Projection designers 59 Productions: ‘We measure a show’s success by the number of phones in the air’
Since working on the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, 59 Productions has become the industry leader in projection design for theatre and outdoor events. Its latest project is a spectacular commission to light up the Usher Hall to mark the opening of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, as Fergus Morgan discovers
While 59 Productions’ name may be unfamiliar to many, its work won’t be. The London-based visual design company has, thrillingly, illuminated some of the biggest cross-cultural shows of the past decade.
The group’s imagery regularly appears on West End and Broadway stages, including the National Theatre’s hit show War Horse. Its projections featured in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie exhibition – which broke the two million visitor mark in the UK and on tour – opened the Edinburgh International Festival, and featured in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012.
That commission six years ago – to design and deliver the animation and projection for a spectacle seen by more that a billion people – catapulted 59 Productions on to the global stage.
“We did all the video design for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony,” says Richard Slaney, the company’s managing director. “All the video that went to broadcast. All the projection in the stadium. All the LEDs in the stadium.”
Slaney joined shortly after the showpiece event as its eighth employee. “We were in a studio in Hoxton, a single-room space with people working in the kitchen,” he remembers. “We grew and grew. Now we have 32 employees in London and New York.”
From humble beginnings – it was originally a website design firm when it first started in the early 2000s – 59 Productions is now the industry leader in projection design. Today, from its stylish new headquarters off Holloway Road, the company’s team of directors coordinate projects around the world.
The company has worked extensively in the West End and on Broadway, and recently branched into producing its own work – an adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass that ran in Manchester and London last year was critically acclaimed for rewriting the rulebook of theatre design.
“Everything on stage was projected,” Slaney says. “It meant we could do a scene change instantaneously. With projection, you can do all sorts of magical things that you can’t with physical sets. You can do impossible things.”
Other stage projects included video design for Life of Galileo at the Young Vic and projections for Oslo in the West End, both last year. 59 Productions has worked regularly with the National, from the war artist-inspired designs of War Horse in 2007, to the expressionist Bauhaus Berlin of Emil and the Detectives six years later and the virtual world of Wonder.land in 2015. The same year, the company won a Tony award, alongside Bob Crowley, for best scenic design of a musical for An American in Paris as it brought the streets of the French capital to life on stage on both sides of the Atlantic.
What 59 Productions is becoming increasingly known for, though, is large-scale, outdoor projection – covering famous landmarks in expertly co-ordinated splurges of light and colour.
Its team has projected designs on to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Sydney Opera House, Hampton Court Palace and even taxiing jumbo jets at Boeing’s airport in Seattle. This week, it is returning to Scotland to open the Edinburgh International Festival for the fourth time.
The piece – titled Five Telegrams – was jointly commissioned by the EIF, the BBC Proms, and the First World War commemorative programme 14-18 Now. Directed by Slaney, it consists of a 25-minute animated projection in five sections that will be mapped on to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall, set to a new work from the composer Anna Meredith.
The work has already had one outing. It was projected inside and outside the Royal Albert Hall on July 12 – the first night of the BBC Proms – while Meredith’s score was played live by the London Symphony Orchestra.
Projects like this take about a year from start to finish, says Slaney. “First we take a laser scan of the building, then we make a virtual model of it. More often than not, we also make a model about a metre wide using a 3D printer.”
There’s a row of these miniature models on the second floor of 59 Productions’ studios. The Royal Albert Hall, Edinburgh’s Usher Hall – their similar shapes allow the project to transfer with minimal changes – and another, striking building. “We can’t talk about that one yet, unfortunately,” grins Slaney. “But it will be a real challenge.”
After making the models, the group uses small projectors in the studio to work out what things will look like, the managing director continues. “It’s all about finding out how content reads. When you look at something on a screen, you get confused about whether it will work or not. You can make big mistakes about what reads and what doesn’t read.”
To counter this, 59 Productions often tries to replicate the view an onlooker will have. Projecting on to the Royal Albert Hall, the team got as close to the model as the audience will be. Before projecting on to Edinburgh Castle, they placed the model up high to imitate the spectators’ position down low. When it projected on to the Barbican’s Beech Street tunnel for the project Tunnel Visions: Array, they used virtual reality to get a sense of how the work would look.
Q&A: Richard Slaney
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in IT for a media company and for an antiquarian book dealer while at university.
What was your first theatre job?
Head of digital for the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, creating innovative exhibitions, films, live performances and apps
What is your next job?
An installation for the Imperial War Museum opening in the autumn.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Everyone else finds this stuff hard.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Stravinsky. He’s my style icon too.
If you hadn’t worked in design, what would you have done?
I’d have worked in IT
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Always go to the pre-show drinks.
“That’s all incredibly useful, because you make stuff on screen that looked crazy, then you put it into perspective and you know whether it works or not,” says Slaney. “It’s about trial and error, that stuff. We’ve done quite a lot of it now, though, so we know the shortcuts.”
The key to designing a projection is to make use of the building’s existing architecture, he says. “You have to do things that relate to the building, otherwise why are you using that building at all?” he says. “The more you can do of that the better. Every building has its own little features. Some have iconic things that you can play with. Sydney Opera House was great for that because it has that wonderful curvy feel. We’ve been very lucky to work on some fantastic buildings.”
He continues: “Often, we take a couple of projectors and do a small test on a small area of the building, to see how the colours read, or how bright it needs to be.”
Preparing for the event is something of an operation. For projects such as Five Telegrams, 59 Productions rents out powerful 30,000 lumen projectors, worth upwards of £60,000 each. Large-scale events like this often use equipment worth about £10 million in total.
“The projectors we use have LED lasers,” explains Maximilien Spielbichler, 59 Productions’ technical associate. “They use relatively low amounts of power. You can run them off a household socket and they’re more reliable than lamp projectors. For Five Telegrams, we have 10 in various positions.”
Because the music was live at the Albert Hall, Spielbichler, a lighting operator and a sound operator all listened to the show-caller, who was watching the conductor of the orchestra. “In Edinburgh, because the audio is pre-recorded, it’s simply a matter of pressing play. There’ll still be a lighting operator and a sound operator making little adjustments as the show goes, though, and dealing with technical problems,” he says.
The company’s production manager James Roxburgh has the responsibility of setting it all up. “He’s the man that has to close roads, move things, organise security, put up towers and hire people, cables and cranes,” explains Slaney. “He’s a one-man everything.”
59 Productions’ large-scale projects involve a lot of logistics. They have to, when they deal with an audience in the tens of thousands. For the Usher Hall projection of Five Telegrams, EIF is giving away 15,000 free tickets. “The new measure of how we determine a show’s success is how many smartphones are up in the air,” says Slaney. “They bother you a bit, but you get this amazing reaction when you put something good up.”
He adds: “When you start the show, the first three minutes, everyone has their phone out trying to record it. Then their arms get tired and they get engaged in the piece and the phones go down. Then you can tell when something dramatic happens because they all go up again like a Mexican wave. It’s a sort of digital thumbs-up.”
CV: Richard Slaney, managing director
Born: 1981, Watford
Training: BMus, King’s College London
• The Harmonium Project, Edinburgh International Festival (2015)
• Cello, BBC Proms (2016)
• Array, Beech Street tunnel, London (2018)
• Two Royal Philharmonic Society awards for audiences and engagement (2010)
Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith and 59 Productions will open the Edinburgh International Festival on August 3 in Festival Square
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