Lighting Kipnes Lantern on New Year’s Eve just the beginning for NAC

The rejuvenated National Arts Centre building designed by Toronto architects, Diamond Schmitt.

The rejuvenated National Arts Centre likes to speak about its new atrium space as a living room where everyone is welcome. Well, to continue the metaphor, the Kipnes Lantern, is the living room’s home theatre. But it’s like no home theatre you’ve ever seen.

While there have been glimpses of the Lantern in action, the switch that turns it on for good will be thrown at 8:45 p.m. New Year’s Eve.

In its essence, the Lantern is a 60 foot glass tower with state of the art transparent screens on four sides facing Elgin Street. The Lantern carries the name of the Kipnes family of Edmonton who donated $5 million to the centre to make the Lantern live. 

The screens hold about 1.1 million LED bulbs connected in a mesh with each bulb about 17 mm apart. The screens were manufactured in China and sourced from a Vancouver company called Clear LED. When they are turned on, the bulbs carry images that are two times the HD resolution of the best television.

It is, says Bridget Mooney, one of two NAC project managers for the Lantern, “very unique technology. It is rare in North America. There are a few more in Asia and Europe.

“When Peter Herrndorf (NAC CEO) briefed us, he was clear with why we are doing it,” she said in a recent interview. “He said the lantern is a beacon for the performing arts in Canada. His vision was that we are going to celebrate and represent artists from across the country, not just the ones on our stages.”

Her co-project manager Chris Dearlove said that “according to the Ottawa tourism website about 10 million tourists visit Ottawa annually and the majority of them live in Canada.

“We thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone was visiting the capital from Halifax and they look up (at the Lantern) and they see Neptune Theatre from their hometown doing Salt-Water Moon. They would feel a connection with the NAC. It is located in Ottawa but it is a national organization.”

There has been talk about live performances from across the country showing on the Lantern’s screens but that will not happen right away, Dearlove says. Kipnes 1.0 will feature a mix of still images and video all of it animated by the multi-media entertainment studio Moment Factory, of Montreal. The people of Ottawa have seen their work before. They were responsible for the very popular Kontinuum and Miwate experiences this past year.

“The first step is to take beautiful images of shows and then wrap them into a nice frame. These images are animated on a slow-moving, elegant rotation through a schedule of 90-second clips lasting a total of 45 minutes,” Dearlove says.

There, he says, are 12 packages that will run on a rotation from January to July and another 12 that will run from July to December. These are based on images supplied by partner organizations from across seven regions of the country. These include Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, Ballet BC, Edmonton Opera, Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, National Ballet of Canada, Canadian Opera Company, Quebec City’s Théâtre du Trident, and Halifax’s Neptune Theatre.

“As we get to know the technology better we will be more nimble,” Dearlove says. “But, for the start-up, we are sticking with these. Then we’ll see about Year Two.”

Mooney added: “In terms of live broadcasting any of the performances, there are challenges to work through. We need to do testing on that so that it looks right. Another thing is sound is not baked in. We will have some sound for New Year’s Eve. You will hear some music.” But, for now, the images will, in the main, move silently across four sides of the Lantern.

For Christian L’Heureux, of Moment Factory, the fact that the screens are transparent and the building is hexagonal has affected the way the videos have been assembled.

“It’s really an upward trend … a building becoming a communicative factor. We knew there would be different formats for the visuals. We thought a lot about integrating the content in the building.

“When we approach something, we think about the format. It’s a different screen from the normal format. It’s basically about building a media facade that is going to have an impact on Ottawa for a long time. The system has lots of potential,” he says. “The NAC really did their homework getting a system that will give them a lot of flexibility in the years to come.

“There are lots of set-ups that do commercial advertisements. This set-up has a different vocation. A transparent mesh LED is not something we see very often. Even Moment Factory wasn’t quite sure how this new set up was going to work. We didn’t have that much experience with it.”

Because the Lantern faces Elgin Street, the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill, the NAC had to get NCC permission to light up the night sky on these important national spaces.

It means material displayed on the Lantern will be non-promotional, Dearlove says. No Time Square nor Dundas Square here. That means no logos, no sponsorship messages.

“The kind of content we have developed is more elegant, slow moving, almost ambient in a way. We won’t be hammering at the viewer,” he says.

The technology will allow for a marking of significant national events, such as Canada Day and Remembrance Day. There has been interest in seeing how the Lantern can enhance those events, the organizers say.

In many ways the Kipnes Lantern underlines the NAC’s identity as a digital arts organization, Dearlove says, something that is very much at the heart of the federal government’s strategy for cultural industries.

“This is a very visible expression of a forward thinking digital arts organization.”

Mooney says she believes the Lantern will also offer opportunities to involve digital media artists in the future to commission imagery in the future.

The Lantern can work during the day especially with images that contain strong opaque colours but generally it will operate when the sun sets until about midnight. It is also interesting that the Lantern is not running on full illumination, Dearlove says.

“At night we are running at about 20 per cent brightness. We may never get to 100 per cent brightness.” That might be too intense, he added.

L’Heureux says that the images need to work with the building that can be seen through the transparent screens. He says that here, the angular lines of the original brutalist architecture is helpful.

“Brutalist architecture is good when you use a media facade like this.”

To purchase and install the mesh screens has cost about $2 million and is part of the $110 million rejuvenation project that has been unveiled in stages since July 1. But it is a gift that should keep on giving.

“This is a long term project. We will be working on this for years. Where we are on Dec. 31 and where we are a year from now will be fascinating to watch. What we have up there will do us very well for a number of years,” Dearlove says.

Bridget says the team has taken to calling the Lantern a digital campfire, a place where people can come together and share stories. “We’ll also be able to interact more with what is happening in the world.”

“We are a performing arts centre,” Dearlove says. “We are the home for theatre, music and dance in this country. And they won’t miss the front door any more.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.