Frost/Nixon at Portland Center Stage

Sam Kusnetz
April-May 2009

About The Sound

From day one, the director described the show as fast-paced, with transitions from scene to scene happening effortlessly and underneath dialogue. We mapped out a sound design that was quite minimal, because we felt that adding music to transitions would psychologically lengthen them, separating the scenes on either side rather than allowing them to seamlessly flow from one to the next. I had the sneaking suspicion that once we got into the theatre with all the scenery and costume changes, that we would regret this decision, but this director has a well-earned reputation for sharp blocking and smooth-running action, and I agreed with her reasoning.

Fast-forward to tech rehearsal. The blocking is indeed sharp, the action smooth and fast, and the dialogue beautifully covered the scene changes. The only problem was, the scene changes turned out to be really interesting to watch, and added to the fun of the piece, and now they were feeling under-supported.

"What do you think, Sam?"" the director asked me on the second day of tech. "I feel like that transition needs... something..."

I agreed, and quickly sketched out a piece of music in Logic, my composition environment of choice. She liked it, and we tried the next transition in a similar fashion. It sounded good.

Suddenly, I was completely redesigning the show. The sound plot went from about 50 cues to about 200. To keep the feeling light and fast, I wanted to be able to shift the focus of a piece of music fluidly in response to the action onstage. To achieve this, I exported my compositions as multitrack files, and used QLab to fade different instruments in and out as needed. I also made use of the devamp cue, to set up a subtle loop under the end of a scene, and then seamlessly move into the song as the transition began.

  • Mac Pro
    • 2 x 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon
    • 4 GB RAM
    • 1 x 320 GB Maxtor system drive
    • 2 x 500 GB Seagate Barracuda drives in RAID-0 array
    • 1 x 500 GB Seagate Barracuda drive for data backup
    • ATi Radeon HD 2600 video card
  • MOTU 828mkIII firewire audio interface
  • Canopus ADVC 110 firewire video interface
  • Soundcraft K3 sound mixer
  • DataVideo SE-500 video mixer
  • 3 x Crown Xs series amplifiers
  • 4 x Crown CT series amplifiers
  • Barco R20+ video projector w/ integrated dowser
  • iBook G4 12"
  • AirPort Extreme base station

QLab made this rapid redesign possible. Its ease of use and tremendous flexibility meant that I didn't need to spend any time planning my cueing sequences, or painstakingly timing compositions to the scenes and then forcing actors to listen to the music and keep time. Instead, QLab allowed me to execute on my ideas immediately and provide the show with a flexible, responsive sound design. I couldn't have done it without QLab.

About The Video

Frost/Nixon is a story about a television interview. The big monologue towards the end of the show refers to "the reductive power of the close-up", and as soon as I read that, I knew video was going to be central to the production. The director called for two television cameras on stage to be operated by stagehands, and a third on the balcony rail providing a static shot. Additionally, there was one short prerecorded video called for in the script, in which two actors watch a third being interviewed on television.

The budget was tight, but everything fell into place when we scored a bargain-basement price on renting the Barco. This is the kind of projector that makes you never want to use anything else. It has a bright, crisp, picture with great colors and a very high contrast ratio (1800:1). Planning for this, the set designer created a playing space centered around a large rear-projection screen divided into 42 cells, each made to look like a 1970s-era television, with a 4:3 aspect ratio and rounded corners. Because of the high output of the projector (20,000 lumens), we were able to scale images and video down to very small portions of the screen and still have acceptable brightness.

Top Left: Barco projector. Weighs 215 pounds!

Initially, we planned to use QLab only for playback, and use an external video mixer to incorporate the live cameras. We got a Mac Mini, and I programmed the prerecorded video in along with the sound. But once we saw how great the projection looked, suddenly we started adding more video. The show now opens with a 90 second sequence of historical footage, painstakingly edited to scatter across the various screen cells in order to use the whole surface, but avoid any single monolithic images. It looked fantastic. The video editor did no fewer than nine versions to refine the sequence. Then, instead of settling for a predefined out time for the video, we added 42 individual black rectangles which blacked out the screen piece by piece on cue to match the onstage action. Between the music, the video, and the blackout slides, the top of show cue contained more individual lines than the entire previous production.

And then we started adding more. Test patterns on screen at the top of each interview scene. Gentle color gradients to supplement the backlighting. A soft, faint cloud gobo for an outdoor scene. The lighting designer and I started treating the projector as just another lighting fixture, rather than as a special-purpose tool. It was great.

And then we tried taking the output of the video mixer and piping it into QLab through the Canopus DV converter. Suddenly we had full control of size and position of the live cameras. We could bring up multiple copies of each camera at different sizes, and fade them in and out individually. Once we saw what was possible, we ditched the Mac Mini and got the Mac Pro to ensure smooth playback.

During the climactic final interview, one of the on-stage cameras zooms fully in on Nixon, and for the first time we see a live camera image full screen, dominating the stage and capturing every detail of the President's confession.

Again, the rapid changes in plan were not only facilitated by QLab, they would have been completely impossible without it. The lighting designer had originally requested a very high end media server for the show, which would have indeed been great but was way out of our price range. By the end of tech, he commented that he had never seen video programmed as fast or with as much flexibility. QLab, he said, has some serious advantages.

Top Left: That's my MacBook Pro on the tech table with an external monitor attached. I'm running Logic Studio to compose music during down time, and I've got a VNC connection (over wifi) to the production computer up in the booth.

Bottom Left: The video mixer, which is switched with MIDI commands from QLab.