The Technology and people behind Please Feed the Lions

Meet the team working behind-the-scenes on the fifth lion

By London Design Festival

Work in progress sketches of installation (2018) by Es Devlin StudioLondon Design Festival

The Starting Point

"British design guru, Sir John Sorrell nudged me as we walked through Trafalgar Square this time last year and said: 'Landseer never wanted those lions to look so passive: he proposed a much more animated stance, but Queen Victoria found it too shocking.'

"The thought lodged in my mind. What if we could invest the lion with a diversely crowd-sourced single collective poetic voice?”
- Es Devlin

Please Feed the Lions, projection visualisation (2018) by Luke Halls StudioLondon Design Festival

The project in a nutshell

For London Design Festival 2018, a fifth fluorescent red lion joins the famous pride in Trafalgar Square. The new lion will not be silent: it will ROAR.

Everyone is invited to ‘feed the lion’, and this lion only eats words.

Each word the lion digests is the starting point from which a two-line poem is generated, by an algorithm trained on 25 million words of 19th century poetry, the century the lions came to be.

By daylight, the ever-evolving collective poem will light up the mouth of the lion accompanied by a choral roar. By night, the poem will be projection-mapped over the lion and onto Nelson’s Column itself: a beacon of streaming text inviting others to join in and add their voice.

Please Feed the Lions, projection visualisation (2018) by Luke Halls StudioLondon Design Festival

The Technology and the Team

To create the lion, it required a collaborative approach with different studios working together across sound design, fabrication, programming and projection.

Machine Learning

To generate the poem, a deep learning algorithm is used, which was created by creative technologist Ross Goodwin and the Lab at Google Arts & Culture.

Behind the scenes at the build (2018)London Design Festival

...The poetry is generated by an artificial neural network model that has learnt to write by reading millions of words of 19th century poetry.

The specific algorithm is known as a long short-term memory (LSTM) recurrent neural network (RNN), and it works by learning to predict the next text character (letter, space, or punctuation) over and over again, always taking into account the text that came before its current prediction. It tries over and over again to predict the next letters in its training corpus, constantly tuning millions of internal weights in the process, until it is able to do so accurately on sequences which it has not seen before.

At this point, arbitrary sequences of text can be fed in (the words submitted by visitors), and the machine will expand these submissions into its own form of poetry.

Receipts from word.camera (2018) by Roos GoodwinLondon Design Festival

...The machine does not work by copying common lines or phrases or words, or in any way remixing or appropriating its training material. Rather, it uses the training material to build an incredibly complex statistical model that can then write original text letter-by-letter in the general style of this material.

Behind the scenes at the build (2018)London Design Festival

...To run the algorithm, it requires a network of hardware and software communicating each words submitted to the algorithm and then sending the generated poem to the audio and visual outputs. This allows for the artwork to respond in real time to the ever-evolving poem.

To build this Google Arts & Culture worked with collaborators LUX Technical, and installed this system inside the lion.

Behind the scenes at the build (2018)London Design Festival

The Process
A global team of coders, designers, sound engineers and artists got together to bring the lion to life.

Lion Build: Stage One

The lion is a colossal structure built in Yorkshire by Stage One, a creative construction, manufacture and engineering team who collaborate with architects, designers, producers and artists.

The build of the replica lion at 1:1 scale was tasked to Stage One. They scanned one of the lions in Trafalgar Square using LiDAR, this was then cut out of 16 35kg foam blocks and then pieced together.

Behind the scenes at the build (2018)London Design Festival

...The lion was then sculpted and smoothed along the gradients of the body before a hard coat was applied.

A final topcoat of red was applied in two layers to give it the distinctive colour as well as weather-proofing the piece.

The res.lab studio (2018) by res.labLondon Design Festival

Sound Design: res.lab

The lion's roar was created by res.lab, a music composition and sound design collective who designed a musical system, with a bank of vocal lion roars and sounds triggered each time someone feeds their word to the lion.

When vocalist Jade Pybus was recording she imagined the charged energy from the all the events that have taken place in Trafalgar Sq throughout history had seeped into the lion's muscles and skin.

The roars are deliberately clashing, dissonant and beautifully explosive.

Please Feed the Lions, projection visualisation (2018) by Luke Halls StudioLondon Design Festival

Projection Mapping: Luke Halls Studio

Finally, Luke Halls Studio designed an evolving projection to bring the lion to life every night with the words submitted that day.

Luke Halls shares the process:

"To express the lion coming to life we moulded the paths of the poetry to follow and enhance the lion’s majestic shape, keeping readability of the collected poems but joining them together in a more organic, fluid shape. Constantly updating along the lines and curves of the lion’s body...

Please Feed the Lions, projection visualisation (2018) by Luke Halls StudioLondon Design Festival

" ...We also wanted to help visually express the journey of the word, the process of algorithm, into the poem.

"For this we designed a ‘word storm’ that is triggered when someone inputs a word, this storm of words sweeps from inside the lion’s mouth where you can see your word, across his body and across the column to then, at the end of it’s journey, reveal the generated poem from that specific word entry."

Please Feed the Lions, projection visualisation (2018) by Es Devlin StudioLondon Design Festival

To feed the lion, visit Trafalgar Square between the 18-23 September 2018

"Trafalgar Square is a place many of us stack up memories, because so many of us walk through it – it's like a great corridor of this city. If every time someone walked through the square again and they felt linked to all those voices that have been heard since its inception in the 1850s, or if this piece became a sort of hinge that connected them to a deeper understanding of the square and about the city we live in, that would be something. The poem itself, at the end of the six days, will be put online on the website prolonging its life, and it will allow people to say, 'I was part of that'". 
- Es Devlin

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