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By The Light of 'Illume'

Crush Creative is a leading light in the production of Red Bull's Illume Image Quest photography com

Most days during the ski season, as dusk falls on Colorado’s Aspen Mountain, the hill’s thrill-seekers gradually empty off the slopes, while downtown Aspen lights up in anticipation of their arrival. For a few days this past winter, however, the mountain itself remained the choice destination for visitors late into the night. An evening chairlift ride up the mountain’s Little Nell Run revealed an exhibit of dozens of oversized photographs, illuminated and displayed in cubes comprising aluminum and glass.

The photographs were the winning entries in an international action-sports and adventure photography competition: the Red Bull Illume Image Quest. Red Bull launched the photography competition in 2006, in association with Red Bull Photofiles, an extreme-sports online photo library, to celebrate the unique talents of action-sports photographers as well as the spirit of the action-sports community. Fifty winning images were chosen for display in a one-of-a-kind touring exhibit made possible by a collaboration between several companies. Burbank, CA-based Crush Creative was called on to output these exceptional photographs. Given the unique circumstances of the competition and exhibit, all of the companies involved had their work cut out for them from the outset.

"Because this was an art project," says Barry Polan, director of sales at Crush Creative, "the highest standards of quality needed to be ensured. Not even the most minute of imperfections could make it out of production."

Photography goes extreme
Not a company to subscribe to an understated or conventional philosophy, energy-drink king Red Bull has been turning heads and profits in the US for more than a decade, thanks to successful buzz marketing tactics and original ad campaigns.

A high energy and untraditional approach pervades Red Bull’s other endeavors as well. A quick rundown of Red Bull-sponsored events and activities reads like a list of things your mother would tell you never to do (that is, if she even knew what they were): cliff diving, BASE jumping, street luge, hang gliding, and para-gliding competitions as well as what is perhaps the company’s most well-known and outrageous affair-the Flugtag, in which homemade flying machines and their pilots make their attempt at conquering gravity.

So it comes as no surprise that when Red Bull decided to hold a photography competition highlighting action-sports photography, the end result was anything but ordinary. Together with One L. Productions, a San Francisco-based creative production and marketing agency, Red Bull put out a call to professional and emerging action- and adventure-sports photographers last April. Ten different categories for submission were offered, including such categories as "Wings," "Lifestyle," "Spirit," "Sequence," and "Experimental." Five photographs in each category would be chosen for the international exhibit tour.

Over the next several months, more than 7200 submissions were digitally received from approximately 2000 photographers representing more than 90 countries. Out of the thousands of entrants, the five finalists in the 10 categories were chosen by dozens of photo editors and image experts from around the world. Whether the captured moment in the photograph is a boulderer dangling off the side of a mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, a wind surfer riding a crystal clear wave in the Indian Ocean, or a skier caught mid-jump on the slopes of the Italian Alps, the "awe factor" of these chosen images rests somewhere between wondering "How did they do that?" and "What are they doing?"

Illumination cubed
One L. Productions then had the challenging task of creating an exhibit that matched the energy and exceptionality of these images. Says Wil Tidman, founder of the company, "We had a vision for creating an outdoor experience-turning the gallery inside out and doing something that allowed the viewers to be in locations and environments that lent themselves to this type of photography."

After receiving proposals for exhibit designs from various architects, artists, and designers, One L. Productions chose to go forward with a cube design submitted by Michael White, an industrial designer who had worked previously with Red Bull on several projects.

"We wanted a concept that was modular so we could take it to any environment and we wanted it to withstand any climate and elements," says Tidman. "We wanted to put it on snow, on sand, and in urban environments. Michael’s idea really met what we were looking for."

White’s design consisted of 25 8 x 8-ft powder-coated aluminum cubes, comprising two sides of solid aluminum and two sides of 1/4-in. tempered glass, complete with light boxes installed inside. Each cube would display two of the 50 images, which would be installed behind the glass. During the day, exhibit visitors would see only their reflection in the glass, but at night, the light boxes would be switched on to reveal the illuminated photographs. White approached the project as an art installation, he says, rather than as a photography exhibit. "I wanted people to experience the exhibit as art," he explains.

Once the design had been chosen, One L. Productions approached the San Francisco office of Sparks Exhibits and Environments (based in Philadelphia) to oversee and manage the fabrication of the final design. Sparks tapped Accurate Staging in Los Angeles to fabricate the cubes and Dale Galford of California Outdoor Decorators to construct the light boxes contained within the cube. Orlando-based Techno Media Solutions provided the power distribution and show control systems so that the cubes could be illuminated by remote-control.

