Have You Ever Seen A Painting Talk? How MediaMerge Creates Talking Portraits.

Posted on Mar 9, 2022 12:22:33 PM

You're walking through a museum, and you step into a portrait gallery with key figures from the Revolutionary War. There are two paintings: one of King George III and another of Samuel Adams. You sigh and prepare to read the plaque between them, but as you approach, King George turns to you and proclaims, "That plaque doesn't tell the whole story." Samuel Adams comes to life and nods in agreement, as you suppress a shout of surprise and stare in wonder as the two portraits engage in an argument about the colonial uprising.


That’s the power of MediaMerge's Living Canvas talking portraits: a fusion of technology and art that delivers an experience indistinguishable from physical paintings or historical photographs.

Painting with High-Tech.

At its core, a talking portrait is comprised of conventional audio-video technology, but how the experience is presented ultimately makes all the difference.

“Most exhibits just flip a TV on its side, put a frame around it, and call it a talking portrait,” says Ken McKibben, CEO of MediaMerge. “It’s not a very compelling effect for museum guests.”

The real secret to creating a convincing talking portrait is addressing every aspect of the environment and technology to make the portrait seem like a real, aged portrait. It starts with choosing an appropriate size and aspect for the painting and ends with the physical finish on the “canvas.”

Nikki Wahl, MediaMerge’s office manager, was deeply involved in refining the methods used to turn a digital screen into an authentic, aged oil painting.

She admits that taking on the challenge was outside of her area of expertise, but her experience in the theater industry taught her to think outside the box. “When it comes to theater production, you have to be a jack of all trades. I'm no stranger to prop making, and I know that it takes creativity, patience and experimentation to develop a convincing special effect.”

After consultations with prop designers, months of trial and error, and dozens of prototypes lining the walls of the office at MediaMerge, the team struck gold. MediaMerge successfully created a proprietary method that perfectly simulates a durable crackled oil painting finish for the canvas, even when moving images and light play on screen.

“You wouldn't believe some of the steps we came up with completely by accident," Nikki says. "If I walked you through the entire R&D process, you'd think we were crazy.”

Talkative Subjects

What gets presented on MediaMerge's Living Canvas is just as important as the portrait itself. That's why MediaMerge goes above and beyond to deliver quality acting, costume and scripting to help bring a museum’s subject matter to life.

“We know the importance of capturing engaging performances for our talking portraits,” Ken says. “Nothing is more disappointing than creating the perfect blend of technology and environment, only to have the content fall short.

MediaMerge works with museum stakeholders to learn as much as possible about the subject matter. Then, their creative team crafts an engaging scenario with witty dialogue and humor to make the information fun to digest. Next, MediaMerge works with actors to create the persona and costume necessary for a convincing portrayal.

MediaMerge tailors solutions for the specific needs of the client. Smaller museums may only need one talking portrait, while others may require as many as ten, all interacting, making eye contact, and talking with each other. 

Setting the Stage

Living Canvas talking portraits aren't just screens; they're exhibits unto themselves. Because of this, MediaMerge molds the entire exhibit space around the portrait to hide the technology and deliver a result that is convincing.

“We’ve seen exhibits where a loudspeaker is mounted on the wall right above the portrait,” Ken says. “It completely reveals the gag when you see the technology so prominently.”

MediaMerge’s approach integrates the sound reinforcement systems into the wall, so that guests have no idea the technology is even there. It’s a small part of what makes the Living Canvas experience mysterious and awe-inspiring to the viewer. “Guests never see it coming.”

Excite. Engage. Enforce.

Every museum with MediaMerge’s  Living Canvas technology, from the ICR Discovery Center to the Boston Tea Party Museum to the Dreams of Freedom Museum, has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from visitors. Talking portraits constantly rank at the top of visitor surveys, even when compared to more technically challenging exhibits like holograms and immersive theaters. 

“When I see our Living Canvases in the field,” Says Ken, “I sometimes forget there’s a screen in there. There is a real sense of awe from the experience, and I constantly see people laughing and smiling as they walk away from the exhibits. Our portraits create lasting memories, and that’s the key to engaging guests.”

Topics:Exhibits & Attractionsliving portraitsTalking Portraits


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