Advertisement
Share

What does it take to light the Hollywood sign? A dream, six big projectors and BET

The Hollywood sign lit up at night with an American flag design
The Hollywood sign hasn’t been lit since the new millenium — until this week.
(Jamie Rector)

For years, Philippe Bergeron and Jeff Kleiser have dreamed of illuminating the Hollywood sign.

The sign has lived in Kleiser’s backyard since 1987, when he purchased a stunning A-frame along Mulholland Drive — the closest house to the L.A. landmark. Good friends and prominent computer animators since the 1980s, Bergeron and Kleiser spent many nights partying at that very A-frame, looking up at the white letters above them and wondering what it would take to light them up.

“There have been a couple of times I thought I could do it,” said Kleiser, who runs a recording studio called Under the Sign Studios out of his Hollywood home. “I thought I could convince the Academy Museum, which opened last fall, to do something on the sign to celebrate their opening. But I couldn’t get them interested.”

Though the famous sign is not illuminated at night, that hasn’t always been the case.

Thirteen years later, though, the two got their wish when their want converged with the cable TV network BET’s need.

Advertisement

Paramount and BET (Black Entertainment Television) approached the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which owns the sign’s licensing rights, to project images onto the sign ahead of Sunday’s BET Awards. Paramount Global, which owns BET, had entered a partnership with the chamber to commemorate the sign’s 100th anniversary in 2023, but wanted to do something in advance to promote one of their flagship awards shows.

Separately, Kleiser had called his old classmate Jim Griffin, who was consulting with the chamber on anniversary plans, about how his home could be used to help host the light show after dark.

Griffin told Kleiser the BET Awards were interested, and Kleiser looped in Bergeron, who had founded PaintScaping, a 3D projection video mapping agency in Los Angeles, to do jobs exactly like this. The three came together, and instantly got down to work.

“When we were discussing all the great ideas we could do, as it relates to 100 years of Hollywood, in advance of the formal partnership, and given the scheduling of this year’s BET Awards, I felt it would be a great opportunity to partner with the chamber to activate the Hollywood sign,” Kim Paige, BET’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, told The Times. “There was a lot of excitement and interest; we’re doing something that’s never been done before.”

The sign has been lit up a few times in the past, most recently in 2000 for millennium celebrations. (Kleiser was in New York with his family watching the New Year’s fireworks, so he didn’t get to see it.) However, Friday marked the first time ever that images were projected onto the sign, turning it from a static symbol of Hollywood to a dynamic display of Black excellence.

The sign lit up with footage from previous BET Awards, featuring performances from the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Lizzo. American flags and the phrase “Culture’s Biggest Night” — the awards show’s slogan — also flashed across the sign.

“Doing things like this for the first time, you’re always trying to figure out what is the real feasibility, to ensure we’re executing with excellence,” Paige said. “Thankfully, since this is the first time the sign has been lit in 22 years, technology has advanced significantly.”

You don’t need to crowd the Griffith Observatory to get postcard-worthy views of the iconic landmark.

The team had less than two weeks to pull it off, a far cry from the two months Bergeron said would normally be required for a lift this big. But for this job, Bergeron was born ready.

“We started doing the logistics way before that, just in case we got the call,” he said. “We knew what projectors to bring, what lenses ... it’s very specific, high-end equipment we need for this. So we were already basically there to press send.”

Atop Kleiser’s house and about 1,100 feet from the Hollywood sign are six projectors — one focused on the letters “HOL,” one aimed at the “LYW” and a third pointed to the “OOD” (along with a backup projector for each section to provide extra brightness and insurance in case one fails.)

Of course, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill projectors — they’re Barco-UDX lasers rated at 40,000 lumens, and powered by a 56,000-watt generator stationed on the side yard of Kleiser’s house. (For comparison, a highly-rated home theater projector selling for $4,999 packs less than 3,000 lumens.)

“No projector in the world could project on the sign as a whole,” he said. “The technology doesn’t exist yet. But the technology exists for three letters.”

Harder to find than the projectors, though, were the lenses. The project required extremely narrow lenses that could focus the light into a laser beam.

“We had to book them way in advance and hope for the best,” he said.

The reviews are in for the new Hollywood sign, now allegedly reading RAMS HOUSE in commemoration of the Rams’ Super Bowl victory, and they are scathing.

