- Wednesday, Apr. 30, 2014
In a creative departure from the visual effects he usually creates for major motion pictures and broadcast television productions, John Bair, Creative Director/VFX Supervisor of the independent design and visual-effects company Phosphene, has created and executed a 6-minute animated projection for Broadway’s acclaimed smash-hit “Hedwig and The Angry Inch,” and the heart wrenching ballad "The Origin of Love."
Directed by Tony® Award winner Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening," "American Idiot") "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a wickedly funny search for love and acceptance. Neil Patrick Harris ("How I Met Your Mother," "Cabaret," "Proof," "Assassins"), a four-time Emmy® Award winner, returns to Broadway as the East German "internationally ignored song stylist" Hedwig Robinson in John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's landmark American musical which opened at The Belasco Theater on April 22nd.
For this new Broadway production, John Bair collaborated with John Cameron Mitchell and Michael Mayer to write an animation script and determine the direction of the projection - a new take, a new look. They wanted the images to be as abstract as possible - kaleidoscopic, creating a pattern around Hedwig as she performs.
Bair and his Phosphene team designed and executed an extremely complex animation, a short film projected onto a transparent screen that underscores the lyrics with which Neil Patrick Harris, as Hedwig, interacts live at each performance – sometimes pointing out elements going by, sometimes triggering events.
Bair explained some of the challenges: “Some of the lyrics are based on timeless mythology, and with other lyrics Stephen Trask jumbled deities of different cultures to make his point. There are times when you have to be true to the lyrics, to provide visual context, especially in the sections that pertain to the children of the sun, the earth, and the moon. Here I went in a slightly cubist direction for the design of the faces and our people. When I had to be literal, I was. At other times I was abstract. In addition, the project had to compliment Neil’s performance, and, at times, fill the entire screen. The song has big parts and quiet, tender moments and the animation had to always be in keeping with the different parts of the song.”
John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig writer and the original star of the nineties Off Broadway production which went on to become a 2001 movie cult favorite said of his experience: “I have worked with John Bair and Phosphene on the Hedwig film, ‘Shortbus’ and then ‘Hedwig’ on Broadway and it's always been deeply pleasurable. The results invariably elicit: ‘Who the hell did that animation? It's AMAZING!’ I'll always go back to John for more.”
Director Michael Mayer added “Collaborating with John on the ‘Origin of Love’ animation was fantastic. His vision was beautiful to begin with, but experiencing the way he worked with me and our choreographer Spencer Liff to detail each dramatic moment in the piece was revelatory. I hope I'm lucky enough to get him on all my animation projects from here on.”
To insure that the projection Phosphene built met all the necessary technical specs, Bair worked closely with Hedwig Projection Designer, Benjamin Pearcy, of 59 Productions (New York/London).
“John and Phosphene created beautiful images which we formatted and assembled to integrate them with the live performance. We divided their content into sections, split them into a series of files, programmed them into the media server and cued them at certain points during the piece of music to insure that they happen at the right time every evening, even if the tempo changes. The animation is absolutely spectacular. The images are beautifully hand drawn and, although we are using computers to deliver the projection, the fact that it is of an analog origin makes it a perfect fit for the context of the show,” stated Pearcy.
In the musical, Hedwig talks about having kept an illustrated journal when she was a boy, which is the lead in to “The Origin of Love.” So, the illustrations are meant to look like they could have been hand crafted by Hedwig.
Bair explained: “Ideally, the entire projection would have been drawn by hand, frame-by-frame, but as we only had 3 to 4 months to shepherd the project from conception to final execution, we utilized Adobe After Effects and 3D Studio Max. It allowed us to take an early version of the song, write an animation script, very quickly try out ideas, draw up some images and start animating them to see how it felt. We built a replica of the stage to drop into After Effects so we could move things around on the virtual screen and ultimately, once parts were starting to work, we developed a series of filters to let us draw a digital line which was manipulated in After Effects until it looked roughly like a hand drawn image, with jiggle and randomness. Once that was locked in, we printed out every single frame of the whole piece painting in a texture that fills in between all of the lines. We have created approximately 2000 hand painted frames, in addition to generic hand painted textures.”
The Phosphene creative team was led by Bair and included Producer Vivian Connolly and Animators Greg Radcliffe and Karis Oh.
Phosphene is a New York-based independent design and visual effects house led by founders/co-owners John Bair and Vivian Connolly.
In 2010, Bair and Connolly launched Phosphene with visual effects for Barry Levinson’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” Phillip Noyce’s “Salt,” George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau,” Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” and Brad Anderson’s “Vanishing on 7th Street.” Phosphene designed and executed elaborate CG environments for Brett Ratner’s action-comedy “Tower Heist,” Stephen Daldry’s two-time Academy Award® nominated “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” and Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.”
In 2012, Phosphene was a VFX partner on “The Bourne Legacy,” 2013 Golden Globe® nominee “Hope Springs,” and Stephen Frears’ “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” before teaming up with director Sebastián Cordero to create over three hundred shots for the acclaimed science fiction thriller “Europa Report.”
In 2013, Phosphene partnered with Bill Condon and Dreamworks on “The Fifth Estate“ as well as with Alfonso Cuarón on the Warner Bros./NBC pilot “Believe.” In addition, Phosphene was a visual effects partner on Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and John Turturro’s “Fading Gigolo.”
Phosphene received a Visual Effects Society Award and an Emmy nomination for their work on “Boardwalk Empire.” And in addition to their Emmy-nominated work for Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce,” Phosphene was the VFX partner on all four seasons of “Treme,” NBC’s “30 Rock,” ABC’s “Pan Am,” CBS’ “Blue Bloods” and FX’s “The Americans.” Phosphene recently wrapped up Cary Fukunaga’s “True Detective” and Ryan Murphy’s “The Normal Heart” for HBO.
Phosphene is currently working on Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Knick,” Tom McCarthy’s “The Cobbler” and Josh Boone’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”
Phosphene is located at 180 Varick Street, Suite 1621, New York, NY 10014. For further information contact visit www.phosphenefx.com.
Neil Patrick Harris’ return to Broadway in the new production of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, the musical with book by John Cameron Mitchell and music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, directed by Michael Mayer recently opened to rave reviews at the Belasco Theatre (111 West 44th Street). The limited engagement, featuring Lena Hall (Kinky Boots, lead singer of The Deafening), has been nominated for eight Tony Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, three Drama Desk Awards, and three Drama League Awards.