Night Flight: a miniature light sculpture cityscape using fiber optics

14 February, 2011

Flying over a dense city at night is a singly modern experience. The confusions and dislocations of street level life flatten into schematic clarity; the electric glow gives the terrain the sci-fi feeling of electronic circuitry; the unlit natural areas, — parks, rivers, bodies of water — disappear into invisible black pools of absence. All of it is far distant below you, beautifully complex and detailed, but simultaneously seemingly laid out specifically for your comprehension.

Recently, Allison Eve Zell and I set out to build a light sculpture that would reproduce some of these qualities.

We started by acquiring fiber optic lights from a local lighting store. These are glass or plastic fibers that transmit light from one of their ends to the other. Hence, when attached in a bundle to a strong light source at one end, the fibers can produce a series of tiny intense points of light, the perfect thing for emulating a night time cityscape.

One of the inspirations for trying this technique was my knowledge of fiber optics having been using in miniature shots for Blade Runner. In fact, I recently saw one of the actual miniatures used in that film at the Museum of the Moving Image, albeit without the fiber optics turned on:

Blade Runner miniature fiber optics

This youtube video: Mark Stetson Blade Runner Tyrell Pyramid (embedding disabled) shows some behind the scenes footage of the making of these miniatures and the Blade Runner DVDs have great a documentary on the subject.

After some experimentation with these and a small halogen light, we started working on shaping the fibers into the city grid. We downloaded and printed out a map of lower Manhattan to act as a guide.

We decided to focus on a slice of the city around the lower edge of Central Park, including both rivers, and parts of New Jersey and Brooklyn. We attached the map to a piece of black construction paper and proceeded to punch holes along the streets and buildings anywhere we wanted to place a light.

Punched midtown holes

Once this was in place, I built a wooden box to hold the map in a fixed position above the lights so we could mount the fibers and thread them through the holes. We mounted a piece of translucent orange material over one of the bundles of fiber so that some of the lights would have that signature orange quality of street lights in Manhattan. Then we spent a couple of days in the painstaking hand work of putting individual fiber optic strands through tiny pin prick holes.

Side view of inside of sculpture with fibers installed

Once these were all installed, I gave the fibers a kind of a haircut: chopping them down to size so they'd actually float close above the black cardboard like building and street lights.

At this stage, all that remained was to install a mirror within the box and to close up the box with black foam core so that the viewer would see it through a peephole. The mirror acted to increase the illusion of depth within the box, to make it so we could control the angle and framing of the lights, and to echo the round shape of an airplane window. In addition to the obvious necessity of keeping the box dark, forcing the viewer to see it through a peephole had the additional effect of helping to transport you to another perspective. With your eye pressed up against the small hole, it really felt like you were suddenly a few thousand feet up, getting ready to descend towards one of the area airports. In the critique, one of our classmates even suggested we should add the smell of stale coffee and carpet to complete the effect.

The final piece is very hard to document, but here's a photograph that will give you an idea of what it looked like through the peephole:

Night Flight