Millennium Park's spouting faces

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Who are the everyday Chicagoans whose glowing, 50-foot-tall faces peer out from the Crown Fountain's twin steel and glass towers, slowly blinking and smiling at the city like benevolent giants?

Good question -- and more on that later. But another question is how'd they get up there? In an era in which technological magic happens with the touch of a button, it's the kind of question that nobody seems to bother with anymore.

"You're the first person who's asked about it," said John Manning, rather forlornly. Manning is associate professor of art and technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as an early practitioner of video as art. He and photographer Allan Labb, director of technology planning and assistant professor of photography at the school, have spent the last 2 1/2 years of their lives in collaboration with Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa, whose Millennium Park design has turned the idea of the monumental public fountain on its ear.

"Until recently, we've been working in the dark of night with very few people even having any idea what was going on," said Manning, speaking of the team of SAIC students, staff and faculty that he and Labb pulled together to bring Plensa's unique vision to life. "It's been kind of lonely."

These days, thank goodness, everyone is in love with the Crown Fountain. In winter, it has a quieter beauty, now that the water has been turned off (as a Chicago rule: The Buckingham Fountain has been off since Oct. 15 too). But this summer it was the hit of Millennium Park, especially when the faces closed their eyes, pursed their lips and sent a stream of water spilling 12 feet to the shallow reflecting pool below. Children -- and some adults -- jumped right in and splashed around. "I don't know if even the artist was fully aware of quite how it would be received -- how joyously embraced," Labb says.

But it hasn't been easy.

If the two towers are the body of the fountain, Plensa has said of his project, then the faces are the soul -- a notoriously tricky thing to pin down.

"There are pretty well known ways of getting buildings built," says Manning. "It was a little bit hazier as to how to produce a giant media project like this."

And he means giant in more way than one. At 50 feet, the towers are almost twice as tall as your typical movie screen -- a ridiculously tall (and relatively slender -- they're only 23 feet wide) canvas for a single face to fill. And the sheer amount of digital data they've had to wrangle, according to Manning, is "staggering."

"This is one of the largest media projects I've every heard of, even leaving out the art part." But Plensa's really, really big idea was making the fountain an archive of the people of Chicago -- using citizens where other monumental public fountains have used stone. "He had this idea that it would be a snapshot of the population at this point -- who was living here at the time," says Labb.

Creating a game plan for recruiting and shooting and keeping track of them all was a monumental job in itself. When the project is finished this spring, more than a thousand Chicagoans -- young and old, male and female, from many neighborhoods, nationalities and religions -- will have shown up at the SAIC studio to lend the Crown Fountain their faces.

Like rock stars

After answering the call, each person was seated in a dentist's chair(partly because it was easier to adjust the height of the chair than move the top-of-the-line high-definition camcorder); directed to stare, purse his or her lips, smile on cue; and -- after various transmogrifications from high-definition video to the high-quality computer-movie realm -- turned into the star of a five-minute movie, to be displayed with the same kind of technology used to project those hulking live images of rock stars during concerts.

As highly planned as the project was, the results are arbitrary, in a way.

"Part of Plensa's original idea, which he stuck with throughout the process, was that he wanted the faces to be chosen randomly rather than as a fixed sequence," says Manning. Right now, underneath the south tower, the completed movies are stored in a control room full of computers. Software running on one of those computers basically looks at the database and randomly chooses two people (one for each tower). "And it checks to make sure that person wasn't randomly chosen during the last 72 hours," says Manning.

It all began, in the year 2000, with Jaume Plensa's original presentation to win the fountain commission, which, both men recall, included a striking computer animation of three facial expressions, each dissolving serenely into the next, almost like a slide show.

"He had a very specific aesthetic . . . but he didn't know what technology would deliver what he wanted," says Labb. And since Labb and Manning are both artists, they were ideal collaborators in helping him achieve it.

"I blurted out `high definition video' when I saw it," says Labb. "I knew right away from the scale that it would need the highest resolution possible."

