would you create?

A big favorite for us generally are data sculptures, where we have dynamic simulations driven by a dataset. We love the organic richness that arises from the simulation aspect, and that the data results in forms and behavior that are surprising and always unique. These types of art pieces are aesthetically beautiful, and also carry a hidden meaning because they personify the data. An example of this is a piece we did for a luxury home in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where an entire three-story interior side of the house is an LED display. We created an infinitely flowing dynamic particle simulation driven by the ECG (heartbeat patterns) of the family’s children — a personalized data sculpture for their home!

Data sculpture

What message do you want people to hear about digital art/content creation?

Connect with digital artists early in the planning stages, while still considering the size, shape and location of the digital displays. Art creators can offer loads of insight on what works and what doesn’t (avoiding costly mistakes), and they’ll be able to open your eyes to new, unique possibilities. They will also be able to guide you on how to get the most impact for dollars spent, in terms of both the hardware and the digital art combined. If you take a holistic approach, considering the technology and what you want out of the art, you’ll make a much larger impact with your target audience and rack up a lot more posts on social media.

Working with your art creator early in the installation planning also helps avoid the pitfalls of referring to previously done displays and wanting something similar. After the Salesforce waterfall, Fusion had innumerable requests for a waterfall (Resorts World, Osage Casino, MGM Cotai). Sometimes a waterfall worked incredibly well for the ambiance and the goals of the space (as with the ones above) and sometimes it did not. When it did not, we’d guide our clients toward other amazing possibilities for their space.

Another case in point is the infinite number of anamorphic illusion gags created on corner screens now. Artistic creation on these magnificent digital canvases should strive to be unique, original, meaningful. We’ve got to break outside the box of things breaking outside the box…

And lastly, you get what you pay for. How many times have we heard that?! As with physical art, there are tiers of digital art – you can nab a ‘starving artist’ print in the local mall parking lot or you can commission an original art piece that’s meaningful and intentional and rewarding for your space. Consider the vast potential of quality digital art when deciding on an art piece for your digital display and you’ll be rewarded by drawing an audience.

How do you determine what content is best for a specific application?

We start by researching the client and the installation space, and then have a series of meetings with the client. There’s an infinite number of possibilities so our first goal is to explore what the client likes and wants generally, and what sort of budget they have to work with.

We ask lots of questions, like, what’s the purpose of the displays and content? Is it pure art? An interior design element? Is it meant to attract attention, to entertain, or to provide information? Is it a blend of purposes? We then walk clients through a wide range of possibilities to open their eyes to potentials that they may not be aware of and determine if any concepts strike a passionate chord. Finally, we put together a small set of proposed content ideas based on the early meetings, to narrow the field of ideas and start focusing on details. That leads naturally to project specifics like, what technology to use, delivery schedule and cost. You can’t divorce ideas for digital art from hard-core project details like schedule and budget, it all has to be considered holistically.

What elements are most important in creating an immersive digital experience / experiential content?

The most important thing is to draw the viewer’s attention, usually away from a phone screen. Generally your goal is to capture their full attention, so all the thoughts crowding their mind get pushed away and they focus on the experience. That’s when it feels immersive. The easiest way is to fill their view with visuals and their hearing with complementary sound. This can be done with more modest-sized displays in smaller spaces or with very large displays that surround the viewer, but it’s always crucial to block out, or at least subdue, external sources of sound and light so the installation dominates and the viewer then feels transported.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines installation – Stateroom of the Future

How do you effectively connect with or influence an audience’s emotions?

We got a lot of tools for emotional connection from our film work, mostly from Lauren’s background as a film maker, but also from our years of doing digital visual effects for Hollywood films. Most important is context – the digital art needs some relevance, some meaning, for the viewer and for the space the installation occupies. As part of a five-piece installation for Westminster Schools in Atlanta, we created a sort of “time capsule” piece, with beautiful images of paper lanterns floating out of a sunset sky and splashing down on a lake. Written on each floating lantern were wishes for the future from students of that graduating year. The music chosen intensified the emotional impact of the piece. For the students and their parents, and of course for new families applying to attend the school, this piece has a powerful emotional impact.

Sound design is a major complementary tool for these installations. For Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, we created an immersive environment called “the stateroom of the future” where viewers in a small ship cabin were surrounded with displays showing an ocean and sky environment at different times of day. Without sound, it could feel like pretty moving wallpaper. Add sound, with sea birds, sea breeze, and lapping waves, nobody wanted to leave the room!

