The most vivd festival in Sydney's history (Image: Glen Pearson)
Blog Words : Lara Brunt | 28 May

The most vivid festival in Sydney's history

Lara Brunt reports from Vivid Festival, the harbour city’s annual extravaganza of light, music and ideas

An expectant hush falls over the camera-wielding crowd. The countdown begins. “10, 9, 8…” With the flick of an unseen switch, Sydney Harbour is set ablaze. Not with its world-famous fireworks show, though.

Tonight, all eyes are on the Opera House. Its normally stark, off-white sails are transformed into a kaleidoscopic whirl that illuminates the night sky.

I’m at the opening night of Vivid Sydney. The 18-day festival sees 3D projections and light shows transform the city’s buildings and landmarks into a colourful canvas (relax, it’s carbon-neutral).

I’ve been living in London for 12 years, so it’s my first time at Vivid. And I have to say, I’m mighty impressed. Sydney does spectacular like no other city on Earth.

“Originally, Vivid was started as an event to fill the winter season – good for hotels and a bit of an outlet for some of the creatives in town,” says Sandra Chipchase, CEO of Destination NSW, the festival presenter. In five short years, Vivid has become one of the city’s showcase events.

“Over half a million people came last year. Every year it’s gone up by another 100,000, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to expand the footprint to three times its size,” says Sandra.

The festival has three parts: Vivid Light, Vivid Music and Vivid Ideas. The centerpiece event, Vivid Light, features more than 60 interactive displays across Circular Quay, The Rocks and Walsh Bay, and Darling Harbour every night from 6pm. For the first time, festival-goers can change the colour of Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge, which is covered in over 100,000 LED lights, via a touchscreen.

The 3D-mapped projections on the historic sandstone Customs House apparently respond to movement, too. I try it out with a Bollywood tune and some energetic dance moves, followed by a hip-shaking Elvis track.

Tripping over tripods – the festival seems to attract every camera club in Australia – I make my way over to the Museum of Contemporary Art beside Circular Quay. The Art Deco façade is brought to life by mesmerising 3D projections by Australian artist Gemma Smith and is a crowd favourite.

The Opera House is undoubtedly the most coveted canvas, though. “Every year we choose someone different,” Sandra explains. “This year we’ve got Sydney’s own Spinifex Group doing the design.”

A sudden downpour interrupts our chat. Sandra hunts around in her handbag and produces a brolly, which we both huddle under. “The great thing about Vivid is rain, hail or shine, it’s on,” she laughs.

While its certainly got all-weather appeal, the best thing about Vivid is much of it is free. And in the city named third most expensive in the world after Tokyo and Osaka, this is definitely a good thing.

I walk around the harbour, past playful installations like a piano that lights up when played and Technicolor see-saws that are popular with the young and old alike.

I make my way to Darling Harbour, a slightly naff tourist area that most Sydneysiders I know tend to avoid.

Tonight, however, we’re all flocking here to see dancing water fountains and dazzling lights choreographed to a rollicking soundtrack featuring acts as diverse as Bill Hayley and the Comets and AC/DC. It’s great fun and I’m sure I’m not the only one singing along.

I scour the line-up for Vivid Ideas. It features more than 100 lectures, workshops and debates in the fields of fashion, film, publishing, architecture and design.

“Everybody knows Sydney’s a beautiful place, but we want people to know what a clever place it is. Vivid is another way of reinforcing that,” says Sandra.

The message is certainly getting out.

Last year, Destination NSW ran a social media campaign on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. Over 4,000 Chinese tourists turned up as a result. This year, they’re expecting 6,000 people from China, plus another 2,000 tourists from Malaysia. Overall, visitor numbers are expected to top 550,000.

As I look around this most photogenic of cities, I’m glad I’m one of them.

Vivid Sydney runs from 24 May–10 June 2013 with a programme of free and ticketed events. Find out more at