Extreme close-ups

"It's like putting [these faces] under a microscope, basically," says Manning, of creating the striking LED images, which are in such extreme close-up that the people are barely recognizable. ("People's hair is not visible, their ears are not typically visible," he says. "It's actually kind of hard to tell one person from another once you eliminate those things.")

And with the unique treatment Plensa was after -- vividly alive, yet slowed down to one-third normal speed -- "Every little flaw is completely obvious; there's no soundtrack, and little motion of any kind as a distraction."

Actually, there is that one very distracting motion that the team refers to as "the gargoyle effect": that moment when the fountain faces close their eyes, purse their lips and seem to send forth the stream of water.

As delightful and surprising as it is, the gargoyle effect also a good example of the dual complexities presented by the project: Even if you can get a thousand people to show up and act like a gargoyle for a fountain that hasn't been built yet, they're certainly not going to have their mouths in the exact same place.

"We had to stretch their heads like taffy," he says.

He did this, of course, after videotaping them -- in an SAIC studio, with that high-end camcorder, a Sony HDW-F900 -- the same kind used by George Lucas to make the "Star Wars" movies."With the equipment we're using you can take the face and pull on each of the four corners and stretch it just like a rubber balloon," says Manning.

He went on: "Each face had to fit the building. . . . We had to make sure that the eyes were always in the same place on the fountain for each person. The mouth, especially, has to be in precisely the same place because there's a 6-inch nozzle that shoots the water out."

Stretching time

And time had to be stretched too. "Jaume's original idea was that each person would be on the screen for 13 minutes -- thank God we were able to talk him out of it," says Manning. "It's five minutes now."

So Manning devised a scheme in which his team could shoot each person for only 80 seconds, then turn that it into five minutes.

Each chunk, or sequence, was synchronized to match the mechanism of the fountain, for a total of five minutes for each face. "The period leading up to the mouth opening gets stretched in order to make it last four minutes, then there's another section that gets stretched to make it last 15 seconds, and then when the mouth is actually opened that gets stretched to make it last exactly 30 seconds. And then, finally, there's a smile at the end that gets stretched to make it last 15."

And for winter, Manning created two versions of each person's movie, one with the spouting "gargoyle effect," and one without. Right now, while the water is off, the computer underneath the fountain is programmed to select and run the appropriate movie.

Manning and Labb estimate that the shooting alone took around 30 days -- "about five minutes per person once we got it streamlined. We did 70 a day," says Labb. Manning is still in the midst of the painstaking "tinkering" necessary to get the remaining 300 or so faces ready for the towers by spring.

And it was those towers, says Manning, that made the job "really interesting," partly because they were nonexistent almost until the end. Aside from a single visit to the LED-display factory in Utah in 2003, where a full screen was assembled, the team had no way to display the final imagery full scale.

"Unlike television technology, which uses clusters of three (green, red and blue) to make color, this more arcane technology uses clusters of five," says Manning, of the densely packed, high-intensity LED screens behind the tower's glass wall. "If you adjust the brightness of each little cluster you can simulate almost any specific color."

Setting the standards

So early on, the team developed a set of standards of brightness, and color saturation and contrast for each movie. ("We broke each face down into 10 different regions and individually color-corrected each," Manning says.) In the studio, the movies looked "gorgeous," but once they were screened through the thick glass of the completed towers, they didn't look so hot.

"The way the sun washed it out was just horrendous," he says. And the glass encasing the LED screens also reflected the ambient light.

"We figured out that by tweaking the images in a pretty radical way back in the studio and then tweaking the equipment underground in a way that it really wasn't meant to be adjusted, we could get a good result out there. But it was all foreign territory," he says.

The closest comparable territory being Las Vegas. "If you go to Las Vegas, you'll see these same kind of screens, and they're out in the sun, and they make great pictures," Manning says. "But its all this vulgar, flashy material, and it's only on the screen for a third of a second -- and that's without the glass too. If you were to put a layer of glass on that stuff it would be just crazy."

