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Marcos Gutierrez, 19, of Montbello, takes a photo of the Denver Night Lights projection on the 16th Street Mall on Jan. 16, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“Night Lights Denver,” a vibrant new feature of downtown’s night-life, is alternately playful, beautiful, weird and wonderful. It is undeniably eye-catching. And it’s free.

The public art taking over one side of the D&F Tower, an experimental effort of the Denver Theatre District, is funded by outdoor advertising elsewhere in the 16-block district.

It’s a light show. It’s projection mapping. It’s architecture as picture frame.

It’s half a million dollars’ worth of cutting-edge technology letting artists create spectacles via computer that then are projected onto the whole facade or parts of the iconic building. A rented space in a building across Arapahoe Street houses the control room and 10 high-powered laser projectors.

Animator Maya Dite-Shepard said the D&F Tower in downtown Denver is the largest “canvas” she’s ever contemplated. Her short feature “The Star Collector” is one of three projected on the tower this month. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

DTD calls the “Night Lights” project “the people’s projector,” aiming for eventual widespread participation.

The hours of the exhibit will change with the seasonal daylight. In January, the show runs 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, then 6:15 to 9:15 p.m. for the month of February. Future hours will be announced.

“When I first went down there, before I even started animating, I just stood there, and I was overwhelmed by how big it is,” artist Maya Dite-Shepard said. “It’s the largest canvas I’ve ever been able to use.”

Dite-Shepard is one of three artists featured this month in “Night Lights Denver.” Her work, “The Star Collector,” is an animated short featuring a little white rabbit-like character playing amid 10-stories of the tower’s windows.

An interactive element is still gearing up. Eventually passersby will be able to play with a screen located at street level, drawing with a finger on a tablet with a live feed projected onto the tower. Local and international commissioned works will be incorporated. Music will be introduced at some point, possibly with live performances, although sound ordinances present some restrictions. Project managers envision all sorts of experimentation, perhaps a high school takeover day or a CU media students’ day.

Marcos Gutierrez, 19, of Montbello, takes a photo of “The Star Collector,” an animated short by Maya Dite-Shepard featuring a little white rabbit-like character playing amid 10-stories of the tower’s windows. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“When we created the downtown area plan in 2007, the emphasis was on providing destination experiences in the center city,” said Tami Door, president and CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership. DDP is a partner in “Night Lights Denver.” “We want to create opportunities for surprise and delight, spontaneous interactions and thought-provoking moments.” 

Door predicts the crowds for Night Lights will be some of the most diverse in town. “The impact is bringing all kinds of people together around a common theme,” Door said. “We are big believers in events that are free in the public realm.”

The technology contained in the control room, essentially a walk-in closet full of computers, represents “a significant investment for us as a non-profit,” said David Ehrlich, executive director of the Denver Theatre District. The revenue flows “from our media company partners” — such as the Westin and the DCPA. Any signs within the district are subject to revenue sharing. That enables the DTD to offer stipends to artists.

That stipend varies widely “from $1,000 to multiple thousands for 30 seconds’ work,” by a European group that does work at the Vatican, Ehrlich said.

The light from the bank of projectors powering the Denver Night Lights installation cut through the night air to illuminate the D&F Tower . (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Even the smaller stipend is appreciated. “As a freelance animator, it’s hard to find people or companies that will pay you what you’re worth,” Dite-Shepard said. “This has been a breath of fresh air.”

The artists are provided templates of the building and pixel dimensions. Projection mapping is animation or a light show projected onto a 3-D surface. Dite-Shepard explains, “the software maps or bends the creation to fit that surface from the 2-D you’ve uploaded. The challenge on this one are all the 30 windows that can change what you project onto the surface. I was worried my character would become blurry, interrupt my story or shine through the windows.” She was able to use the challenging windows as props. “My character hides behind a window or jumps down and hides between them.”

Some of the works highlight the windows as outlines or obstacles, other abstractions flow freely and colorfully over the entire building disregarding the architectural features.

“Working at that scale is amazing and overwhelming,” said Dite-Shepard. “There are a lot of considerations for the tower as an animator. You have to consider the color of the building, how the windows may reflect or distort, how to work around that, and the ambient light on the 16th Street Mall” and how it might drown out the artist’s colors.

“Hopefully it’s aesthetically pleasing, but tells a story,” she said. Her four-minute animated piece contains no sound, no dialog. Now she says she’s interested in “what other surfaces can offer in terms of complexity, maybe next time a curved surface.” Her next project for the D&F Tower: “I’m working on something for Groundhog Day.”

More than 10 artists have participated in the initial phase. “We’re thinking five or six artists per month,” the DTD’s Ehrlich said, with compilations of works running in a loop that’s an average of 12 minutes long. After a countdown, it starts again.

The “Night Lights” installation is billed as “permanent.”

“We look at it as a five-to-10-year project,” Ehrlich said. “The whole point was, if you buy the equipment, it gives you the opportunity to use it anytime. Our plan is to grow and evolve the platform over the next few years, keeping track with how the technology evolves.”

A project for the DTD in 2020 is figuring out how many people are seeing the works. Usually audience “impressions” are measured on a longer timeline. “We need new methodology,” Ehrlich said. He’s consulting with Charles Montgomery of “Happy City” fame to come up with measuring tools that have applications for arts groups. (Happy City two years ago planted temporary art installations across the city, including a giant bright yellow smiley face stress ball squeezed between two buildings and the enormous tree-shaped “air freshener” that still hangs in an alley along the 16th Street Mall.)

“We know in a given year a million people will see it,” DDP’s Door said. Given the tourists, people on shuttles and “especially when you have an event like the fireworks that draws hundreds of thousands of people,” she said. “It will have a definite economic impact. The more exposure people have to experiences in downtown, the more likely they are to come back.”

16th Street Mall patrons walk past the Denver Night Lights installation projected on the D&F Tower on Jan. 16, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)