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Inside the Illuminarium, the $30 million spectacle that’s like walking into a film

Move over, Museum of Ice Cream: A former Esquire publisher, an Oscars set designer, and the filmmaker behind ‘Hamilton’ join forces on the edutainment of the future.

Inside the Illuminarium, the $30 million spectacle that’s like walking into a film
[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]
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A $30 million spectacle is opening in Atlanta next month that proposes a new kind of post-pandemic experience. Blurring elements of film, immersive environments, and theatrical design, the space, called Illuminarium, hopes to bring visitors together indoors in a room that can be transformed through video projection, lidar-based interactive digital elements, sound, and special effects to replicate any place in the world—or beyond.

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The concept is something like walking into a high-definition documentary film, which is being projected on walls 350 feet wide and 22 feet tall and also on the ground, creating an immersive space not just to watch but to move through and interact with. The first experience produced for Illuminarium is a safari across Africa, taking visitors into the bush and savanna to see lions and leopards up close. A second experience, now in production, will put visitors on the surface of the moon, where their footsteps across the venue will appear to kick up moon dust.

[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

Created by Alan Greenberg, a private school entrepreneur and former publisher of Esquire Magazine; Jon Kamen, the founder of the documentary and filmmaking company Radical Media; and David Rockwell, the architect, theater designer, and founder of Rockwell Group, Illuminarium is attempting to be a space that is something of a cross between a museum, a movie theater, and virtual reality—with an emphasis on experiencing it together with other people.

[Image: courtesy LAB at Rockwell Group]

“We are in many ways VR without the glasses,” Greenberg says. “VR’s a singular experience, hard to share, hard to talk to people, hard to have a ‘wow’ moment with somebody. We’re not strapping a computer on your back and fitting goggles on your face.”

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Despite the pandemic, the experience business is growing around the world. Experiential venues like the “explorable” art museum Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the digital art museum teamLab in Tokyo regularly attract hundreds of thousands or even millions of visitors per year. Other experience-focused entrepreneurs are eyeing the resurgence of in-person entertainment and immersive activities. Earlier this year, a company called CultureWorks invested $35 million to merge the events and museum space Fotografiska with the membership-based coworking community NeueHouse. And in 2019, Meow Wolf raised $158 million to expand, and is now operating a second space in Las Vegas. Greenberg says the success of these places shows a “desire by consumers to . . . do things they’d never had the opportunity to do before.”

Illuminarium’s Atlanta location is planned as its first, with a second now under construction in Las Vegas, another planned in Miami, and joint ventures being set up to expand the concept internationally. With what Greenberg describes as a “meaningful investment” from the diversified holding company Eldridge, Illuminarium has more than $100 million in funding from various investors.

[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

The actual experience of visiting Illuminarium will involve a timed entrance into an 8,000-square-foot room where the walls and floor will be covered in the projected safari film. Broken down into distinct chapters, covering different parts of Africa, the film itself is nonlinear, and able to be entered at any point in its roughly 50-minute run time. Visitors can walk throughout the space or find a place to sit or perch. At their leisure, they can exit through the gift shop.

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[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

A smaller projection room will convert into a bar at night and feature a series of different interactive “worlds,” including a Japanese night market and a crystal-filled cave, designed with a gaming engine to react to visitors’ movements and actions.

On the surface, this all makes for a fairly straightforward experience, not too dissimilar from the sort of interactive spaces and edutainment museums common in tourist districts such as the Museum of Ice Cream or Spyscape in New York. But Kamen argues the sheer scope of the video projection and its cutting-edge interactive elements will make the Illuminarium experience unique. With haptic effects in the floors that will make visitors feel the rumble of a lion walking nearby and responsive elements in the bar space like a flock of birds that bursts from a tree when visitors approach, the emphasis is on immersion. “It’s only in the last few years that you could really contemplate doing what we’re doing,” Kamen says.

[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

The idea of this kind of movie-in-the-round dates back to the 1950s, when Walt Disney experimented by filming in 360 degrees with a circular rig of motion picture cameras and 11 projectors. The circular film approach became one of the original attractions at Disneyland when it opened in 1955. The technology has come a long way since then. Films for the Illuminarium are captured with six cameras and stitched together to eliminate any visible seams. Minus the space needed to project it, the film stretches 240 degrees, wider than the human field of vision. “Today we can do it very differently than what Walt was stuck with in the old days of motion picture film,” Kamen says.

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[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

The technological hurdles were only part of the challenge, says Kamen. Creating a film for this type of space—with people moving through, entering and leaving at different times, and only able to see a small amount of the entire experience at any one time—called for a new kind of storytelling.

“It’s a bit of a mind-bender, to be honest,” says Kamen, whose company has produced films and advertisements ranging from Hamilton to a Mountain Dew ad featuring a salsa dancing LeBron James. “You have a much bigger physical responsibility, because anybody in the room can be looking in any direction at any time. It’s a completely different discipline of filmmaking.”

[Image: courtesy Illuminarium Experiences]

Creating a space for this type of film required a specific set of skills. Greenberg turned to David Rockwell, who has designed interiors and spaces including New York’s famed Nobu sushi restaurant, sets for the Oscars broadcasts, and sets for Broadway shows such as Kinky Boots and The Rocky Horror Show. “He’s not a typical bread-and-butter architect,” Greenberg says.

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Rockwell says his approach in creating space for the Illuminarium’s experience was to think primarily about how the audience would become part of the spectacle. “To tell a story spatially you have to leave seams in the story for audiences to find themselves in it,” he says, pointing to various perches and areas where visitors can peer out into the space or walk right up to elements of the film. “If it’s a hermetically sealed, complete story, there’s very little opportunity for people to bring themselves into it.”

After a year of lockdown, Rockwell says shared experiences like what’s being offered at Illuminarium will be even more important. “I think there’s a deep human need for places that take you out of yourself as a group,” he says. “What I think we’re creating here is a tool that will be a great canvas. It’s creating a new kind of platform for narrative and storytelling.”