Making a Scene Act IV: App Development, Design and Delivery by Amy Spreadbury, Project Manager, Zubr Curio

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

‘Making a Scene’ is my ideal project. It draws together the three stages of my own career (if you’ll pardon the pun): theatre, collections and digital interpretation. It’s also been a wonderful opportunity to collaborate again with the Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr. We first worked together on the Window to the Past app and since then I’ve left Bristol Old Vic’s engagement team to work for Zubr, so this project has been something of a reunion despite a few role changes!

With an established partnership from the get-go, developing the ‘Making a Scene’ app has been a real opportunity to flex our creative muscles and design a playful and hands-on AR experience. We knew we wanted to make an app which retained and celebrated the physicality of collections despite being delivered through AR technology, and after two years of isolated, online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic it was also important to us to create an experience that encouraged teamwork and discussion.

In September 2021 we hosted a concept meeting for the project team at Zubr’s Studio to test some of Zubr’s past projects and discuss our initial ideas for the app. We wanted it to be fun but age-appropriate. Aimed at 16-25 year olds interested in offstage careers, the content couldn’t be too gamified or simplistic. With this in mind, we agreed to design an AR ‘pop-up book’ that users could scan with an iPad to cause 3D models of objects from the Theatre Collection to appear above the page. Users could then select different models and combine them to create sets for selected scenes from our chosen production: Babes in the Wood, 2000.

Following the concept meeting, our Graphic Designer Miriam used recent lighting plans and CAD drawings supplied by Bristol Old Vic to inform the branding and set the stage for the app. The lilac, blue, yellow and black colour palette references backstage elements like gaffa tape, the glow of a sound desk, and the soft velvet of blackout cloths, whilst the app logo is a modern take on the classic theatre mask motif.

After confirming the branding, Miriam created mock ups for the experience which showed Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff what we were aiming to achieve. Next she designed the user interface for the app, working with our developers to ensure users could intuitively navigate the app. Miriam then used photoshop to cut out over 80 digitised 2D designs from the Bristol Old Vic archive at the Theatre Collection so they could be included as chooseable assets in the app.

                                                                                                            

Our Creative Director Chris advised Theatre Collection Photography and Digitisation Officer Sarah on how best to capture the model box pieces, exploring photogrammetry techniques and suggesting different settings and post-production software. Sarah then sent us the 3D models she captured, and our 3D modeller Joe prepared them for inclusion in the app. This involved reducing polycounts, removing green screen tinges, fixing holes, smoothing and scaling, adding lost details back in, making texture adjustments, and general clean up.

Whilst we waited for the 3D models, our developer Jake began building the app interface and screens based on the mock ups and UI designs Miriam had made. He incorporated text and instructions I’d written to inform users about the experience, and built different functions including a spotlight effect which highlights the asset users have selected; a budget tracker so users can see what each asset would cost and how much they’ve spent; different special effects; a carousel that shows different backdrops; and put all 2D assets onto vertical planes so they could be positioned in 3D space. Once the 3D models were ready, Jake added them into the app and began testing.  Here’s a film of the app in its early stages, shot in the office carpark!

 

The app lets you choose characters, backdrops, set pieces, and props, see them in miniature, then scale them up to lifesize so you can walk around inside and among them. We then added special effects and lighting to really bring the AR content to life, and give you a taste of being a theatre technician.

Meanwhile Miriam was designing the layout for the book which contained further digitised archival material, instructions, and the tracking images which allow the app to interact with the book. She designed the tracking images in the same style as the app branding, transforming relevant designs and plans into colourful, high contrast images that an iPad camera could pick up.

As a project manager, my role has involved content decisions about the app structure and features, maintaining momentum on the project, informing Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff on progress, and lots of testing!

‘Making a Scene’ has been a true team effort and we’re really pleased with how the project has been developing.  The app is being tested in demo workshops and being able to support the Theatre Collection and Bristol Old Vic staff at these and see people using the app is proving a very rewarding, and an effective way of working out what still needs tweaking.

The final result will be a playful experience rooted in real-life decision making and delivered through genuine archival material realised in AR. It’s a very unique use of augmented reality, but we’ve already had several commercial companies interested in something similar for exhibition, TV/film sets or festival builds. Despite (or perhaps because of?) its panto-theme, ‘Making a Scene’ is on its way to becoming an ideal tool for those wanting to dip a toe into the world of backstage theatre careers.

Making a Scene, Act III – by Harriet Wilson, Heritage Participation Producer, Bristol Old Vic

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

Alongside creating an augmented reality resource for users to creatively re-imagine Babes in the Wood, we have been creating a physical book which allows for an in-depth exploration of the backstage documents created during the original run.  

