The Little Mermaid
The Playmill Theatre (2017 & 2018)
After the success of Singin' In Rain, I looked forward to approaching our headliner of the 2017 season, Disney's The Little Mermaid. I knew staging such a well known and beloved film would prove to be a technological challenge. Thankfully we had just purchased a massive 30-foot-wide LED video wall inspired by Frozen at the Hyperion theatre in Disney California Adventure. Installing the beast proved to be difficult, but once we had it working, I knew the audience was in for a treat.
Every element, whether being an animated backdrops, floor projection, or lighting effect, needed to come together seamlessly to create an experience that wasn’t jarring for the audience. Through careful planning, creative techniques, and a lot of brainstorming, our production of Disney's The Little Mermaid was able to complement what was happening on stage without distracting the audience. This was very important to us as we adapted the beloved movie that saved the mouse to the Playmill stage.
The progression of our video wall. From tearing out the back wall, to installing each panel, to finally getting a single image across the entire screen.
All of the art was done in house, and a lot of consideration went into finding the right balance of how exactly we should use the wall. We knew we wanted to use the wall as a replacement for printed/painted backdrops, and decided early on that we'd want subtle animation and a strong use of depth and parallaxing. We knew we had achieved that when we'd shut off the wall and the room instantly seemed to shrink.
After I received images from our set designers, it was my job to recolor and alter them in order to give the show a unified palette. After that alteration was complete, I would begin to animate. The process of each scene was always different. With some images only needing subtle animation, and some that needed to have objects cut out, leaving the background needing to be repainted where those objects originally were. Most sequences were time specific. Thankfully the show was heavily underscored. As long as the music and video started at the same time, everything would sync up, and the actors would have aural cues to rely on. To help you understand the process I went through, here is a progression of coloring and compositing Kiss The Girl, my favorite scene in the show.
GIF of Prince Eric swimming to the surface.
A visual representation of the steps taken to achieve the final look of Kiss The Girl before any animation was added.
Floor projections played a big part in the show, providing lightning for Ursula and her eels, as well as magic for Ariel's transformation. The process used was similar to how I achieved the rainstorm effect in Singin' In The Rain the year before. After filming reference videos of their choreography/blocking against a colored grid, I was able to design the video projections inside of After Effects. The goal here was not to be distracting, but to simply enhance what's onstage. With so many tools at our disposal during this show, it was a hard lesson to learn. Every detail needed to complement a character's action. I feel we achieved just that.
Out of all the projections in the entire show, Triton signing Ursula’s contract had to be my favorite. This effect was one of our famous “what if” moments. Triton’s magical trident was a perfect opportunity to display some real magic on stage. I started by importing a scan of the contract into after effects. I overlayed some different animations I created and recolored some existing animations of fire to appear a little more magical. Major kudos to the actress playing Jetsam for getting the contract in the right spot every time for this projection!
Our approach to lighting was different than ever before. With our light board listed on Ebay, we transitioned to lighting through QLab 4 via a Macbook Air. QLab 4, while new to lighting, was a perfect fit for our theatre's lighting system. With sound, lights, and projections all running off of QLab, complete playback control was able to be given to one "master" computer. This allowed for the entire show (microphones and all) to be ran by one single person. Being in total control of so many elements was both a thrill and completely agonizing experience. This has been my favorite show to run due to the intricacies in the execution of each performance.
Behind Stage Doors
At the end of our season I created a video explaining the design process of The Little Mermaid at The Playmill Theatre to be included in the theatre's behind-the-scenes video series "Behind Stage Doors'. If you are looking for a more in depth take on my approach to designing the show, it's a great place to look! Also, be sure to check out my post focusing on the sound design of The Little Mermaid here.
Episode of Behind Stage Doors I created focusing on my design aspects of The Little Mermaid at The Playmill Theatre.
The music from The Little Mermaid is immediately recognizable within the first few notes. Most everyone has an intimate connection to the movie that saved the mouse. When I first approached the sound design, I knew I needed to be able to design independently from the movie, while still staying true to the style people know and love. This involved manipulating sound effects to seem like they pieces of the
music. Sound effects were repitched to match the key of the music, and the entire ocean (creatures, bubbles, and all) began to sound of song.
Since there were so many animations happening, I often felt I was designing for video more than a stage production. While unconventional, it worked really well in my favor. I was able to design complex sound sequences that would normally be hard to execute (even with the help of QLab) that would complement what was happening on the LED video wall we had just installed.
My design called for a very large library of magical sound effects. Magic from Boom Library was a perfect resource. Sequences would be made up of dozens of these effects carefully placed while watching the projections I had already designed. Musical theatre is becoming heavily underscored more and more often (a trend I assume comes from our love of movies). The benefit of this being the ability to automatically tie time-sensitive cues to certain moments in the music. Everything needed to match the audience was seeing. Here's a look at one of my favorite sequences in the show, Ursula's Demise.
I'm a live entertainment designer, composer, computer programmer, and frozen treat enthusiast with lots of stories to tell and a wide variety of ways I like to tell them.