Marin Petkov, founder of MP studio, talks to Grant Powell MBCS about the work that goes into designing one of the most popular light festivals in Europe.

Most artists could only dream about having an entire city as a canvas, but that’s exactly what is available to those lucky enough to be involved with Berlin’s annual Festival of Light. Every autumn, the German capital transforms its major monuments and buildings into giant illuminated artworks using incredible projections driven by state of the art technology and a dedicated team. Marin Petkov explains.

How and when did you become involved with the festival?

I started MP Studio 16 years ago. My connection with the Festival of Light started in 2015 when we won the first video mapping championship held at the festival, with a show on the Brandenburg Gate. Then in 2018 we won the championship again with a special show on the TV Tower. Following this Birgit Zander, founder of Festival of Light, decided to work more closely with us, resulting in us becoming responsible for most of the production that happens during the festival. I also became the festival’s art director, guiding other artists in the development of their work in line with our chosen themes, looking at how projects will be technically executed, and helping with the creative and organisational installation for the festival.

What are some of the challenges associated with putting on such a large, city wide festival?

We try to incorporate new technologies into the shows and to use new techniques. This allows us to be increasingly creative and to impress audiences with ever more complex mixes of light and sound. But, of course, becoming more technical can create new challenges and requires some very careful monitoring. One of the biggest recent challenges though was actually related to people. During the pandemic, in order to continue running the festival, we had to monitor crowd numbers — which is not easy when you’re dealing with the biggest event in Germany. We had to put restrictions in place and make sure that people adhered to them. For example, on one of the main sections in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the maximum amount of people that we could have at any one time was 5,000. We made use of digital cameras with people-counting analytics that could feed data back to us. The cameras were set up to count the people in the square in real time and if that number looked like it would be exceeded we projected a message on to the gate that told people to go to the next installation. We had to adapt in order to be allowed to run the event, and thankfully it all ran very smoothly and efficiently.

What technology are you currently using?

Well, we're always trying to come up with tools that will make our life easier and better in terms of preparation and execution because, as you can imagine, with so many locations across a city, employing hundreds of people would be an enormous cost and impossible to coordinate. We have to find a way to be very quick in our setup process and decision making. We use camera calibration tools that help with the automatic blending of the many projectors. Then there are algorithms that we run to enable very quick projector mapping because we have such limited time available on the night. Sometimes, of course, you don't know what will happen during the set; maybe there will be a mistake, such as a light projection that is in an incorrect position, or maybe a fault with one of the projectors. We always need to be prepared, and this is where cutting edge tools are invaluable. Where we have a lot of projectors all working in unison, for example projecting a mix of video and images onto a building, we need to be incredibly exact with the mapping of the specific building and the calibration, and to ensure that there are no glitches, no pauses or gaps, just a seamless continuous effect and great experience for the audience.

How are topics and themes chosen each year?

It varies. Sometimes a supporter will approach us with an idea and help us to develop a concept, so that gives us the basis to create a narrative that can be brought to life with light and sound. A favourite year for me was 2019, which marked the 15th anniversary of the festival and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a fantastic atmosphere at the event, and our topic that year was ‘the lights of freedom’, which resonated with everyone.

That year can in actually be used as a great example of how we work; the light show on the Brandenburg Gate is always the main show of the festival, and we worked closely on this occasion with Thierry Noir to bring this to life. Thierry is widely considered to have been the first artist to paint graffiti art on the Berlin Wall back in the 1980s. To help our narrative to flow and decide on the various concepts for the course of the show, we also worked with Heinz J. Kuzdas whose Berlin 20-40 project provided a great deal of inspiration and direction. While the Berlin wall was a symbol of division between the worlds of the West and the East, it also stood as a canvas for artists on the western side to express themselves and comment on the political and social themes of the day. Heinz helped us bring to life the smaller, interesting topics and stories that could be interwoven into the bigger whole. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival and 35 years since the fall of the wall — so while I can’t give anything away, it promises to be a spectacular event which draws on the topics from five years ago but presents them in new and innovative ways while also incorporating new stories that have played out across the globe in that time.

How long does it take to plan such a huge event, given the logistics involved?

We always say ‘after the festival is before the festival’, so as soon as one festival ends, planning for the next one begins. The festival is a very big thing to organise so everything needs to be booked and scheduled a long time in advance. We have many different divisions with differing responsibilities. For example, we have the core festival team including those based in the studio like myself, then we have other studios who are invited to create visuals and sound, incorporate various artworks, or perhaps build something specific for an installation.

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Then there are the many technicians who are running around the city — plus those who work specifically on the towers, using scaffolding to wrap fabric around some of the structures, including the TV tower, in preparation for the projections. The security teams and the marshals working directly in the streets are of huge importance too for managing traffic, coordinating people’s movement and keeping people safe. In addition, away from the main exhibits we have what we call the ‘chill-out’ areas, such as the parks, where people can relax in between exhibits. The flying illuminated kites are a favourite installation in these spaces, operated by a team of French artists, and the street musicians also help to create a fantastic atmosphere. But of course all of this additional activity must also be planned in fine detail so that the entire city-wide display operates as one seamless whole.

What other projects have you been working on, and what’s next for the MP studio team?

I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and after several years of dreaming about it I actually managed to set up a very similar festival there — albeit on a smaller scale — and we’ve been running that for three years now. We also travel and run festivals and installations in other parts of the world. For example, I recently spent some time in Saudi Arabia working on a project for the Alula Tour, which is a five day cycling event that takes place in front of some spectacular scenery and iconic landmarks. We projected a show inside Maraya, which is a mirrored concert hall in the desert, and also on the mountains behind it, which looked absolutely spectacular. But now it’s time to fully return our attention to Berlin to make sure we once again produce a memorable show for 2024.