The actors, who for example carry around sticks that become fences or architectural pieces in their hands, are part of an environment of “clear, bold ideas” that Smith developed around War Horse.
A “simple strip” of a projection screen above the stage, with stylized hand-drawn imagery that conveys the shifts in the storyline and completes some of the suggested sets also fills in the space. “They can give a ‘top’ to some of the sets, like the roof of Albert’s house, and in collaboration with the lighting design we can darken the color of the drawings and indicate the time of day,” Smith says. “The projections also move the show from scene to scene. Your eye goes up as we show a skyscape and cranes moving then down as we move past ships until we arrive at the harbor, where the actors come on.”
What looks so precise onstage was the result of intensive teamwork and support from the National Theatre that took War Horse from its “terrible” first previews (“it was so fatty,” Smith laughs) to its trim, Tony-winning self. The projections have been part of its evolution on its journey to New York, says 59 Productions video designer Mark Grimmer.
“We worked closely with Rae to create material for the screen which played scenographic, narrative, and atmospheric roles in telling the story,” Grimmer says. “The concept for the video world was that it was to feature drawings from the sketchbook of one of the characters, Lieutenant Nicholls. Rae drew the majority of these pictures, and they were subsequently combined with some bespoke film footage, some archival material, and, originally, shadow puppetry, which has been replaced with animation for New York. All of these elements were combined live using media server software that gives great flexibility and precision for making adjustments quickly in technical rehearsals.” Grimmer recalls that in the original London production, “the shadow puppetry onstage was filmed and then composited live onto these multilayered, hand-drawn backgrounds. At the New London Theatre, this shadow puppetry was pre-filmed to free up the actors somewhat, as they had plenty else to be doing on stage besides operating shadow puppets. For Lincoln Center we did a great deal of new work, introducing much more sophisticated animated elements, some new drawn material, and new 3D-modeled animation to replace the shadow puppetry.
This CG animation was treated to look very naive, hand-drawn, and analog. It allowed us maximum flexibility to change timings, positions, and quality of movement, which we were able to do in situ with our director of animation, Peter Stenhouse, who joined us for the technical rehearsals in New York. We worked closely with Rae to give the screen world a real boost for the New York production—every department did a good deal of reworking and polishing.”
The setup is now “relatively straightforward,” Grimmer says. “The content is played back from a Catalyst media server which composites the final image from several component layers. The ETC Eos console that controls the lighting triggers the content; the images are then delivered to the screen by three Panasonic PT-DS100X projectors. A Matrox TripleHead2Go, an external multi-head adapter, divides the Catalyst signal into three parts, delivering unique aspects of the content to each projector over DVI fiber-optic lines.” Grimmer adds that the development of the visual language on the screen “takes us from a warm, rural, idyllic style in Act One, in Devon, which degenerates into a more fractured, abstract style, inspired by the work of the Vorticist and Futurist painters, in particular Britain’s Paul Nash” when warfare consumes the second act. Constable describes how she fashioned the show with lighting.
“The projection surface is essentially a torn strip of paper,” she says. “In Devon the light comes from above and behind the screen so it’s like a cloud, with a fuzzy edge when you get direct sunlight catching it. We light the edge of it, through it, and around it. When we get into the war we drop the eyeline so the light gets from underneath, so that it goes from a sky to more like a lid on the action. In the war zone it’s as if we’ve torn the edge off this world, with all the light underneath and above and behind the projection screen.”
Taking place in a semi-darkness that encourages one’s imagination the show uses little saturated color and a great deal of fog to support the imagery. “It’s a specific palette, a contrast between the two halves of the show. The pastoral Devonshire palette is all very warm tones and all tungsten sources; it’s Lee 236 open white, almost sepia and just slightly warm. When we go into the Paul Nash WWI war artists world it’s manmade, shrapnel, and chemical, so we go into discharge sources. Most of the moving lights are discharge sources, a much colder palette—any color is Lee 201, 202, or 728, much more cool green, more harsh, and edgier.”
That war is hell was not lost on the design team, whose vision of chaos is stunningly immersive. “Perhaps the most challenging sequence from a projection point of view is a scene we call ‘Joey's Night,’ which takes place towards the end of Act Two when Joey is running through no man's land,” Grimmer says. “By this point in the show, the visual language of the projection has moved into a very fractured, nightmare language. The aim of the sequence is to give the audience an indication of Joey's experience of distress and fear, his mental point of view if you like. The movement onscreen is timed closely with the physical movement of the horse onstage which was tricky to get right as obviously the live action is subject to subtle variations from night to night, especially given how physically demanding the sequence is for the actors. We had to put the sequence together so that it was broken down into several shorter cues which dovetailed together, giving enough flexibility that the sequence can run successfully even with a couple of seconds’ variation in the timings of movement onstage.”
Smith says that, with the help of its “excellent stage crew,” the Beaumont is an ideal front. “There’s no backstage space at the New London, so it and everything else has to be flown up vertically into the wings. The Beaumont has this lovely, intimate apron stage that with the addition of the backstage can open up into an epic panorama. This allowed us to build our battlescape, which I based on Nash, who worked in a Vorticist or even surrealist manner.” With its scary expanse of barbed wire and depiction of soldiers as metal insects imperiled by conflict, “psychologically this battleground tells the story better than photographic realism.” (By contrast, her carefully researched costumes, numbering near 200, have a bedrock authenticity about them, with woolen fabric that is the right weight for the period, sourced from Yorkshire and the khaki British officer uniforms sewn up by the same firm that did the tailoring during the Great War.)
The onset of war involves the startling appearance of a tank. Constable has lit the unit like a shadow puppet, with built-in birdies and very bright Philips Vari-Lite VL3500s behind it illuminating its terrible advance. Shutt, who recorded shooting practice with the British Army Training Corps as part of his piecing together the warscape “one gunshot and explosion at a time” (“they needed to make a big dynamic impact and the period munitions were a bit cranky and primitive in comparison and authentic recordings almost non-existent”) describes how the sound design works the nerves of characters and audiences alike in these scenes.
“The British developed the first tanks, and to show the impact that the internal combustion engine would have on Joey we see him racing up to this metal monster and realizing it was a battle he wasn’t going to win. (The tank had to be as frightening to him as we could possibly make it, although in photographs of the time, those tanks now are quite laughable.) I installed two Tannoy T12 drivers and a sub bass unit on the body of the tank, connected to two massive car amps via three IEMs, so that the sound of the tracks and the engine move around the stage with the tank. I played with the pitch of a Model T Ford to create the sound of a primitive engine to combine with it, and it backfires as it exits the stage. The music at that point is at its loudest and most thrilling so it was quite a challenge to find and install drivers that could be driven hard enough, yet were still light enough to be carried in the tank, which has to be maneuvered and puppeteered by the performers.”
Stay tuned for the final section of this in-depth coverage of War Horse.