Back To The Future Video: Finn Ross Makes An Ordinary Town Magical

Scottish video designer Finn Ross explored the emerging world of video design and media servers early in the century with companies that include Complicité and English National Opera. Since then, he’s designed for major opera houses and theaters in London and the United States, as well as on Broadway. His designs include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mean Girls, American Psycho, Betrayal, and Frozen. In 2015 he co-founded FRAY Studio.  

These days, Ross’s video is flying high at the Winter Garden in John Rando’s production of Back to the Future The Musical. The musical is choreographed by Chris Bailey on a set designed by Tim Hatley, lighting by  Hugh Vanstone and Tim Lutkin, and sound by Gareth Owen.

How did he research this project? “It’s always nice to get paid to watch a favorite movie!” Ross declares. “Aside from that, I was interested in sci-fi illustration in both periods the show occupies. I was interested in this as a way into Doc's two big numbers in Acts I and II. Whenever Doc sings, the world around him always unfolds into something strange and beautiful. I spent a lot of time looking at the futurist sci-fi of the 50s that promised a better world and the slicker, sexier new wave futurism from the 80s that worked very nicely for the "It Works" number.  

Ross worked closely with Hatley to establish the overall look and feel. “Tim had some really helpful storyboards as jumping off points for the big video sequences,” he says, adding that having that second pair of eyes helped him throughout the process.  

“The video design explodes the ordinary world of Hill Valley into something magical and crazy whenever Doc has a moment of inspiration, or when the audience traveled along with the iconic DeLorean,” Ross says. “The upstage wall is a large LED wall from ROE. The intention is for it to complete the image the audience is seeing in harmony with any scenic elements on stage. There is also a front scrim that comes in, allowing things such as the DeLorean to be sandwiched between two layers of video to fully immerse it.”

Click for video.

Several critics say the car is the star. “The car is a huge element of the show,” Ross agrees. “However, it is only about eight minutes of the show when it is moving around, which leaves a lot more of the show to be made. Having said that, 75% of our development time went into finding methodologies for making the time travel sequences exciting.”  

Ross started by video mapping the DeLorean but soon found that was unnecessary. “The car was impressive enough without any augmentation,” he says.  

But the main challenge for Ross was, “making the worlds of Hill Valley in 1985 and 1955 feel distinct from one another. We used a lot of 3D techniques to build the worlds and did a lot of work to keep it from looking like a computer game. Keeping things rendering at speed was also a challenge. We made extensive use of real-time 3D software, Notch, to allow us to render massive multi-camera 3D sequences quickly to keep up with rehearsals.” 

The show arrived on Broadway after runs in Manchester and London. Between the first two productions, there were changes in the video for the start of Acts I and II. “In Manchester we learned there was an overture to the show one hour before tech started, so we never had time to come up with anything solid for that. So for London, we put the time in to come up with a fun, story-telling sequence to land the audience in Hill Valley.  For New York there were a lot of small changes, and one very big one.  For New York we move everything up to 10 bit which made an enormous difference to the quality of images on the LED wall.  Maybe only I can tell, but it feels so much more lush and vivid at 10 bit.” 

The show required “one large 3.9mm ROE LED wall with the all-important Brompton processing.  Nothing else can get LED in a theatre environment looking good. I am a very big Brompton fan. And we had 3 30k Panasonic projectors, one on center and two out to the sides.  It is all driven by a disguise media server system.”

Ross’s next big show is BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical then he’s doing Hello Dolly for a limited run at the Palladium in the spring of next year.

No matter what he’s working on, “the thought that goes into the design is the same [even though] the process is different,” he says. “When I develop the approach to any show it is always about what is the story that is being told, on what level is any moment in the show literal, abstract, or poetic. Usually, it is all three at once but to varying levels.  This helps me work out what are the simple moments, what are the big moments, when to go crazy, when to sit back. I think this is the same for any show. However, the process of producing a design can vary a lot due to things like budget, time, how the director likes to work and what kind of video content you are trying to make. It is safe to say making the content for Back to the Future is very different to making a Complicité show.”  

Crew List Manchester 2020:

  • Principal Animation: Adam Young & Norvydas Genys
  • Animation: Henrique Ghersi & Kira O’Brien
  • Animation Development: Laura Perrett
  • Video Assistant: Kira O’Brien
  • System Design: Ammonite - Jonathon Lyle
  • Programmer: Emily Malone
  • Video Engineer: James Craxton
  • Video Technicians: Neil McDowell Smith, Matt Somerville
  • Video No1: Ollie Hancock
  • Video No2: Piers Illing

Crew List London 2022:

  • Associate Video Design: Henrique Ghersi
  • Video Assistant: Grace Arnott- Hayes
  • System Design: Ammonite - Jonathon Lyle
  • Programmer: Neil McDowell Smith
  • Video Engineer: Sam Jeffs
  • Video Technicians: Matt Somerville, Alex Ramsden & Sam Gough
  • Video No1: Ollie Hancock

Crew List Broadway 2023:

  • Associate Video Design: Simon Harding
  • Notch & Animation: Henrique Ghersi
  • System Design: Ammonite - Jonathon Lyle
  • Programmer: Zach Peletz
  • Production Video: Asher Robinson
  • Video Technician: Alex Joans