Still, thanks to a combination of technical and artistic ingenuity, everything worked out beautifully. "We ended up with something that was remarkably close to Jaume's original animations and artist conceptions," says Manning. "It's really uncanny."

But the fountain, sort of like Vegas, is one of those ideas that might not have caught on.

"We were always concerned that it might not be accepted by the population," Manning says. "We worried about it -- putting this huge object in the middle of what would otherwise be an open public space. Now it turns out that those fears were pretty much ungrounded."

In fact, Labb says, after the filming was over, he received pleading phone calls from Chicagoans hoping to become a Crown Fountain face.

"Basically, we're so pleased," says Manning, of the fountain's somewhat surprising social impact. "There isn't any way to say it in words, but it's one of those great things that makes all the sweat and the midnight hours worth it. That more than anything else, actually."

- - -

THE STORIES BEHIND THE FACES

Priscilla Dixon, executive director of Chicago Multicultural Dance Company.

"The spitting part appealed to me," Dixon says. "When they showed us how our faces were going to be on the thing, I thought, 'Oh, God I'm going to look fat' -- every woman's nightmare." She and her three kids -- Dixon, Katherine and Stewart, who are also on the fountain -- took their first look together this summer. "It was hot, and they were cranky, but once they got here and kicked off their shoes and started running through the water, everyone relaxed." In fact, she says, it's almost perfect. Almost. "Other than not being able to see my own face in particular (nobody has seen me; apparently they only run me late at night) I loved it. But vanity is a tough cross to bear."

Marcelo Ayala, a Spanish professor at the Instituto Cervantes/Cultural Center of Spain.

"It sounded very exciting . . . this very modern fountain," says Ayala, who was born in Chile and has lived in Chicago since 1996. "When people talk about the fountain and tell me how beautiful it is, I say, 'You know what? My face is up there.' Or if I ask my students what they did this weekend and they tell me they went to the park, I say, 'Well, you know, I'm part of that fountain." They say, 'Really?' They can't believe it. It's not impossible -- but it's unusual."

Clay Frankel, student.

Frankel has seen a side of the Crown Fountain that most adults never will: the innards. "Before it was all open, my dad took me inside the fountain, and it was really cool to see the way it works -- with all the computers around and the gadgets." His father, Roark Frankel, was the Crown Fountain project manager and asked him and his brother and sister to be among the early guinea pigs. Their pictures were part of a test group, so Clay has seen his face 50 feet tall more than once. "It was kind of similar to what I'd expected. . . . Some parts were different -- I was kind of younger, and I look different now." A few people have recognized him, anyway. "I don't think I'm going to be famous, but I thought it was really cool."

Linh Pham, youth program manager for the Chinese Mutual Aid Association.

"We're all planning on meeting there in 2014, to have a little reunion," says Pham, of the children, co-workers and elderly folks from her organization who participated. "I don't know why we picked that year -- my kids picked it out," she says. "They said, 'We're going to have a reunion!' So we said OK." It's that kind of cheerful acquiescence that got her on the fountain in the first place. "We didn't really know what they were talking about initially, but we were like, 'Oh, our picture taken? OK.' " Both of her brothers and her boyfriend have seen Pham on the fountain, but she has not. Maybe she'll catch a glimpse in 2014? "We're all going to be so different." But their pictures will be the same.

Donald Staley, retired textile broker.

"It's my 15 minutes of fame. I tell everybody about it," says Staley. Unfortunately, being a Crown face is a claim that's tough to prove. "My nephew said, "Oh, Uncle Donald. You and your tall tales." As verification, Staley produced the thank-you note sent out to participants. Still, sometimes, it's even hard to prove it to himself. "When I go down there, I'll stand for 15 minutes, waiting." But he has yet to see his face. "Every once in a while I'll see something that reeeeeaaaaally looks like me. I was with a friend last week, and I said, 'Look, look, look: That's me!' And he stared at it and said, 'Mmmmmmm, no it's not.' And I said, 'Come on, give me a break. Please. That's me!' "

Gloria Morningstar, director of employment for the Chicago Metropolitan YMCA.

