Never people to turn down a new challenge, the team at Aura Sound Design recently belied their name to create the video as well as the audio content for the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC's) new stage version of Midnight's Children.
Chosen as the ‘Booker of Bookers’, the best novel to win the Booker Prize in its first twenty-five years, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children follows India as it gains independence from Britain through the eyes of a child born at the same moment as the new state. The novel is epic in its scope; for the stage version director Tim Supple and designer Melly Still opted to use video both to provide background footage of the period the novel is set in, and as a means of presenting some of the show's more abstract, dream moments.
The challenges presented to the Aura team, led by LDI Sound Designer of the Year 2002 John A. Leonard, were both artistic and technical. They had to gather the archive material demanded by the show; create the new content called for in the script and by the director; work out how to replay the video onto the four-way split screen created by the set designer; and ensure that the projection system would work not only at London's Barbican Theatre but also as the show visited the USA and then toured Britain. They also had to figure out the show-control elements to run the video system; work and re-work the video as the director created and modified the show during the technical rehearsals; do all of this on a very limited (particularly by video standards) budget; and they had to create the show's sound design at the same time. “It was a very steep learning curve, and very hard work,” recalls Leonard.
Content for the show was a mixture of painstakingly tracked down archive footage (“When we told many of the places specializing in Indian archive footage what the material was for, the phone would mysteriously go dead,” according to Leonard) and new material shot with the show's cast prior to rehearsals. “We were fortunate enough to have John Driscoll working with us as director of photography for these shoots,” Leonard explains. “He has worked as a theatre lighting designer but now specializes in film and video, so had a perfect combination of knowledge from these separate worlds.” These sequences were edited by Richard Overall, then combined with the other material and formatted for the projection screen by Leonard using Final Cut Pro on a variety of Apple Macintosh computers.
For video replay onto the upstage screen, divided into four projection surfaces, Aura chose to use four Christie L6 5,200 ANSI Lumen projectors as back-projectors. “Budget considerations meant that there were discussions about using one projector, but there was so little throw behind the screen that we really had to use four projectors. We chose the Christie units because they were bright and because the people at Christie were very helpful,” Leonard explains.
For replay, Leonard and Aura's Scott George investigated a number of options before choosing the VidShow system from MediaMation, replaying video for the four projectors from one PC. “Scott wrote a control panel for the system, then pushed it to its limits,” is how Leonard now describes the show's hectic technical period which saw Aura install wired and wireless Ethernet networks around the Barbican's auditorium to allow video data to be moved quickly from editing Macs to replay PCs. George also made use of Richmond Sound Design's E-Show to send MIDI control information from Richmond's ShowMan show control system on a PC at the rear of the auditorium to the video replay computers on stage via Ethernet. “That worked really well,” he recalls; “it's one of those products that just works, works well, and is incredibly useful.” George also took a MIDI feed to the show's lighting desk. “We first did this because we fitted scrollers to the video projectors to use as dowsers; these were controlled by the lighting desk but we would send it MIDI commands to open or close the scrollers. Then for certain sequences in the show there were just too many things for the stage manager to say at the same time, so we would trigger sound, video, and lighting from one cue.”
After an exhausting tech following weeks of long hours gathering and editing material and masking it to fit the projection screens, everything finally fell into place just in time for the opening night. But the Aura team then had to start working on plans for the show's American visit: “The initial drawings for the Apollo Theatre in New York showed that the screen would move even closer to the projectors,” notes Leonard. “We've had to argue against that very strongly, just because there isn't any time or money to re-render the video imagery to fit, even if we could get wide enough lenses, so I think everything might now be back to where it should be.” The production visits the Apollo and the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan before returning to the UK and touring to Aberdeen, Nottingham, Birmingham, and Bath.
And the result of all this work? The critics have the production a mixed reception but most, led by Germaine Greer on BBC television, seemed to want more of the video footage.
And for Aura? “We learnt a lot on the show,” recalls Leonard. “But we continue to be fascinated by video and, hopefully, will get opportunities to further explore this new area soon.”
Richmond Sound Design Ltd. makes innovative products for themed, theatrical, live and concert sound, and show control. For more information and for demonstration software please visit its website: www.RichmondSoundDesign.com