Tree of Life Milan Expo, 2015

Tree Of Life installation blooms with d3 at Universal Exposition in Milan


A timeless design motif combines with 21st century technology in the Tree of Life at the Universal Exposition 2015 in Milan, May 1 to October 31. The interactive installation – a linear tree-like structure of wood and steel that climbs 37 meters high – has been described as a monument, a sculpture, a building and a work of art. The LED lighting, projections and special effects illuminating the Tree of Life were enabled by d3 software and a d3 4×2pro media server.

The Universal Exposition has the dual themes of feeding the planet and energy for life. It explores how technology, innovations, culture, traditions and creativity relate to food and diet worldwide. The Tree of Life was created by a consortium of Italian businesses and serves as the centrepiece for the activities of the Italian Pavilion. It is located in Lake Arena, a 90-meter wide pond with a seating area for 3,000 people and concentric circles of trees. The Tree of Life comes alive with daytime shows featuring music by contemporary Italian composers and evening shows specially scored for the Expo. LED lighting, projections and special effects combine with dancing waters to charm visitors of all ages.

Marco Balich designed the Tree of Life, inspired by drawings by Michelangelo, and serves as artistic director of the project. Koert Vermeulen, principal designer with ACT Lighting Design in Brussels, is the installation’s visual designer and director.

d3 Solution

“The moment we decided to put projections on this intricate structure with all the warping elements, it was obvious that the only server that would be able to do the job was a d3,” says Vermeulen. “d3 has a unique design philosophy that starts from an object and what you want to put on it – it doesn’t start with outputs. That’s a great way to work.”

One of the things he liked best about d3 was the pre-visualisation process. “You can visualise what you’re going to get in a reasonable quality,” he says. “When you need to build things and develop a workflow and methodology, d3 visualisation really helps you decide things long before you have to actually implement it.”

Jo Pauly of Visual Solutions, in Hoeilaart, Belgium, spearheaded the d3 previs. “The server’s strong simulation tool was very helpful in the pre-production process. We combined a lighting simulation software for the lighting, with Synchronorm, for the fountains, to give a good understanding of the actual show,” he reports.

“In the beginning, we were to use d3 to combine the projection mapping with driving 600-plus Art-Net universes – something we could work out in previs in advance,” Pauly explains. They programmed, calibrated the projectors and ran the first Tree of Life show with d3’s 4×2pro.

The Tree of Life team appreciated d3’s flexibility and ease of use. The only thing that “took a lot of time,” Pauly notes, “was recreating the tree in a d3-suitable format and dividing 300-plus universes over an enormous amount of LED strings on the tree. That was necessary because we wanted to have a very realistic pre-visualisation of the visual effects. We had d3’s support from the beginning to facilitate the process of outputting that many Art-Net universes at once without collisions.”

Pauly says that d3’s QuickCal calibration feature was “a real time saver. Once we remade the model of the tree and had all of our vertices in the right place, results were quickly achieved with QuickCal. After the first show day and alignment we exported all the projector feeds to a number of simpler playback devices to keep it running for six months.”

Lex ter Heurne from By-Lex in Cologne, Germany, worked on the d3 project set-up and performed the on-site programming. “Jo and Lex were instrumental in making it all happen while I was focused on the end product,” says Vermeulen. “d3 got me what I needed when I needed it. That’s very comforting for a designer – it doesn’t happen a lot.”

Made possible by: Orgoglio Brescia, Coldiretti and Pirelli
Photography by: Luigi Caterino, courtesy Balich Worldwide


Show Producer:

The Tree of Life has been made in collaboration with Orgoglio Brescia, Pirelli, Coldiretti. Project by: Balich Worldwide Shows, Executive structural project and construction: Orgoglia Brescia

Show designer:

Concept: Marco Balich Design: Studio Gioforma

Video Director:

Koert Vermeulen, ACT Lighting Design

d3 project setup:

Lex ter Heurne (By-Lex) and Jo Pauly (Visual Solutions)

d3 programmer:

Jo Pauly, Visual Solutions

d3 operator:

Lex ter Heurne (By-Lex)

Lighting designer:

Koert Vermeulen, ACT lighting design

Set designer:

Marco Balich & Studio Gioforma

System Integrator:

RTI Agorà, Bridge Over Troubled Water (Botw) and Ternana Impianti


d3 gear:

d3 4×2pro