Behind the Scenes: Ken Done’s ode to Sydney on Customs House

Submitted by Vivid Sydney

26 Apr 2022
Behind the Scenes: Ken Done’s ode to Sydney on Customs House

Where is it? Customs House
Who made it? Ken Done and Spinifex
What is it? A colourful love letter to Sydney

Transforming the façade of Customs House into an artistic canvas is no small feat, even if you are one of Australia’s most prolific and talented artists. At this year’s Vivid Sydney, beloved local artist Ken Done, along with a team of animators from creative studio Spinifex, is leaving his mark all over Customs House, one of Sydney’s iconic heritage buildings in For Sydney With Love – a bright love letter to his hometown.

“I've lived [here] for most of my life and I am totally in love with Sydney. I live beside Sydney Harbour. To make a series of works that are ‘For Sydney With Love’, it's absolutely perfect for me,” says Done.

The projection will see Done, crayon in hand, colouring in the details of Customs House. Like a live illustration, the building will come to life before moving into some of Done’s signature scenes of the city. “The majority of my works are about Sydney: about the harbour, about the beach, about the flowers, the lifestyle, the diversity of all of the great things that happen in what I think is the greatest city in the world,” says Done.

But before the lights go on, there’s a lot of work to be done behind the scenes. Earlier this year in a quiet studio tucked away in Sydney’s south-eastern suburb of Botany, Done met with Jason French, Will Skinner and Melissa Lee from Spinifex, the team taking Done’s art and turning it into the vibrant projection we’ll see on Customs House.

After the Spinifex team set-up the studio with just the right lighting and a cinematic camera placed overhead of the artwork, Done began his sketch on a black piece of cardboard and the team began hours of filming. After this, the Spinifex team edit the best take, making sure the pace is right, any wobbles are stabilised and the drawing aligns with the music (a Sydney-inspired soundtrack by James Morrison will set the scene for this artwork). Finally, the film sequence is scaled to align to the template of Customs House.

“Customs House is a multi-faceted building; you can't just put any image across it and expect it to look good. We had to bear this in mind when directing Ken,” says Melissa Lee, executive producer at Spinifex. “We paid particular attention to which angle he approached the canvas from so that his arm and hand didn't cross over too much of the canvas and later break up into multiple layers in projection.”

Then comes the animation process, which is probably the most labour-intensive part of the project. “Some of the scenes require each individual frame to be re-created and animated, and there are 25 frames per second!” explains Lee. Other scenes are re-created in 3D (much like a theatre set), where the team cut up Done's artwork into many layers, dividing them and re-building them as a full scene using a 3D modelling program, leading the audience on a journey through Done’s artistic environment.

For both Done and Spinifex, the collaboration has been a rewarding experience and they are excited to see the final piece projected when the festival launches on 27 May. “It's very important for artists, for their work, to be seen and recognised and the more people that see it and respond to it, the better it is,” says Done. “You might make art in isolation, but you don't want it to stay in isolation – you want it to have some effect on people. For Vivid Sydney, for me to have this situation where – on such a major and important building in Sydney Harbour – my work will be shown to a lot of people, it’s a great thrill.”

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