Creative Director Tom Bairstow On Designing Screens Content For Coronation Concert

Tom Bairstow, creative director & founder of London-based video, projection, and digital design agency NorthHouse Creative, has had an enviably busy spring, designing for both King Charles' Coronation Concert and the Eurovision Song Contest which took place on consecutive weekends. 

He has worked for royal events in the past, most recently on the Platinum Party at the Palace on June 4, 2022, which recently won two BAFTAs for Best Live Event and Best Moment. For that event, NorthHouse projection-mapped Buckingham Palace, pouring "liquid platinum" over the facade during the performance by Alicia Keys and sent mirror balls twirling for Diana Ross. (See video below.) More than 13 million people watched the live broadcast of the show, including NorthHouse's projections of archival footage of the royal family.

On both the Platinum Party at the Palace and the Coronation Concert, designers at NorthHouse used their own pre-visualization software built with Unreal Engine so that they could view the show in different lights and weather conditions and make sure it read well for both the live and TV audiences.  NorthHouse also worked in collaboration with Skymagic Drone Shows on both events.

Bairstow talked to Live Design about designing King Charles' Coronation Concert on May 7 this year.

Live Design: What was the timeframe for your work on this show? 

Tom Bairstow: We heard the good news in mid February 2023. We jumped straight into the design phase, developing styleframes for big moments in the show. Then continued into the animation stages as artists were booked in through March and April.  

LD: Were you hired by the palace or the BBC, and what was the scope of work? 

TB: We are proud to have won the BBC contract through a tough tender competition, ahead of a number of other creative studios.

We were contracted to design and produce bespoke visuals for both the projected [Windsor] Castle surface, the huge LED stage panel that sat above the stage along with all the branded graphics for all screens.  To give scale to the size of the challenge, the pixel maps were 6K for all projected castle content and nearly 12K for the LED cylindrical stage screen.

LD: How did the collaboration with BBC Studios work, were you given very strict parameters for the design or a theme that you worked with?

TB: We had an extremely positive and collaborative process with the BBC. We’ll often start off these projects with a lot of internal brainstorming and development internally before chatting through ideas with the BBC and other collaborators. It’s great to feel such a high level of trust!  

We knew that this show was going to have more of a level of sophistication than last year’s Jubilee, and the BBC were keen for us to find a way to ensure the two felt very different. Of course, with it being the Coronation of King Charles III, there’s a high level of stature to ensure runs through the artistic style  - and this coupled with the fact that all artists would play alongside an orchestra - we knew we had to bring in a level of elegance and artistry to align with the occasion. 

We were really inspired by His Royal Highness's watercolor paintings and took this as a big starting point within our mood boards. It helped set the tone and enabled us to also build upon it with a range of 2D and 3D styles. 

This visual identity can shift between a more classical and contemporary approach but always evokes a sense of elegance, artistry and distinguished British quality. 

LD: What access to images were you given by the palace/performers?

TB: HRH watercolor paintings and imagery for the Prince Of Wales’ speech were provided by the Palace for placement within the LED screens, which were then incorporated into our branded looks for the event.

LD: Are there different design challenges for projections for live for broadcast event versus live only?

TB: It’s always really interesting creating for a live broadcast event that doubles up for a live audience. We’re always considering the viewing perspective from key camera shots and from the audience perspective, as they can often differ quite dramatically. 

Very early on in the process we’ll establish the various broadcast camera positions as well as the key audience positions, and pre-visualize these in our custom-built software built in Unreal Engine. This enables us to get a real grasp for multiple perspectives while also testing out various times of the evening to check lighting levels.

We’ll often build several key moments into each show that work from a specific camera angle and work with the BBC to ensure these moments are brought into the camera script to ensure it’s captured. 

The environmental moment was a good example of this. We worked closely with the BBC and Sky Magic [drones] to ensure that key moments such as the whale appear to transition from the LED screen to the drones in the sky above, and this has to be captured from a specific camera angle and specific time. 

BBC Coronation Concert

Another prime example is the moment we brought the projections to life on the castle. We waited for the earliest optimum time (15 minutes after sunset) and then lit up the castle, transforming it into a Disney castle as we cut to a wide shot whilst Nicole Scherzinger performs with Lang Lang. 

LD: Can you tell me about the equipment used? 

TB: Creative Technology is such a trusted technical supplier that we’ve worked with on numerous shows now, including the Platinum Party at the Palace last year. They were charged with supplying and controlling all projectors & media servers for the castle.  There were 28 projectors in total all running through a Photon Media Server. The screens were run off a Hippotizer Media Server.  From a software perspective, it usually depends on the individual project but for the King's Coronation Concert we used a mixture of Adobe Photoshop for initial style frames, Maxon Cinema 4D for any CGI elements and Adobe After Effects for any 2D animation and final comping. 

LD: Do you typically have a workhorse piece of gear you always like to use? 

TB: We’re often dealing with crazy-high resolutions and we need all the power we can get. So we have many high spec PC’s for the animation and 3D rendering along with many high spec Macs, mainly for the design stage.

LD: How many crew members worked on this project? 

TB: Our full-time core team is comprised 15 designers, directors, animators, producers, and managers - and then we bring in many freelance specialists to bump up the team - in this case - to around 25 people split between Coronation Concert and Eurovision Song Concert. 

LD: What was the biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it? 

TB: The castle architectural surface in particular was highly detailed and tended to fight against the projection if it wasn’t designed in a specific way.  By working with the castle architecture and celebrating its individual details, we were able to create magical particle reveals, cloth kabuki drops and moments of extreme depth within the castle facade.  Most of the early design work focused on how we could use the castle projection as a complimentary element to the main focal point, which was the stage LED.  Designs needed to be bespoke for each surface, while working in tandem to create one huge piece of architecture art.