Walking into the third-floor Chicago loft that is Leviathan’s creative central, there is a hole in the wall the size of an elephant. Cofounder and chief creative officer Jason White is apologetic, explaining that construction for the company’s expansion is underway. Acquired by Irvine, California–based design consultancy Envoy in early 2018, Leviathan is enlarging both space and manpower. But there’s something enticing about that jagged hole with its tangle of exposed pipes and fluff, slats and wiring. As if you’d walked into the alchemist’s laboratory to find the spellbook open, cauldron half filled, improbable ingredients scattered about. As if—if you poked around in the guts of that wall, you’d get a rare view, a glimpse of the method behind the magic Leviathan makes. And who wouldn’t want that?
Since its founding in 2010, specialized creative agency Leviathan has been pushing the limits of what software can do, blazing trails into the Wild West of spatially interactive experiences, using digital media to design displays that have never been done before.
“It’s all terra incognita,” says White, “because every time we build a new custom installation, you actually need to build custom software for it, and then custom design the user interface for that.”
Examples abound: The massive 3,000-square-foot living art sculpture that undulates through the lobby of 150 North Riverside, an office tower designed by architecture firm Goettsch Partners, beams a Leviathan-conceived kaleidoscope of imagery on 89 thin, towering glass LED displays, a combination of generative digital content that—with help from data visualization, new artist submissions and its own full-time curator—changes constantly and never repeats. The soaring generative art canopy over 900 North Michigan’s swank shops blooms with Leviathan-generated and -curated visuals. And interactive displays throughout McDonald’s new corporate headquarters, just blocks from Leviathan’s expanding studio, use both existing and real-time data to create informative visuals that invite interaction from both corporate staff and employees attending McDonald’s training facility, Hamburger University.
Leviathan expertise has shaped branded environments (experience centers, innovation labs and company headquarters), which make up nearly half of the company’s work. It has delighted visitors at themed entertainment venues (parks, museums and visitor centers) that represent another fifth of projects. As well, there are live events (trade shows, product launches and activations) and retail experiences (shopping centers, big-box outlets and pop-up stores). Plus, there is the growing category of public spaces (open lobbies, airports and transit centers).
In fact, digitally interactive art will be part of a new airport project the studio recently landed that integrates 3-D motion capture with real-time graphics platforms to respond to the movements of passersby.
Of course, there are no wizards in the walls: Leviathan’s magic is mindspun, computer generated by a team of 30-plus creatives. But as White and cofounder and chief executive officer Chad Hutson talk about the worlds they’ve created and hope to create, there is an energy of discovery, playfulness and anything-is-possible positivity that is transcendently youthful.
“When we started Leviathan, we wanted to create with non-traditional-format media—to go where film, video and motion graphics hadn’t yet gone,” says Hutson. “Yes,” agrees White. “We all had heavy backgrounds in film and video, making Super Bowl commercials, short films, etcetera, and creating motion graphics since the beginning. But we knew we could go further, taking the high-level video we were producing and putting it in different places. The vision was to keep pulling it out of the TV format and to steer it all toward interactivity.”
Hutson, who has a background in audio engineering and project management and previously owned a video company called eatdrink, had started to get into interactive work. He shared White’s vision, as did a third partner, Matt Daly, who has since moved on to join Walt Disney Imagineering as manager of show software development.
Late one night in 2009, the three talked about the future they envisioned and “what we all felt passionate about,” says Hutson. Dubbing their new business Leviathan, a moniker they felt captured the essence of “the wild creative spirit within,” the team stepped forward. “We started with just six people,” Hutson recalls. “In the beginning, we bootstrapped everything based on the video work, but we quickly started chasing down all opportunities.”
A plum opportunity came in 2011, when Leviathan took on the challenge of creating performance visuals for electronic artist Amon Tobin, who was touring to support his Ninja Tune record label release. “That project happened at just the right time,” says Hutson.
“When we got the call to build the system for Tobin’s show, we consciously made a very risky decision to go all in on this, in pure hope that this would give us the opportunity to show the world what we could do,” says White.
Creating the visuals alone took three months. Leviathan artists created animated content for album tracks. For the show, programmers aligned projection mapped content onto Tobin’s stage set of stacked white cubes. Then, a live 3-D camera feed of Tobin—distorted with effects—was projected onto the cubes over prerendered animation.
The results were all Leviathan had hoped for. “We got amazing press... WIRED... LA Times... Fast Company,” says White. “This thing just blew up. Before we knew it, we were getting calls from all over the place to do projection mapping. We did it for John Deere tractors. We got calls to projection map the moon. Even got calls to projection map bar mitzvahs,” White says with a laugh.
In the years since, Leviathan has become known as the go-to for alternate formats and emerging technology. About half of the company’s work is generative, using both existing data (maps of things like ocean currents, wind patterns and even airline flight paths, plus photographs and video) and real-time data (such as the movement of people) to create visuals that evolve over time. The majority of the work is also digitally interactive, and quite a few of the public-space projects and themed entertainment projects include integrated 3-D motion capture with other real-time graphics platforms, such as video game engines.
“We tend to utilize multiple large displays that tie into one system, creating unique digital environments where all of the displays feel interconnected,” White says. “It’s best when we design our layouts to have a variation in size so that we can tell compelling stories within spaces. There’s an element of the unexpected that pulls visitors in.”
Perhaps the best recent example of this is the work Leviathan did at McDonald’s new corporate headquarters.
“We had a whole host of information we wanted to display throughout the building,” says David Vilkama, McDonald’s senior director of design and development. “Everything from items as simple as welcome boards to details promoting corporate initiatives to profiles on donors of the Ronald McDonald House.”
“Leviathan was one of the few firms we interviewed that took a holistic approach to communicate all of this,” Vilkama continues. “They challenged us to consider everything, from what we wanted visitors to take away from the displays to what our overall strategy should be. Rather than look at each display as a separate entity, they looked at this as a sum of all of the parts.”
Leviathan worked with McDonald’s to shape the desired display content into multiple interactive walls, educational stations and personalized experiences located throughout the building’s eight floors. To make things easier for facility managers to operate, Leviathan also created an intuitive content management system, with various data feeds that enable curation and automation.
Overall, Vilkama says McDonald’s was impressed with Leviathan’s ability to help stretch its thinking. “They helped us look at things from different viewpoints,” he says, “with the end result that the displays are more playful, more interactive, more fun and entertaining—for our visitors, but also for us as corporate employees, for our restaurant crew and for Hamburger University attendees.”
Whatever the project, Leviathan often has to deal with technological limitations as it tries new things. “When it comes to real-time, generative visuals, we sometimes have to compromise fidelity to accommodate computing limits for what can be processed in real time,” says Hutson.
But with technology advancing so rapidly, Leviathan is already dreaming up new possibilities—projects it can approach more fully since being acquired by Envoy.
“We previously lacked the operational resources of a large company, not to mention capital,” says Hutson. “Now we have the ability to fix holes in the operation and to bring on the additional staff we’ve needed to scale up for new projects.”
Among the advancements Leviathan is most excited about: virtual reality, “and 3-D game engines along with that,” says Hutson. “We’re increasingly using virtual reality as a tool to visualize our large-scale installations within architectural spaces, both in the concept phase and through design reviews.”
Also exciting? Projected augmented reality—advances in computer vision hardware that make it possible for almost anyone to scan a room and project graphics instantaneously.
“It’s going to enable artists to push ideas into spatial reality,” says White. “Which is, of course, where Leviathan wants to go.” ca