The end result of all this "cube synergy" was the creation of 25 self-contained cubes weighing in at 1800 lbs each, complete with a generator, run-off drains, and ventilation, lighting, heating, and cooling systems. "Each of these cubes," says White, "is like a separate building. Everything was designed to withstand the elements in any conditions."

Prints come to light
For image output, White suggested a print provider he had turned to in the past, Crush Creative (www.crushcreative.com). In business for nearly 30 years under different names, the print shop has operated as Crush Creative for about 5 years. Originally a custom photographic lab, "as technology has advanced and digital technology has developed," says Polan, "Crush has evolved into an almost 100% digital company, specializing in large-format graphics for retail and entertainment."

After receiving the digital files that had been uploaded to a website designed for the competition, Crush prepared the files for print in Photoshop and made the necessary color corrections to the images. Explains Polan, "The color correcting was not done to change the overall look of the image, but to correct for the actual glass that the prints were to be installed behind. Because the glass had a bit of a tint to it, the images needed to be corrected to account for that tint." Additionally, he adds, "the brightness and intensity of the bulbs in the cubes had to be taken into consideration as well."

The 50 images were printed as landscape and vertical images at 6 x 8 ft. on an Oce LightJet 500XL onto Kodak Duratrans backlit photographic material, taking approximately 3 days. The 1600 sq ft of graphics were then laminated with a 3-mil matte laminate with a Seal 80S press and back mounted to a piece of 1/4-in. polycarbonate material. "Lamination," says Polan, "was for the protective properties. While the prints were face mounted to plex, the back side could have been potentially exposed to moisture.

We encapsulated the print to ensure that the prints would endure in extreme conditions." Each print took about 4 hours to finish. "These prints had to be treated like fine art, and all of the finishing had to be done in a sterile, lint-free, clean environment," Polan adds.

Representatives from the various companies involved on the project then attended an all-day proofing session held at Crush Creative’s facility in Burbank. With a model exhibit cube on hand, the group reviewed each image just as it would appear installed and illuminated. "Basically," says Tidman, "we were checking for three things: that it was the right image; that the image quality was correct; and that it was formatted properly, portrait to landscape."

Leo English, director of themed environments for Sparks explains further, "They were traditional backlit graphics, but35only traditional in the method. The graphics had to be created as pieces of art so there was exceptional scrutiny applied to each one to ensure that we maintained the artists’ view, that the color matches did not shift, and that it was a true representation of the photograph." Overall, the feedback from the proofing session was very positive. Out of the 50 images, only five needed to be reprinted for the final exhibit.

Crush also produced six story towers for the exhibit. The four-sided towers stood 4-ft wide x 8-ft tall and provided background information on the competition, including the story and origins of the project and an explanation of the various categories for image submission. These graphics were printed on an Inca Eagle H with UV inks onto 3/16-in. Lexan. Velcro was placed on the back of the panels to allow for them to be mounted to the towers. The towers were then lit from the inside.

Glowing the distance
The tour locations were selected for their "dynamic settings that would best suit the context and environment of the photos as well as the uniqueness of the display cubes," says Ryan Snyder, athlete media relations manager at Red Bull. The first stop was Aspen Mountain,which certainly put the durability of the design to the test.

Over a period of 6 days, an installation crew of six to eight people from One L. Productions and Sparks used snowcats to haul the cubes a half mile up Aspen Mountain to the installation site. The crew built and then arranged the cubes on five snow tiers that had been carved out of the mountain, measuring 125-ftwide x 75-ft tall. Additionally, stairs were installed that were connected to each of the snow platforms as well as to the gondola that brought visitors up to the exhibit. To add to the difficulty of the job, the installation had to be performed at night in average temperatures of -5? (because the active ski slopes would be occupied during the day).

The finished exhibit was unveiled in January at the opening ceremony on Aspen Mountain and continued through the first week of February. Judges, action sport athletes, and exhibition photograph ers were present as the top category winners as well as the Athletes’ Choice Award and the Illume Image of the Year were announced. The People’s Choice winning photograph, which can be voted for online and at the exhibit sites, will be announced at the end of the North American tour.

In a departure from the snowcapped hills of Aspen, the exhibit (www.redbullillume.com) will next be on display in Huntington Beach, CA, in June 2007. From there, the exhibit will travel to the streets of downtown Portland, OR, in August for the final leg of the US tour. One L. Productions is currently scouting out the international locations the exhibit will visit in 2008. Red Bull plans to resume the Illume Image Quest competition in 2008 andto launch the next tour in 2009. And while figuring out how to top a half-mile-high exhibit illuminated on an active ski slope might require a few sleepless nights hopped up on the company’s signature drink, you can bet Red Bull will find a way.

Clare Baker is assistant editor of The Big Picture magazine.