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Trade secrets: How do you ‘paint’ a rotating set with video projections?

A look at the complex effects that light up the ground-breaking set of Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni.

By Emma Baker (ROH Magazine Editor)

27 January 2015 at 12.14pm | 7 Comments

Perhaps the first thing to strike you when watching Kasper Holten’s production of Don Giovanni, which returns to the Covent Garden stage this summer, is how the physical set is quite literally a blank canvas – the base for another, virtual set that seems to paint itself on in light before your eyes.

The first breaktaking visual effect occurs during the overture, when the names of the women in Giovanni’s notorious catalogue of sexual conquests begin to write themselves on the set, as if scripted by many invisible hands. Finally, Leporello enters, holding a pencil, and scribbles the name of his master’s latest conquest, or victim, depending on your point of view: ‘Anna’.

Giovanni’s catalogue is the starting point for the visual themes of the production. From this, the design team – video designer Luke Halls, set designer Es Devlin and lighting designer Bruno Poet – created this effect. Halls commissioned calligraphers to write out each name in Giovanni’s not-so-little black book, the sum of which is 2,065, if you add up all those detailed by Leporello during his Catalogue Aria. Halls then animated each of these scripts to look as if they are being handwritten in real time.

But how does a video animation find its way on to the set? The secret lies in a piece of specialist equipment, a small black box known simply as a d3, which is a combination of software and hardware. As well as being a programmable ‘brain’ that enables a designer to create virtual three-dimensional simulations from video-based installations, it can also send these images to a projector to play back live on set.

Both programming and then operating the d3 unit during the performance is Gareth Shelton, sound and broadcast deputy manager, who works closely with the design team and the production manager, Will Harding.

So how does the singer playing Leporello know where and when to start writing when he appears on stage? The answer, says Gareth, in this case is not so much technological trickery as plenty of rehearsal time. ‘There are clear musical cues when he should write. In the first production, Alex Esposito practices writing the script over and over again, in the right sequence to the music, until it was perfect. And, although this is invisible to the audience, if you look carefully in the right place, the word ‘Anna’ is penciled on, ever so faintly to act as a guide.’

Having a set that’s entirely painted by light throws up other challenges too – how do you light the singers without washing out the set around them? ‘The set is effectively lit by the video, with some regular lighting enhancement,’ explains Gareth, ‘and then the singers are tracked by several followspots.’ But perhaps the cleverest and most complicated effect goes almost unnoticed by the audience. At several points the set, which is cube-shaped, starts to rotate, and the projections of doors and windows rotate with it, seamlessly obeying the laws of perspective and foreshortening and changing shape. It looks so natural you could overlook it, but it is in fact fiendishly complicated, based on constant feedback between the motor moving the set and the d3 unit, which detects the position of the set and adjusts the image it projects accordingly. ‘If it didn’t work, you would know, but when it does it looks just like a regular painted set that’s rotating, albeit enhanced with some beautiful animations.’

Gareth achieved this by spending several weeks programming the d3 unit with Luke Halls’s video designs, taking into account the size of the set, the angle of rotation and distance of the projector from the set. There was plenty of time spent in music rehearsals too, making sure every musical cue aligned with the visual effects. With such painstaking attention to detail, Gareth admits he has probably memorized every note in the opera.

Gareth’s biggest challenge after the revival of the production however, will come when The Royal Opera takes Don Giovanni on tour to Tokyo and Osaka in September this year. ‘We have very little time to reconfigure the show in Tokyo,’ he says. ‘It is the same set, but bear in mind it’s a different-shaped theatre, with different angles, heights and positions. We then go to Osaka, where we have just one day to get it right.’

Don Giovanni is staged with generous philanthropic support from the Danish Research Foundation and The Royal Opera House Endowment fund. It is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera.

An exhibition showing the making of Don Giovanni is currently on display in the main entrance foyer of the Royal Opera House. The free exhibition melds video, designs and costumes to offer unique insight into the process of staging this production.

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden

By Emma Baker (ROH Magazine Editor)

27 January 2015 at 12.14pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Kasper Holten, design, don giovanni, lighting, Production, projections

This article has 7 comments

  1. Hazel Gower responded on 4 July 2015 at 8:22am Reply

    Thanks so much for this, I was blown away by the design and visual effects of this production, it's great to know how it was achieved. So much technical skill , creating depth and layers of texture which so enhanced the fabulous sounds.
    Please pass on my congratulations to all concerned. Watched in Bristol among screaming seagulls and joyful revellers.

  2. Peter Thornton responded on 4 July 2015 at 1:10pm Reply

    "...perhaps the cleverest and most complicated effect goes almost unnoticed by the audience."

    Well it was certainly noticed by me in the front row! Perhaps even unfortunately, when I realised roughly what was going on with a "huh" moment I became slightly distracted trying to figure out how the perspectives were managed!

    Very very clever indeed. But clever is one thing, a bold new effect like this could so easily have been gimmicky. However it worked perfectly with the set design and made what would already have been an amazing performance with no set at all a very special creation. The scene depicted in the still above was absolutely sensational.

  3. Ian Morter responded on 11 October 2017 at 6:26pm Reply

    This article helps me understand the rigours of set design and how advanced this has become so that we as a twenty first century audience can have fresh enjoyment as we see a new production which could become stale is we remained with the tried and tested ones.

  4. Bill Hand responded on 14 October 2017 at 7:44am Reply

    The visual effect, a kind of "wide shot", gives the Don a less-human quality than that in clip 1. There is no interaction with another human. The Don appears to just stand and deliver. The article dwells on the cleverness of the gadgetry, which is undoubted. Whether Mr. Shelton would be pleased with the impression that it created in my mind, is something else.

    • Susan Smily responded on 15 November 2017 at 4:48am

      I'm with you on this, Bill. The rotating set irritated me, and detracted from the music, and there was no acting at all. The set became the actor, rather than the Don.

      I think quite a bit of modern re-thinking of staging and costuming has left us poorer, where what had been a marriage of music, costume and setting to create a total experience has become disjointed.

      When I hear Mozart's magnificent score I do not immediately think of video animation!

  5. Stav O'Doherty responded on 2 February 2018 at 11:50am Reply

    I saw a live production of Don Giovanni at Royal Opera house, Covent Garden in 2012.

    I definitely did not enjoy the video animation production from the extract video; it distracted from the singer and the music. I prefer a staging where you can see the singers. Opera designers sometimes try to be too clever with light and video effects and end up spoiling an opera production.

  6. Margarita Rodriguez-Miaja responded on 10 February 2018 at 3:26am Reply

    I totally agree. So much visual stimulation takes you away fron the real object of the opera: the singing, the acting, the words all get lost in all those moving ligths.
    Undoubtedly beautifull and a great technical achievment, but out of place in an opera staging

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