‘Back to the Future,’ ‘The Shark Is Broken’ and the Secrets of Broadway Video Design

Broadway video design is a lot more complicated than it looks. And it already looks pretty complicated.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

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On the new episode of “Stagecraft,” Variety’s theater podcast, the two creatives behind the most striking video designs on Broadway reveal all the complexity at work on screens in “Back to the Future” and “The Shark Is Broken.”

In the musical adaptation of “Back to the Future,” the intricacy of the video design seems pretty obvious, as screens are used to create the illusion of 88-mph DeLorean rides and clocktower climbs. “It’s all entirely 3D animation,” said video designer Finn Ross of that show’s designs. “There’s nothing real in there at all. Sometimes we might sample real-world textures, but we wanted to get this sort of heightening of reality to meet the level of energy the show exists on.”

In “The Shark Is Broken,” even the apparently simple verité of a gently rocking ocean isn’t so simple. That realistic sea? It’s entirely CG, explained the play’s video designer Nina Dunn.

“I’ve been relighting the waves in another piece of software according to what the scene required, and then matching them to a sky that is organic, real footage,” she said. “That image then needs to treated, and beyond that, there are all the layers of gradients and birds and stuff going on.”

Such complexities can be easy to overlook — and that’s part of the point, according to Dunn and Ross, who both said they work to collaborate seamlessly with the entire design team on a show.

“Video designers are interesting creatures in the number of different other disciplines we touch upon,” Ross said. “We have very close collaborations with the set and the lighting designer, but then we will get involved in costumes, and we’ll be syncing things with sound and we’ll be worrying about paint finishes on bits of scenery we’re going to project onto, and then talking to writers if there are any words that are being projected.”

It’s also easy to miss how video can contribute to setting a mood that reveals the psychology of the characters onstage.

In “The Shark Is Broken,” the video isn’t just there to clarify scene changes and mark the passage of time. “We’re actually doing a psychological development of the character,” Dunn said, creating an atmosphere on stage that would “land the character into their scene with some knowledge of where they’re at psychologically.”

For Ross, video’s ability to bring audiences inside a character’s head is what excites him most. “Video’s great for world building, but it’s even better, I think, for building the inner world of a person,” he said.

Both designers cautioned against incorporating video design into a show solely to crank up the wow factor of gee-whiz technology. “Video has to always be in service of the story and the narrative, and it has to be in intrinsic dialogue with every other stage craft in the space,” Dunn said.

She added later, “Video’s never going to solve a really crappy script.”

To hear the entire conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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