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Times Square Spectaculars

2/15/2012 2:34 AM Eastern

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For the last century, Times Square has been home to an innovative array of oversized electric billboards. The confluence of streets in the area creates a high density of acute angles and building frontage. Since before World War I, companies discovered that this frontage could serve as a gallery for large, electric advertisements for national brands. Called “spectaculars,” the signs have been composed of neon tubes, grids of incandescent lightbulbs, and light-emitting diodes (LED).

In the last decade, LED technology has made an increasingly viable advertising medium out of signage that displays full-motion video. Times Square's spectaculars became significantly more dynamic. This meant increased demand for content production.

The companies who own or lease the signs elbow their way toward recognition among the scrum in Times Square for a reason. It's about the best spot imaginable to catch as much attention as possible and expose a memorable brand image to an ever-changing audience.

The view to the north from the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Two Times Square, on the left, hosts LED signs that advertise Samsung and HSBC Bank. On the right is LG's sign attached to the Bertelsmann Building.

In 1996, Panasonic took over the spot from Sony's departing Jumbotron and installed a fluorescent sign. In 2000, Landmark Sign installed the current Panasonic Astrovision LED sign.

Justin Camerlengo runs Panasonic's Astrovision Times Square management office in New Jersey. He says that Panasonic dedicates 20 percent of its time on the sign to public service announcements — diabetes prevention spots and anti-terrorism messages from the NYPD — and cites the vision of company founder Konosuke Matsushita. “He said that we have to return part of what we gain from society back to society. We feel that it's one of our obligations and responsibilities to do community service,” says Camerlengo.

The Panasonic Astrovision is not even an overwhelming sign physically. At 28'4"×37'10", it's quite a bit smaller than newer signs from Samsung halfway up Two Times Square, the Reuters sign, and the LG sign. Perched at the north end of Times Square, the whole of the Samsung sign measures 65'× 41'. Climbing the side of the Three Times Square building and resembling the top of the Empire State Building, the fractured Reuters sign makes the Panasonic Astrovision, a rectangle four slots from the top of the One Times Square Building, look like a member of a past generation. The LG sign is actually one sign within another. The interior sign has roughly the same dimensions as the Panasonic Astrovision, but a 50'× 84' LED is folded around the corner of the Bertelsmann building, serving as a mammoth video backdrop for the main screen.

The antenna-like Reuters sign, 22 stories tall, is composed of 13 synchronized LED signs and runs advertising and Reuters news in text and video form.

Its position in the Square, however, guarantees that the Panasonic Astrovision LED sign — and whatever sign follows it — will never be obscured. It does not tower above the street, winning a height competition but losing the connection with its intended audience. The eye is drawn to it from many points north; the sight lines are exceptionally clear. “With the glut of signs, the advantage we have is location,” says Camerlengo.

Far from being just another corporate billboard, the sign has become a media outlet for the passing public and for the news media itself. The rebirth of Times Square as a family-friendly tourist mega-arcade and the accompanying movement of the New York media outlets to the Square have further increased the area's international visibility. It's become a rite of passage for 'tweens to hold hand-lettered signs and scream in front of the vast windows of MTV Studios, at the north end of the Square, during the taping of TRL. The area below the sign has been a popular spot for news media to set up as breaking stories develop. Crews and trucks converge on the Square to shoot video of motion video that is being captured live elsewhere, often by another network. Camerlengo offers the example of the recent verdict against Martha Stewart.

NBC partners with Panasonic in running the sign and serves its content (both from Panasonic and from CNBC) over fiber lines from Fort Lee, N.J. The content runs in a loop from hard drives and is programmed digitally. Don Kirsteuer of CNBC has ultimate control over what shows up on the sign. Often he switches the sign over to the live CNBC feed in the case of breaking news events. “Basically what you're doing is running it like a television station,” says Camerlengo.

LED displays near street level on Broadway. The ABC News spectacular is composed of nine LED strips. The cylindrical Nasdaq sign contains 30 cutout windows for light passage.

Kirsteuer is a cell phone call away from Camerlengo's office and often fulfills scheduling requests. On a weekday in March, Camerlengo and Sarah Jacobo, his assistant in the Astrovision office, were in Manhattan to do test shots for Fleet Week, a May event at Times Square that is broadcast on the Astrovision. Camerlengo saw a group of college students from an advertising and marketing class observing the signs around Times Square and approached them. He gave a brief tutorial on the sign atmosphere in the area and called Kirsteuer, arranging for a live image of the group to be shown on the screen. “During Fleet Week, he'll be at the helm for the entire day that we're doing this, helping us put the pictures up on the screen,” says Camerlengo.

