By: Amy Robinson
Interviewing the man that made Fast Company’s list of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” can be a bit of a daunting task – especially when the subject just happens to be the rare genius who transcends genres. Is he a scientist? Absolutely. Is he a creative? Without a doubt. Bran Ferren defies all of the cultural labels we use to define ourselves, and he is thoroughly unapologetic for doing so. He is both an engineer and a creative force to be reckoned with.
His talents have been harnessed by everyone from Disney to Lockheed Martin, and his resume looks like that of a modern-day Leonardo Da Vinci: visual effects on movies like Little Shop of Horrors (for which he was nominated for an Oscar); design input on Disney World’s Tower of Terror and TestTrack rides; creation of the MaxiMog vehicle (designed to support scientific explorations, research, and location photography anywhere in the world); and inventor of more than 100 patents.
The product of artistic parents, Ferren began tinkering with electronics at an early age and left high school at 16 to attend MIT, which he subsequently left to forge his own path to knowledge. One part technological whiz and one part artist, Ferren is best characterized as charismatic and approachable. He seems to cherish his role as mentor and teacher, not only with his co-workers, but with anyone who has the pleasure of making his acquaintance. Luckily, we were given that opportunity.
“Now we are actually designing imaging as a way of shaping light, and I think that’s a really interesting set of possibilities that we didn’t have the ability to do before, simply because there wasn’t enough light output.”
Lights: There have been a lot of technological advances in the live event industry over the past few years. Can you describe some of the most innovative events you’ve either seen or been a part of?
Bran Ferren: I think that most of the innovation that takes place is, in fact, not technological, but creative. And it’s important to keep that in mind. It’s not the tools that create remarkable live events, but the ability to entertain — to fascinate, scare, terrify — and how those tools are applied. From my perspective, I ask “What is the story?” I like to treat effects, at least these sorts of things, as if they were characters and then choreograph them for the sequence of events that’s taking place. I think if you had to pick the biggest breakthroughs in recent years, what’s happened most recently is in projection. The advent of very high projection imaging and the advancement of very high output projectors, combined with enough computer horsepower to do real-time mapping — such that you don’t have to dynamically change the configuration of the stage while mapping images onto it — have opened up a whole new set of creative possibilities that were impractical before.
We used to do projection mapping with film, but it required very precise synchronization and coordination. We didn’t have the ability to use live dynamics that changed what the map looked like in real time, because we had to pre-compute all of it. So I think that’s opened up a possibility. Also projectors and display systems — notably LED display systems — have reached the output stages where they are usable in anything from full daylight on down, so the implication to a lot of events is not so much the brightness for daylight, but the fact that they now become the light source. Now we are actually designing imaging as a way of shaping light, and I think that’s a really interesting set of possibilities that we didn’t have the ability to do before, simply because there wasn’t enough light output.
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