NEW YORK -- Times Square is many things: a tourist mecca, a shopping destination, a traffic bottleneck and a place of work. Virtually every night, for 3 minutes starting at 11:57 p.m., it is also an art gallery.
In those three minutes, several of the electronic billboards in Times Square -- referred to as "spectaculars" -- and digital screens on newsstands switch from their regular advertising to a coordinated, larger-than-life moving image art exhibit the city calls its "Midnight Moment."
On an August Wednesday evening, circular faces popped on to the screens above the streets of Manhattan before morphing into different shapes. Once it transformed into a circle, other circular faces began to drop onto the screen as well. Two of the circles morphed into full faces, both occupying half of a screen. Then, static. Finally, a yellow-faced man with a distinct nose seemingly reached through the screen, eventually pulling out half of his body and looking around, his face eventually filling the screen. Then, as quickly as it began, it ended.
The exhibit, which changes each month to accommodate a different artist, represents a rare intersection of arts, technology, creativity and commerce as both moving images and advertisements play side by side for the 3-minute program. It's also an attempt by New York to put its best foot forward in one of its most popular tourist spots.
"We realized that this would be the strongest and highest profile way to say that art and creativity are a central part of Times Square," said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance. Tompkins originally came up with the ideas.
The first Midnight Moment exhibit was on April 1, 2012. Ori Gersht, a London-based artist, was the first to be displayed in the evening arts program with his piece titled, "Big Bang." The program is a cooperative effort between the Times Square Alliance and the Times Square Advertising Coalition.
The artist of the month selection process begins well in advance of the big screen debut with a call and review of proposals. Then the selection committee, which consists of advertisers, sign holders, and art advisers, meets to discuss the proposals. The group looks at multiple facets like the aesthetic quality, the notoriety of the artist and "the interesting context that it has that makes it special for Times Square," said Sherry Dobbin, director of public art with the Times Square Advertising Coalition.
Since it began, artists like Yoko Ono (December 2012) and Björk (March 2013) have had their work shown on the large screens. Even Andy Warhol's Screen Tests of famous people like Lou Reed, Nico and Bob Dylan played on the different screens.
Osgemeos is the featured artist on display on August. The art duo, brothers Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo from Brazil, is bringing their iconic yellow-faced animated characters to the big screens of Times Square.
This art gallery is free to the public and to the city, as the individual sign holders donate the screen time. If someone were to pay to run something for those three minutes, it would cost an estimated $1.2 million to $1.5 million. "There's no way we could do it without them," Dobbin said.
Getting ready for the show
In an art and design studio west of Hartford, Connecticut, Sean Stall and his team at Ironik Design & Post get the artwork that will go up on the screens in Times Square. "The artist delivers usually a vertically oriented and horizontally oriented file, and we check it out," said Stall, owner and lead artist at Ironik Design. Then they begin the formatting.
Ironik uses tools like Adobe After Effects, a visual effects creation and editing tool, and a special version of Avid, an editing system used to put together television shows and films like "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
The piece has to be formatted for every one of the participating screens. "Each one of these screens, no two screens are alike," Stall said. "They're all different dimensions, different aspect ratios. The only constant is the frame rate."
Most of the issues that they deal with come from converting frame rates, or how rapidly the screen changes images, the size of the display and whether the content fits the 3-minute limits. After formatting some of the artwork, they then send it for preview to the artist and the Times Square Alliance before proceeding to format for the 42 to 45 screens.
The delivery of the artwork is done via apps like Dropbox, a file storage and sharing application, and Hightail -- formerly known as YouSendIt -- where large files can be e-mailed. All except for one screen.
The City Outdoors screen is the biggest screen in Times Square. "That is close to being a 4K file in terms of size," Stall said. To deliver to this screen, the work must be put on a hard drive. The size of the file for August was about 48GB.
The screen that gives the biggest challenge is the American Eagle display. Due to the angle of the building, the screens flank two streets. Each month, the organizers have to figure out whether to wrap the work around both sides of the display, or whether to break it up and duplicate each side with separate work, according to Stall.
These issues have all been worked out in the past. Stall and his team have been working on Midnight Moment since the second month it began. "Once we get sign off on the content and how we've displayed it on the screens," Stall said, "it's pretty much an automatic process from there."
In Times Square, near the Father Duffy statue that stands in front of the famous red steps at the heart of the area, multiple languages filled the air. From here, the cityscape canyon -- with walls made up of office buildings and billboards -- opened up for onlookers. Looking out, the American Eagle sign stands to the right and the City Outdoors sign is on the left and back, almost outside of the canyon.
The area was bright with the light of the advertisements showing for Beats, Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge and others. People gathered around phones to take selfies -- both with and without sticks -- in front of the lit signs.
Some of the screens began to play a Hollywood-style countdown where a clock-like animation plays over numbers in black and white.
It was 11:57.
The images flashed from display to display. People raised their smartphones in attempt to capture the work. Some tried to incorporate the new display into their selfies, while others looked on in wonder with oohs and aahs joining the mixture of different languages. And just like that, it was over.
Another Midnight Moment had passed.