Though he originally set out to make films, Andrzej Goulding has developed a career in stage video design with shows including People, Places and Things, Groundhog Day and now The Life of Pi. He tells Tim Bano about the importance of only using video to serve the story and stretching the limits of technology to animate water
From the age of eight, Andrzej Goulding knew that he wanted to work in movies. Or maybe design games, compose music, or even become a cartoonist for Disney. One thing he was pretty sure of was he didn’t want to be a theatre designer.
Yet somehow he has become one of the country’s most prolific and influential video designers for the stage. He’s been behind the striking, innovative and video-heavy designs for Groundhog Day at the Old Vic, the National’s People, Places and Things and Sheffield Crucible’s Frost/Nixon as well as The Girl on the Train, which has been on UK tour and is heading into the West End. He should have a mantlepiece full of Oliviers, except UK theatre’s showpiece awards don’t recognise video design as a category.
He ended up on the theatre design course at Central St Martin’s because “it was better taught” than design courses at film schools, “but I told them when I went for my interview that I wasn’t interested in being a theatre designer”.
After graduating, and with the movie dream starting to fade, Goulding sent out letters to various theatre designers asking if they needed an assistant. One came back from Rob Howell, who was just starting work on the multimillion-pound musical adaptation of Lord of the Rings. “Rob said he could do with an assistant for a week. And I never left.”
That week turned into three years on Lord of the Rings, taking Goulding to Canada for six months when the show toured there. “It was where I met my wife, who was an apprentice stage manager on the show.”
Since then, Goulding’s work has been at the forefront of video design in the UK, and technology has advanced hugely. His first design was made on Keynote, Apple’s equivalent of PowerPoint. These days he uses high-powered computers and media servers that take days to create the effects he designs.
‘The overheads of being a video designer are probably the highest of all the creative roles’
What hasn’t changed, however, is that Goulding is still a one-man band. He animates, draws and designs everything himself, where other designers would hire in specialists for different processes and effects. Part of his solo approach is practical: the way he works is “like a painter, throwing stuff on and adding a bit of this effect and that”, which means it’s difficult to farm any individual element out to others.
The unusual thing about video is that it’s the least live element of theatre. “It takes time, it’s not something you can do in the moment, like lighting. Lighting is essentially crafted in the space. It took me a while to learn this, but you can’t arrive at tech with finished video.” He adds: “It still needs to be live in some form. You can make a skeleton, then you get all the cues – then you can take it away and crunch it together and add all the effects.”
Also, no performance is going to be the same every night; an actor might skip a line, and get out of sync with the video. There needs to be some room for slippage. So a lot of Goulding’s designs play with the interface between live and pre-recorded, for example by using live cameras, then sneaking a cut into the footage so that it switches to pre-recorded video without the audience noticing. The essential thing for Goulding is that “it needs to be there for a really good reason – the video has to serve the story”.
That’s exactly what it’s doing in Lolita Chakrabarti’s adaptation of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel about a boy trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger. Most of the story takes place on the ocean, and it cuts back and forth between vastly different locations, too.
Video is the solution. “That’s the thing we struggle with on stage in comparison to the film: cuts. In film you can be on the sea, then – bang – you’re in a hospital room, then you’re in Pondicherry. Video is one of the ways we can do that. With video I can fill the stage with water. Then there can be a little strobe snap and suddenly the hospital’s there again.”
Water and smoke take the longest time to animate properly, Goulding says – one smoke effect for Ghost the Musical took three machines three days to render – and, unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of water in Life of Pi.
So there’s a toss up between fiddling with combustibility and diffusion presets on animation software to create the water effects, then waiting for days, or just filming water. Goulding has opted for a mix of filmed and animated content to create the best effect. And while software is in the early stages of development to render in real time, he reckons the technology “isn’t quite up to scratch yet”.
Even when that technology is ready, it would be up to Goulding – as a freelance designer – to buy the software himself. And none of it is cheap. “The overheads of being a video designer are probably the highest of all the creative roles.”
But it doesn’t always have to be super flashy and expensive. For the stage adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room at Theatre Royal Stratford East, about a boy and his mum locked in a single room for seven years, Goulding asked a number of children to draw pictures, which formed the basis of the design. The resulting scrawls were mapped using a projector from the front of the stage. “You can do a lot if you’re clever with it, and put it in the right place. It’s about making sure the video is telling the story. If it’s not enhancing the story, take it away.”
To that end, “I tend to be a lot more subtle with my video than others. I don’t like it taking centre stage unless the director wants it. There’s nothing worse than watching a bit of video with nothing else happening on stage. You might as well be at the cinema.”
Technology is constantly evolving, especially in an area as tech-dependent as video, and Goulding constantly tries to stay informed about the latest capabilities and advances. What he’s most excited about in the next few years is augmented reality. “It’ll be gimmicky to start with, but everything is.”
Augmented reality is not the same as virtual reality, which uses a headset to fully create an immersive world. Instead it adds animated elements to the existing world through glasses or a device – Pokémon Go is the most well-known example, where Pokémon characters pop up in the real world when viewed through a smartphone. Even the National Theatre’s closed-caption glasses are AR, adding real-time captions to the play an audience member using them is watching.
“VR is amazing, but you’re creating a solo experience,” Goulding says. “With AR, everyone can be there together looking at a stage. There can be an actor there, but also something could be floating and everyone has a different view of it. I already have a project for when the technology is there. It’s a way away, but it’s important to be ready.”
While the future of theatre might lie in new technology, Goulding suspects that it also lies in new relationships too, with the elision of roles and traditional creative hierarchies.
Despite his aversion to it when he was younger, Goulding has now worked as a set designer on a number of shows, carving out a new line of work alongside his video designs. “I compose, I write. I love the idea that it’s not just writers and directors that can initiate a project. I love being in it at the beginning.”
But as his parallel career as a set designer takes off, he’s increasingly looking to keep those strands separate. “I like doing both, but it’s an exhausting process to do set and video. Staying up until 2am on a paint call when you’ve got to be in tech the following morning as a video designer doesn’t really work,” he says, speaking from punishing experience.
Goulding’s first set designs featured a lot of video, but his latest for Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning, consisting of shipping containers, deliberately kept video to a minimum. “I trained under Rob Howell. His sets are so technical, usually very expensive and always beautiful. So in my head I’m always asking: ‘What would Rob do?’ My first design for the Lyceum had two revolves,” he laughs.
But whether it’s video or set, his approach is the same: “We were always taught that you design the story first. You shouldn’t be thinking about technical limitations or budget. You just design it.”
Life of Pi is running at Sheffield Crucible until July 20
See Andrzej Goulding’s website for more details of his projects