It's been a really bad night. The temperature's down in the negative numbers, there are ice flows everywhere, and the ship that was supposed to be accompanying The Gabriel is missing, apparently lost in the storm. Cannon balls are rolling around on the deck — this not a phenomena of the weather or the pitching ocean, but a result of the crew's dissatisfaction. Shot rolling, as it is known, is an almost sure sign of imminent mutiny. This is the morning that Martin Frobisher awakens to in 1576. It's a morning he felt would surely reveal the beginning of the Northwest Passage that he sought, a northern highway to the gold-laden trade of the Far East.
Transition, Long Shot: Two figures struggle across the tundra, wearing bright red parkas. One of them is carrying an advanced high-definition camera. The snow is picking up, blinding really. The two reveal themselves. It is Michael and Anna, famous independent filmmakers, as well as husband and wife. Michael gazes out over the bay they have approached, while Anna films him. “It was here; he landed here.” The two scan the waters of Frobisher Bay. The time is the present.
Sometimes reality imitates art, imitating reality. Perhaps that could be said for the Calgary Opera's recent premiere production of Frobisher, co-commissioned by the Banff Center. Frobisher is a fascinating piece, that oh-so-rare beast: contemporary opera. With a libretto by John Murrel (in English!) and music by John Estacio, Frobisher tells the parallel tales of a desperate man's search for trade routes, gold, and paradise; and a filmmaking couple's efforts to make their first big commercial feature film about that tale.
As with many things operatic, the body count takes an uptick in the very first scene, as one of our filmmaking pair, Michael, wanders off into the blizzard, meeting an untimely end. The audience now watches as two questions unfold: Will Queen Elizabeth allow Frobisher to try one more time, and will the Hollywood establishment allow Anna to finish her husband's vision and score a similarly commercial triumph?
What a rich vein to be mined by a creative staff: period and contemporary; snow storms; arctic wastelands; famous film festivals; a royal palace. Frobisher is a show that unabashedly visits all of these locales. It makes use of natural phenomena as Greek chorus in the form of Northern Lights and raging snow. And throughout, the visual medium of film lends opportunities to define and present narrative through the eye of the camera, as well as the human eye.
For us, the journey began two summers ago, when we were invited to teach a Master Class session in projection design at the Banff Center. It was a fantastic event, with many of the leading manufacturers and vendors lending the most advanced gear, and attended by some of Canada's leading lights in the disciplines of lighting, scenic, and projection design. At the conclusion of the seminar, a small knot of folks approached our table, asking, “Do you know how we might achieve Northern Lights with projection?”
That simple question turned into a two-year odyssey of workshops, design meetings, and conceptual exercises. We were extremely fortunate to be hired onto a design team that already included Canadian superstars Sue LePage, creating scenic design, and Harry Frehner in the lighting design position. At the helm was the equally experienced (and heralded) director Kelly Robinson of Toronto. The Banff Center, personified by John Avery, technical director, and Robert Rombaugh, production manager, would build the sets and help with funding.
Naturalistic phenomena are the high bar for the projection designer. Certainly our Canadian audiences were well acquainted with the look and behavior of snow and Northern Lights. There would be little margin for error in their representation, and it would be coupled with the need to service the music and narrative. Ultimately, the answer to both phenomena was to stylize just so, reflect reality, and deliver it magically.
The weather phenomena of the show were a definite challenge. The manifestation of snow, wind, and fog would have to accompany and dance with the music. It would set visual tone, and it would also, later in the show, help to introduce the ghostly appearances of Michael as he revisits Anna in her dreams, encouraging her to finish the film. The more electromagnetic phenomenon was an equal task. The Aurora Borealis served as the herald of Frobisher, as well as the physical curtain beyond which he believed paradise existed. For Anna, the Northern Lights would signify the appearance of Frobisher's spirit, and the magic of visualizing the script that takes shape.
We began the development process with these thorny challenges. Of course, added to this were myriad other projection opportunities. LePage had provided us with a stunning set of receding, impressionistic, rectilinear trees in several scenes: the onstage physical presence of the boreal forest. The panels making up the branch structure were sometimes not filled, acting as an aperture, but in other cases were skinned with a variety of textiles. This ranged from Gerriets film screen to plastic scrim material. Projection was mapped to each of the individual panels, allowing for precise control of transitional media and where particular phenomena would manifest. By using carefully composed masking layers in the Hippotizer, it became possible to achieve this control in a totally malleable fashion.
From the beginning, we had made a decision to use the Version 3 software of Hippotizer. The substantial leaps forward the software had taken gave us the flexibility we required on the show. The timeline functionality was especially interesting to us. It felt quite intuitive to program with a timeline interface, and it would perhaps help us to save some money by not using a DMX console. Another deciding factor was the built-in encoding engine. Because of the logistics of crossing borders and shipping, we had decided to not travel with our usual BOXX Technologies rackmounted ProCoder setup. The new media manager proved itself flexible and perfect for keeping track of media iterations and making sure our cues had current content.
Green Hippo was intensely supportive. We would be the first show up that used the software. MODE Studios would supply one Hippo HD, while UVS — a phenomenal Canadian vendor of A/V equipment — would supply a second Hippo HD, as well as three Christie S9 DLP projectors, High End Systems Catalyst Orbital Head, and Magenta Systems signal networking.