To generate revenue for Panasonic and NBC, the companies sell time on the sign to advertisers. “Naturally, it brings in a nice piece of change for us,” says Camerlengo. “It doesn't cover all the expenses, nor do we plan it to cover all the expenses.”

One Times Square is a focal point for more than just culture and commerce — the same urban canyons that funnel people to the Square also funnel wind. The exposure of the signs on the north face of the building has long been a concern. The current LED signs are well-sealed, but the earlier dominant sign technology, based on fluorescent lighting, was more volatile and susceptible to heat and moisture.

With the current LED technology, maintenance is a nightly routine. Landmark Signs, the installer of the Panasonic Astrovision, makes sure all the light-emitting diodes are active. If there is a problem with one of the LED panels, it is replaced before the evening news the next day. But Camerlengo, who gets a daily email report from Landmark, says that repairs were necessary much more often before. “It happens very rarely today. I mean, it used to happen an awful lot when we had the fluorescent sign,” he says. LED signs are also cheaper to power.

As LEDs have proliferated, so have video production facilities that are able to deliver video appropriate for signs with very particular technical requirements. That is due in large part to the general democratization of video and graphics production in recent years. But Camerlengo remembers a project from 1996 that would be considered extremely involved in any era. “There is a very, very sophisticated piece that we have that we run on the sign constantly which says ‘Panasonic welcomes you to Times Square.’ That piece was done with helicopters and everything. I'll never forget it; the graphic equipment available to the company that did it was nowhere near what they have now.”

Producing content for the signs is a job that not all companies have the capabilities to handle, but most modern digital facilities do whether they realize it or not. Programs like Macromedia Flash and Adobe After Effects allow artists to create animated motion video on as tall, wide, or fractured a palette as necessary. “We've found that the majority of our clients are in that 3ds Max/After Effects range,” says Don Blanton, president of the Wow Factor, the Los Angeles multimedia production company that produces six and a half hours of content for the New Year's Eve celebration, including the final 60-second countdown to the new year that runs on the Discover Card sign at the top of One Times Square.

Such a capability does not by itself give birth to the opportunity to create content for the well-viewed signage. Production companies like the Wow Factor, Hornet Inc., and Click 3x have offered something special to the marketplace — specialized services, capabilities, and work experience — in order to make inroads into Times Square.

Each LED sign in the Square is one among many nearby outlets of media that play constantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The signs need not hold their audience, primarily, but must continually attract a brand new audience with every passing second.

Blanton comments on the difficulty of creating an audience. “The challenge is for content providers such as myself to create that hook or that one piece of eye candy that catches your eye and delivers the message,” he says. “You have to get the message across in 3 to 5 seconds, and the problem is people tell a whole story for 30 seconds. No one stands in front of a sign that I know of unless they have nothing else to do that day but to read all the material that goes across them.”

And you don't always get everyone's attention to begin with. “If you're a New Yorker, you don't look up. The tourists look up, so that's the challenge: How do you get the New York crowd?”

The Wow Factor's background is in designing for amusement park and other large-scale attractions. The company has also created content for many prominent LED signs in Las Vegas, which is the only place in the United States that boasts a concentration of large-scale LEDs to rival that of Times Square.

The multimedia production company offers not only content production but also sign management services — show control, agency interfacing, and ad reporting — and consulting on topics such as sign design and concept development. These services, which the typical content creator does not offer, allow Wow Factor to differentiate themselves as a one-stop shop for companies that own or lease signs.

Blanton tells how he has put one arm of his business at stake to strengthen the other. “Panasonic, when they put in their first Astrovision in Universal CityWalk in Hollywood, we were asked to create the automated show control systems for the sign,” he says. “And I told them I didn't want to let them have my show control systems unless I was the producer of the content.”

The Wow Factor has produced content for almost every video sign on Times Square. “I think some of our things have played almost on every sign but predominantly you see our material on the Discover Card sign and the Panasonic CNBC sign,” says Blanton. Other prominent display spots for Wow Factor content include the Skechers sign at the shoe brand's flagship on 42nd Street and the curved Toys ‘R’ Us sign at that retailer's megastore on Broadway. The company also serves content for many signs from its Los Angeles location using proprietary control software.

Hornet Inc. is a New York-based animation and post-production house with a couple of separate but intertwined divisions. The company's roots are in creating content for professional sports teams like the Los Angeles Clippers of the NBA and the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL. This content, which often attempts to ape the look of ESPN-style broadcast design, runs on large-scale LED signs in sports stadiums like Madison Square Garden. Two years ago, Hornet relaunched itself with a new commercial division.

