How I Did That: Disappearing Numbers

Back in 2004, I designed my first show for Simon McBurney's company Complicite at London's National Theatre. It was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. I knew a fair bit about the company's previous work out of professional interest and of Simon's fondness of putting everyday technology into his productions. It all makes sense to me, because there are good reasons why we should try to use the technology that surrounds us everyday at home or at work or between the two in theatre. For one thing, it may allow a contemporary audience to relate to classical themes and plays that have been staged for centuries. Back then, we rehearsed and devised for 10 weeks plus two weeks of technical rehearsal.

I had an assistant who programmed the SAMSC Designs — back then, High End Systems — Catalyst system for me (on the first tour, it was Ian Galloway and then Finn Ross on the second, both associates of my company, Mesmer) and paid attention to the events in the rehearsal room, when I researched, filmed, photographed, composited, and worked out the projection system design. Everybody in this field works a little differently, but I choose the tools that deliver my work because they are integral to the way my designs work and look. In 2004, we ended up with a 30' by 30' raked stage that served as a canvas for projections and lighting effects. At the upstage end of the rake rose a sliced plastic curtain roughly of the same width as the stage for back projection. Then there were a couple of monitors and a total of eight video cameras that were fed into a few Catalyst media servers for realtime manipulation. There was no other scenery apart from a few props, a carpet, and chairs. All got programmed on my trusty High End Systems Wholehog 2 PC with programmer wing. The show went to tour Europe twice and also went to India. I felt that, in this production, technology was used conscientiously and adequately to help tell a story and never as a means to its own end, exactly what I hoped for and why I decided to do what I do for a living.

Subsequently, Simon and I worked on a couple of smaller projects until late in 2007, when he asked me to design his new, yet unnamed project about an Indian mathematician called Ramanujan, who struck up a unique friendship and collaboration with a Cambridge Don called Thomas Hardy in the early 20th century. Ramanujan is now recognized as a mathematical genius who still mystifies scholars because of the unorthodox ways in which he arrived at his results. Notably, he never submitted proofs.

Design Process

Based on the previous experience with Complicite, I had a process in place and roughly knew that I was going to give my life over to this show for three months minimum. The important difference between this collaboration and that of past projects was the fact that it was going to be completely devised. This means the show is created from scratch in the rehearsal room. We gathered lots of books, visual reference materials, listened, and watched guest speakers from various related areas like pure mathematics, musical theory, and southern India, to name a few.

The group of people in the room fluctuated as the project advanced. There were, of course, actors but also researchers, technicians, and designers, eventually followed by musicians and dancers. Devising involves experimentation and exploration, so naturally, a lot of people came and went. The same is true for ideas. Some ideas work immediately; others don't. Some thoughts are discarded at one point, just to be picked up as useful again later on. Anybody familiar with this approach will know that, even without fancy technology, this is a painful — if ultimately very rewarding — process. Tears, tantrums, and sleepless nights go hand in hand with joy, discovery, and invention.

Our common starting point was Robert Karnigel's Ramanujan biography The Man Who Knew Infinity and Thomas Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology. What I would put into the rehearsal room in terms of equipment and staff depends on my ideas and the expectation of the director and other creatives. I had a few ideas early that I thought could become relevant to this show. I had to make decisions quickly, as it is crucial to me to have adequate technical tools at hand when devising. Otherwise, ideas cannot be tried out.

There were certain images in my head that needed some outside help, as the tools I knew were not fully capable of achieving or delivering them. That was particularly true about the illustration of the concept of infinity on stage, a universe governed by maths and drawing “live.” Thus, I approached Richard Bleasdale, the owner of SAMSC Designs, Ltd. and developer of the Catalyst media server software, who has always had an open ear for my ideas. He realized and tweaked a few software effects in Catalyst to give me some more room to experiment in the rehearsal room and show rough ideas during the rehearsal period. I also asked the folks at Green Hippo about customizing this and that for me on the Hippotizer media server.

Experience has taught me that, to make a very particular video effect work as part of a piece, it has to be introduced as early as possible into the rehearsal process. When I say “video effect,” I mean anything than can be done with a projector, camera, screen, software, and performers. That is why I had two media servers in the rehearsal room as well as three different projectors, some screens, and a plethora of cameras ranging from pinhole to pan-and-tilt models. My Wholehog PC had been upgraded to the Wholehog 3 software. That all may sound extravagant for a rehearsal room, but without the tools and toys there, we would have been unable to play and discover.

Again, I was working with an assistant who was at the controls (the brilliant Finn Ross) and an editor who helped me make imagery while I engaged as much as possible with the rehearsal process in front of me. We also had Tim Perrett on board, who served as video technician. A lot of times, individual ideas are examined in smaller groups and afterward presented as little sketch performances using what is in the room. During this process, where a thought or small narrative is illustrated or suggested with technology, all the equipment becomes second nature to the performers, and they learn that it is actually friendly — there to serve rather than to obstruct the storytelling. If anything, it becomes another performer.

