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Rob Halliday: ‘Technology advances design but it’s the collaboration that counts’

Jim Sturgeaon and the cast of Kneehigh's Brief Encounter: one of the production's features is its use of video projecion. Photo: Steve Tanner
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I have a memory of watching the movie Titanic when it was first released and thinking, “Crap, we’re in trouble.” The ‘we’ was the theatre world, and the ‘trouble’ was that astonishing time-rewinding sequence, flying through the underwater wreck as it transforms to its original glory. Visually beautiful, perfect storytelling and unachievable on stage…

At least, then. That was 1997 and video projection arrived in theatre design shortly afterwards.

There was projection before video, achieved with various scales of projector from the tiny Carousel to the mighty Pani. Add a scroller and the images could move. Astonishing things were achieved, in particular Wendall Harrington’s opening to the 1993 Tommy, for which 10,000 35mm slides were made.

Inevitably, technology, particularly computers, provided the catalyst. Video projectors became small enough to fit into the spaces theatre offered, while bright enough to compete with show lighting.

In 2001, Catalyst provided a tool, a media server, able not just to play back content, but to manipulate it in real time – bringing freedom to play, that freedom on which artists thrive.

Why video is getting a bigger part in theatre

Chris Toulmin of the CAD bureau Modelbox had been talking about digital scenery from the mid-1990s. Early into the following decade designer Bill Dudley, aided by Dick Straker and Sven Ortel, delivered computer-generated, projected scenery for the cinematically written The Coast of Utopia and then the musical The Woman in White.

A new word entered the theatrical production lexicon: ‘rendering’. The process of taking the sketch artwork and having the computer animate it at high resolution. Rendering took time. It still takes time: the computers get faster, but the ambition of video designers seems to grow faster still. So we learnt about the joys of the placeholder graphic, and of not quite knowing how to light the scene until the final image appeared.

There was a mixed reaction to this work, as there still often is to projection. The quandary is in introducing a two-dimensional medium into the three-dimensional world of theatre.

The potential is for new storytelling opportunities, as with 59 Productions and Rae Smith’s work on War Horse. And of course the ability to achieve that Titanic moment or magic such as that Finn Ross conjures in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (though I have to #keepthesecret, so I can’t tell you what they are…)

Read our interview with designer Rae Smith

As with everything, it’s about context. By the time you read this, we will have opened the Balich Worldwide show Giudizio Universale in Rome, in which Luke Halls and his team of animators and programmers bring Michelangelo’s work at the Sistine Chapel to life in front of, around and above the audience.

But then you scrape a spotlight across a textured piece of scenery and remember that, actually, there are other things video can’t do – and that it’s the collaboration of everyone, in making the picture tell the story, that makes making shows fun.

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