What are some foundational design concepts for digital content? If you were teaching a class on the subject, what are some of the key topics you would cover?

Design for the client, the space, and the display

A lot of creatives have strong opinions about digital art, and of course everyone has different styles. But when you’re creating digital art for a client, you set aside what you want and figure out what your client wants. Your task is to both listen to them and guide them toward an idea that you can execute well, and to take into account the client’s space, as well as the qualities, size, and shape of their display. If their display system can’t show smooth gradients of color, don’t propose that kind of content. This may sound obvious, but It’s really surprising how often we’ve seen entirely inappropriate content slapped on displays.

Whenever our team travels to a new city, we always tour around to see installations and big displays, and we often brainstorm what we’d propose to clients for those spaces. It’s a great exercise that really helps when new projects come up.

Size matters, speed matters

Most motion graphics artists come out of a background working on small screens – phones, TVs, computer monitors, possibly films. Working on big LED displays is very different, especially regarding the speed of the movements. You have to keep front of mind that the speed of motion you see on your computer monitor while developing content gets multiplied by the size of the LED display. If a ball falls 12 inches down on your monitor in 2 seconds, it’ll take the same 2 seconds to fall down the LED display that may be 20 feet high (240 inches), so it’s speed will be 20x greater. This means you must build all motion with scale in mind, and it’ll look strangely slow in all your tests.

You can easily see how this matters by checking out big LED displays where agencies show the same ads they designed for TV or phones. The motion is way too fast, and viewers will find it dizzying, annoying, and avoid looking at it. Plus, if it’s shown at the standard 30fps, overly fast motion will jitter very noticeably. The scale/speed consideration for large-scale installations is why you have to plan either a lot less motion, or far slower motion, or create the digital art at 60fps or higher (and double the render budget).

Spatial distribution of action

Designing for big LED displays requires you to think about the whole space. That’s a different mindset than designing for say, a TV where you think about a central point of interest and often what’s at the margins isn’t so important, possibly even blank space. In a big installation, for example the Salesforce lobby in San Francisco, viewers may only see a little section at one end as they pass by. This means you have to make use of the whole display at all times. This has a huge impact on designing digital art. See for yourself by checking out big LED displays that are showing ads, most obviously 2D graphics pieces repurposed to the LED display. These often have huge areas of a single color and make pretty uninteresting content, especially when shown on big, curved displays like in the Times Square area of NYC where lots of viewing locations will see almost exclusively that flat color.

Maximize the use of color

People are really attracted to rich colors, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to just blast them with massively saturated, high-luma visuals.  If you think in terms of what makes a really gorgeous photograph, besides the framing and subject, usually it’s a well-selected color palette, combined with a very broad range of brightness values. You get everything from deep blacks through to intense high-luma colors. We’re drawn to this character of image because it’s reflective of the natural world. LED displays are fantastic with color, but also (if good quality), they are great with brightness levels – so take advantage of those characteristics and design digital art pieces that really leverage color. We typically spend a great deal of time on the final composite, fine-tuning the color correction to get the maximum out of the color palette, and it makes a huge difference to attracting viewers’ eyes.

What kind of sandbox environment do you use to explore new ideas or experiment with prototypes?

We are constantly conceiving new ideas, but we keep the idea dev process flexible and casual, especially at the early stages, to allow maximum consideration of even the weirdest ideas. We structure the process a little by having regular meetings to discuss R&D topics, led by our Executive Creative Director Lauren Millar who is constantly scanning for inspiration. But we never pressurize the studio to come up with a totally unique “wow” digital art idea right this minute – we don’t find that approach to be productive, creatively.

At this point we have a really long list of new concepts for development and it’s more about prioritizing what to work on next. There’s a constant R&D effort running in the background, and the work gets more serious and structured as it goes down our development “pipe” — developing new methods into technical tests and maturing tests into demo art pieces that we offer to select hardware partners for trade shows and their showrooms or test out on our clients’ displays. Ultimately the new ideas, or possibly just components of them, percolate into our project proposals; but that can take months to years of method development combined with testing in art piece concepts. We have a lot of strict criteria about new concepts; they have to fit our studio aesthetic and have solid potential for a wide range of installation contexts.

For a long time, most digital signage content was made for square or widescreen formats, but with new technology, displays are no longer limited in this way. How has that changed your creative process?