My little team churned out around 300 clips and gathered over 2,000 photos covering Cambridge, India, mathematics, and anything else vaguely related to patterns in nature, infinity, World War II, and cricket. All fits just snugly on a one terabyte drive, but as the show evolves — and it evolves on every stage of the tour — we will be running out of space.

As far as the imagery is concerned, I was inspired by the events in the rehearsal room and created a large number of textures as well as many background loops relevant to the show. This layer of imagery was designed to complement the already tried-and-tested snippets of video design that had arisen from the rehearsal process. The textures I made were all related to mathematics, number theory, and natural patterns. My intention was to use them as a visual layer that could be projected over everything. The background loops were intended to evoke locations such as Madras in southern India and Cambridge.

My favorite day during that period was the only day it snowed last year. I took the train up to Cambridge with our researcher and armed with a D-SLR camera and my Sony Z1 camcorder (having trusted the weather forecast for once). It started to snow during the journey, and all was beautifully covered underneath fluffy snowflakes until about 4pm. It looked exactly how I imagined Ramanujan may have found it in 1914 when he first came to Cambridge from India. I could not believe my luck and celebrated with some bangers and mash at a local pub when it thawed in the late afternoon.

Hard Choices And Implementation

During the last weeks of the rehearsal process in London, I started to firm up projection screens with the set designer, Michael Levine. We had investigated many options throughout the process, but eventually, decisions had to be made without restricting the technical rehearsal process that would take place in Plymouth where the show would premiere. Levine designed a multipurpose lecture hall front, consisting of solid white and black “white boards,” which can swivel, and slide up and down, as well as walls covered in light scrim. Everything was designed to “disappear” and “reappear,” as required. Further back, there are three fixed flown gauzes and screens and two mobile black boards utilized as screens. Significantly, the entire space also serves as a projection area. I'm always interested in projecting on many different types of surfaces and not just screens.

On the technical design side, I had to come up with a projection system that could cover these surfaces from the front, back, and top while feeding four cameras to any of them, ideally after having manipulated the image via software to fit color and size of the surface. It took a while, and numerous changes were made during the two weeks of technical rehearsals. While all this may sound very complex and bold, there was never any way to backtrack after the set had been designed, and I realized from watching the rehearsals that visually, most evocations of locations and suggestions of underlying themes would be provided through projections.

Sounds and images were crucially interwoven, and no element works quite without the other, thanks to working with sound designer Chris Shutt. There are a multitude of voiceovers and soundscapes, as well as effects and live music. Lighting is used to pull focus, illuminate, and create individual spaces for the performers, but it does not provide any color (all is warm, open white tungsten). As a consequence, the worlds our characters inhabit are evoked largely with sound, set, and projections.

Touring The Number

I cannot make an idea visually work without the right tools, and given the size of the show, what may have been possible with three small projectors and some clever VJ software on a small Off-Off Broadway stage takes on a different dimension when touring 1,000-plus seat auditoriums around the world. I also have to allow for the fact that the show constantly changes and evolves, because that is the way Complicite works. Every technical rehearsal is also another creative process, and the show will be different in each venue, if not each day. Choosing the right equipment for touring such a show, as well as the staff that implements the design in each venue, becomes a crucial and slightly tricky task. I have been lucky working with people who want to do this kind of work.

Initially, I had a variety of different projectors owing to lens characteristics, noise considerations, and rigging options. I also had two different media servers providing visual effects and playback (Catalyst V4 HD and Hippotizer V3). For the second tour, I have unified everything in the hope of being able to have it up and running in remote locations, like southern India, where propriety hardware and software is hard to come by quickly.

A Disappearing Number (what that unnamed production finally came to be called) uses a very layered and quick stage language to tell its narrative. It's somewhat unique in its subject matter, and that allowed me to work with a lot of, well, mathematics. It turned out to be a very interesting discovery to me; while the story covers quite complex and unusual ideas for the theatre, the relative elegance of the storytelling helps it to be universally understood in any language. We are not using cinematic techniques. It's live theatre and therefore very exciting when it works.



2 High End Systems Catalyst V4 HD Media Servers With 4-Channel Input Cards And DualHead2Go


2 Barco CLM R10+ (With Various Lenses)


2 Barco CLM R10+ (With Various Lens)


1 Barco CLM R10+ (With Wide Angle Lenses)


5 Barco CLM R10+ Projectors

1 Generic 15" TFT Monitor


Adobe Creative Suite Premium

Final Cut Studio



2 Sony Video Camcorders

1 Sony Pan/Tilt Conference Camera

1 Elmo Visualizer (Document Camera)


1 High End Systems Wholehog 3 PC With Programmer Wing

3 Wholehog DMX Widgets

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