Paint the Town: The artwork that lets you light up the city skyline

Arguably the site of the world's best New Year's Eve fireworks, Sydney is now lighting up the sky in the middle of the year with a massive art project.

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Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
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Claire Reilly
3 min read

"Paint the Town" lights up the Sydney skyline. CNET/Dave Cheng

The Empire State Building changes colour for Independence Day and the Eiffel Tower lights up for Christmas, but now a new lighting installation is putting the power to light up an entire city skyline in the hands of everyday people.

Taking over Sydney, Australia for the two-week Vivid festival this winter, "Paint the Town" is an ambitious project that allows visitors to Sydney's iconic harbour to takeover the entire waterfront skyline and light it up with a rainbow of colours.

The project is the brainchild of leading lighting events company 32 Hundred Lighting, a group that has been involved with Vivid Sydney since the festival began. Last year, 32 Hundred turned the city's iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge into one of the world's largest interactive lighting installations and covering Sydney's fleet of ferries with LEDs programmed to change colour when the boats entered different parts of the Harbour.

Now the company is completing another first, by lighting 11 separate buildings and skyscrapers across the Sydney CBD skyline.

Watch this: City-wide light installation uses people power to paint the town

The concept is simple -- festival-goers use a large touchscreen set up on the Sydney Harbour waterfront, tapping to select the buildings they want to light up and swiping to choose from a spectrum of available colours. Then, after adding lighting effects, they can press go to see their artwork translated from the digital display to the massive cityscape in front of them.

32 Hundred Lighting's Managing Director Iain Reed and Project Manager Martin Bevs led a team that installed more than 200 high-powered architectural lighting fixtures around the skyscrapers, as well as huge lengths of LED tubes that run the length of the motorway beneath. There are more than 100,000 control channels for the buildings, but according to Reed, the lights were just the start.

"There are a number of systems involved -- the lights are really the easy part," he said. "[We're] basically doing a half a million square metre coverage wireless network, so it's pretty big and complex systems of data transfer.

"Each building is linked to a central brain, and that's all done via wireless networking, and then we have some custom software that Marty Bevs has written for the touchscreen...plus a couple of blue cables."

Best of Vivid Sydney 2015 (pictures)

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While 32 Hundred has worked on Vivid for a number of years now, there was still months of "planning and number crunching and programming" to get the project off the ground. What's more, Reed and the team had to design much of the installation from scratch.

"None of the stuff is off the shelf, so we really need to make it ourselves, knock it up in the shed," he said. "This is why Australians, and Marty and myself, are so good at what they do. We don't have the budgets of a lot of the overseas projects, but we're still able to create maximum bang for buck.

"What can we do with sticky tape and string to make it work? That's also half the challenge and half the fun."

But while there's plenty going behind the scenes, the experience for visitors that head down to the harbour to Paint the Town is incredibly simple, and satisfying.

"It's that wow factor of a little 8 year old hitting the green go button and it all goes pink. It's just that smile on their face," said Reed. "That's the fun of it."