Flying the 'Skyline of the World'

Skyscrapers adorn airport terminal mural.

When the new American Airlines terminal at JFK International Airport in New York City opened in late August, the $1.3 billion project boasted nearly 1.5 million square feet of floor space, 36 gates, two Admirals Clubs, a Flagship Lounge, and the ability to handle 12.8 million travelers a year.

None of these hold a candle, however, to the terminal’s most striking feature: a wall mural that American commissioned. In the spirit of the terminal setting itself above and beyond its peers, this is not just any mural. Conceived and created by renowned architect and artist Matteo Pericoli, the mural-titled, Skyline of the World-measures 52 x 400 feet and blankets the east wall of the main ticketing lobby. It depicts more than 400 landmarks from 70 cities around the world, including the Sydney Opera House, Seattle Needle, Toronto City Hall, Fuji TV Building, Eiffel Tower, and the Brooklyn Bridge-destinations for many of American Airlines’ regular flights.

It was important, says Mark DuPont, American’s managing director at JFK, "To show customers that this is a unique facility offering features that will serve the needs of millions of domestic and international travelers. Skyline of the World blends perfectly with the style and dramatic design of our new terminal."

Some inherent issues

For months, Pericoli sketched his vision, drawing it onto a 20-foot-long paper scroll. Then, when it came to converting his hand-drawn images to digital and then printing the massive mural, he tapped Professional Graphics Inc. (PGI) of Rockford, Illinois, which he had previously worked with on several projects.

To precisely convert this drawing to a 400-foot mural, the details had to be perfect. PGI first tried scanning in the artwork using a wide-format architectural scanner, but that didn’t provide the necessary image for this project. "After producing some test files, we realized fairly quickly that the digital-photography route was best for this project," says Patrick Goley, PGI’s CEO.

PGI turned to its Hasselblad camera, using it in conjunction with a 22-megapixel Sinarback 54 digital back, to capture the image. In all, 21 sections were captured, each measuring 12 x 18 inches. "The camera was able to pick up all of the important details contained in the artwork without over-emphasizing the inherent texture and grain that was natural to the substrate," says Goley. The sections were then stitched together in Adobe Photoshop.

Next came one of the more difficult challenges of the project: The resulting file had to be enlarged 32 times. It took three days of testing and a variety of software before they were able to achieve the required image quality. After experimenting with several different types of up-res software, Photoshop worked best.

Honing the picture for proofing took another three days of noise reduction, enlarging, sharpening, and color correction. Pericoli proofed panels and smaller pieces as the job’s prepress process continued.

Even with the Hasselblad solution, however, because the artwork was hand-drawn at a relatively small scale, says Goley, it had "inherent ‘issues’ that they didn’t want to enhance. "We needed to minimize the bad attributes within the artwork without losing the important details. With a great deal of experimentation, we were able to build a series of Photoshop Actions that really saved the day."

Another concern was the effect of the viewing environment: "We all believed that the mural looked very good in our facility, but we were concerned how it would look at the terminal," says Goley. "Color, especially grays, can change dramatically under different lighting conditions." PGI output several panels full-width and hung them on the airport wall to see the impact of the wall color and ambient light. "This turned out to be a good decision. With a paint sample from the airport, we corrected the mural’s gray balance to better match the surrounding terminal walls."

Begin in the middle

After the final proofing panels were approved, the print process began. PGI relied on its EFI Vutek 3360 (in 8-color mode) for output, printing around the clock for eight working days to print 99 panels-producing more than 18,000 total square feet. Goley and crew chose to image onto 3M Controltac Plus Graphic Film with Comply IJ160C-10 White; lamination was not necessary.

But the output phase would also prove challenging. For one, with the size of the project, even install errors of a fraction of an inch when multiplied by 99 panels could become a huge headache. In conferring with Absolute Installs from Madison, Wisconsin-the installing company that they rely on for difficult jobs-PGI noted that the ceiling slants dramatically from its normal 52 feet down to just 20 feet on the left side, complicating an already intricate install. The solution was to output most of panels in 50-inch x 54-foot strips, leaving a 1-inch overlap on both sides and 1-foot overlap on the top and bottom-a manageable size (and weight) for the installers to hold and precisely manipulate.

Another speed bump appeared in the process when the customer moved up the completion date by two weeks. "Our original plan was to print the entire mural and ship it in one piece, as a complete package," says Goley. "But we could no longer do this. So we decided to print 10 to 12 panels per day-this would allow us to just keep up with the installers."

Also of note was a change in the installation plan. Originally, the mural was designed to install from the far right, where the artist’s signature was found. But the accelerated schedule brought a different solution. Together, the two companies determined that beginning in the middle and adding strips on either side would be the best way to minimize cumulative errors. And since time was short and printing the project would take so long, PGI opted to print just ahead of Absolute Installs-shipping strips on an as-needed basis.

Certain things can’t be rushed

As you might suspect, not only were there snafus getting the right strips to the airport, the installers also had trouble getting the proper lifting equipment/forklifts. Absolute Install’s largest headaches, however, centered on getting through airport security each day.

"Security personnel were not readily willing to let three or four guys with cutting tools behind secured areas," says Goley. "Even though people at the airport were alerted days ahead of our arrival, it still was quite a fiasco. Most of the first day was lost due to these problems." The full install took three installers two weeks to complete.

Even with all of the challenges, however, the job was indeed completed on time and the terminal’s grand opening was held as scheduled at the end of August.

"This is by far the single largest grand-format piece that we have taken on-not only from a pre-press and printing standpoint, but especially the installation," says Goley.

Lessons learned from this project: "Even though we are in an extremely fast-paced business-and getting faster by the day-there are certain things that cannot be rushed," he says. "If we hadn’t had the time available to do the proper testing and retesting, there is absolutely no way that this project would have been as successful."


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