Recently Hornet's commercial division was hired by agency BBDO to create spots for Orbit Gum to be shown on the sign of the brand's Wrigley parent. The Wrigley's sign, relatively low-hanging and in a very prominent spot on Broadway, is in a somewhat rare position to display content that tells a story. Granted, there's still no audio, but it represents an evolution from endlessly spinning corporate logos or short segments of television commercials. “If you look at Times Square, I think it's the one and only content animation out there,” says Michael Feder, a Hornet principal and executive producer. “What I mean by content is there's a person and it's a story.” The person in this case is an animated version of Vanessa, the star of Orbit's recent humor campaign. Viewers are able to watch up-close from a traffic island between Broadway and Seventh Avenue that serves as one of the main photo-op spots in Times Square.

Drawing by hand and compositing in After Effects, Hornet used traditional 2D animation to create the spots, which were not required to be any specific length. In the spots, typical city accidents befall hapless pedestrians: passing cars spray them with muck, and hot dog vendors douse them with mustard. With help from Orbit gum, however, their teeth are still able to glint from behind a wide smile. “Orbit cleans another dirty mouth,” reads the tagline.

“There's no sound, so everything you do and the way you animate has to be very exaggerated so you get the point,” says Feder. “These vignettes were pretty perfect for that kind of scenario because what makes them funny is the visual.”

BBDO gave Hornet some ideas and had the house pitch several more, effectively putting the creative in the hands of the animation facility. That seems to be a common occurrence in the strictly visual world of content creation for Times Square signage.

The technical requirements for creating the content did not pose any significant hurdles for Hornet. The Wrigley's sign is 704 pixels wide by 480 pixels high, so it's a bit vertically stretched compared to a standard NTSC screen. In tests on the sign, the retro colors of the cartoon spots appeared a bit hotter and blown-out than they did on Hornet workstations and monitors. That, says Feder, is pretty standard for LED screens that get brighter and brighter with each generation. The team did wedge tests to tweak the brightness and color levels to the vagaries of the sign, owned by the Spectacolor division of Clear Channel.

The spots that Hornet created for the Wrigley's sign play within a 15- to 20-minute loop of other video that promotes Wrigley's gum products, says Feder. Unlike the content of the Panasonic sign, this is not the type of media that needs to be changed out with any frequency — let alone on the fly. Partly for that reason, Clear Channel is able to maintain this sign the old-fashioned way.

When new spots need to be delivered, Clear Channel graphic designer Mike Sabia takes a DVD-R data disc and walks from his office to another office on the Square.

The delivery of content to the Wrigley's sign requires no flashy networking. As with Clear Channel's other video signs in Times Square, content is delivered from a stripped-down NT box sitting in the building to which the sign is attached. “The placement of the computer is just for the convenience more than anything else,” says Sabia, who also (physically) delivers content to other Clear Channel video signs on Times Square, like the Kodak sign at 46th Street and Broadway. “Everything's pretty much on location. Given our proximity to the signs, it just makes more sense to walk two blocks.”

The computer plays QuickTime files and sends to the LED sign exactly what would be shown on the computer desktop. A fiber run facilitates this one-to-one display of the computer's output, which is not a rare setup for Times Square LEDs.

“When someone's working on Nasdaq or even Reuters for that matter, when the screen goes down you'll see a desktop in the background,” says Sabia. “You'll see icons and a start menu and a mouse moving around. A lot of the signs are just one-to-one.”

The signs that Sabia mentions are examples of advertisers and sign manufacturers pushing the limits of what display systems can be. Some take advantage of the recent proliferation of HD production capabilities throughout the industry.

Click 3x is a New York-based postproduction house that does mainly high-end visual effects and broadcast design for television. Its capabilities to produce and finish in high definition opened inroads to the Samsung sign at Two Times Square.

If you are looking at the Panasonic Astrovision at One Times Square, turn around 180 degrees, and you'll then notice the Two Times Square skyscraper. At the top of this building is a Prudential billboard. Below is an LED sign for HSBC bank that features photos of tourists' heads composited into animated content. Below that, but still a neck-craning height above the street, is Samsung's vertically oriented 43'×37' LED sign, part of the billboard that Artkraft Strauss installed in May of 2002. Its 23.5mm pixel pitch is quite larger than the 16mm common for signs near street level.

Click 3x conducted internal research that calculated the Samsung campaign's impact to be the equivalent of running several spots during Friends. The sign is a message-monolithic presence for Samsung that runs a loop of 3D animated versions of laptops, digital cameras, and the company logo. Says Soo Young Kim, project manager for CCA, the sign's ad agency, “We've created logo animations to build familiarity with the Samsung logo, and products to increase awareness of Samsung's products.” In concept, then, the sign is not too far removed from the static spectaculars of decades past.

The whole job, which included both design and production work and ultimately yielded 14 pieces, claimed about six months of Click 3x's attention. Before trading creative ideas back and forth with the client, Click 3x went to Times Square and shot video of all the other video signs. They found that the most attention-grabbing examples from the competition employed extremely clean and bright graphics. Samsung's blue and white motif supplied the simple, bold colors for the campaign.

