A Virtual Walk-Through
Transforming a San Francisco subway tunnel into Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch.
Visitors to San Francisco’s busy Montgomery Street Station this spring suddenly found themselves transported to Utah’s Arches National Park, in a stunning display of digital printing’s power to transform any space into something much more.
Throughout May and June, a 103-foot tunnel in this popular stop on the city’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was wrapped end to end and floor to ceiling with colorful images of Utah’s iconic Delicate Arch. Together, the images conveyed the sense of walking through and beneath the arch in an immersive ad designed to encourage commuters and tourists to vacation in the Beehive State.
“It’s the most unique part of our current campaign to promote tourism, and the reaction of people to it has been great,” says David Williams, deputy director of Utah’s Office of Tourism. “Hopefully it will impress them enough they will want to visit here, and our beautiful national parks.”
A cool space with a lot of traffic
The installation certainly had an impact in San Francisco, with a “wow” factor that generated a lot of buzz on social-networking sites, as well as free advertising in media coverage of the wrap “We knew if this worked it would create quite a stir,” says Jeremy Chase, account manager at Struck, Salt Lake City, the Utah Office of Tourism’s ad agency that conceived this installation.
As Chase explains, officials at the Utah Office of Tourism hoped for some extra splash for the initial foray into San Francisco as the newest market in its ongoing “Life Elevated” campaign promoting tourism. Struck has managed and implemented all phases of the campaign since its 2006 inception. This year’s effort, with a $2.2 million budget, includes a mix of print, broadcast, and outdoor advertising in major markets in the western US: Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Portland, and Seattle.
Plans for the San Francisco debut initially included TV commercials and online ads, plus a digital outdoor billboard on the Bay Bridge. Then, representatives of Love Communications of Salt Lake City – Struck’s working partner and media buyer for the Utah campaign – suggested Montgomery Station as a “cool space with a lot of traffic,” according to Chase.
“It’s at the entrance/exit to one of San Francisco’s larger transit stops in the financial district,” explains Marlayna Jones, production supervisor for Titan 360, the company that manages and markets advertising space for BART.
“This station gets quite a bit of commuter traffic every day, as well as tourists visiting downtown, so it has very high visibility.” Jones estimates monthly circulation through the station and tunnel at 2.2 million pedestrians.
That’s a lot of impressions to be gained from a space that measures roughly 16-feet wide and 12-feet high, with 20 exposed beams spaced along its 103-foot curve. Titan markets the space as a single ad buy, and, over the years, it’s been covered with conventional print ads for a variety of advertisers.
At first, Stuck’s creative team approached the project as a traditional wrap. “Then our designers came back and suggested we stop thinking of it in terms of 2D, and find some way to use the entire length of the tunnel,” recalls Chase. “They started talking about forced perception and 3D, and wrapping the tunnel so it would appear as a single image.”
That evolved into visually transforming the tunnel into Utah’s famous Delicate Arch – wrapping the floor, walls, and ceiling with digital prints to give pedestrians the sense of actually approaching and walking through the arch as they navigate the tunnel.
“The biggest challenge of the whole project was probably convincing our client this could be done,” says Chase. “We pitched the idea in mid-February, and they gave us a cautious thumbs up.”
To figure out how and if they could bring the concept to life, Struck’s creative team turned to Abe Day and Joe Williamsen at Attraction Studios in American Fork, Utah. They specialize in 3D animation and renderings for films and video games, and have collaborated with Struck on projects requiring 3D in the past.
Day conferred with Williamsen, who built a virtual mockup of the tunnel that they then shared with Struck in late February. “They used it to convince the client,” says Day. “Having the mockup of the 3D hallway was key in convincing the client what it would look like and that it could be done.”
Now, Day and Williamsen had to figure out how to take a 2D photo and convert it into a series of slightly overlapping prints, which, once installed, would convey some sense of moving beneath the arch while walking through the tunnel.
Chase pulled together the copy, graphics, and photos of Utah’s national parks, and an image of the Delicate Arch by photographer Steven Simon, which would be basis of the wrap. Titan 360 provided them with a series of approximately 50 print templates from Imagic, the Los Angeles print provider that outputs all graphics for Montgomery Street Station installations.
“Ultimately, what we do is print rectangles,” jokes David Allman, a partner in Imagic. “We’ve built templates for the entire environment that we use for the ceiling walls and floors.”
Scanning the space
As representative as those templates are of the many surfaces within the tunnel, the team at Attraction Studios decided they needed something more precise to be able to achieve the 3D effect of the arch.
“We have to have accurate measurements down to the quarter-inch,” says Day. “If they aren’t perfect when we do our rendering, it won’t work. We knew the print templates would have to be derived from our model of the space.”
Before they could build a virtual rendition of the tunnel, they needed precise measurements of the tunnel and the location of every space to be wrapped. They subcontracted that work to Calvada Surveying, Inc. Using a mobile 3D laser scanning system, Calvada scanned the length of the tunnel, a process that took several hours.
Williamsen then took that “point cloud data” to re-create the entire length of the tunnel and all its surfaces with precision accuracy in SoftImage XSI, a 3D modeling software program. Using iMagic’s templates as a reference, he converted the image into manageable print areas, which, in sequence, would suggest movement through the arch.
