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Lighting The Birth Of Frankenstein’s Creature

The talk of the town in London is the National Theatre’s dramatic new stage adaptation of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle – the award-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and, next year, the opening of London’s 2012 Olympics. And the talk of the show is the spectacular lightbulb ceiling which greets audiences on their arrival into the theatre and then creates stunning images suggesting the industrial age and the power of electricity during the show.

Triangular in form, the ceiling consists of a mirrored surface below which hang just over 3100 assorted lightbulbs. Conceived by Boyle, set designer Mark Tildesley and lighting designer Bruno Poet it was intended to “represent the forces of electricity harnessed by Frankenstein, and to provide a dazzling light for the moment the creature is born and opens his eyes for the first time,” the lighting designer explains. LED arrays of this type are now commonplace, but Poet was very keen to use tungsten “for its warmth, and because it better suggests the show’s industrial age setting. Danny was very excited about LEDs and the flexibility of colour they would offer, but the National mocked up a portion of the ceiling, and the moment everyone saw that magical glow of a filament at a really low level they were converted!”

What Poet did want was the ability to control the bulbs as he would control an LED array, using pixel mapping and a media server to quickly create dynamic patterns and movement across the array rather than being limited to manually constructed chases. With real lightbulbs, this would mean a dimmer per bulb; an expensive proposition. “But I called Dave Isherwood at White Light for advice, and he was brilliant,” Poet recalls. Isherwood’s research led him to the NJD DPX12/4 twelve-way dimmer rack, dramatically cheaper than the other options he explored. While 3000 dimmers were still beyond the show’s budget, they stretched to 90 of the racks; just over 1000 dimmers. Poet and his team at the National, including Marc Williams, Paul McLeish and production managers Sacha Milroy and Richard Eustace, therefore “divided the ceiling into 1000 equally sized squares, pairing together whichever bulbs lay within each square.”

This still left a complex wiring installation, achieved thanks to careful collaboration between many suppliers: White Light supplying and wiring the dimmers, Scott Fleary Productions constructing and wiring the scenery using woven fabric cable from Urban Cottage Industries which, together with Allelectrics, supplied the lightbulbs themselves. “This is just one example of the kind of specialist service we now offer beyond just supplying equipment,” comments White Light’s Dave Isherwood. “The work was overseen by Simon Needle who spent many years creating effects just like this for shows around the world prior to joining White Light a few years ago.”

The ceiling was controlled using the new pixelmapper/media server functionality in release 1.9.5 of ETC’s Eos console, Poet and NT programmer John McGarrigle running artwork across the array to create effects that range from dramatically intense to hauntingly beautiful glow of three thousand filaments.

Running now at the National Theatre, Frankenstein is currently one of London’s hottest tickets, with the show sold out for its entire run. Those without tickets will still get a chance to see the show and its spectacular lightbulbs when it is broadcast to cinemas around the world as part of the National’s acclaimed NT Live season.

Further information about the show can be found at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

 

Photo: Bruno Poet