Alastair Muir 

PRG XL Video Supports Lighting and Video Designers for Big The Musical

Based on the classic movie starring Tom Hanks, Michael Rose and Idili Theatricals Limited in association with the Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin present a Theatre Royal Plymouth production of Big The Musical.

The show opened at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in November 2016 to excellent reviews, with shows at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre Dublin running across December and into New Year 2017.

The production, which stars Strictly Come Dancing champion Jay McGuinness as Josh Baskin, Diana Vickers as Susan Lawrence, and Gary Wilmot as George MacMillan, is directed and choreographed by Morgan Young.

Having worked with the team on a highly successful production of Elf The Musical in 2015, PRG XL Video’s theatre account director, Peter Marshall was contacted by Michael Rose to provide lighting and video technology for the new production of Big The Musical.

Preparing for the new show, production manager, Hugh Borthwick visited PRG XL Video’s facility at Longbridge, Birmingham. He explains: “Simon Higlett had designed an amazing set with some great technical challenges, so it was great to work with PRG to realise his design.”

The design of the show included a wide, double-sided, curved video wall which was used as digital scenery. Mounted on to a revolve built by TR2, the video screen was a complex construction which required planning and preparation.

Hugh Borthwick continues: “We had a few demonstrations at Longbridge with the designers and director present. The Theatre Royal Plymouth’s TR2 expert practitioners Sebastian Soper and Jason Steen worked with Paul Craven, Sam Floyd, Ted Moore and Howard Eaton to create the set and ensure all the elements could work together. Total Solutions were a huge help in its assembly.

“The main challenges were how to construct the video wall with the LED panels working on both sides of the curve; how to make it travel on the middle revolve; plus, how to power it and send data to it. Once we had solutions for those questions, we also had to allow the scenic elements to fit on or around the revolve to complete the design.”

Video designer, Ian William Galloway explains how the screen was designed: “The scenes in the show change very quickly without a lot of time to do a conventional scene change. Simon Higlett and I wanted to find a way in which we could quickly change scene, but also quickly block off large areas of the stage so it could be reset for scenes coming up. That led to the idea of a series of revolves and a revolving video wall in the middle of these.”

The screen was built in sections with each facet each containing 16 panels of ROE Visual MC-7 LED. Ian explains how these were used: “The screen wall is semi-circular, mounted on a ring revolve, with another ring revolve outside this, and a centre revolve inside. The set-up is the same on the inside and the outside of the semi-circle. This allows us to revolve downstage, and block off the centre revolve so that another scene can be built upstage while the action happens downstage.”

The use of moving panels on a revolving system meant that the video wall needed to be controlled wirelessly. Ian continues: “Since the revolves all need to be free to go in any direction, there are no cables run through the system. Instead the entire playback system is mounted within the double-sided video wall on a custom 1u-tall rack built by TRP, which hangs down the side of the wall. We control the system via wireless DMX.”

PRG XL Video’s account director Stefaan Michels and project director LED James Morden worked closely with Ian William Galloway to find solutions and get the huge multi-section screen working as needed.

Ian comments: “PRG XL Video were instrumental in figuring out if and how this could be done. They set up numerous tests and demos for us to ascertain the maximum 'curve' we could apply to the wall, all of which directly influenced the size of the wall itself and all the stage technology on either side of it. They then liaised with the various engineering companies to make sure that the 'facets' (each an individual construction that tours with the LED panels built in) would fit correctly.”

Ian’s team at Mesmer worked on the content for the LED screens, which combined archive footage of New York in the 1980s, old photography, and stock footage. He comments: “We knew that one of the things to get correct was Josh and Billy’s New Jersey neighbourhood, so we actually had an associate journey out to the neighbourhoods used in the original film and shoot some footage of the environment. A lot of the content work involved going through and replacing things like cars and street signs with their 80s equivalents!”

As a seasoned theatre video designer, Ian uses both LED and projection across the various projects he works on. He explains how they differ and why LED works for Big The Musical: “I switch between LED and projection based on the production, but we’ve been using LED walls in shows where the video design is very scenic, or on all the time, and especially in musicals. With projected scenery you can achieve great results, but it usually has an effect on what the lighting designer can do, and they will have to ‘light around’ the projections. With LED this isn’t a problem, which means it’s a much more robust solution in a big musical, where the lighting design naturally tends to be bigger, brighter and flashier.”

The lighting design for Big The Musical was created by Olivier Award winner Tim Lutkin. He explains his approach to lighting the show: “The two main parts of the design were the lighting rig, which needed to big, bright and punchy. For a musical theatre show, I need the rig to be able to create lots of different looks, but in Big there are also play-style scenes which need a subtle approach so the sidelights are also important.”

“For Big I used a lot LED fixtures; Mac Vipers which were fantastic and we had two rows of Clay Paky Sharpy washes. The reason for the two wash sections was working around the revolving LED screen. There was a set used when the concave rear screen section was in use, and another for when the convex front screen section appeared.”

“Along with the video screen there was a big curved masking wall on one side for scene changes, and so we only had one ladder position for the side lighting. We used eight GLP Impression X4 fixtures for the side lights, used during the office and street scenes. All the other lighting was overhead.”

Aside from working around the moving video wall, Tim explained that another challenge was presented by the scene with the famous Big piano: “The piano, created by Howard Eaton, was a bit of a challenge, as we had to program it so it could be controlled through the grandMA lighting desk.”

Tim’s original design also called for the whole auditorium to light up with a star effect. He explains: “We had VL2ks mounted on to the front of the balcony, aiming to create a starlight effect throughout the auditorium, but the fixtures weren’t right for what I had in mind. I spoke to Peter Marshall and he recommended we used the Vipers instead. They were perfect for the job.

“I work with Pete regularly on a variety of jobs, and he and his team are super-efficient at making the right suggestions which get us the right place with the fixtures we need within the budget.”

Peter Marshall commented: “It’s great to continue our relationship with the team who created the hugely popular Christmas run of Elf The Musical last year, and Big The Musical has been a real pleasure to work on. The design of the show is technically challenging, and we’re very happy to play our part in bringing that to life on stage. Thanks to Michael Rose, Hugo Borthwick, Tim Lutkin, and Ian William Galloway for making us part of the team!”

Michael Rose sums up: “When we first talked through the design elements of Big with our set and costume designer, Simon Higlett, it became evident at a very early stage that we would be knocking on the door of PRG XL Video to ask Pete Marshall and Stefaan Michels for their expertise in realising Simon’s amazing design. Along with Tim Lutkin, lighting design and Ian William Galloway, video design, we had the task of making a hugely loved film become at the same time a very real and also very magical stage production.

“The difficulties of translating from screen to stage called for technical brilliance, and the team at PRG XL have not disappointed us. The double-sided curved video wall that sits on the second revolve of three soon became the ideal transition for us from location to location but enabling us to add a touch of fantasy to the images as well. Not only did it mean that we could have very fluid scene changes but it also made them more economical and much faster than we could otherwise have done.

“Our endless requirements regarding the lighting of the show, not only to make it look fantastic but also for it to fit into our budget were met with creativity and positivity, for which we are eternally grateful.”