Read time 8 min
Can a company that’s known for web apps, in-flight entertainment systems, and machine learning be creative in a whole new way? A visual, physical, transfix-me-so-I-forget-where-I-am kind of way? Oh yes.
What happens when you combine six months of planning, about 20 eager Reaktorians, five projectors and one night in Amsterdam?
You get Four Seasons.
This year, for the first time ever, Reaktor participated in what’s billed as “the biggest open night for the creative industry,” ADNIGHT. The annual event brings in more than 18,000 people and is a way for creative agencies in the Dutch capital to showcase their talent. Companies that sign up get to choose what they want to do, and it can range from hosting talks, to hiring a DJ and making it a dance party, to offering more quirky things like giant ball pits or free tattooing. Ticket holders then go from agency to agency to see what each has cooked up.
With it being our ADNIGHT debut, we wanted to do something really unique — not just for our visitors, but even for ourselves. So back in April a crew at Reaktor Amsterdam started planning. They set the bar high and ventured into unknown territory. But it turned out we had everything that was needed: the skills, the attitude, and the Reaktor ways of working. From it, a vague idea became something magical. We sat down with two of the team members to hear how they tackled such a massive endeavor, how it turned out, and what they learned from it.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Aaron Darveniza, Creative Director of Four Seasons
Cassey Shapiro, Project Manager of Four Seasons
Did you have any ideas for what you wanted to do before you signed up for ADNIGHT?
Aaron: No, not really.
Cassey: My only mantra was “Build something cool.” (Laughter)
Aaron: Our inspiration was drawn from the fact that this was the first ADNIGHT since Covid began. We wondered, “What are people looking for now and needing in this new world we live in?” We had a few ideas around finding balance, but they seemed tough to execute. Then an interesting question surfaced: what could we do to bring some color back into people’s lives? And that was what sort of drove us to our eventual theme, Four Seasons. The seasons are of course filled with color, and people naturally associate certain colors with each season. It’s also a cool way to show progression through time and life without being overly morbid about it.
Cassey: We liked the juxtaposition of something digital with something in-person, too. During 2.5 years of the pandemic, we’d all found ways to use digital technology like Zoom to do the things we needed to do apart from each other. We wanted to find a way to use digital technology to bring people together.
How was Four Seasons a shared experience?
Aaron: Once we had our theme, we needed to figure out the presentation itself — as in, what exactly were we going to do? The team got really excited about creating an immersive art installation for people to view in groups. There would be four chapters — spring, summer, autumn and winter. Even within each season, every month would have its own flavor. The interactive experience would rely on projection mapping and motion tracking, and it would use a kaleidoscope effect to allow users to manipulate the visuals.
That sounds interesting … and complicated. Had the team ever done that before?
Aaron: No. I mean, we’re a digital software company. Most of our work lives in web apps. Creating something for a physical environment was totally new for almost everyone involved. And it’s a tricky thing, because while each digital job has its own nuances, the major factors and considerations are pretty constant and predictable. Whereas in the physical world, there’s no end to the variables.
For example, we had the question of how we were going to hang the projectors. We quickly realized we couldn’t drill into the ceiling because of the heated floors above. We couldn’t use industrial strength magnets because the ceiling was corrugated and there was a chance they could fall. We had a lot of ideas we thought would work, but then we tried to implement them, and they didn’t. And this wasn’t unique to the projectors. Almost everything took five ideas to find one that worked.
Cassey: It’s true. It felt like every week we had a bunch of failures. But we kept at it. Kept iterating. And we found our way and got there. Like when it came time to figure out what to project the visuals on. At first we thought there was an easy solution — buy some screens from Amazon. But we found the quality to be substandard. Then we considered painting the basement walls, but they were too textured. We were racking our brains when someone had the clever idea of using window roller blinds. Not only did it fit our needs, but it was pretty inexpensive, too — the perfect solution!
Iteration is kind of the Reaktor way, right?
Aaron: Yeah, that’s what we’re all about, being agile. Bringing ideas to the table and trying them out until you find a solution.
Cassey: And something special about this project is that it seemed to awaken a lot of latent interests in people. We have designers and devs who have backgrounds in things like construction, architecture, mural design, animation, and video games. Everyone brought in their expertise, and without formal assignments, each person grabbed hold of something and it all fell into place. That’s a very Reaktor way of working, too: autonomy coupled with responsibility. With that kind of environment, everybody’s skills just shined through.
Aaron: Plus, people really picked up a lot of new things. One of our devs learned a programming language around shaders, and now he’s been staffed on a project where he can use that knowledge.
So at the end of the day, how did you make this work?
