The Shawshank Redemption

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Based on a Novella by Stephen King, writen for the stage by Owen O’Neill & Dave Johns

Lane Productions

Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, Ireland. 19th May – 20th June 2009
Wyndhams’s Theatre, West End, London. Sept 2009 – Feb 2010

Directed by Peter Sheridan. Set design, Ferdia Murphy; Lighting, Kevin Treacy; Sound design, Denis Clohessey.

My role – redesign an illusion used to distract the audience during the escape scene. The original was a motorised butterfly prop that was hauled up to the grid manually. It looked good except that its movement was completely linear upwards. I redesigned it using a projection. A projector with a long lens was mounted to a pan / tilt head so that the butterfly’s path could be programmed quickly during tech rehearsals.

Production website

I was brought in on this production only a few days before it opened to replace a mechanical butterfly with a projected one, used during the escape scene. The mechanical butterfly was beautifully made by Craig Starkey, had motor, gears/cam and battery within the body. I think the problem was that it was a little unpredictable and repeatability might have been an issue. Another thing was the way it moved – as it flapped it was pulled up into the grid (7m up) by a fine thread – this gave the butterfly a linear-ish path which didn’t seem natural as butterflys movement tend to seem a little chaotic.

After measuring and photgraphing the mechanical butterfly (thanks Des!) I set to work on a 3D model of the butterfly and a texture to match. Thanks to Erin for working on the texture. My idea was to match the mechanical butterfly closely as I hoped to use it in conjunction with the projected one to make the effect more believable.

The biggest issue with projecting the butterfly onto the set was the size of the wall onto which it was to be projected – 7m high by 1.5 m wide! I’ve worked with unusual aspects before but this was a different story. The size of the image meant that the light from the projector would be spread across a larger area and would thus appear less intense, that together with the comparatively tiny portion used by a moving butterfly meant that a pretty powerful projector would be required.

We went with a Barco CLM HD8 – an 8k Lumen 1080p DLP projector. Major thanks to Barry from Avcom for help in not only selecting the right projector but also in building a cradle to allow the projector to by hung on its side.

Full HD was the only option really to mantain some detail in the butterfly on such a large image. Mounting the projector on its side was a must so that the greater horizontal resolution (1920 pixels vs 1080) could be used on the tall vertical set wall. A side mounting cradle was available from Barco but Avcom didn’t have one and as we had no time to get one in, Barry built one from scaff clamps and bars, it wasn’t the ideal solution but was our only option and worked perfectly for the duration of the run.

The Butterfly was built and textured in 3D Studio, animation of flapping and rotating on the spot was also done in 3DS. The butterflys path was animated in AE using a reference photo of the set to map features. Lighting, time remapping, motion blur and colour post were all done in AE.

With regards to lighting, we all hear how it’s often the key to making effects in camera, in CGI and on stage work,  this was no different. I had a bit of a brainwave (aren’t i great!) about using a ‘follow spot’ effect to help give the butterfly some depth when projected on the wall. The actor playing the part of Andy Dufresne (Kevin Anderson) was positioned about 1m in front of the rear wall of his cell, if the butterfly was simply projected directly onto the wall with no thought to lighting or depth, it would look as if the butterfly jumped 1m backwards instantly as well as looking completely fake otherwise.

So by using 3D layers, a spotlight and dropshadow in AE, it appeared that a followspot operator was trying to follow the butterfly as it traveled up the wall, the drop shadow had the effect of making the butterfly appear to be approx 1m from the wall. Realism was improved by having the followspot almost lose the butterfly when it ‘randomly’ changed direction.

The final thing was calibrating the projected image to the set wall, I made a custom grid to make this easier. The projector was positioned on the lx bar of the dress circle and was a bit of a nightmare to get up and running due to the usual cable issues.

Once we rehearsed the transition between mechanical and projected butterfly a few times, we were all set.

Except… because of the extremely short amount of time in which to make this all happen, there was no chance to run the effect in a preview before opening night, which created an immense amount of pressure given that it was a money shot of sorts for the show. AND of course – there was a technical hitch at the half hour call (half hour until the audience are allowed into the auditorium – on OPENING NIGHT). The projector lost signal – after several frantic phone calls and cable checks (on the stage end), Stage manager Brendan pulled the projection for the show, which given how close call was now (15 mins) i was outta luck… BUT (ah ha) given that the projection was used in the second act – I decided that I would leg it up to the dress circle at the interval (not really an acceptable thing to do in such circumstances, but if i didn’t try then the past few days would have been a complete was of time), so that’s what I did – and luckily the audience members who were seated in the front row had gone to the bar – i had a chance to swap out a piece of cable and re-find the signal. Brendan was amazing to allow the projection back in (stressful for him and for the actor who was told of a change in the interval) so major thanks to him for the faith. That’s what I found most exciting about this line of work – people willing to have faith in your call in a situation that many people would have literally screamed at you to F off. nice.

This post was way longer that i had planned but I got a bit carried away in the end bit. Thanks to Denis for calling me in the first place.

The images below are of the mechanical butterfly and a couple of stills from a test animation – the follow-spot effect and final colouring are not in these shots.

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