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Ghost Sculpting

PLSN Staff • Inside Theater • July 12, 2012

The producers of the Tony Award-nominated Ghost: The Musical certainly wanted to create an eye-popping visual experience for their audience, and after two incarnations in England (Manchester, and then London), the Broadway version is the most video-intensive and tightly-sequenced of them all. It’s not simply telling the story of artist Molly Jensen and her banker husband Sam Wheat, who, after being murdered, emerges as a restless spirit and tries to warn Molly about impending danger through the assistance of psychic Oda Mae Brown. And it’s not about replicating the tone and look of the movie. It’s about creating a unique theatrical experience where a love story spanning life and death unfolds, but along the way we get the thrill of witnessing floating objects onstage, experiencing a supernatural subway ride and watching Sam’s spirit walk through a door.

Projections and Video Walls

Projections and video walls play a critical part of the visual component of Ghost, and, under the guidance of director Matthew Warchus, video and projection designer Jon Driscoll, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone and scenic designer Rob Howell collaborated to create the look of the show and the illusions needed to generate its supernatural vibe.

Interestingly enough, none of the designers had seen the film in years, nor did they look to it for inspiration or research. They simply re-imagined the Oscar-winning tale over the four-to-five year process that it took to create the show, with a video system including six projectors, video walls, motion-controlled video surfaces (LED and projection, SMPTE timecode synched with the orchestra, MIDI cues associated with other sound effects and musical accents and approximately 540 lighting cues.

“Luckily, we all seem to work seamlessly without really trying,” Vanstone says, of the collaboration with Howell and Driscoll. (The triumvirate has worked in different configurations before). “But we all spent an awful lot of time together working out the solutions to the various scenes as the show was being designed, although we had to leave some fairly terrifying gaps in our armory until the last minute, as we simply didn’t know how it would all fit together until we actually got into the theatre.”

Illustions, Front and Center

“What was slightly strange about it is, normally, one would be trying to work alongside the illusionist and the illusions,” says Howell. “The design would’ve come first, and we would find a way to fit the illusions into whatever the design is. There would be some give and take, but this was completely opposite. Everybody spent a lot of time in endless workshops working out what the illusions should be and how they could be done and how many did we want in the show. The story calls for maybe more than anything in the theater would want, so you’ve got to shop around, find out what you can do and how you can do it, how satisfactory they’d be, and does the execution of each illusion suit the mood of the story moment. We spent a long time working out how best to sculpt the evening in terms of the delivery of the illusions and then design around that.”

It’s All in the Timing

Naturally, the onstage illusions require “incredibly accurate delivery,” and everything technically had to be lined up just right, otherwise the illusions would fail. “The hardest sequences are undoubtedly the illusions, and the hardest of these are the walking-through-the-door illusion, and Sam’s vanish from the loft at the end,” says Vanstone. “The conditions necessary to make both of those work seem so impossible on paper that I can still hardly believe we get away with it.” (And, like most masters of illusion, they cannot discuss it.) “Again, the lighting for both is extremely precise, and timing is critical.”

The sequence where Sam encounters an agitated punk rocker from the other side on an New York subway train is one of the most impressive in the show, because it not only features a video wall in front of the passengers, along with video wall doors that slide open, but the scene shifts perspective to show the train “head on” for part of the sequence. On top of that, a slow motion effect is created with strobe lighting for part of the sequence, which makes it seem like people and objects are gliding slowly through the air during one of the weirder spectral moments. It’s an intense, fast-moving scene that, like every other scene in Ghost, requires that the performers and technicians have everything synched up perfectly.

“As with all illusion work, it is what you don’t see, rather than what you do see, that contains the secret,” says Vanstone. “In the train sequence, ‘unlit areas’ move from one position to another at the same time as choreographic moves. The use of those ‘unlit’ spaces makes the seemingly impossible possible. In the slow motion sections when the passengers on the train float horizontally, I use the strobe function in the MAC III and VL3500 spots to add to the effect.”

Semi-Transparent Video

“The idea from a couple of years ago was that you need to be off a train and on a train and see in a train, and we made a conscious effort to use an LED product you could see through,” says Howell. “I suppose in theory we could have used screens that you couldn’t see through and delivered the same sort of show, but there’s something satisfying for an audience, like using a scrim you can see through. It’s a pleasing theatrical idea. We used it at its most flamboyant on the train. You don’t do much else with your gesture towards the interior of a train; you’re kind of there.”