"It would not have worked with a bunch of celebs -- you can go to a wax museum to see that," says Morningstar, a Native American who grew up in South Dakota. "How nice that they just put regular people up here. . . . It's so much fun to be a part of living history." Morningstar is one of the few people she's aware of who've caught a glimpse of their own 50-foot face. "I know that a lot of us were real concerned about our hairdos, and we didn't have to be because none of the hair showed! We should have thought about waxing our eyebrows a little better."

- - -

Volunteers who lent faces demonstrated `leap of faith'

Being one of the Crown Fountain faces may be considered cool these days, but back when it was time to create that particular sub-community of Chicagoans, Mery Palarea-Lobos, 34 -- who is from Guatemala and recently graduated from the arts administration program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago -- was not so sure how things would work out.

There was no model to follow for getting people to lend their faces to a public fountain. But that was her assignment. "It is a strange request," she says. ". . . I think the toughest part, because of the way things are in the world right now, is that a lot of people don't trust."

And people also had no idea what in the world she was talking about.

"It was a leap of faith to assume that people would participate, because there was nothing to show them -- everything was variable," she says, referring to the initial three-week shoot, which began in late July 2003, before the fountain was even built. "We could try to describe it, but it was so hard to picture in your mind."

She started her somewhat random pitch with phone calls to local organizations, then followed up with official letters. Initially, she says, it was like pulling teeth.

"I started with community-based arts groups, for obvious reasons, because I thought they'd be eager to convince . . . but they weren't. It was actually very funny. They were like: `no, we don't participate in that kind of thing.' . . . I won't say all of them, but I didn't get a great response."

"Then I started contacting social-service organizations. And then immigrant organizations. And I had a great reaction. At the end I also contacted consulates."

About 60 of the 180 community-based groups Palarea-Lobos contacted sent people, delivering an impressive sampling of more than 800 local faces to that first shoot, which took place seven days a week for three weeks in a School of the Art Institute studio. And apparently, vanity was not the lure: everyone was informed of one particular aspect of the artist Jaume Plensa's vision, which dictated the faces appear on the fountain randomly -- therefore, they might never actually see themselves in lights in Millennium Park.

By the time the second shoot rolled around, this past May, they videotaped about 300 people in three days.

"It was completely different because the towers were there," says Palarea-Lobos.

Thanks to word of mouth, some VIP participation, and Plensa's request that all the workers who participated in building the fountain be shot, they had no problems filling the remaining slots to assure they had 1,000 faces, the final number Plensa decided upon. And while the duration has not been decided, some participants were told their faces could be shown for 50 years.

"I was thrilled," says Palarea-Lobos. "We got first-generation Chicagoans, brand-new immigrants, people whose families have been in Chicago for as long as they can remember. And we got a pretty good range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds."

"I remember being amazed by the range of people I met in such a short period of time . . . and I witnessed standards of beauty you don't see every day," she says. "That was one of the neatest things I got from the project. You know how diverse Chicago is, but you don't really know until you're got them right there in front of you."

-- By Emily Nunn, Tribune staff reporter

- - -

Webcam a font of information

Camping out in Millennium Park is one way to view a large number of faces on the Crown Fountain. Another is the on-site Webcam sponsored by U.S. Equities Realty, which managed design and construction for various aspects of the Millennium Park project. In addition to whichever Chicagoan is on display, you can access archived shots from round the clock, dating back to the earliest days of construction, by logging on directly to www.inetonsite.com/onsite/ip.asp =A&CL=16&S=18&CA=518

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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  • Volunteers who lent faces demonstrated `leap of faith'

    Being one of the Crown Fountain faces may be considered cool these days, but back when it was time to create that particular sub-community of Chicagoans, Mery Palarea-Lobos, 34 -- who is from Guatemala and recently graduated from the arts administration program at the School of the Art...

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