INTERVIEW : Video Design Comes Of Age

Published 30|04|12

Ian was interviewed by Molly Flatt for Londoncalling.com on 28th April 2012 about the crossover between film and theatre and the future of video in the theatre. Read the full article  and find more on londoncalling.com

London’s new smash musical Singin’ In The Rain has more than its fair share of memorable moments. And although the scene where Don Lockwood (Adam Cooper) joyfully splashes his way across the waterlogged stage wins out on feelgood factor, the funniest is the screening of Lockwood and his co-star Lina Lamont (Katherine Kingsley)’s disastrous first attempt to make a talkie. As their film unravels, complete with missed cues, dodgy sound and terrible diction, so do the audience; it’s a comedy set-piece only matched when ingénue Kathy Seldon (Scarlett Strallen) dubs the rushes later in the show.

It seems only fitting that, in a play about movies, a piece of film has a starring role. But while many of the audience may wonder who created the impressive lighting, set or sound, few will question who was behind the projection.

“We get mentioned a lot more now”, grins Ian William Galloway, the beguiling green-eyed 30-year-old from east London whose video design for the show has garnered glowing reviews from the Guardian, Telegraph and Evening Standard. “Generally the rule in lighting and sound and set is that if you don’t get mentioned that’s fine – it’s only if you get mentioned badly that it’s an issue! It’s perhaps been a case of reviewers not quite being sure who did what. But that’s solving itself as the naming becomes more consistent. Video designer or projection designer. They know what that means.”

The rest of us may have a little catching up to do. As a recent piece in the Guardian on projected theatre sets suggested, there is still an innate antagonism between theatre and video. Declaring that “using video technology for settings is nothing but the 21st-century equivalent of the painted backdrop” and that it “[goes] against the very essence of theatre: imagination”, the article prompted a storm of comments. But as Galloway points out, this represents only one application of video design in a fast innovating industry.

“All the technology, such as projection mapping, has been around for the past ten years. Because it was expensive people initially wanted to wow audiences by creating big spangly 3D projected sets. But now you can buy a projector from PC World for £300 that is as bright as what we were using for His Dark Materials. This means people aren’t pre-deciding that they have to use it in a certain high-profile way, which means the design gets better. You can walk in and ask: what do you think it needs? What do we want to we say with the video? It could be subtle, it could only appear once. It’s like sound: how many effects you have has no relation on how good or bad the final product is.”

His Dark Materials was one of Galloway’s early projects at the National Theatre, where he and a group of friends performed ad-hoc freelance work as part of video design collective Mesmer. Since then he has become one of its best-known practitioners, completing scores of international projects from other west-end musicals (Flashdance) to operas (ENO’s Eugene Onegin, Nationale Reisopera’s Hotel de Pekin), not to mentionplays for the likes of the RSC, Arcola, Complicité and Frantic Assembly.

“Each project is different and each time your role changes massively, I think more than any other designer role at the moment,” Galloway says. “We could be asked to do projected slides, we could end up making a film, we could do an animation, or we might be doing shadow puppetry, ghost effects or optical illusions. A paying audience has been conditioned to expect a show that’s been lit or set in a certain way. But you can still do a show without a video designer, so you can set what the expectations are.”

Although Galloway admits that the industry is still young – “we’ve done the same job for about ten years but it’s only since about 2006 that the actual role of video designer has evolved, the idea of us having agents and a creative fee” – he also cites a long and respected heritage. “Film in theatre has been around for ages. People were using it in the 60s in the form of actual 16mm film. Projection in terms of slides has been used for hundreds of years. And of course the earliest silent films that had live orchestras were a hybrid of film and cinema. The world of Singin’ In The Rain.”

Galloway’s design for the show reflected its retro feel. “It’s a weirdly old-fashioned piece in which the show stops, you watch the film for two minutes, and then the show starts again. That used to happen quite a lot but it’s quite rare now, when we tend to integrate the two seamlessly.” It was also unusual because of the size of the production. “It was a feature scale film shoot involving 9 actors, in period costume, in a manor house, having sword fights, with extras and catering trucks. We built a 10x 5m set just for the shooting. We have to re-film every time they change cast, so there’s 27 edits of every movie. It’s huge.”

A very different but equally special design from this year was for Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong, which was revived in the Hammersmith Lyric in February. This two-handed paean to love, youth and death from Abi Morgan, the BAFTA-winning scriptwriter of TV hits The Hour and Birdsong, left audiences (myself and my husband included) in shameless floods of tears, and Galloway’s moving, magical projections of migrating swallows and prehistoric cave paintings were essential to the intimate/epic ambience of the show.

“All the Frantic Assembly shows are fun,” Galloway declares. “They’re very inclusive which is why they have this extraordinary audience of kids and people who don’t usually go to the theatre. For Lovesong they provided reference materials that were a fashion movie, a poem and a music video. Then all the designers had a development week and then Abi wrote the first draft from this. That means that by the time you get to rehearsals everyone’s on an equal level, there’s no literary hierarchy. There are no prerequisites and lots of potential.”

What does the future hold? For Galloway, a seriously busy few months where he hops from a comedy opera about suicide bombers in Zurich (coming to London in June) to a National Theatre of Scotland Macbeth with Alan Cumming, to A Marvellous Year for Plums, Hugh Whitemore’s new play about the Suez crisis for Chichester Festival.

For video design, perhaps a shift to subtler, more emotional work. “People always ask for rain but ironically, Singin’ In The Rain didn’t. They had the real stuff. That’s due to the change in audience’s reactions to technology. We are not impressed by special effects. A few years ago in music videos there was a trend towards one live take with no effects, like the Goldfrapp A&E or Feist 1234 videos. People like this style because they can see how it was done and therefore understand how impressive it is. But we can’t relate to how difficult it is to do a special effect. How difficult is Transfomers? Couldn’t a kid in his bedroom do it nowadays? It’s a reconnection of the artist and the medium. At no point in Singin’ In The Rain were people wondering how it was made.”

Perhaps, after all, going unnoticed is the highest accolade of all.