The original Babes in the Wood prompt script functions as an archive of the entire show from start to finish and our Making A Scene book is essentially a replica of it, into which we’ve woven a lot of additional content from the wider production archive.  We’ve made some judicious edits (no one really wants to sit and read through a hundred show reports, hilarious as they often are) but the experience of leafing through the book is as close to going into the Theatre Collection and looking through the entire archive as we could make it. 

Key pages of the prompt script had already been digitised as part of a previous heritage partnership project between Bristol Old Vic and the Theatre Collection.  So rather than having to start from scratch, Athene and I simply had to compile and curate what we already had and find additional documents to fill in any gaps where we came across them.  This was done in close collaboration with Sarah at the Theatre Collection and the team at Zubr, so we could make sure we had corresponding and contextual documents for each asset that had been 3D scanned for use in the augmented reality app. 

Set design by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/2

Keeping our target audience of 16-25yrs olds in mind, we were also guided by the GCSE and A Level drama curricula.  The backstage roles mentioned most frequently in the GCSE curriculum are: set designer; costume designer; lighting designer; sound designer and stage manager.  We therefore decided to focus the content for the book around these roles.  Rather than keeping the prompt script in its original, slightly haphazard, order we created a separate chapter for each role and divided the documents between them.  Within each chapter the documents are laid out in chronological order so readers can trace the entire production journey from start to finish.  The curriculum mentions that students should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the activities each creative professional undertakes on a day-to-day basis, so we made sure to include shopping lists, meeting minutes and handwritten first drafts of hanging plots, alongside the more obviously ‘big ticket attractions’ like costume designs or stage plans.

Rehearsal notes, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

 

Fly plot, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

We also wrote an introduction to each chapter with background information about each role and what it involves.

It was while putting this content together that the benefits of choosing a production within living memory became clear to us.  Over the course of the project we have had amazing conversations with several members of the original creative team.  These conversations formed the basis of our chapter introductions and added further insight into what each backstage role really involves.  Sue Mayes, who designed the costumes for Babes in the Wood, spoke to us about the importance of allowing performers to have input into their own costumes and the issues this can sometimes cause.  For example, pantomime dame Chris Harris insisted on only wearing Dr Marten boots, which were well above Sue’s budget.  And Amanda Adams, who was a member of the stage management team, demonstrated exactly why they are known as the glue which holds a production together by revealing that she went onstage at the last minute when the actress playing Fairy Tweep fell ill!

Costume design by Sue Mayes, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/5

Theatre is a live art form.  What happens on stage will never happen again.  But we hope that based on our work everyone using Making A Scene will get a sense of what it takes to bring a production like Babes in the Wood to life.

The finished book will be accessible on several levels.  You will be able to sit and pore over it for hours, absorbing every intricate detail of a prop design or anecdote in a show report.  It is also a resource young people can actively engage with by creating their own designs in augmented reality using the models Sarah has digitised and the app Zubr are creating.  Amy from Zubr will be talking more about the process of creating the app in the next project blog.

Making a Scene, Act II – Creating the 3D digital models by Sarah Bustamante-Brauning, Photography and Digitisation officer, Theatre Collection

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

 

MODEL/84/001

The digitisation for the project started with me photographing the prompt script and some of the set designs for Babes in the Wood, including the beautifully drawn and painted backdrops and scenery.  Using these photographs, some pre-existing digital content relating to the production and snapshots of additional archive items, Harriet from Bristol Old Vic then organised these image files into the different acts and scenes, and, with Amy from Zubr, began to make the decisions about which of the models might be useful to capture in 3D for the Making A Scene app.

Setting up model box image with backdrops, scenery and model pieces

With the models brought back from the stores, I worked with another member of the Theatre Collection staff to carefully unpack the ones that had been selected for the project. It was great to see these wonderfully constructed models and the way they had been built with sturdy bases so they could stand, as well as the detail on them.

The next task was to start using photogrammetry to capture digital 3D versions of the models.  From a series of photographs of the models, photogrammetry works by finding important features on the individual images which are then located on the other images.  The software also identifies the camera positioning, which is used to make the 3D model surface.  From our initial research and discussions, and first experiments using Agisoft – the photogrammetry software we have been using to create the 3D digital object from a sequence of photographs – we identified the work would need to go through the following stages:

1.  Capture images of the model using a camera and a green screen

   2.  Organise these images ready to be used by the software and create digital ‘masks’ to mark the model out from the background, which avoids having to manually mask a large number of images

 

3. Complete the different stages in the software workflow, aligning the photographs to enable the ‘mesh’ required to create the object in 3D, before adding texture and colour

4.  Visually check the model now constructed in 3D and make any adjustments so its ready to be exported for specific outputs

Screen grab of MODEL/84/[14]

At first there were some issues to work through, but after some trial and error the first model was created where its now available to view in Sketchfab. It was exciting to see a digital version of the model I had been working with in the studio, with the ability to move it around on the screen so easily, being able to zoom into details and view it from different angles. This was so different to working with the original model which is very fragile as part of the stall panel is loose and extreme care needs to be taken when handling it. There were some issues that needed improving to make sure the digital version kept as much of the original model qualities as we could muster, but I was pretty pleased with the results.

