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Video designer Finn Ross projection mapped the stage for this BroadwayRed-giant-curious2a
play, using millions of Trapcode Particular’s particles to transform the
character’s imagination into graphical effects.


‘Curious Incident’ Lights Up Broadway with Red Giant Trapcode Particular

Unlike most plays,‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, an award-winning Broadway production, has no physical set. Instead, the almost empty stage explodes with numbers and sparkling galaxies, all synchronised with the main character’s thoughts, due to the work ofvideo designerFinn Ross. The stage is proportioned like a cube, described by a floor and three walls marked out like giant pieces of graph paper from a maths workbook.
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Finn needed to overcome several interesting challenges to stage ‘Curious Incident’, which eventually won aTony AwardforBest Scenic Design of a Play. Based on the book of the same name by Mark Haddon, the play is the story of 15-year-old Christopher, who comes across a neighbour’s dead dog. When he is accused of killing the dog, he uses his extraordinary brain to solve the crime, turning his own life upside down in the process.

Controlled Particle Effects

Finn said, “The floor and three walls define Chistopher’s playground, as the story takes place from his perspective – a great deal of which revolves around mathematics.” His set design took advantage of the elegant, idiosyncratic way prime numbers work, and turned their unpredictable nature into an orchestrated sequence of graphical effects. Finn broke Christopher’s world down into projected 3D particles that draw the audience into his thoughts. He created and controlled the individual particle effects, which appear as motion displays of light, withRed Giant Trapcode Particular

“With theatre and live performances, we’re always trying to make it seem as though the flat surfaces have depth to them,” said Finn. “We try to simulate how light would pass through the density of the particles, and for ‘Curious Incident’ this was especially useful because it really feels like you’re pushing down into the stage, until the floor is no longer a floor anymore.”

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This was the reason Finn became interested in particle systems when he first started designing. He finds they create extensive dimension on an otherwise flat stage and, with Particular, an entire set change is possible in a few seconds. He had been using the plugin for so long in the studio that it seemed almost a part of the regular After Effects workflow, and he knew that he would want to incorporate it into ‘Curious Incident’. “Particular seemed like the right tool to use on this production to give the feeling of a complete, mathematical sensory overload, a theme of this story," he said. "You can control the emissions very precisely.”

Video Mapping

In order to match the video projections to the story, Finn spent a long time creating random experiments in Particular to work out particle sequences that would evoke a number explosion or brain meltdown. He also had to incorporate the actors’ movements into the designs. The best way to achieve this was to video map the stage as a large grid, a visual element that was incorporated into the final production.

Video mapping, orprojection mapping, accurately aligns projected images with surfaces by recording a map of the proposed projection surface, and projecting content to conform to and align to the projection surface according to that map. Consequently, he knew exactly where the pixels would land so he could create realistic effects linked to an action, such as an actor falling to the ground.

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Due to the size of the stage, occasionally the particles did not behave the way Finn planned, and he could use Particular to make the critical edits. For example, when certain particles needed to move faster while others needed to stay within a set parameter, he was able to control them individually.

“The complete set exists as an expanded map in After Effects, where the stage becomes an unfolded box,” Finn said. “I’d realize certain particles wouldn’t reach the back wall fast enough, because they needed to travel further and therefore faster in order to hit the wall at the same time as the side walls. But because you have the controller for speed and velocity within Particular, you can push up the pixel count slightly while overall, the design keeps looking the same.”

4K Canvas

Finn’s canvas on ‘Curious Incident’ was slightly over 4K, a bit larger than most computers can comfortably work with . But even when he pushed the pixel count up for a denser effect to fill the space, Trapcode Particular handled it well. “We were using an extremely high pixel count, exceeding the number of particles a single system can produce in a second, which meant that we had to render everything inblocksandlayers,” he said. “At one time, it went up to 80,000 particles a second. Trapcode had no problem with it, and gave us options to render the scene the way we wanted to, so that we could still control particles individually.”

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Throughout the story of 'Curious Incident', Christopher’s world becomes more and more chaotic as he ventures out of his safe space and into the unknown. In the first act of the show, he becomes obsessed with attempting to solve the mystery of who murdered his neighbour’s dog, but in the process, he discovers something that changes everything he believed to be true. “It’s at this point that a massive explosion of white noise and numbers swirl and whirl around him in a complete melt down moment.”

Renderingwas another hurdle. Because particle systems are made up of so much data, it can take hours or even days to output a final effect. In order to keep the process moving, Finn does the majority of his particle work, such asvelocity, motionandshading, using Particular’s particles, then he switches to his own custom particles only towards the end of the process because this adds a greater lag time. This process allows him to work quickly at very high resolutions - like 4K.

Nine Projectors

In order to project the massive amounts of particles needed to convey this and many other moments, Finn employed four different video files played out through nine projectors to control every centimetre of the stage. With the help of a programmer, Finn uploads the files into the Catalyst digital video and media server software and distributes them to the projectors, without incurring any quality loss. He is still able to set the perfect scene using only one laptop, with everything lined up and ready to go as soon as the stage manager cues the lighting desk to fire off the commands.

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Trapcode Particular also helped Finn do some quick problem solving on the fly. “We have one scene where the main character floats around in space,” he said. “Originally, we had him flying through a kind of cosmic nebula but on stage, we found it made the set too bright and the nebula was too definite. What we needed was a massive, dense star field for him to fly through - and I had about an hour to come up with it for our staging work. In fact, it is fairly easy to put something like this together with Particular. We could then refine it once the concept was in place.”

‘Curious Incident’ uses some other Red Giant plugins for additional effects, includingTrapcode Formfor further particle control, giving independent movement to very small background particles. Often, Finn adds a random flicker of light with Form within the larger effect to make a scene look more realistic, such as the train tracks or a train window flying past. He also usesMagic Bullet LUT Buddyfor creating look up tables andMagic Bullet Looksfor colour grading.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ has won sevenOlivier Awards, including Best New Play, and fiveTony Awards, including Best Play, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Scenic Design and Best Lighting Design. With the help of Red Giant Trapcode Suite, the focus can shift from the mechanics of the set to the show itself.

At the time of this post,‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’is running at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End and is on a tour of the UK and Ireland. 
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