New ways to stream – Sunset Boulevard’s video designers on their award-winning success

The award-winning video designers lift the lid on their technical achievements

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Joe Ransom and Nathan Amzi, © Roy J Baron

It’s the biggest feat of this theatre season — or perhaps any modern theatre season: Tom Francis singing the title number of Sunset Boulevard live on the Strand in full view of passers-by. It may sound simple, but the technological complexity is immense – Francis has to not only be in perfect sync with the orchestra, but the video has to be broadcast live without delay on stage at the Savoy Theatre.

Some audience members were skeptical, thinking it was shot in advance (as the various TikTok clips from outside the Savoy can attest, it wasn’t). Others have been wondering since they saw it how director Jamie Lloyd’s team got it together so perfectly. Even the videographers themselves, Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom, are still sort of mystified that they managed to pull it off so seamlessly. Because, after all, it’s all live. One hundred percent.

“I think it’s genuinely one of our proudest achievements,” Ransom told WhatsOnStage recently. “We do a lot in the film world, and this is our first foray into doing work in the theatre in this capacity. When Jamie Lloyd first said to us that this is what he wanted to do, I looked at Nathan and said, ‘That’s not possible.’ If we were trying to do something like that on a film set, we’d do a hidden cut.” They Beta tested it using Ransom’s iPhone camera, which further cemented the idea that it wouldn’t work. But no one was willing to give up.

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The company of Sunset Boulevard, © Marc Brenner

Finding the right equipment took some doing. Amzi, Ransom, and WhatsOnStage Award-winning sound designer Adam Fisher (another vitally important figure in this process) tested multiple kinds of wireless transmitters — the invisibility of the strings was of vital importance. They spoke to companies all over the world who said that it couldn’t be done without latency. There are indeed companies out there that have built systems to keep the latency and delays as low as possible, but even still, at contemporary concerts, Amzi notes, if there’s a video screen, you can tell that it’s not quite in sync with the performers if you’re up close.

Fisher, for his part, “had to judge the sound to match the cinematic side of it.” That involved creating a way for Francis to hear the orchestra each night as he traipsed around the Strand. “You’ve got to think about how sound and light travel at different speeds,” Amzi adds, “so the calculations were mental. Tom’s got to hear the orchestra, be able to sing in time with the orchestra, and then come back into the auditorium bang on. We had to glue it all together.”

There were other variables at play, too. Amzi remembers thinking, “We went on this crazy journey of ‘It’s raining. What do we do? Do I run to Boots to buy shower caps for the transmitters?’ And then we had to figure it out with crowds of people outside. Everyone’s got phones, which affects your signal.”

Finally, they found a way to make it work, which Amzi came up with in a dream. Neither he nor Ransom are willing to reveal their magical secrets, but the proof is in the pudding.

“We failed a lot,” Amzi remembers. “We had zero back up. We had no other way.” “The fact that it is live,” says Ransom, “the fact that it is theatre, and the fact that it had to be done in one take was just incredible. When they finally got it right, the night before the first preview, they celebrated with a lot of Guinness. And last weekend, they earned a WhatsOnStage Award, an even sweeter reward.

The team will reconvene to do it all again this autumn when Sunset Boulevard opens on Broadway. Mum’s the word on which theatre it will take, but we’d bet an Isotta Fraschini Tipo that Francis will make his way through Times Square, a route that’s bound to have its own unique set of challenges. There’s no doubt that they’ll figure it out through trial and error.