Aaron: That’s a good question, because we’ve never done anything like this before. But that was sort of the point. We wanted to push the boundaries of what we know. We wanted to challenge our skills. We wanted to grow. That’s something we do in our projects, and it’s something we value as a company. So this idea of walking into the unknown isn’t really new to us at Reaktor — we do it for our clients all the time. It was just a totally different backdrop.
Cassey: I think the only way we pulled this off was trust. That’s an element that is absolutely crucial in our client project work, too. Between the company, the customers, and the Reaktorians, there’s this lovely circle of trust that we all enjoy — which is what enables our success a lot of the time. And the same was true with Four Seasons. From the beginning, the Leadership Team said, “You want to do this? Okay. Go for it.” They knew they could count on us to make good decisions. And everyone on the team trusted each other — from the feedback we exchanged to having the confidence that when we hit roadblocks, we could figure it out together.
Aaron: Yeah, the team work and cross-collaboration were amazing. This project really showed me how important good communication is. A phrase we use a lot at Reaktor is “make it happen.” Four Seasons was an example of that to the 100-thousandth degree.
For Four Seasons to become a reality, a lot of variables had to come together — visuals, audio, physical design of the space, and event planning. A few of our many team members (plus a London producer & DJ!) explain some of what was involved.
Software Developer, Reaktor
First, tile illustrations were created on an iPad using Procreate. We tested them with a kaleidoscope tool that was made from components in Figma. But we needed something a little bit more robust to manipulate the illustrations further. I’d been dabbling around creative coding in my personal projects, and I came across Touch Designer. It turned out to be perfect. The node-based visual programming language allowed us to rapidly prototype the visuals, audio, and tech together. For added customization, we wrote code for the transitions, interactive effects, and the like. GLSL shaders were used to house the kaleidoscope effect.
Product Designer, Reaktor
PHYSICAL SPACE DESIGN
The area we chose to house the exhibit was the basement of our office. It was pretty stark: steel ceiling, concrete walls, concrete floor. You’d think we would give ourselves free rein to do whatever we wanted, but in reality, we wanted to maintain the space in its form so that we could use it for office needs in the future. So, we had to be careful about what we did for ADNIGHT. It all had to be secure and look great — but we couldn’t really change the structure. That meant we needed to come up with a lot of solutions that felt permanent but were actually temporary.
Louis Jaquet (aka Kid Who)
Soundtracks really set the mood. I worked directly with the team to create a rich sound that echoed spring, summer, autumn, and winter. My techniques involved looping cassette tapes and my equipment included a kid’s Yamaha keyboard from the 80s. The idea was to evoke the sense of each season through pace and tone, and to even give some more literal sounds — like weather and insect noises — while not being too “on-the-nose.”
Office Manager, Reaktor Amsterdam
To market the event we built a microsite and created digital ads. We brought the theme into our drinks by crafting a cocktail menu and finding a beer sponsor that tied into the four seasons. A DJ, food, and gift bags rounded out the list. But everything — from the coat racks to the personal invitations we handed out to our neighbors — was done by us.
What was it like on the actual ADNIGHT?
Cassey: First of all, it was Down. To. The. Wire. Seriously, Aaron was tweaking the illustrations the day before and fixing the credits right up until the doors opened. But, it was amazing. At one point, the wait was 40 minutes to see Four Seasons. The fact that people would stand in line that long for our six-minute exhibit was pretty unreal. We actually had the security guards tell us we were reaching capacity. Evidently people were leaving our office to go check out what other agencies were doing and then coming back. Others were messaging their friends to tell them to come. So it was a much larger crowd than we expected.
Aaron: We didn’t really have a metric for how to measure success. Internally, our team really drew closer, and we learned a lot. So those were huge wins. For outsiders, we simply wanted them to get to know Reaktor and have a good time. But we must have made a good impression, because we’ve already received job applications as a result of ADNIGHT.
Cassey: And I overheard someone say, “This is a cool agency.” So I guess we listened to my mantra to “make something cool!” (Laughter)
Six months of work. One ADNIGHT. Will you carry anything beyond that single event?
Cassey: I’ll go back to what I said earlier about trust. When you trust people enough to give them the room to fail — and then come back from those failures — you can create incredible things.
Aaron: I’m really excited about the seed we planted with this. The tech industry is changing — it’s becoming much more creative and experiential — and at Reaktor, we have all the components needed to do this type of work. I kind of view Four Seasons as a proof of concept. Maybe we’ll get to do something like this for clients in the future. If so, we have a great experience to draw from.
Are you planning to do ADNIGHT again next year?
Aaron: Just bigger and better!