Dennis Outten

If you have been in the city of Liverpool for its annual Lunar New Year celebrations, then the chances are that you will have seen the spectacular projections at St Luke’s Bombed Out Church. It’s Dennis who we have to thank for these incredible immersive experiences, along with a whole host of other amazing creative storytelling projects in the region through his company Focal Studios.

Combining his passion and interest for technology with art, his company maps out buildings and famous landmarks that can then be used as the canvas for magical, visual experiences that bring stories to life like you’ve never seen before.

For Dennis, the Liverpool City Region really is the sort of culturally inclusive and innovative place that sets the bar for the rest of the world to follow, and its educational establishments play their own key role in that.

“Liverpool and the city region is one of the most nurturing, inspiring, culturally active, forward thinking, open minded, creative and industrious places to live and work in the world. We have a plethora of international students and visitors who choose to stay here because of its charm, brilliant people and salt of the earth attitude to life.

“We owe a lot of that to the input and draw from our universities, with LJMU especially being integral to educating people and giving them opportunities to stay and work here. Without our educational institutions, not only the demography of the city would be diminished, but also the world-class cultural output we export.”

And it’s here at LJMU where Dennis gained his formal qualifications, first with a degree in fine art and then an MA in Immersive Media. However, like a lot of young people looking at university study, he had actually wanted to study hundreds of miles away from Liverpool to escape his hometown of Widnes, just a short distance away to the East of the city.

“At college I was encouraged to pursue art. It gave me the most freedom to explore my many interests including graphic design, music production, business and photography. I originally planned on going to Falmouth University in Cornwall (to get as far away from my hometown as possible), but when they saw my portfolio for an early semester interview, they were not impressed. At the time I was putting together collages with the Queen wearing a balaclava riding up a stairlift with religious iconography in the background! My second choice, LJMU, absolutely loved these ideas and the détournement of religion using visual language and satire. So, when they implored me to come to LJMU I heartily accepted.”

Dennis says that the passionate staff who interviewed him helped to give him bags of courage to gain top marks in his foundation art year and to progress onto the full undergraduate fine art programme. He embraced all that university life had to offer, becoming a course representative as well as working with cultural organisations in the city, like Metal at Edge Hill station, to host exhibitions with fellow students. All of these experiences enabled him to follow the career path that he finds himself on today.

“Having a solid foundation at LJMU to really go out and explore what was possible helped me form many of the relationships and networks I still maintain today. So many of my colleagues in the industry remember me being the plucky upstart uni student wanting to host exhibitions of disruptive artworks and artists in places like the Williamson Tunnels and other novel spaces. I always remember feeling that anything was possible so long as I had the studio to go back to and knowing that I had those three years to really make positive changes for myself and my work.”

After completion of his first degree, Dennis was able to take part in the Enterprise Fellowship Programme with LJMU, which aided him in developing further skills to set up his first creative company, The Lemon Collective.

“This was a social enterprise set up with friends to support collaborative, cross-disciplinary artwork and projects. Essentially just sticking together after uni and working on projects or commissions together that drew on the skills of everyone. We ended up doing immersive theatre, street art, a really amazing projection project with Creative Europe and several festivals including an EU tour.”

“Without our educational institutions, not only the demography of the city would be diminished, but also the world-class cultural output we export.”

– Dennis Outten

Dennis was really able to expand his horizons beyond Liverpool with the opportunity to work on a series of European funded projects all over the continent exploring new cultures, cultural partnerships and creative work. He also learnt more about the creative use of drones with Liverpool-based innovators Draw & Code and experts from Liverpool Science Park and LJMU. This led to work on the world's first ever programmed multi-rotor drone show in Germany and to work as a drone camera operator with BBC productions in France.

“After my foray into the creative digital world I ended up joining a big data company in Liverpool doing business intelligence development and front-end data visualisation. This was a pivotal experience because I ended up hating it, but I learnt a great deal from presenting to the Directors and CEOs of massive companies. One of my dashboards for a client actually cost three people their jobs as the work I'd done saved the company £1m a week and made their roles redundant – oops! So in 2019 I handed my notice in on the day my mortgage came through.

“In that same year I got married, had my first son Caleb and started Focal Studios. It's been hard to top that pivotal career and life moment, but I always remember being headhunted by other companies offering me ridiculous salaries after leaving the data company. It was actually a reassurance to know that if I ever messed up running Focal, I could go back to a well-paid job. That kind of thing keeps you motivated I'll tell you!”

Since starting Focal Studies, one of the proudest moments for Dennis was the first year that he worked with St Luke’s Bombed Out Church to light up the building for Lunar New Year in 2023.

“We'd worked with over 2,500 local schoolchildren to create an art installation of little origami rabbit heads in the church gardens, as well as a 7ft projection mapped rabbit head sculpture that I'd built. I literally cried when I saw all of the schoolchildren’s work together surrounding that rabbit head because I was so proud of what we'd achieved not only for ourselves, but for all those kids. Each rabbit had a message of hope for the year on it and it felt like the entire beating heart of the city was contained in a field of little rabbits and lights. It was basically the first time any of those kids had exhibited creative work and the collaborative nature of it felt like a beacon of positivity during a time of strife in the world.”

The company is going from strength-to-strength with recent highlights including lighting up the Birkenhead Ventilation Tower for Eurovision 2023 and signing a 10-year lease on a building in New Brighton to bring to life a creative technology hub.

“All in all, my career path has kind of followed the many interests and passions I've developed over the years. If I was a boat I'd be following the wind but always improving my ship and equipment at each safe harbour. I use this nautical analogy with colleagues in Focal Studios quite often. We're in a ship going somewhere together, each person has a role and the destination will give us supplies and treasure we can use to continue on our journey. You can apply so much logic and creativity to this maxim and it works for so many situations.”

Dennis is now looking to give back to the next generation of creatives at LJMU as he looks at opportunities to advise on the development of creative courses that will create the strongest paths into industry for future students.

“Truly I feel like that relationship has only just begun and as I've gotten older (and somewhat wiser!) I want to do a lot more to influence the educational outcomes for the students of LJMU.”