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Bruce Ferguson: Making a splash in the UK

When Bruce Ferguson took his big-splash events business to the UK, he arrived alongside a less welcome visitor: the recession. A year later, the recession is still there—but so is Ferguson, and he’s finding a ready audience for his outrageous stunts and extravaganzas. By Stephen Jewell.

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Self-portrait by Bruce Ferguson • Design by Adrian Clapperton

When Bruce Ferguson took his big-splash events business to the UK, he arrived alongside a less welcome visitor: the recession. A year later, the recession is still there—but so is Ferguson, and he’s finding a ready audience for his outrageous stunts and extravaganzas. By Stephen Jewell

Kimberley House, a grand 14th-century home in the Norfolk countryside with a garden designed by Capability Brown, must have seen some strange events over the years. But Bruce Ferguson went weirder than most, turning the stately into the surreal—projecting images of Pac-Man, pinball machines and Chinese temples onto the ancient walls of the manor.

Ferguson is the go-to guy when brands want to make a big splash. The 37-year-old Aucklander cut his teeth VJing at electronic collective Kog Transmissions’ dance parties in the late 1990s. From there he established The Darkroom, which provides video content for production outfits like Mike Mizrahi’s Inside Out Productions and Michael Hodgson’s The Dub Module. For years, Ferguson and Hodgson travelled the globe providing visuals for lavish parties staged by high-profile clients such as Louis Vuitton.

The big visual stunt has become his specialty. We might be sick to death of Richard Hammond relentlessly pitching Telecom’s mobile network but those who saw the official launch remember it fondly. Alongside Australian production house The Electric Canvas, The Darkroom lit up the Auckland Town Hall like a giant sweetshop. “We were playing with the architecture of the building, tracing its lines and twisting it around itself,” he says. “We made it crumble to the ground, revealing Greek and Roman ruins behind it.”

The same cutting-edge techniques were utilised at Kimberley House. “The video-mapping phenomenon is taking off in Europe; there are festivals dedicated to it. It's incredible what you can do just projecting onto a building’s surface. The magic lies in how you create illusion using fake shadows, textures and lighting.”

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Ferguson and his wife Emma Wolf relocated to London last September. “We wanted to see the world and it was the perfect time for us to do it,” he says. “It’s a common New Zealand syndrome: you feel like you’re at the end of the Earth and want to get out and see what happens.”

Britain’s gain is not necessarily New Zealand’s loss: Ferguson has not shifted his entire operation offshore. Instead he’s established a beachhead, gathering work and filtering it back home. The first project on English soil was supplying the images for Tourism New Zealand’s giant rugby ball on the side of the Thames last year, just as he did when it was stationed alongside the Eiffel Tower in Paris during the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Ferguson, who employs two animator/designers in Auckland, has replaced himself with in-house producer and coordinator Michael Dean. “He’s filling a big part of my role that I was never comfortable with: organising people. I found that I was sitting behind a desk, doing a lot of paperwork. Me being over here hasn’t hindered the creative process at all. It has allowed me to focus on bringing in more work and the work at home hasn’t stopped or dropped off.”

Ferguson believes New Zealand’s low production costs is one of its major strengths. “I have jokingly used the expression ‘South Pacific sweatshop’,” he says. “But that’s the way I sell our services to people over here. I tell them that there are real potential savings for both of us.”

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We’re leading a pretty modest lifestyle and keeping our overheads low. The first nine months here were a bit disheartening—but what do you expect at the onset of a global recession?

Since his dance music days, Ferguson has had to adjust to the conservative world of event management. “Quite often people get VJs to do corporate parties but VJing is very much a type of performance that comes out of nightclubs,” he says. “It’s not always appropriate for lots of big screens at an event where you want people to be eating canapés and drinking champagne. It’s about understanding how to control the room; usually it’s about restraint.”

He believes that his strong Kiwi work ethic has proved invaluable. “We’ve got the experience, which counts for a lot,” he says. “No one likes surprises in the events industry, so we lay out all the what-ifs before we get started. It’s a conservative work process but with a very creative flair to it. Sometimes those two worlds are just too far apart but Mike Hodgson and I can both make that happen, although I don’t think either of us is the suit or the creative.”

Having arrived in London just as the credit crunch really began to bite, Ferguson couldn’t have picked a worse time to move abroad. He’s operating on a proverbial shoestring, sharing an office with several likeminded film producers and employing only Wolf, an assistant director by trade.  “We’re leading a pretty modest lifestyle and keeping our overheads low.” But after initially feeling daunted by the city’s ultra-competitive market, he is finding his feet. “The first nine months here were a bit disheartening,” he admits. “But what do you expect at the onset of a global recession? Coming from what is a niche industry in Australasia means very little here.”

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But Ferguson’s new horizons stretch beyond the UK. He has “a gentlemen’s agreement” to work exclusively in Spain with Diego de Anna from Madrid’s Festival Pura Vida. The pair met through Peter Vosper from Auckland multimedia company Vospertron, who supplied his trademark lightsuits and video screens for a J&B Whisky launch that de Anna organised.

“It’s a good example of what I want to do in other territories,” says Ferguson. “It’s about finding that one person who will believe in you and has faith in you, who is a creative force in the events industry in their country. That’s what I have to do with my other clients. There’s a lot of mutual respect. It’s not just pure business—it’s about creating something amazing.”

Ferguson is working with de Anna on several projects including the launch of a new Sky season in the Pyrenees, a workshop for a Madrid arts centre and a promotional party for Mumm Champagne in Argentina. “I’ll be spending the rest of the year working on my Spanish!”

Also in the pipeline is an event for the Canary Islands government, along similar lines to the giant Rugby Ball. He has brought in his New Zealand-based partners on that installation, Fabric Structure Systems and Spyglass Group, and hopes to be given the go-ahead next year.

Many of the contacts that Ferguson has made have come via fellow expats he’s met at global New Zealand network Kea’s socialising nights. “Those tenuous connections are incredible,” he says. “You meet other Kiwis, they know a few other people and that’s all I need: a name.”

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He was put in touch with Kimberley House organiser Paul ‘Smiley’ Reynolds, an English DJ who played at the 1998–99 Gathering in Nelson, by UK-based lighting designer Mikey Ray. Ferguson worked for free in the hope it would lead to more lucrative commissions in the future. Indeed, Kimberley could prove to be Ferguson’s lucky break, with a video of his spectacular projections becoming popular on YouTube. “It’s been a fantastic calling card,” he says. “After two months it had 100,000 hits, then it doubled over the next week and it’s now getting about 5,000 hits a day. We’ve had interest from around the world and we’re now negotiating to put on gigs in Singapore, Shanghai, Sydney, Montenegro and New York.”

One of those potential clients is a prominent Manhattan department store, which approached Ferguson to design its Christmas 2010 display. He has also teamed up with Iris Worldwide (owned by Sean Reynolds, brother of Kimberley promoter Paul), to represent him in countries across the globe.

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X-ray video’, Idealog #6, page 54

Ferguson and Wolf recently took the plunge and moved into their own East End flat, just down the road from the Darkroom offices. “We're more focused on the long term,” he says. “Making commitments like that can give you much better stability. I’m slowly understanding how things work over here and being open to the opportunities as they arise, rather than actively seeking them out as much. That's how I've gotten to this point, through hard work and serendipity. I've always felt lucky.”