“When you look at that subway head-on, it’s cut in half,” adds Driscoll. “You have to try to accommodate all the viewing members of the theater, because if it was a movie, everything on the screen looks how it should look, but when you’re dealing with people and imagery in front and behind it, you’ve got to make it work for a very wide viewing angle. It’s quite tricky to sandwich nine people in the middle of a video image like that. That’s a big part of why we have that particular screen, because you can see through it, so the people are behind the screen at that point. What you think of as a video wall, you’re actually looking through, so you clearly see people behind an illuminated video screen.”

Instead of replicating the movie, Ghost the Musical was designed to work as a unique theatrical experience. Photo by Joan MarcusBalancing Lighting and Video

A major challenge in lighting the performers throughout the show was the brightness of the LED walls, which seem to be getting brighter every year. “The intensity of light needed to light actors in front of the very bright screens is typically about twice what you would otherwise need to sculpt the actors in front of conventional scenery,” says Vanstone. “My worry was about being able to place sufficient emphasis on the live performers compared to the imagery, since they are supposed to exist together and complement each other. Because the product is not made with theatre in mind, it is five or six times brighter than it needs to be in my opinion, thus we were running it at very low levels, which sometimes compromises its ability to fade smoothly.”

Vanstone instinctively knew they would want lights in view for some of the show, thus the flown trusses became part of the set design, which remained unchanged “since I scribbled in on Rob’s early sketches made while we were all working on Matilda in Stratford-upon-Avon.”

As for the lights themselves, Vanstone has always been a fan of the Vari*Lite VL5/5B; many of them form the main cross light element of the rig. The LD also chose Clay Paky Alpha Beams for their “strong tight beams” and Martin MAC IIIs for their “exceptional beam spread combined with the animation wheel.”  The workhorses for the rest of the rig were VL3000Q washes and VL3500Q spots, both of which Vanstone has used often in the past. He added Impression 90s as “eye candy” within the trusses. A grandMA console controls both lighting and video.

Video Throughout

“There have been quite a few shows like this, but Ghost is the most extreme example of where the evening starts and the video never really goes out,” stated Driscoll. “It underscores just about every moment of it. It’s good to establish that from the start, because then you kind of know where you fit in. People understand that it’s going to be a thread, an important part of the process. There are so many different aspects, but one of the original things from our talks was that it was a bit like a pop video at times, that the dance and choreography were going to have the language on the screens. That was a very big aspect, so you could immediately say during these songs there’s going to be choreography and prominent dance on screen. The other big aspect that we used to workshop a lot when we first started was the special effects sequences, because we had a lot more options to begin with. We had a lot more ideas that were narrowed down to the ones that are now in the show. We auditioned effects and found the ones that we liked the most, then we had to bring those into the way the set was built and how we delivered those projected effects.”

Driscoll says that the video walls are a special system made for the show; basically a semi-transparent LED screen that he tailored to the specifications of the set. (XL Video supplied more than 1,100 square feet of Pixled F-24 to support the production.) The six projectors used for the show have varying levels of brightness; they include three Panasonic 12K projectors, another Panasonic 8K unit and two Sanyo 7K projectors. The projection and playback supplier is Sound Associates.

Driscoll refined and edited a lot of the video content throughout the three incarnations of the show. There is a total of close to two-and-a-half hours of video being used, and probably another three to four hours on the cutting room floor.

Not surprisingly, the Ghost set abounds with digital imagery. “All of those walls have video applied to them,” Driscoll says, and “If a wall moves, the video moves with it. That’s a bit of a nightmare, because there’s loads of cable management and a very tolerant video system that doesn’t mind being moved, or the connection stays all the way through the movement. When we first started building the British version, we spent a lot of time perfecting that, because the screens have big surfaces and have doors and sections that pop out. They’re all very articulated, so you’ve got to be very confident about how [they will function]. First of all, you have to figure out how to cable up something like that, because if a wall has a section that flips 180° or 360°, how do you get the video information to not be impacted by that or disrupted by that? There’s a lot of engineering that went into that. If you were to look at it when the lights are on, you’d see that how it all works is very complicated.”

