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You may recall during this past summer that images of endangered animals were superimposed onto the side of the Empire State Building. This was no random act or fancy display of lights and color. Rather, it was an attempt by San Francisco-based tech company Obscura and Academy Award winning filmmaker Louie Psihoyos to shine a light on the underground black market for endangered species that is pushing many of these creatures towards extinction.

To illustrate just how daunting of a problem this has become, Psihoyos directed a documentary film titled Racing Extinction, which had its television premiere December 2 on The Discovery Channel. The film details how humans are systematically endangering already threatened species in a thrilling and informative fashion. In order to provide an extra does of awe to a genre that most deem to be stuffy and boring, Obscura teamed up with Psihoyos to create a truly immersive experience through light, lending the documentary a polished and fascinating veneer.


Obscura was founded in 2000, comprising 60 artists and tech innovators that produce forward-thinking and immersive experiences that transform physical spaces in order to engage and interact with a wide audience. Their illumination of the Empire State Building with the images of endangered animals was the first time such a venture has occurred on the famed skyscraper.

Co-founder Travis Threlkel and his team worked tirelessly to pull of this feat for the film, using 40 projectors to cast the images of tigers, humpback whales and bald eagles 350 feet high that the company says was seen by over a billion people worldwide in the span of just 24 hours. This stunning display was captured and edited as an inspiring and hopeful denouement for Racing Extinction. The company also retrofitted a Tesla with a robotic video projection system that shined images of endangered species on billboards and toxic symbols on smoke plumes at oil refineries.

Projecting Change: The Empire State Building

“We were honored to work with Louie Psihoyos on the Discovery Channel’s Racing Extinction,” Threlkel said. “At Obscura, we use art as a message of mass instruction to inspire and engage people around the world. For Racing Extinction, we feel that as a society, we’ve been invading nature for centuries. We stopped to ask, ‘What if the animals invaded us?’ We took this notion of a ‘reverse invasion’ and projected staggering images of these endangered species onto the Empire State Building, a major symbol of capitalism and progress. The juxtaposition of the natural world against an urban icon was powerful.”

OPS Mobile Projection Refinery 2_Credit Drew Eckmann_OPS

With this state-of-the-art technology, Obscura hoped to turn this important film into a movement that would garner awareness and galvanize action around the rapidly depleting populations of these species due to a seedy black market that trades them to the highest buyer. Psihoyos, who directed the Oscar winning documentary The Cove about Japanese fishermen brutally hunting and slaughtering dolphins, infiltrated the endangered species black market with hidden cameras. His investigation revealed how these groups profit from the slaughter of endangered animals with a gritty, guerilla style cinematography that illuminates how their greed and illegal actions are pushing many animals towards the brink of extinction.

The film has been met with positive reviews by critics, noting its ability to be both an informative and startling portrayal of animal cruelty that maintains an air of optimism in regards to finding a means to shut down these black markets and save these endangered species. Exposing the ugliness of the black market may be the film’s primary purpose, but the beauty of the animals at the center of it all provide the documentary with its heart and soul.

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