Disney has reached an agreement with Toronto-based

Disney has reached an agreement with Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive to create a new projection art experience.

Disney has reached an agreement with Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive to create a new projection art experience.
"Disney Animation: Immersive Experience," a new installation by Lighthouse Immersive, will debut in Toronto this December before traveling globe in 2023.  LIGHTHOUSE IMMERSIVE

The Canadian startup Lighthouse Immersive revealed on Thursday that it has reached a significant agreement with Walt Disney Animation Studios, giving it access to the studio's complete catalog of movies, from "Steamboat Willy" to "Encanto" and everything in between. This December in Toronto, the new exhibition "Disney Animation: Immersive Experience" will make its debut before traveling the world in 2023.

Oscar-winning producer J. Miles Dale described it as "a blend of the best of many Disney movies, a ride at Disneyland, and being in a world where you can turn around in any direction and experience everything else."

The agreement is the newest venture in an expanding field of immersive entertainment. There have been no fewer than ten significant immersive art exhibitions in Toronto since June 2020. Commercial production firms like Toronto-based Lighthouse Immersive have propelled the genre into the mainstream with films like "Immersive Van Gogh" and "Immersive Klimt: Revolution" as well as "Immersive Frida Kahlo" and "Immersive King Tut: Magic Journey to the Light."

Nowadays, the attractions are often housed in vast galleries or warehouses outfitted with giant screens on which images and films are projected, allowing viewers to become "immersed" in an artist's work when combined with sound and other sensory inputs.

As the industry expands, so are its choruses of fans — and detractors. Some applaud how technology has democratized art, making it more accessible to a younger audience. Others complain that the form has usurped and diluted the original pieces, calling into question whether these projections are "art" in and of themselves.

However, art critics and industry experts agree that the growing cadre of commercial, high-tech entertainment enterprises is irreversibly revolutionizing the arts world, changing the way art is consumed and forcing traditional galleries to find new ways of creatively presenting their collections, or risk being left behind.

"People are asking more of art as a result of the immersive experience," remarked art critic and writer Andrea Carson Barker. "The objective now is to have more powerful, technologically based, sensory events." So it poses a problem for traditional museums, and it will be fascinating to watch how they respond."

Though immersive art displays that employ projection-mapping technology have been around for decades, the concept did not catch on in North America until 2020. An episode of Netflix's "Emily in Paris," in which the main heroine visits an immersive Van Gogh display in France, helped to popularize the attraction.

Similar displays quickly spread across the world. Lighthouse Immersive's immersive Van Gogh experience in Toronto will open in June 2020 before travelling around North America. The Canadian production business has sold over 5 million exhibition tickets throughout the continent.

Immersive installations could, for the most part, adapt and continue open when pandemic limitations forced the closure of countless other arts and leisure destinations. At the height of the epidemic, the Van Gogh display in Toronto shifted to enable drive-in visitors. Immersive exhibitions became one of the few cultural attractions remaining available to the public for many families caged up in isolation.

"Though this technology has been there for a long time, the epidemic has given it a fresh impetus," said Louis-Etienne Dubois, an associate professor of creative industries management at Toronto Metropolitan University.

The new "Disney Animation: Immersive Experience" is a big collaboration for the legendary animation company, which seldom collaborates with other production businesses.

"Disney Animation's engagement with Lighthouse Immersive is a first," stated Clark Spencer, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. "It's a dream come true to bring together the greatest of animated narrative with the top specialists in immersive art experience."

Following its debut in Toronto, which has emerged as one of the world's leading destinations for these immersive experiences, the exhibition will travel to Cleveland, Nashville, Detroit, Denver, Boston, San Antonio, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and Columbus, with additional North American cities to be announced.

"This collaboration solidifies our position as the world leader in immersive entertainment," Lighthouse Immersive founder Corey Ross stated. "We started right in the heart of the epidemic... so it's a terrific Canadian success story in this new arena of entertainment."

Social media has played a significant role in the technology's stratospheric surge in popularity. Instagram and TikTok accounts, particularly those of adolescents and young adults, were inundated with posts from these immersive installations during the pandemic.

According to the company's website, Lighthouse Immerse actively recruits social media influencers in Toronto to promote "Immersive Van Gough" in exchange for "some major gifts." Visitors are also invited to scan QR codes at the exhibitions, which take them to custom-designed Instagram filters that improve how visitors capture their experience.

"A lot of these newer experiences have been very much about providing that sort of Instagrammable moment, as well as an intriguing place to explore," said Dave Kemp, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University's School of Image Arts.

This trend of interpreting great works via an immersive perspective is also bringing our relationship with art and how we interact with it into question. Visitors are no longer interacting directly with an original work of art, but rather with a reproduction of the original.

"The atmosphere of the original photograph or painting — being in the presence of that genuine original thing — isn't really duplicated in an immersive experience," Kemp explained.

According to industry analysts, the booming projection-mapping business blurs the barriers between diverse types of arts and entertainment. Is it genuinely art or more akin to a theme park ride?

"It's quite commercial," said Barker, who has seen a number of large-scale immersive art pieces. "The gift stores seemed almost as sophisticated as the shows themselves."

However, Barker feels that it is this invention that challenges our understanding of "art" and pushes the form's limitations.

"When you look back at the history of art, the canon, and the more recent democratization of art, you will see that the definition of art has become more broad, owing in large part to technology and social media." "For many, many years, art has not been restricted to museums and galleries," she explained.

Although immersive art shows are priced similarly to traditional art galleries or museums, both Barker and Dubois emphasize that they do not necessarily target the same demographic.

"They're attempting to accomplish different things," Dubois said, noting that immersive installations attract to people seeking a passive, sensory experience, whereas museums and galleries provide more informative and intellectual activity.

According to Barker, the growth of these immersive installations is prompting established museums and galleries to reconsider how they exhibit their work and engage audiences, particularly young ones.

"Competition in a market is healthy, and it is paving the way for museums to display their work in a more innovative way," she added. "Museums have a potential to engage a new generation."

Nelson feels that, like the immersive entertainment business itself, production firms are only "scratching the surface" of what the technology is capable of.

"The whole objective of projection mapping is to transfer pictures onto non-flat displays," he explained. "Right now, they're just scratching the surface of what this technology can accomplish — the amount of illusion and how it can generate this sensation of presence."

Barker, Dubois, Kemp, and Nelson, the specialists who talked with the Star, all expressed optimism that the industry will involve more contemporary artists and produce installations that are narrative-based and uniquely built for the medium, rather than adapting current work.

"Actual immersive environments are incredible, but I would love to see work by contemporary and living artists, as well as exhibits where either work is made specifically for those environments or artists collaborate with (production) teams to make their existing work suit that environment," Kemp said.

Lighthouse Immersive has collaborated with real artists on projects such as Robert Lepage's "Library At Night" and Guillaume Côté's live dance and multimedia performance "TOUCH."

"We've really worked and tried to push out the numerous ways in which this immersive entertainment can be pushed out and utilized," Ross said, adding that he hopes the medium embraces narrative-driven works more.

Nelson, on the other hand, is skeptical that the entire industry would follow suit, given the profitability and success of the present model. Although projection mapping technology is not cheap, and there are large initial expenditures for new businesses, he claims that installations are reasonably readily reproducible and the digital software is reprogrammable.

"I believe the firms will ride this shape for as long as they can," he added. "However, until they start experimenting with some greater 'wow' element or with anything that seems like a true narrative with replay value, consumers will not want to go back."

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