16 August 2011
In May 2010, renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony contacted the University of Southern California to discuss a spectacular project to open the symphony’s new concert hall in Miami. Tilson Thomas, a USC alum, then approached the School of Cinematic Arts to collaborate on creating an audio-visual performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” combining live orchestra and animation projections. The groundbreaking building, both a concert hall and state of the art teaching facility, was designed by architect Frank Gehry, also a USC alum. The New World Center is the first concert hall to merge live performance with visual projection and lighting effects, with the goal of bringing classical music performance and education into the 21st century.
With a team of USC animators, we would have eight months to create the 35-minute program for the gala inaugural concert on January 29, 2011. As the first piece to be designed for this new space, it was quite an adventure.
We formed an animation team that included current MFA students, recent graduates, and one undergraduate. Tilson Thomas (MTT) took an active role in conceptualizing the program with the students. Our strategy was to produce the animation in a series of clips that could be triggered in time with the score. This would allow MTT to freely conduct while keeping the visuals in sync with the live music. Ultimately we would need to create 95 individual animation clips. We had to be ready to begin production as soon as school commenced in order to make the performance date.
We co-directed and produced the overall project and also animated 4 of the 15 segments. The animation students and alumni who directed the individual sections included Ria Ama, Melissa Bouwman, Alessandro Ceglia, Carolyn Chrisman, Steven Day, Cecilia Fletcher, Emily Henricks, Seong-Young Kim, Ryan Kravetz, Andy Lyon, and Elizabeth Willy. Henricks won the 2010 student Academy Award for her film “Multiply.” Clyde Scott of the New World Symphony directed the video projection team. Stefan De Wilde, former lighting director for Cirque du Soleil, worked with our visuals to design a beautiful theatrical lighting experience using color and lighting effects.
To design the animation, our team spent many hours with MTT discussing the music of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” and the paintings of Russian artist Victor Hartmann that inspired Mussorgsky. MTT spoke about themes and visual associations in the music that were very important. The well-known composition was written in 1873, to immortalize his close friend artist Viktor Hartman, who died at the age of 39. The music was inspired by Mussorgsky’s own stroll through his friend’s memorial exhibition, and it depicts 10 of Hartman’s paintings, some illustrations of Russian life, some sketches of Italy and France from Hartman’s student travels.
We designed a program consisting of 15 animation segments highlighting the 10 paintings and unified by a recurring theme of spectators promenading through the exhibition. Our vision honored the original spirit of the Hartman pictures while bringing them to life with contemporary style and form. The animators were chosen for each section based on their artistic talents and strengths; each artist brought a unique design and technique to her/his section. Students had the freedom to pursue their own creative direction and develop their animations conceptually as well as technically. With their access to the Adobe Creative Suite, the animators used After Effects to bring their animation elements together. Many projects were a hybrid of different media including hand-drawn artwork, CGI, 2D animation, green screen live action, still photography, and practical visual effects. The individual vignettes weave together into a kinetic canvas that progresses from one picture to the next, unified by the promenades. The result is an exciting tapestry of visual styles and techniques that dynamically plays across the five projection screens.
Our first visit to the theater under construction was both inspiring and challenging. The screens were awesome, and we'd never designed for this kind of space before. We wanted to create an immersive experience that would be both artistic and entertaining. Our team had to deliver at a professional level for this incredible opportunity. After completing the first version of the animation, the entire team flew to Miami to review the work together with MTT in the concert hall. It was the first time we saw our work projected on the enormous screens, and we were amazed at the potential of the performance space. With a new understanding of the hall’s dynamic capabilities, we worked for two more months to revise and refine the animation. The synthesis of the animation, live music, MTT’s conducting, lighting effects, and real-time video technology created an exciting hybrid theatrical experience that was beyond everyone’s expectations.
The three performances resulted in standing ovations and cheers – many people were moved and said the experience “redefined the music for them forever.”
A reporter from The Independent (UK) wrote after seeing a rehearsal, “Flattened against my seat, neck craned upwards, I feel like a child — wide eyed, breathless, and swept along by the tide of music and light. The rehearsal ends with the thumping march of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev.’ It reaches a crescendo and then ... silence. The technicians in the hall start whooping and clapping. I exhale. I have seen the future and it is classical.”
We feel this new art form has a bright future! It has been a fantastic experience to work with our students at this level.
“The video feels like an integral creation, and it raises the possibility that a new, hybrid art form might emerge from this kind of effort. The video grabs the attention, making it difficult at times to find an objective remove from the details of the music. The fourth wall, whatever remained of that supposedly off-putting imaginary barrier between audience and spectacle, is now entirely shattered.” — The Washington Post
Patterson and Reckinger have a long history of blending music and animation together. As directors and animators, they have credits on the groundbreaking music videos “Take on Me” by A-ha, “Luka” by Suzanne Vega, and Grammy-winning “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul. In fall of 2006, seven Patterson and Reckinger music video clips were added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, along with Patterson's Student Academy Award–winning animated short, “Commuter.” The pair co-teach animation and blended media filmmaking at the School of Cinematic Arts. Patterson also teaches a course in Visual Music that draws students from animation, interactive media, music, and production.