Particularly challenging were the images for the ceiling. Unlike the floor and walls, which run continuously for the length of the tunnel, the ceiling is actually a series of 20 protruding beams and soffits, broken up by light panels. As if that weren’t vexing enough, the dimensions of these beams also change over the course of the tunnel.
Visually, the goal was to trick the eye into experiencing the graphics overhead as a single image, rather than a series of separate images spaced along the tunnel. They achieved this by slightly, but precisely overlapping the images from beam to beam.
“The overlap was based on the viewing angle, and the printable surface behind each successive beam or curve,” explains Day. “We wanted to cover all the printable surfaces that overlap to give the illusion of more depth and viewing angles – so that even if you weren't looking exactly where you were ‘supposed’ to look, it still would pull a distorted version of the correct viewing angle.”
He estimates it took more than 110 work hours to build the model then design the templates for printing. They also had to work up precise installation instructions, where to begin, what image to start with, and where to work from there so the effects seen on their computer could be accurately re-created in the tunnel.
“We never tried anything like this before,” says Jones. “Usually, each side of the walls are treated individually, and the graphics for the ceiling are treated as separate pieces. Because of the 3D aspect of walking through the tunnel, however, their accuracy had to be more intricate and more precise.”
From design to print
In early April, Titan 360 delivered their files to Imagic for the output work. Imagic’s Allman agreed to print from their templates, with the understanding that if they didn’t translate well to the space, that was not the print shop’s responsibility. “With a few modifications, we dropped their files into our templates and printed what they provided,” he says.
As with other installations for the tunnel, Imagic employed a variety of printers and media, based on the requirements of that section of the wrap. For the curved walls running the length of the tunnel, the company’s Inca Spyder 320OVM UV flatbed was used to print a total of 33 flexible panels of 2-mil Kömmerling Komatex rigid PVC at 720 dpi, 17 panels were used for one wall, 16 on the other.
The floor graphics and ceiling panels were printed with the shop’s HP Scitex LX800/850 with Latex inks, at 600 dpi, though different media was used. The floor graphics were printed as five 54-inch-wide panels onto Flexcon’s Flexmark V400F white opaque vinyl. Images for the 20 beams overhead were printed at various sizes (as required) onto 3M Controltac IJ180 graphics film. No laminate was used for any part of the project, allowing for the graphics’ eventual removal to be simplified, says Allman.
Once the printing was done, the big question still loomed: Would the arch wrap deliver as promised. “We knew on paper and computer this should work, but until it was actually installed we didn’t know if it would work,” says Chase.
“By the time we got down to the installation a lot of people had been involved, and we still weren’t absolutely sure,” agrees Jones.
In late April, she was at the tunnel, working with the Titan 360 installation team as they followed the simple but exacting instructions provided by Attraction Studio’s Day and Williamsen. Over three days, the tunnel took on the aura of a stone arch.
“The best part was being in the tunnel the last day it was being installed,” says Jones. “Everyone was ecstatic! It really gives you the feeling you are in the wilderness.”
Viewed from just outside one end of the tunnel, the wrapped beams line up perfectly for a 3D rendering of Delicate Arch. It gradually changes overhead, below, and on both sides as pedestrians walk its length, as if hiking through the park. At the end, QR codes on the wall encourage visitors to learn more on social-networking sites and begin planning their Utah vacation.
Entering the tunnel from the other direction, signs overhead promote the state and its attractions, finally advising strollers to turn around and experience the arch. “It was a lot of fun to watch the reaction of people, their awe as they walked through and began taking out their phones to take pictures of it,” reports Jones.
When word and pictures of the wrap reached Struck, the entire team was “thrilled our client was able to take the leap of faith and trust us with this idea, and we were able to make it happen!” says Chase.
Attraction Studio’s Williamsen headed to San Francisco the first week of May to see for himself, and was interviewed by local media while there. “I thought it was awesome,” he says. “The arch looks outstanding, and the reaction of people has been great.”
As part of the state’s first advertising campaign targeting San Francisco, it’s already had measurable impact. By late May, he could report Web traffic from the Bay area had climbed nearly 700 percent over the previous May. “The tunnel wrap has been effective in generating significant PR and social-media buzz about Utah,” he says. “We will certainly consider other forms of unique advertising in the future.”
A proving ground
In that sense, the wrap has been something of a proving ground for what’s do-able with today’s technology and the collective talents of all involved. “We knew it was possible,” asserts Day. “It all comes down to the measurements. Even though we never actually visited that space, we were still able to pull it off because of the accuracy of those measurements.”
Jones predicts, “This will be a key promotional tool, both for the state and for what it’s possible to do in that tunnel. It just shows what’s possible when you think outside the box and aren’t afraid to try something new.”
Give praise, where due, says Imagic’s Allman. “I thought from the start it was a great idea – if they could pull it off,” he admits. “I give a lot of credit to those who came up with this concept, the designers who created it and built the templates, the installers, and, of course, the print shop, too.”
Yes, the print provider: For without the magic of digital printing, there would be no practical way to bring a slice of Utah’s breathtaking landscapes to the San Francisco underground.