Ghost was the surprise blockbuster of 1990, one that won Oscars for Bruce Joel Rubin’s original screenplay and Whoopi Goldberg’s turn as a phony psychic caught between the dead (Patrick Swayze’s murdered stockbroker) and the living (a grieving Demi Moore, who Swayze is trying to contact from the beyond with information about his slaying). The film, which resurrected The Righteous Brothers’ 1965 hit "Unchained Melody," took an offhand, low-tech approach to the supernatural that appealed to viewers.
Ghost The Musical, a West End import now at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne, takes the opposite tack. Rubin has penned the book and some lyrics, and supplementing "Unchained Melody" are a dozen songs supplied by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. From the start, the production is awash in cinematic spectacle, with Hugh Vanstone’s high-voltage lighting and Bobby Aitken’s high-energy sound jolting the theatre. And illusionist Paul Kieve provides ingenious sleight-of-hand, as when the slain husband, Sam, returning to his Brooklyn apartment from the spirit world, walks through a wall.
"That’s a state secret," says Jon Driscoll of that particular gasp-inducing moment, but he will talk about his video and projection design, which envelops the stage and thrusts the audience into the action, as when a subway car (itself home to a ghost) hurtles across, around, and into the performance area, so convincingly you might want to have a Metrocard handy. A front scrim and large rear- and side-panel LED screens display a constant variety of cityscapes and atmospheres, and serve to highlight Ashley Wallen’s choreography.
Driscoll has a long association with director Matthew Warchus and designer Rob Howell. Workshops for the show, which opened in London in 2011, began in 2009. "We knew we wanted to have video as a thread all the way through it, and Matthew particularly wanted the choreography of the ensemble to have a presence on the screen," he recalls. The goal was to complement, and not overwhelm, the storyline. "The set’s three automated walls, including the doors, are all LED panels; everything you see at the bottom two-thirds of the set is an LED screen by Pixled." XL Video supplied the 103sq-m of Pixled F-24 screen for the production. The scenic automation was built by PRG and is controlled via a PRG Commander automation console.
"The LED screen that wraps around is quite a good scale compared to the actors who are in front of it, so they’re not overpowered," continues Driscoll. "That said, the video projection is epic—with six HD video projectors—and takes up the whole width of the scrim. Hugh and I worked very hard to harmonize the lighting with the screens, so the brightness wouldn’t overpower the audience."
Sound Associates provided the projection and playback gear, including two active Catalyst Media Servers, three Panasonic PT-DZ8700U projectors, one Panasonic PT-DX800S projector, two Sanyo PLC-XP200 projectors, and two Apollo Right Arm automated yokes. The production also makes use of an Enttec Datagate MK2, a Moxa NPort 5150 device server, and various Ethernet switches for networking, as well as a Barco MatrixPRO 8x8 DVI router.
The show, Driscoll says, "is a third more developed in New York than it is in London. Matthew’s very critical, and he wouldn’t settle for something. When we came to New York last October, we had more time to work on the footage. Every time the ensemble is onstage, a negative version is on the screen as well, which we didn’t have in London. I got them into the studio and filmed them, slightly tweaking the choreography to the screen. It took quite some time to get that back in sync with the live performance. And we changed the subway quite a bit." A favorite moment in the show for Driscoll is the transition to the subway sequence, accomplished via "a lot of guerilla steadicam shooting at a Dumbo neighborhood subway in Brooklyn. That gave me a buzz."
The main video projector, he says, is "on the circle front. It has very wide lenses that can cover the entire width of the proscenium. Video projectors for the special effects are built into the trucks and cantilevered off the backs of the sets. We built two motorized ones that move around the stage and track some of the characters; they put the video imagery onto the actors, like lights. These ‘Orb-o-matics,’ as I call them, project orbs on characters wherever you want them."
Regarding the LED technology at his disposal, the designer is "fairly critical," he says. "The product that’s available is designed for stadiums or car launches or billboards. I constantly have to it and run it as low as I can. On Ghost, we run it at 3% of potential…I’m always trying to find a place where the image looks good and isn’t too bright. It’s hard to work with, but I don’t expect anyone to come out with a special LED for theatre. It’s not a big enough market, and there’s a risk to using LED on a show. Whereas we have three projectors doing the same thing on the show, we just have one screen, so if it malfunctions, and it starts flashing, you have to turn it off. The cost of that to the piece is huge. I’ve been fortunate not to have had a fatal error yet, but if you want to grow gray hair quickly, run a show like Ghost," he laughs.
What gray hairs that have cropped up have been worth it. Driscoll and Howell were nominated for a Tony for Best Scenic Design Of A Musical, while Vanstone was nominated for the lighting design. Driscoll, Howell, and Kieve won Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Set Design.