We began working with the new Hippo software in the studio as content came together. The timeline was proving to be a bit cranky, but we had confidence that we would wrestle it to the ground before tech.
Colleen Bonniol traveled to Banff twice before production, once for another series of design meetings and then again to direct and coordinate the HD green-screen shoot we were planning in order to create the ghostly appearances of both Michael and Frobisher. The Banff Center is a fantastic facility for artistic exploration. Nestled in some of the most gorgeous mountain terrain we had ever seen, the center focuses on enabling the advancement of arts and sciences. It has multiple theatres, rehearsal rooms, film studios, post-production facilities, and scene shops — everything one could want to create new theatre from the ground up.
We decided that having imagery of Michael and Frobisher in costume to composite with atmosphere would be a powerful tool in the visual box of options. The design plans were to film Michael for use in what would become the footage that the character Anna had shot of him the day he was lost in the snow. With Frobisher, we would be compositing the footage together with Northern Lights to embed him within, in a sense constructing the character from the Northern Lights.
The shoot went well, with beautiful footage collected in HD. The Banff Center even took care of the logging and digitizing. Our hats were off to Luke Avezedo in the Media Center for making this part so seamless.
Back in Seattle, we began working with these pieces of footage. We had been concentrating on creating snow and Northern Lights. We were using two particle systems, Particle Illusion and Trapcode's Particular, to make quite convincing snow. Because we had complete control over the effect of physics within the particle systems, as well as weather phenomena like gusts of wind, the direction of the wind, etc., we were successful at creating snow that blew and blustered in time with the orchestrations.
The Northern Lights were proving to be trickier. Particle Illusion actually had about six Aurora presets. The problem with them is that they looked a little hyper-real. Their shape and behavior were useful, but their color and sense of sparkle were a bit over the top. We began to experiment with layering the presets with footage we had on hand of other natural phenomena and elements: clouds, water, and fire. This immediately began to yield some very interesting results, but nothing that was right on the mark yet. Colleen had a very specific look in mind and was pushing hard to get to that look exactly. In the meantime, we constructed a whole series of environmental looks for tree panels, which entailed some extensive shooting on Colleen's part while up in Banff. Lepage described a sense of fragmentation in these images, suggesting that perhaps some should be oddly scaled. And maybe in other cases, parts were obscured by depth of field focus while other elements leapt out. Colleen used our Canon 20D digital SLR with its wide range of lens choices to get these footage elements in camera. We then sorted through the hundreds of pictures she had taken and began to assemble the collages of images that would paint the trees. As image choices fell into place, we began to tweak color elements and apply treatments that brought out edges, added grain, or affected luminance.
Our equipment approach had to meet several criteria. We had to be able to produce full-stage projection. Additionally, we had surfaces at various depths that would require sharp focus. We also had several small surfaces that would require fairly high-definition footage to appear on them. After performing a lot of math and visualizing in VectorWorks and ESP Vision, we decided to place all of the projectors in the front, on the balcony rail. The rail at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary has a commodious steel platform hung under it, making the projector placement a snap. We would have to deal with sonic issues that demanded construction of enclosures. But the long-throw distance — 90' from rail to plaster — meant that the focus depth of imagery would be really good from the edge of the stage to the back wall. We opted to create a full-stage raster by blending two of the projectors and also to have a third projector with a Catalyst Orbital Head that allowed us to place densely packed pixels where we needed them.
As we got into tech, first in workshop at the Banff Center and then in the Jubilee itself, it became apparent that we were putting huge demands on the Hippotizer's timeline interface. After implementing a bevy of code patches and working nonstop with the Hippo software team, we collectively decided to go back to a DMX-driven control interface so we weren't putting show operation at risk. It was a model we knew worked. (Since then, the Hippo V3 Timeline has been completely recoded, and we can say it works like a charm.) As the tech progressed, our team fell into a rhythm, with Colleen sitting with Robinson, LePage, and Frehner at the tech tables composing cueing. Our constant programming companion, Tommy Hague, mashed buttons on the MA Lighting grandMA, and I worked at a G5 Quad workstation that had been shipped up to create content revisions. So much was revealed about content specifics when we started to hear the fully orchestrated and assembled score. It was, after all, a new piece. As John Estacio's arrangements became fully apparent, we began to shift and morph cueing and footage to reflect this new depth in the music. At last, we came up with the proper amalgam of technique and media to create the Aurora we wanted and to weave the character imagery of Frobisher into it. Using a retiming tool called Twixtor, we took flame footage that had a rolling liquid appearance and slowed it down by about 500%, and Twixtor supplied totally smooth, new slow-motion footage. We then mixed this with footage of milk being poured into a tank of glycerine, which had an amazing shifting, flowing, cloudiness, as well as with the particle footage of actual aurora presets. The end result had an essence of the Aurora, but also had a fluid sense of self-determination that made it appear almost alive. Colleen declared it perfect on the day of the first dress rehearsal! This projection also had a huge literal atmospheric component. In several places, the Northern Lights and Frobisher's ghostly appearances would occur on a descending fog sheet achieved with a CO2 system. After initial reserve about the potential of this — we've seen a lot of attempts at controlled meteorology fail — we were pleased and amazed to have a blowing, viscous haze that perfectly complemented the nature of the Aurora footage.
The performances were received with enthusiastic response from the sold-out audiences, as well as the critics. Frobisher will be remounted this summer at the Banff Center.