It’s been a massively welcome change that’s really played to our strengths. Since a central part of our skillset is physical dynamics, we use the unusual margins of digital displays as physical objects. This allows us to come up with new art pieces that are even more unique for our clients, and “lock” the art piece physically to the installation space. For us, display shape has become a priority aspect to consider in our creative ideas, along with display size and position.

In the content creation world (for digital signage) What kind of content do you think is most in demand? Why?

It’s tempting to respond with “whatever is trending on social”– like real-time interactive or AI-driven or things popping out of displays in an anamorphic illusion.  But, in our view, the content most in demand has not changed. Clients always want something really different (“not seen before”), something that captures the viewer’s attention (“wow”), and something that they influence in the creative process and so have a sense of special ownership. Of course, with all the creative work going on in the world, creating something truly unique is extremely difficult and quite rare, and that’s why it’s in demand. Once you create a digital art piece that is unique, amazing and customized, it doesn’t matter whether it’s part of the current trend.

What do you think about the 3D/anamorphic content trend? Do you create this type of content? Why or why not?

Most, if not all, of our pieces are anamorphic illusions, so we love it. We’ve been champions of treating the digital canvas as a 3-dimensional environment for years. We tend to take advantage of the perspective rendering effect in more subtle ways though; for example, our Living Art has a sense of realism and dimensionality, like a ‘real thing’ you could reach out and touch. We had one client say it was great that we created a frame around the Living Art so that people could sit down and watch the art (thinking the digital frame was an actual physical piece of architecture).

And we’ve also done the more ‘extreme’ version, where a giant object smashes through a glass block wall and appears to leap off the display surface, in response to pressing a button. When done well, this is a delightful effect that grabs attention and creates smiles. But like all technical/creative methods, you have to be careful about where and when to use it, and why. It’s often a method we discuss with clients as a possibility. But 9 times out of 10, when they find out the effectiveness is really sensitive to an exact viewing location (and especially when we show mockups rendered from different angles), clients choose something different.

The anamorphic content trend is also suffering from its own popularity. There are so many ways to create anamorphic content, but the favorite is a corner display, with something “unexpectedly” popping out. There are so many pieces out there now, all doing the same thing, that the element of surprise has vanished. And things popping out of screens at us has become routine.

In what ways does digital art drive technological advancement for your studio?

An excellent example of this is our Living Art pieces. During a production meeting a few years ago, our Executive Creative Director Lauren Millar, told the group she’d like to see the digital equivalent of paintings moving within their frames — as if the painting had come alive and the paint had a mind of its own, creating an abstract art piece, appearing to break the frame of the painting. That abstract, flowing paint would evolve into another painting, creating an installation that integrates the physical and digital art realms. The display would be a continuously living, moving, morphing installation, ever refreshing its design. That musing led to the Fusion team creating an entirely new technology tool for creating digital art.

They designed and created “paint flow’ transitions with computer-designed fluid simulations and developed an entirely new fluid effects tool or ‘digital brush’. Our digital art brush identifies parts of the paintings as proxies for fluid properties. For example, gradients in luminance were used as proxies for fluid pressure gradients that drive fluid flow, and the hues in the art were used as proxies for fluid viscosity that resists flow.

Because each color in the art pieces have unique color properties, we programmed each color to behave like a fluid and interact, at its margins, with surrounding pools of color, forming complex, highly organic color flows evolving naturally from the original art. The results are textbook examples of generative art – the art actually generates the next frame of itself, creating an organic evolution dictated by the physics algorithm. Each initial art image generates its own unique evolution, an expression of its color palette and patterns.

Art driving technology. We love it!

digital art on LED screen

And then there’s our motion capture technology! Our team has always had a big interest in creating data sculpture installations where the data source is human movement. Human performance capture has been very expensive, requiring complex, large-studio facilities, but over the past few years, new, tiny, cheap motion detection devices that can run in real time over Wi-Fi have become available, allowing us to explore human performance in our art pieces. For quite a while, we’ve wanted to create an art piece where we’d convert human dancers to figures made of water. And when a project came along for Westminster Schools in Atlanta, we did just that. First, we used motion capture on a group of student dancers, then we created water data sculptures using their movements set to music. The desire to create a specific digital art piece once again drove our development of technology!

Fusion is celebrating 20 years of creating high-end digital art for motion picture screens, TV screens, and digital installation screens. We couldn’t have come this far without fabulous collaborations with other studios, designers, architects, AV peeps, hardware solution providers like SNA Displays, and our clients. We are so grateful for that collaborative, inspiring process. Great teamwork inspires, motivates, and creates incredible installations!

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