Updating Traditional Scenery

Even with all of the video and projection imagery thrown up onstage, there are times, as Howell notes, that “traditional scenic solutions” were needed, such as the classic street block with storefronts created for Oda Mae’s parlor. But behind that façade, that set piece opens up into her parlor through modern theatrical techniques.

“Sam needs to be out on the street and go into the room, and you need to watch him do that,” stresses Howell. “Then in the second Oda Mae scene, Sam’s in the parlor, and you need to see him come out into the street and chase Willie Lopez [his murderer]. When you break it down, you need an exterior and a transition into the interior. You can’t take the exterior away from the audience and ask them to wait while you build the interior. You’ve got to show them the move in.” For Howell, the storefronts are not the surprise, but Sam walking through the beaded curtain that can mutate to an interior straight away, which it does by the doors opening and the parlor set pieces slid out in front.

Howell had no problems with the amount of video being used in the show, but he wanted to make sure that it was used appropriately. For example, the romantic outdoor café scene between Sam and Molly features a table and chairs, a café sign and little more. But the video walls behind provide static background imagery, and the familiar brick and fire escape elements of New York help maintain a warm, organic texture to balance with the digital scenery.

Real vs. Virtual

“All of the imagery surrounding the café is there to support the mood of being in a café, not a figurative scenic solution of being in a café,” notes Howell, who pointed out that there are shows that might have handled that scene with a digital solution. “We felt that with our love story you have to be very careful how much of the digital stuff we use and when we use it, and that it doesn’t get in the way of the warmth of the story. So when you’re in a bank on Wall Street, that’s not going to get in the way of the emotion of the story, and that’s when it’s great to have a big number and ticker tape and all of that. But when there are two lovers in a café table, you don’t want it to look like a pop video then.”

All the set pieces “come with their own anxieties,” notes Howell, “and I think the loft has the most moving parts and the longest journey to make.” Not only does Sam and Molly’s loft transform from an empty to a lived-in space during the first act, but the location of the door and the video screen in front of it have to be aligned just right in order for Sam’s spirit to be able to “walk through” their front door. Howell says that the pieces have to be within a quarter inch of their mark all the time, or the illusions will fail.

Given the continuous use of video throughout Ghost, Driscoll was worried about reaching an oversaturation point. He tried to work in sync and in harmony with the set, the lighting design and the story. “Basically you have to find a balance,” he says. “For example, in the loft scenes, a lot of the video will sit still or very subtly do something. It doesn’t upstage the action. But then around the corner it will go completely crazy because of the transition to a subway. What we found was you wouldn’t want to switch it off. It goes off very, very rarely, and that’s to achieve a momentary blackout. You want to apply something to the walls, even if it’s not something very visual. You need to leave some energy in it, otherwise it’s not good to just look at a blank wall. The intensity of content goes up and down. It all depends on the section and the part of the show that they’re in.” Driscoll was involved in generating video content, and he estimated that 95 percent of the show is hand-built.

Working in Harmony

Driscoll says his video work did challenge Vanstone because the LED technology was quite bright, which is not normally the case. While the video designer was given the chance to design something “really bold,” everything he used was really bright, from the projectors to the screens. For this, he and the LD had to work in harmony with each other, particularly in terms of contrast ratios and brightness. They worked at the lowest brightness levels for the LED screens, which is as comfortable for the human eye as they could get. When new screens came in during initial previews, Driscoll had to quickly lower their brightness levels. “I used to be a lighting designer and used to work with Hugh,” he says, “so we have a very good rapport. We don’t mind balancing each other to tweak something.”

A long roster of video crew members support those efforts, including associate video & projection designers Gemma Carrington and Michael Clark, video system consultant Alan Cox, video programmers Laura Frank and Emily Harding, production video technician Jason Lindahl and video technician Chris Kurtz, along with XL Video LED technician Franck Van de Cayzeele.

Overall, Driscoll notes, he used about two-thirds LED and one-third projections on the show. Often, both are used at the same time. “The whole opening sequence is projected, from the overture to the end of the first song,” he notes. “I have some special projectors that project onto the characters of the show as well. We project the whole width of the proscenium quite a lot.”

A lot of blood, sweat, tears and technology went into the making of Ghost, and changes to the production could be arduous and time-consuming. But the director and designers had a lot to achieve in order to make the show work, and the results stand out. “Changing 30 seconds [of the show] might take four or five days,” notes Howell, “but then you see somebody walk through a door, so it’s worth it.”

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