The Builders Association has created a new 75-minute work, Elements Of Oz, directed by Marianne Weems, in which the classic film, The Wizard Of Oz, becomes what the company calls “a lighthearted 21st-century mash-up featuring YouTube fanatics, heavy metal, and a heartfelt recreation of the iconic film.” Not to mention that audience members are asked to turn on their phones and tablets, having downloaded the OZ App, for an extra layer of visuals on their handheld screens during the performance in a display of augmented reality, and an increased shared experience, with everyone looking not only at the stage but also at their phones.
Elements Of Oz received its world premiere at Montclair University’s Peak Performance Series in October 2015 after a lengthy workshop and rehearsal period. The design team includes Austin Switser, video; Dan Dobson, sound; Neal Wilkinson, sets; Jennifer Tipton, lighting; and John Cleater, augmented reality.
“It all started with looking at The Wizard Of Oz. The film represented new, groundbreaking reality at the time, and that led to our using augmented reality and developing the app for the performance,” says Switser, who has worked with this company for over eight years. He points out that augmented reality is a term developed for marketing or real estate, and using your cell phone to reveal another reality or way to see things. In this case, additional visual layers with poppies and flying monkeys can be seen through the app, which also displays videos and triggers sound effects. Jesse Garrison served as the video associate and worked on how the augmented reality would trigger people’s phones.
“It is not too distracting, and yet adds an additional layer,” says Switser, who did all the video and projection design, and worked with Weems to direct the live action scenes, as one of the aspects of the piece is a “remake” of the film—described as the greatest piece of American escapism entertainment—and how to shoot scenes during the show.
“Through custom programming, using Isadora and data arrays to sequence the playback order, we could shoot the scenes out of order, and the program played them back in the right order,” Switser explains. “This allowed us to improvise each night, playback right away, no editing needed, like a new way of in-camera editing. When we weren’t perfect, it was actually more engaging, and you could tell we were remaking the film on stage each night, it was not pre-recorded.”
As typical with the Builders Association, it took them a few years of building the show via workshops and sharing ideas based on the subject matter. “We looked at The Wizard Of Oz, and since it is such a well-known story and film, we didn’t feel we needed to tell the story, but could bring in our interpretations: LGBT, Dark Side Of The Moon, and psychedelics,” adds Switser. “Over an extended period of time, with a few different workshops, we started with an idea to reinterpret the film on stage, but that ultimately felt dry, so we thought what if we shoot the scenes out of order then play them back in order, and then figured out how to program that to do it without any editing.”
Switser also created the visuals for the scenes and interstitial moments such as interviews with Ayn Rand—in which they track the actors face and overlay the witches’ face over her—Mike Wallace, or Judy Garland, a scene in which there is a camera over the bed to interact with her.
“On stage throughout the performance,” Switser admits, “a big focus on this piece for me was creating everything live. I have a lot to do up there, and Maryanne encourages us to relax and have a good time as the tech team on stage. I was on the dolly calling ‘go’ and ‘cut,’ and calling the edit as we were shooting. My associate, at the computer, would stop and start as I called it.” He also worked with the augmented-reality team on the visuals for the app to make sure there was visual continuity. “We had to get the app store approval—had to get that part of content ready a long time in advance even before the show,” he notes.
Switser also notes that “The Wizard Of Oz film had a lot of painted backdrops, and we wanted to keep that visual texture but wanted to reference it without straying too far. We didn’t want to go for the look of computer graphics, but more the golden age of Hollywood. A lot of the video for the backgrounds is used as supportive content on the mobile rear-projection screen, some of which is pre-made content, but did as much as we could live.” Switser uses PhotoShop and AfterEffects as needed—his standards for creating content.
A Barco R12 projector is used for rear-screen projected backgrounds on a mobile RP screen on stage. One such scene is that of Dorothy walking through the garden; in the film, this was a big crane and dolly move and the question was how to do that on stage. “We decided to roll the RP screen on stage, as she roams through beautiful plastic flowers in that famous scene where the film goes from black and white to Technicolor,” adds Switser. “For Jennifer, the challenge was to light Dorothy yet keep light off the stage.”
The iPad surfing in the show is actually live surfing on the Internet, not prerecorded video, and the audience saw the pages loading in real time, including the person surfing the Internet, as well as seeing Switser’s hand as he was surfing. Internet pages that comprised commentary on The Wizard Of Oz.
Upon arriving at the theatre, everyone in the audience was asked if they had downloaded the app. Then, throughout the performance, the words “look up” would occasionally appear on a screen on stage. “We wanted an image on stage to help control audience behavior with their phones, and give them a cue, and a target to point at to see the next AR layer,” says Switser. “This was a huge learning experience for us. We had no idea what would happen with the entire audience using their phones. There is no guidebook for what happens when you do this, so we had a lot of ‘what ifs.’ We developed the app without a lot of app experience—trying to make this technology work.”
Garrison used Unity software—designed primarily for video games—and wrote custom code for how to trigger different events in the app, including 10 videos of people singing somewhere over the audience, the trigger sends a random video to each phone. There is a lot going on here, with layers of visuals on stage, on screen, and on the app, as the Builder’s Association continues its integration of live performance and video.