To honor humanitarian aid workers around the world, the United Nations tapped pop icon Beyoncé to help catalyze a global campaign around World Humanitarian Day this past August 19th. Beyoncé dedicated her power ballad “I Was Here” to the cause, performing it at the U.N. back in August. Kenzo Digital led up the overall creative direction, bringing on collaborators SuperUber, Dirt Empire, and Founding Fathers, to create custom projection mapped visuals that transformed the U.N.’s iconic General Assembly hall.
World Humanitarian Day is a tribute to all those who risk and give their lives helping people in need around the world—venturing into dangerous situations in war-torn nations and disaster-ridden regions. Every year, the U.N. tries to inspire the general public to get involved within their own communities and lend a helping hand through gestures big and small, mobilizing around the simple idea of “people helping people.” This year, they decided to try something new—they enlisted creative agency Droga5 and Ridley Scott & Associates to engineer a viral multimedia experience they hoped would see more than a billion messages shared around the world.
Getting global support for anything, even on the internet, seems like an insurmountable feat, but if you pair Beyoncé’s global reach and popular appeal with jaw-dropping content, it just might be possible. To achieve the latter, they brought on director Kenzo Digital to conceptualize an epic, immersive visual experience that would coincide with Beyoncé’s U.N. performance and live online in the form of a music video that would help drive the social media campaign. Kenzo decided to go for a larger-than-life projection experience that would transport the audience to the far-off lands where humanitarian efforts take place—turning the walls of the General Assembly hall into a canvas for sprawling desert landscapes, earthquake ravaged cities, and flood-lands.
“My initial idea for the project was actually larger than what took place,” says Kenzo. “I was going to projection map the entire seating area on the floor to visually tie the viewer into the space, so that when you see floods happen in the foreground, it spills out into the audience and conceptually unifies the viewer into the experience, actually using them as part of the canvas, which also conceptually ties into the whole idea of unity in humanitarian work. Unfortunately, I found out we couldn’t rig projectors onto the ceiling to project on the floor, which was pretty brutal, but I have to say that the impact was still pretty huge.”
Kenzo brought on collaborators Dirt Empire, along with motion studio Founding Fathers, to help develop the narrative arc for the performance and provide creative direction for the visuals. The team had to weed through more than 50 years worth of archival photos and videos from the UN in order to compile the content for their animations. Each scene was painstakingly composited to faithfully depict the look and feel of the country or region it represents—Pakistan and India, Haiti, West Africa—and wrapped around the audience on an IMAX-sized screen that was mapped to the curved architecture of the General Assembly’s walls.
Creators SuperUber were brought on board to realize the technical direction of the projections and aid in the engineering and construction of the massive screen. Since detailed blueprints for the building, which was completed in 1952 by Oscar Niemeyer, didn’t exist, the team had to 3D scan the space in order to construct a faithful architectural model of the projection surface. Part of the challenge was the screen’s irregular shape, called a compound curve, which meant any content projected on the screen had to be distorted precisely to its slope and curvature.
When you’re working within a space as historic as the U.N., installing a massive screen can become a feat unto itself. “We couldn’t have anything touching the walls,” says SuperUber co-founder Russ Rive. “We had to suspend everything from the ceiling but found out that there weren’t enough bolts in the roof to support the screen. We had to literally fix the U.N.’s roof and add more bolts in order to do this thing.”
Although the team was working on a mission impossible deadline—having only three weeks to complete the project from start to finish—they managed to pull it off without a hitch.
On August 10, hundreds of U.N. workers, friends, family, and fans poured into the General Assembly hall for a World Humanitarian Day celebration. Anderson Cooper was on hand to interview humanitarian workers, the U.N.’s secretary general of humanitarian affairs, and even a former child soldier from Somalia who was freed by the U.N.
The highlight of the evening was of course Beyoncé’s emotionally stirring performance of “I Was Here,” which was met with cheers and tears from the audience. The experience was then edited into an internet-ready music video co-directed by Kenzo Digitial and Sophie Muller.
In our behind-the-scenes video, we take you through the making-of process that made this performance the multimedia spectacle it is. With the help of Beyoncé and the powerful visuals that accompanied her song, the U.N. was not only able to meet their goal of sharing one billion messages, but actually exceed it, clocking it at a total of 1,033,218,689 messages of hope shared around the world. Watch the video and find out more about how you can get involved and make a difference in your community by visiting the World Humanitarian Day website.
Some photos of the performance:
Photos courtesy of Cliff Watts for Parkwood Entertainment