As the project progressed and different models were captured different techniques were tested to see if the results of the 3D digital assets could be improved and match the originals more closely. One of the areas that was investigated was how to create the masks. Initially the models were photographed against the green screen but this left a slight green tint on the lighter parts of the digitised models. Later in the project a different method was tested to create the masks which allowed the model to be photographed against a white background. MODEL/84/[ 11] in Sketchfab was captured using this second masking approach. This reduced the green tint that can be seen on some of the models with lighter tones that would otherwise need to be manually removed from the model texture file in Photoshop.

It’s going to be interesting to see how Zubr begin to use these 3D models within the ‘app’.  At the Theatre Collection we’re going to digitally preserve them so that they will be available to be used again after the project has finished.

Making A Scene, Act 1 – Harriet Wilson, Heritage Participation Producer, Bristol Old Vic

Theatre is a collaborative art form.  It takes a whole team of people to take a play from page to stage.  All too often though, we only pay attention to the people performing onstage.  Those who work backstage go unseen by the audience, and it is difficult to know just what they do, and what career opportunities exist. 

Using Bristol Old Vic’s archives held at the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Making A Scene (funded by the Museums Association Digital Innovation and Engagement fund) aims to fill this knowledge gap by giving young people across Bristol the chance to peek behind the curtain….

These blogs, written by staff involved in the project from the University of Bristol Theatre Collection, Bristol Old Vic and Zubr, a Bristol based Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality studio, are a behind the scenes look at the process of creating this behind the scenes resource.

Model box designed by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). MODEL/84

At Bristol Old Vic, I share an office with our stage management team. When we were discussing what Making A Scene should look like, I began to notice that at their end of the office the answer to almost any question about a particular production was “check in the book”. 

The book they were referring to was the prompt script. It contains all the information necessary to stage a production: the script marked up with blocking and cues; a scenic design plan; costume design sketches; lists of props; and lighting, sound, and special effects cues. 

Prompt script, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). BOV/3/2/732/1/1

A good prompt script is a record of the work and skill of the creative and backstage teams, which is exactly what we wanted Making A Scene to be. Our stage management team had unknowingly given us the perfect frame to build our resource around (they have been thanked with biscuits since). All we had to do was find some exciting content to put in it. 

The Bristol Old Vic Company archive at the Theatre Collection has nearly 1,000 (or equivalent) boxes of material, so we certainly had plenty of options. Because of the incredible breadth of material at our disposal, we originally considered making a mash-up prompt script which showcased several iconic Bristol Old Vic productions. 

However, the more time we spent researching, the more it became clear that it was a much stronger idea to focus on a single production. I wanted everyone using Making A Scene to have the same experience I had in the reading room of seeing a production come to life before my eyes. To see a sketch transform into a model box (a scaled-down 3D model of what the designer thinks the set should look like) and into a finished piece of set, and so on. 

Making a final decision as to which production this would be was probably the most exciting and the most frustrating part of the research process. Archives are spaces of gaps and silences and every production we considered seemed to be missing something. A production with a beautiful model box and a detailed lighting plan didn’t have costume sketches or technical details. A production with detailed stage plans and rehearsal notes had no set designs or model box. Our search went on and on. 

After a lot of looking, we managed to find two strong options. Henry V from 1964 and Babes in the Wood from 2000. The final decision came down to the richness of the material to hand and the emotional resonance of the production. Babes in the Wood was the final pantomime staged at Bristol Old Vic and we all felt that choosing a pantomime would inject a sense of fun to the project development as well as the end product. 

Production photograph by Bob Willingham, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000).  BOV/3/2/732/6/3

The prompt script for Babes in the Wood also documents every minute stage of the production process. You get a sense not just of what every backstage role involves, but the day-to-day reality of doing it. Beautiful set design sketches sit side by side with notes scrawled on scraps of paper asking someone to give them a ring when they get back from lunch.

Model box designed by Colin Winslow, Babes in the Wood, Bristol Old Vic Company (2000). MODEL/84

The prompt script is also accompanied by a phenomenally detailed model box with multiple cloths, wings, trucks, and props which we knew could form the perfect basis for a truly immersive augmented reality experience. Sarah, the digitisation officer at the Theatre Collection, and Zubr had the same head over heels reaction to the possibility of 3D scanning and augmenting each individual piece that I had to the possibility of reproducing the prompt script. Sarah will be blogging about her process to create 3D digital models later on.

Such was the richness of the material that by the time we began to put the final resource together I think everyone involved felt like they had seen Babes in the Wood. My hope is that everyone using the resource feels the same!