Camera Projection vs. Projection Mapping

Feb 02, 2016

In last month’s installment, we touched on 2.5D techniques, which add depth to otherwise flat 2D scenes. Now, one limitation of the 2.5D perspective is that it doesn’t take much to break the illusion of depth. Orbit even a little bit too far to one side or the other, and it becomes clear that all your layers are flat.

That might be exactly the look you’re going for, say if you were working on a motion comic, traditional multiplane animation look, or even just a flat design look that needed a little parallax. But what if you wanted to add some real depth?

This is called camera projection or camera mapping. In this process, we take a flat, 2D still image, and project it onto 3D geometry we’ve created that approximates the real 3D shapes and volumes in the scene.

camera-mapping-vs-camera-projection

Source image: Walt Disney’s Multiplane Camera (1957)

Now when you push the camera around, your scene looks more like a deep, three-dimensional, frozen moment in time. This is a fantastic way to squeeze some added value out of found, archival, or stock images. Or, by planning ahead and actually shooting your source material, multiple stills from different angles around your subject can be projected onto the same 3D meshes, allowing even more flexibility in your camera moves.

It was with a similar technique—using multiple video cameras rather than still cameras—that the original “bullet time” effect from The Matrix was achieved.

So that’s camera projection or camera mapping. Keep those terms in mind because I’m going to tell you about a similar technique that might mix you up a little bit if you aren’t paying close attention.

Projection mapping is actually just the same as camera mapping in terms of theory and technique; in both cases, flat source material is projected onto 3D surfaces in order to add color or texture to those surfaces. However, with projection mapping, the 3D geometry is actually real, and the projection is happening live.

Grid alignment for a projection mapping project on the facade of the Boston Public Library; AGB Events/LuminArtz, December 2015

This is an incredibly fun context for motion design, because it breaks you out of the traditional video frame. Your canvas becomes anything you can point a projector at, even at massive and unexpected scales.

There’s some specialized software out there that’s used to handle this kind of installation; TouchDesigner and MadMapper are two of the popular ones. Most of the heavy lifting is still done in tools like After Effects, or 3D packages like Cinema 4D and Maya, but apps like TouchDesigner and MadMapper help you stretch and distort your finished imagery over the real-life geometry as you’re setting up the projection on-site.

Projection mapping also allows for unprecedented immersion for your audience. Imagine a video game that you could stand inside and interact with; it’s not traditional headset-bound virtual reality, but an augmented reality that an audience of any size can engage with without any additional hardware.

Whether you’re adding life and depth to a series of stills, or creating impossible real-life spaces, projection techniques are just another unique tool in the motion designer’s tool belt.  

Further Nerdery:

  • Boston Magazine reports on the neato projection mapping project in Copley Square this past December, pictured above.
  • Le Petit Chef (2015): projection mapping on a miniature scale.
  • Lighting the Sails (2014): projection mapping on a huge scale.
  • Selects from Motalko (2011): Really excellent camera projection using archival photography.

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