Click 3x worked in a resolution it calls Super High Def, with dimensions of 2000 pixels by 1400 pixels. But the job was not exactly a departure from Click 3x's normal work. Says Click 3x principal Peter Corbett, “Other than the unique nature, this is very much what we do.” Photoreal 3D animation, the company's familiar milieu, is often produced in its original form in graphical dimensions that exceed those of common HDTV standards. Click 3x used Maya for animation, three Flame suites for compositing, and After Effects for typography and rotoscoping. For this job, Click 3x tripled its rendering capacity.

For review and approval purposes, Click 3x posted QuickTime clips to its client extranet website. The house also posted DV footage of Times Square, into which they had composited the animated spots for Samsung. This gave the client a realistic idea of how the content would look from far away.

That DV test footage is the only element of this campaign that ever touched tape. The whole project was delivered digitally (as AVIs) at 30fps progressive. Each frame required about 1MB. Keyframe, a division of sign manufacturer Daktronics, controls the sign's content, serving it remotely over a T1 line from its office in Brookings, S.D.

Other newer signs are even more imposing than Samsung's. The LG sign is more aggressive, wrapping two sides of the Bertelsmann Building with an LED sign within a sign. Installed in 2000, Nasdaq's cynlindrical sign is so large (90'×120'), it has several window cutouts to allow light to enter the Four Times Square Building.

Such larger-than-life displays have created a visual cacophony in Times Square that makes it difficult for any sign to stand out physically. Many sign owners have responded by seeking out interactive content that engages people's attention rather than grabbing it forcibly. The signs run by media outlets have a natural advantage, as they typically offer the viewer something more useful than flashy visual candy.

The Reuters sign on Seventh Avenue, installed in December 2001, is arguably the most adventurous in terms of both physical dimensions and in content.

The 22-story sign is shaped like an antenna, with 13 LED panels synchronized to create the look of a single visual plane. Breaking news from Reuters flows across the ticker near street level, and company slogans and logos shoot up the narrow high end of the sign system. The idea is to leverage the news service's worldwide newsgathering resources by displaying video and news content within minutes after it's filed into the Reuters network.

The HSBC sign above the Samsung sign on Two Times Square easily could have been just another corporate identity billboard. Instead, the bank decided to enlist tourists as talent. At the Times Square Visitors Center, anyone can stand in line, fill out a form, have a digital picture taken, and within minutes see their face composited into a 2D animation running on the sign 28 stories above the street. New York-based EyeballNYC designed all the content for this sign, more than 60 minutes of video that includes the animation and also branding imagery.

By one estimate, the LED display market has grown by 50 percent since 2000. The recent explosion of prominent new LED video billboards on Times Square certainly reflects such a figure. The technology has become so commonplace that miniature LED screens have started to pop up. On top of the entrances to many subway stations in Midtown Manhattan and parts of downtown, for instance, LED signs attempt to catch subway riders' attention just before they go underground. (See Display Gallery, page 78.)

Close-up applications such as this traditionally would have used plasma displays. But resolutions of LED panels have increased significantly in recent years. Las Vegas-based UDN and Clear Channel Outdoor chose Lighthouse Technologies LED panels that feature a tight 6mm pixel pitch. These panels are actually marketed for indoor applications, but UDN discovered that New York skyscrapers typically block enough sunlight in the daytime to make the panels' 2000 nits brightness rating acceptable. The panels play flashy advertisements for entities like LG and local radio station Z100.

UDN delivers the ad content through a Verizon digital wireless system. Clear Channel sends ads via the Internet to UDN in Las Vegas, and that company schedules play via the Webpavement sign operating system. Content is uploaded to individual LED screens via the Verizon wireless connection. Each screen has an omnidirectional WiFi-Plus Ultra M antenna.

But if the technology has become more commonplace, that just means there's more work for content producers. Signs that are run by digital playlists can be updated on the fly, making them open targets for innovation in interactivity. That's already started to take off. So has scheduling content according to the demographic shifts in Times Square pedestrians through the course of the day.

Still, Wow Factor principal Blanton believes that outdoor digital signage still does not get the respect it deserves even within the advertising world. “The medium itself is misunderstood; it's really in its infancy,” he says. “Ad agencies typically ignore these out-of-home signs. They don't realize the impact that they have.”

Blanton believes that advertisers should hire content designers before they pick a manufacturer for their signs. That way they can ensure that their new sign, with its 10-year lease, will do any specific thing their content providers happen to dream up. “Anybody can put something up there, but if you really want something that creates impact, we are a specialized industry.”


Trevor Boyer is senior associate editor forVideo Systems.


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