Light fantastic: a digital visualisation of 59 Productions’ Deep Time
Light fantastic: a digital visualisation of 59 Productions’ Deep Time

In a darkened corner of his company’s London office, Leo Warner is contemplating a small but accurate model of Edinburgh Castle. At a signal, his colleague presses a button, there is a rumbling sound and the castle, together with the rock on which it is perched, apparently crumbles and sinks, smouldering, into the earth.

“So . . . you’ve just blown up the castle?” I ask, somewhat dazed at the sight. Warner nods cheerfully as the disintegration continues.

On Sunday, he and his team will do this in real life. Or at least they will appear to do so. Warner is one of the creative directors of 59 Productions, a design company that specialises in combining live performance and video projection to transform the familiar. It has devised Deep Time, the Standard Life Opening Event of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival — an epic outdoor spectacle that will also be livestreamed to a global audience.

Using the castle and its rocky plinth as a vast, bumpy canvas, Deep Time will whisk viewers — by virtue of light, video and music — back millions of years to the volcanic eruption that formed the city’s distinctive topography. The show will also celebrate James Hutton, the pioneering Edinburgh geologist who, in the 18th century, was inspired by the city’s craggy features to hypothesise that the earth was far older than people had once thought.

“We’re telling the story of Edinburgh over its 350m-year history; we’re also telling the story of the idea of time,” explains Warner. He laughs. “Easy, right? Every time I describe this I come away asking myself whether it is in any way possible to do the subject justice. The answer is that we can make gestures at it, but, ultimately, we only scratch the surface.”

In the decade since it launched, 59 Productions has become one of the most exciting companies in its field. Previous projects include the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, the 2014 celebration of Sydney Opera House, and last year’s Harmonium Project at the Edinburgh Festival — during which they made the dome of the august Usher Hall appear to flash and spin like a top.

Theatregoers may know the company’s remarkable projection work, blending physical and digital worlds, from War Horse, Wonder.land at London’s National Theatre or An American in Paris on Broadway (and, from next March, in the West End). Others may be familiar with the intricate “live cinema” technique it has developed with director Katie Mitchell on shows such as Waves and The Forbidden Zone.

As technology has improved, virtual design has come into its own in theatre as a storytelling tool: an integral part of a show rather than an add-on. For Warner this offers an opportunity to respond artistically to a world in which digital technology plays an ever greater role.

“We’re interested in the intersection between the real and the ephemeral,” he says. “We’re now experimenting with building theatrical worlds simultaneously with virtual worlds. So, designing a world that may be represented with the removal of the fourth wall but that you can also, through a VR headset, put audience members inside, allowing them a different perspective.”

The company started out in graphic design and has gradually evolved into a much more technically wide-ranging outfit (the core team comprises directors, designers and technicians). But for Warner, an English graduate in his thirties, the key to everything it does is narrative. The shift into open-air spectacles, he says, simply offers a chance to use skills developed in theatre to create stories, visually, on a far larger scale. “Whatever it is, it is all about narrative,” he says. “Otherwise it’s just empty spectacle.”

In the office, elaborate patterns are now scudding over the miniature Edinburgh Castle, making the structure look almost molten. Drawing on geological expertise contributed by Edinburgh University, this represents the birth of the rock, Warner explains.

“This is how Edinburgh was formed when it was at the equator 350m years ago. It was underwater, there was a vast volcanic explosion and that’s what caused it.”

Leo Warner
Leo Warner © Victoria Birkinshaw

Thanks to plate tectonics, the city is now a long way from the equator and the weather, even in August, can be capricious. When Deep Time opens, the team will have spent a week at the site, setting up the 44 huge projectors it will take to deliver the piece. Warner is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the ancient rock — “when you project on to that sort of undulating surface it cascades like liquid” — but one of the hazards of blending high-tech wizardry with lumps of old dolerite is that the elements can intervene. How will he cope if, on the night, it pours with rain?

“You can’t combat the weather,” he admits. “We’ve done work in snow. One that is really hard to deal with is fog — and Edinburgh is big on fog. But I like that. In Edinburgh we’re working with the natural phenomenon of that rock — and the place, as part of a meteorological and geological system, is a player in the piece.”

He takes a sip of water. With his crisp white shirt and cheerful demeanour, he seems remarkably sanguine about the possibility of mishaps. Doesn’t he ever feel nervous?

“All the time,” he replies, affably. “We live in a fairly persistent state of fear because everything we do is slightly more ambitious than it should be and is challenged by parameters of technology and budget. The chance of something going wrong is always there.”

The company has had problems that have stopped shows, he adds, and, while the Olympics opening ceremony was a success, the run-up was nail-bitingly fraught. At 10 on the morning of the event, he and his colleagues were still waiting for reworked material to finish loading on the computer.

“And there was nothing you could do,” Warner recalls. “The world was not going to wait for us. I went for a walk around the stadium and at some point [the animation] completed. We took some enormous risks on that project and were absolutely encouraged to by Danny [Boyle, artistic director of the ceremony], who is an inspiration for that reason . . . 

“We’re always terrified — but it’s about having the right level of fear.”

Deep Time will take place on August 7 at 10.30pm, eif.co.uk, 59productions.co.uk

Photograph: Victoria Birkinshaw

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