Boxes within boxes within boxes

Boxes within boxes within boxes

14 April 2017

Ghee Bowman talks to Pixels designer David Callanan about how he achieved the show's onstage technical wizardry

A few weeks ago I saw a show called Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre. The script didn’t do much for me, the acting was good enough. But the video projection blew me away. Mountains and stars that assembled and reassembled before me, projected on to what looked a bit like the Death Star. Cutting-edge stuff.

Nothing is Coming, the Pixels are Huge, in the Middleton Hall on Tuesday afternoon, went beyond the cutting edge to the thinnest part of the blade. At the end of the show, I found myself wanting to applaud the tech crew almost as much, hell, more than the actors. In 10 years’ time I’ll be able to say, “Oh yeah, Pixels? I saw the original NSDF performance." So I sought out the person with the sole credit as "technical design and operation": David Callanan, and together with Kate Wyver, asked him about the process of devising and designing the show.

Pixels involves a set of about 250 cardboard boxes (David is unsure of the exact number), in five different sizes. As the audience enters, the boxes are all stacked up in a big wall at the back. The stage is carefully marked out with coloured tape, to show the performers precisely where to place the boxes. Those coloured marks are clearly visible to the audience. As the first box is placed in position, it glows. When I saw that I was instantly intrigued – how on earth did they do that? As the show continued, all the 250 boxes were moved multiple times, and glowed each time. Extraordinary.

David described to us the collaborative process of devising, initiated by him, Anna West and Jack Madley, two of the performers. They are all recent graduates from Lancaster University, and the piece was devised by the cast of five and David as their final piece. Unsurprisingly, the initial idea was a visual one: what would it look like to have minecraft-style voxels (3D pixels) being moved and manipulated on stage. One way to achieve that would be through light boxes – like an old-fashioned lantern for the 21st century. The other way (cheaper but far more complex) would be to project very small, controlled squares of light onto the boxes. That was the idea that David took on. And that was the idea that he made happen.  

If the boxes were moved once, that would be relatively easy, but in fact they move several times, and each time they must light up differently, in different combinations and in different places.

The technical process that David described to us involves three elements: projectors, a powerful computer and a control pad. David knew the various programmes, the hardware and the software and “hacked them together” as he puts it. There are two enormous Panasonic video projectors of 10k lumens, one on either side of the auditorium. David says, “I’m less interested in using projection to show video”, but wants to move beyond that, to a higher level. The projectors’ beam size, focus and colour is painstakingly programmed beforehand, using the media server stored in the control room at the back of the auditorium. The whole thing is controlled by David using a simple iPad.

But here’s the extraordinary bit, which marks out David as a creative technician par excellence: because the actors don’t always place the boxes in exactly the same sequence, David can’t simply programme a series of lighting cues like you would for any ordinary show. Rather he becomes one of the performers and plays his ipad as if it were a musical instrument. Using a digital media app called Lemur (which coincidentally means "the wall" in French) he plays with a visual display of the box stacks. As a specific box is placed or taken away, he touches the corresponding square or squares on the screen, and that section of light switches on or off. Like a musician, like a sixth performer. And then, on top of that, he operates a conventional lighting board controlling conventional lanterns, and when they’re at home in Lancaster he operates the sound too. This is clearly a young man with phenomenal talent, a great ability to collaborate, and a bright future ahead of him.

All of this, of course, means that the actors are somewhat underlit in the first two stages of the show. Which meshes well with the basic idea that the humans are not important in this dystopian future. Perhaps the Pixels team are showing us a glimpse of a theatre of the future in which actors are secondary to computers. The triumph of the technician. Maybe next time round the actors could be dressed in plain monochrome costumes. With masks. Or replaced by robots. In this show it’s the boxes that are the stars. And David Callanan, their animator. I take my hat off to him.

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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca