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Sally Lee may not be a household name, but if you’ve been in Singapore for the past decade, you’ve very likely seen her work.
Sally is a leading local multimedia designer. Since 2012, she has designed and directed multimedia in no less than seven National Day Parades, Singapore’s annual celebration of its independence. She also worked on 2019’s Singapore Bicentennial Experience, a multimedia extravaganza of an installation that highlights key moments in Singapore’s history.
The latest feather in this unassuming 44-year-old’s cap is helming Esplanade’s first ever projection mapping show. Called Dancing with Light, the performance makes it look like four dancers are boogieing across, up and down, the three-storey facade of the Esplanade Courtyard, overlooking the busy waterfront.
With such an illustrious career played out on some of the largest stages in Singapore, how has Sally managed to maintain such a low profile?
“I don’t give many interviews,” she admits sheepishly. “I’m very shy.”
Perhaps another reason why Sally isn’t so well known is that to the outsider, her profession can be just as enigmatic. She sometimes has trouble explaining what she does to friends, who have associated multimedia design with graphics, films and even websites.
For myself, my kind of multimedia design has to do with motion graphics and visual effects, usually designed for performance spaces or installations. It’s a combination of digital art and technology.
Sally can pinpoint the singular moment in her life when she decided to pursue multimedia design. And perhaps foreshadowing her later affinity with large-scale projects, that fateful moment took place at Suntec City’s Fountain of Wealth, once declared the world’s largest fountain in 1998.
In 1999, Sally found herself at the fountain witnessing a curious scene—with the water turned off, a group of people were zipping around the fountain’s expansive base in rollerblades. They were aligning lights and programming lasers for a show timed to the fountain’s torrential flow.
Sally’s curiosity was piqued. On a whim, she introduced herself to them, and ended up volunteering to help out with the laser show.
“That kind of changed my life forever,” Sally says wistfully.
Sally eventually joined the company that produced the Fountain of Wealth laser show. She cut her teeth designing laser projection on further shows at the fountain, events like New Year’s Eve countdowns, and even overseas in casino shows along the Gold Coast, Australia.
“Programming laser animations was a very primitive process back then,” Sally recalls. “It was almost equivalent to doing classic animation, creating line drawings frame by frame.”
“It’s easier now because there are lots of tools that automate the process quite a bit.”
After that experience, Sally enrolled herself at 3dsense Media School to train in 3D animations and digital special effects. She completed the course in 2005 and began work as a freelance multimedia designer.
In 2012, Sally was presented with an opportunity to supersize her work—at the National Day Parade. The annual celebration features a multi-million dollar outdoor show segment involving hundreds of performers, often lasting up to an hour. Surely, the enormity of the challenge must have fazed Sally?
“I think you don’t know what you don’t know,” Sally says with a laugh.
For the Marina Bay Floating Platform, Sally designed a screen shaped like the island of Singapore. There were also floor projections playing animations that had to be synchronised with the performances.
But with outdoor conditions, ensuring clear and precise projections was no mean feat. On top of all that, the Floating Platform, well, floats.
“The platform was always shifting,” Sally recounts. “Every time the water level changes, it blurs out the calibration of the projectors. And we can't see the projections in daylight, so [it was challenging to] get everything ready before the show.”
Fortunately, the multimedia went off without a hitch, which helped to grow Sally’s confidence.
“I guess in my first year, I was just sussing things out and trying to understand how it all works,” she says. “After that, you always want to do something different or better than the year before.”
In 2013, Parade audiences were treated to a 3D animation of the iconic Merlion statue, which jumped off its pedestal and swam across the bay to the Floating Platform. At the 2015 Parade held at the Padang in front of Singapore’s historic City Hall building, pin-sharp projections covered the entire floor and surroundings of the performance area.
In 2021, Sally made full use of the latest Augmented Reality (AR) technology. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people were staying home to watch the parade. To add more to the viewing experience, AR elements, like five levitating stars, a massive glittering disco ball and a very spirited hummingbird, were generated and synchronised in real-time to the live broadcast of the show.
“There’s always something new I can play with,” Sally says about the evolving technology at her disposal. “It keeps me engaged.”
