Backstage: Creating an immersive Sherlock experience

A scene from The Sherlock Holmes Experience. Photo: Mikael Buck/Madame Tussauds
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When waxwork museum Madame Tussauds decided to open a Sherlock Holmes exhibition, it turned to designer Sam Wyer for inspiration.

Wyer was the brains behind the design of Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground at the Vaults in London’s Waterloo last year. The result of his involvement in Tussauds’ project is a meticulously designed experience guaranteed to sate even the most dedicated Sherlockian. Aimed at two very different audiences, day visitors to The Sherlock Holmes Experience will appreciate this microcosm of re-imagined Victoriana in much the same way as Tussauds’ other waxy attractions. By night, however, actors descend on the setting and theatre audiences are invited into an immersive piece of theatre entitled The Game’s Afoot, to solve mysteries from the myriad clues left behind by Wyer and his team.

“Hopefully we’ll be feeding them all the right kind of juicy little bits. The writers have worked extensively creating their own short stories, which have more than 100 active clues, while remaining as true to the pantheon of the Holmes stories as possible. For instance, the majority of Holmes’ major deductions are made through newspaper cuttings, letters, clippings, adverts, business cards left behind, things like that. That forms a bulk of our active props list.”

Wyer has a symbiotic relationship with the writing team, Oliver Lansley and Anthony Spargo, bouncing ideas back and forth and informing the final design.

“Every time they produced new writing, it informed my ideas. Every time I’ve had ideas, it inspired the writers. It’s a very collective approach. We’ve managed to feed in lots of spurious detail, which doesn’t relate to our cases, but is there for superfans to enjoy. And Holmes’ study is littered with references, right down to the wallpaper, which I’ve specially designed in order to capture little secret images and references to the stories.”

The Sherlock Holmes Experience takes place within 318 sq metres of Baker Street basement. Wyer explains how he worked with the space, using and adapting original fixtures and fittings to create a truly original take on Victoriana.

“We’ve got a lot of conduit in the ceiling, a heating system, vents, things like that. Some of which we’ve actually managed to incorporate into the set, because it’s this kind of period detail that’s really interesting. When creating an immersive experience, having a confined space can be as important as having a very open space, because it plays on how people feel and the pressure or relief of an environment. The trickier ones were working with an outdoor space, because of the confined nature of the floor plan, so we’ve enhanced the experience by giving texture on the foot, beautiful scenic work, and really strong projection as well. We cannot give you an open vista, but we can give you a series of images that are hopefully as inspiring and transportative as if we were to dump you in the middle of the moor. The floor of our moor is fantastic, we are putting in this kind of jungle rubber mulch. With immersive theatre, you’re working with all the senses.

“We’ve also had to be quite playful with the transitions, because when you leave Baker Street, you are immediately somewhere else. If you leave the morgue, you’re immediately somewhere else. We don’t have the liberty of extensive transportation, so instead what we’ve done is manipulated the exits. For instance, in the study, we leave Baker street via Sherlock’s wardrobe – a kind of a Mr Benn moment – and you’re in a new space.”

He continues: “Lighting designer Mike Gunning is very sharp on his period lighting, and using practicals [practical lighting] to create atmosphere, which is great for us because we don’t have an extensive amount of industrial theatre lighting. He’ll also be using selective lighting to gently highlight the clues concealed in the space. Part of the aesthetic includes a whole ream of Victoriana poster work. There are only certain parts of those posters that we want to highlight, so Mike will be picking those out gently, in a way that just draws your eyes to them, and then, once you’ve found it, it’s up to you to decipher the right information.”

Sound designer Sebastian Frost has recreated a range of imaginative sounds and moods to illustrate the hustle and bustle of Victorian London, giving each location a very distinctive and separate atmosphere.

“Holmes’ study is obviously going to have its music, in this case a bit of Wagner. Holmes was very into Wagner. A really exciting part that Sebastian has created is the train carriage. We couldn’t have the train moving, because then it would be qualified as a ride. Even the slightest motion, even a vibration on springs. So Seb’s very carefully worked out a way to make it really feel like you’re in motion in conjunction with AV designer Duncan McLean, but without actually altering the classification of the experience and all the red tape that might involve.”

Mike Gunning: lighting designer

Authenticity, atmosphere and second guessing were key elements to Mike Gunning’s lighting design.

“One of the most challenging aspects is the environment itself. Not being a theatre, it’s always tricky to get what you need, where you need it, long before the final design is settled. It’s a constantly shifting ball game, and I suppose the challenge is the art of getting that first step right.

“I use practicals, but it’s tricky because everything had to be low voltage, and the fixtures we were looking for don’t come in low voltage. My production team spent a lot of time looking at ways of refitting various settings and making them look as authentic as possible.

“We’re lighting both the immersive stage show and the experience, so I’ve sort of split the rig between the two. There are a mix of around 200 LED birdies and COGs [Chip-on-Glass] that have the flexibility to create different lighting for the different events. I’m also using D22s, which create a very wide flood with second-generation LED colour-mixing. These create a more theatrical range of colours.

“With a definitively period piece such as this, one needs softer, sepia-type lighting tones, rather than something brash or showy. For me, it’s all about creating an atmosphere that lends authenticity to the whole site, making the audience feel fully immersed within it.”

Sebastian Frost: sound designer

For Sebastian Frost, the more speakers he could fit into a room, the more subtle his sound design could be.

“Sam has designed a lot of different environments within a very small space, and part of the challenge is to get distinct sound zones with each one. On average, there are probably about five speakers per space, but we’re talking very small spaces. In total, there are about 70 loudspeakers within an area that’s 30 metres by 30 metres.

“For the train carriage, I have 18 bass shakers, bolted on the underside of the floor, and you feel those rather than hear them. The sound comes through your feet and that gives you a sense of motion and movement, but it’s not loud and doesn’t interfere with other spaces. The bass shakers give you some real vibration, simulating the rhythm of the train running over tracks.

“In a theatre I’d have a sound team, but this is a fully automated affair. What I have done for the daytime experience, however, is to put audible cues in for the cast to know when it’s time to move people on to the next space. Every 90 seconds, the computer chooses from eight different bell sounds and that’ll be the cue. It’s another feature of how I design.

“I create lots of different sounds to suit the environment. I add them to the mix, and the computer effectively chooses them at random intervals. The soundscape itself is continually evolving. It’s never quite the same.”

The Sherlock Holmes Experience and The Game’s Afoot open on July 15 at Madame Tussauds, London