Once the equipment was secured, the next step was figuring out how to craft the imagery to hit the sign, rather than the hole in the “O” or the gaps of the “W.” For the PaintScaping crew, it was simple: a barrage of photos from all angles, meshed together to create a 3D model of both the sign and the house.

“You take a photo from the POV of the projector. And then you take about 50 different photos that you feed into a software to create a 3D model,” he said. “But it also creates a 3D camera inside the software. So the sign and the house is the same relationship as the virtual sign in the 3D software and the 3D camera. You give that to the artists, and automatically it will line up.”

The files were then handed over to BET, who tasked their artists with representing decades of Black Hollywood while incorporating some of the biggest moments from previous BET Awards ceremonies. Paige didn’t want to treat the Hollywood sign like a billboard. She wanted a visual campaign celebrating Black joy and accomplishments — in sync with the mission of the awards show.

“The intent was to not only use this iconic Los Angeles landmark, but demonstrate all that is amazing and positive as we think about Black culture,” she said. “It’s a very dynamic experience. We’re not taking over the sign, as much as we’re activating the sign.”

To film the activation, BET and PaintScaping called in the drones. Friday night, two drone teams buzzed around the sign, with Bergeron calling out directions from the headquarters of Kleiser’s home. A third team was stationed on the ground for a down-to-earth viewpoint, allowing for options when it’s stitched together for the final product.

“I’d like the drone team to go through one of the O’s,” Bergeron said with a wry smile.

The footage won’t be shown in full at Sunday’s BET Awards, but rather portions will be incorporated with the rest of the production. Angelenos have plenty of time to see it in person — the light show will run for another three hours Saturday night. For those who can’t see it, though, BET plans to release videos of the installation along with behind-the-scenes footage of how it came together.

Of course, eagle-eyed residents — and Halsey fans who made the pilgrimage to the Hollywood Bowl for her concert earlier this week — got an unintentional sneak preview Tuesday night, when the team tested the projectors to make sure everything was running smoothly.

Bergeron is used to testing his displays much more discreetly, with the only publicity coming from a few curious passersbyasking what’s going on. This time, however, much of the internet saw it after it went viral on TikTok and was posted by several people on Twitter.

“There were a lot of theories,” he said of the reaction. “We were celebrating the summer solstice, it was a sign from God, it was a prep for a permanent install, Halsey, Pride ... you name it. We acknowledged like five causes that night.”

Lucky residents who looked to the hills saw the iconic Hollywood sign light up the night sky for the first time in decades.

“We wish it was that way,” Paige said with a laugh when asked whether the decision to test so visibly was intentional. “No, it was really trying to assess the technical grid. And there was a lot of excitement once we realized we could actually do this.”

For BET, the assignment was to go bigger and better. Last year, the BET Awards hit a record-low viewership of 2.4 million (down from 2020’s total of 3.7 million), despite being simulcast on BET, MTV, MTV2 and VH1, among other channels.

Of course, that mark isn’t specific to BET, with viewership for awards shows including the Grammys and the Oscars experiencing a downward trend in recent years.

Big ratings declines for the Grammys and Golden Globe Awards have the TV industry wondering how low the Oscars could go.

“We don’t take for granted that they’re going to tune in every year,” Paige said. “We think about ways to invite them to be a part of this meaningful evening, whether it’s local viewing parties and giving sneak peeks, because we always want to keep those big surprise and delight moments which we’re known for.”

For Bergeron, however, it’s simply a full-circle moment he’s been waiting for since he started his company in 2009.

He’s had larger projects (see the display PaintScaping created for Britney Spears’ Las Vegas residency in 2018, which ran 550 feet wide and 26 stories high, spanning 3.2 acres of light). He’s had harder ones too (such as the time they projected onto a rocket at Cape Canaveral, hitting the rocket and the building that contained it with separate projections).

As fulfilling as those were, though, it’s hard to compete with the allure of those nine, 99-year-old letters atop the hills.

“It’s not our biggest, and it’s not our most challenging [project] technically,” he said. “But the mixture of excitement and visibility, it’s by far number one. There’s no comparison. I mean, come on. It’s the Hollywood sign.”


Advertisement