In 2019, Sally shifted into high gear at the Singapore Bicentennial Experience, a 45-minute multimedia journey in five acts which showcased milestones in over 700 years of Singapore’s history. Over 760,000 visitors attended the Bicentennial Experience.
At the Bicentennial Experience, Sally shared multimedia direction duties with Brian Gothong Tan, who is, in his own right, a prominent figure in multimedia design. Between them, they divided up the five acts and led separate teams to design and build the various installations.
There were many challenges working at Fort Canning Centre, a historic colonial building built in 1926. Sally shares that ceiling heights were much lower than desired, and the teams were not allowed to mount anything to the walls or ceilings for fear of damaging the historic structure.
But these shortcomings didn’t stop Sally from pushing the envelope. In one of the acts, she and her team transformed a rotunda into a 360-degree cinema. As if that weren’t enough, the seats themselves moved to make the viewing experience even more dynamic.
The immersive and emotional final act of the journey reconstructs the very first National Day Parade that went on despite inclement weather. In the installation, visitors were armed with umbrellas as rain poured from the ceiling, and photos and videos of the inaugural parade swirled on the walls. This, of course, was Sally and her team’s doing.
“I had to work with the technology, the technical people, and the historians. I worked alongside many brilliant people,” Sally says, summing up her work at the Bicentennial Experience.
“That was quite an experience mainly because I walked away feeling more enriched as a Singaporean.”
In 2022, Sally is leading the charge in the projection mapping show Dancing with Light at the Esplanade Courtyard. At first glance, creating a show like this seems par for course for the well-seasoned multimedia maestro.
“The first thing is to really understand the space, the projection surfaces, the canvas. It’s about understanding what you’re working with first,” Sally says matter-of-factly. “And the line processes are the same—we have preproduction, production and postproduction phases.”
There are key differences though. Instead of the hordes of performers in National Day Parades, Sally is now working with just four dancers—Sufri Juwahir, Kevin Tristan, Li Ruimin and Claudine Liang. And instead of the technical challenges of a heritage building, Sally’s canvas this time is a comparatively uncomplicated modern facade.
After her years of dealing with gargantuan and mindboggling projects, Dancing with Light looks like a walk in the park. Yet, she describes her latest project as a “milestone” in her career. After years of multimedia design playing a supporting role, this is the first time Sally is taking the reins on her own.
“I’ve always been working with a creative director. This is the first project where I can explore what I would like to do with performance,” Sally says. “I’m very nervous about it. I’ve never done it before.”
“I find myself going through a lot of self-doubt, questioning where I am. But I guess that’s part of working on something for yourself.”
In a case of art mimicking life, Dancing with Light traces the journey of an artist, going through the stages of exploration, dealing with challenges and internal struggles, reflecting on the journey, and coming to terms with it all.
To film the dancers’ performances, Sally and her team had to build a scaled-down replica of the Esplanade facade. Over several filming sessions, the dancers interacted with the set, especially making use of its full height.
“All credit to the dancers for being open to the idea of working with the set,” Sally says. “They are dancers, but this was almost like parkour or rock-climbing. It was tiring for them, but they kept pushing through.”
While being solely in charge of direction and concept is new territory for Sally, she still leans on her collaborators to create the performance. She explains, “I’ve allowed the dancers to have their own interpretation. I only gave them broad strokes. The movements and delivery—a lot came from the performers themselves.”
“I find the collaborative effort a lot more fun.”
Looking back at what is undoubtedly an illustrious and enviable career in multimedia design, Sally has been quietly championing innovative technologies and big ideas in projects under her wing.
But her view of her past work is surprisingly contrary:
So does this mean Sally will be moving on to more of the new and unfamiliar like Dancing with Light? Or will she go back to her old (but colossal) stomping grounds at the National Day Parade? She has no firm answers.
“I think Dancing with Light is my first step in trying to explore and figure it all out,” Sally muses. “I’m questioning what I want to do for the next journey as an artist and a director. I’m at a crossroads.”
“But over my career, after working with so many different people that are so brilliant at what they do, I’ve learnt to trust in their expertise.
“And, I’ve learnt to trust the process.”
Dancing with Light takes place nightly at Esplanade Courtyard till 30 Oct 2022.