Behind the scenes


Chloe Mantrom

The musical director pauses the rehersal to have a breif chat with seniors Emma Bushong and Ben Roberts about their timing during Chim Chim Cher-ee.

While audiences were enthralled with the recent production of Mary Poppins, some might not have known that the digital backgrounds throughout the play were created by Westlake students in art classes.

Juniors Finn Lowden and Ruthanne Kirtley, as well as sophomore Isabel Burke, worked on the project, which included scenes such as the London skyline, park, bank office, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“[Technical director] David Tolin came by, and asked me if I had any students [to design backdrops],” art teacher Dale Baker said. “I immediately thought there were three students: Finn Lowden, Isabel Burke and and Ruthy Kirtley. I asked those three if they would be willing to do that. Mr. Tolin had a list of about 10 things that they needed for the Mary Poppins show. Some of them were pretty easy to do, because we do this all the time in my classroom, and some were a little more complicated.”

The backgrounds incorporated both drawings and animations. Finn said he worked on animations.

“My friend, [Isabel] Burke, drew all of the backgrounds on her iPad, and I spent time animating all of the backgrounds in Adobe AfterEffects,” Finn said. “For example, Isabel sketched each of the clock hands and gears from one of the scenes in the play on a separate layer in her drawing program. I then took those drawing layers into AfterEffects and animated them to rotate. We followed a similar process for the other scenes as well.”

Ruthanne worked on the preliminary planning and design.

“The easiest part was getting ideas for the backgrounds — the hardest was actually doing the art,” Ruthanne said. “I had never made backgrounds before, so it was very hard visualizing.”

Things generally went smoothly. One challenge, however, was the timeline with which the students had to create the artwork.

“The hardest part of it all was definitely getting everything done on time,” Isabel said. “We were working on stuff within hours of the first show. We had from early January to the first show [on Feb. 2] to get it done, but thankfully it all got completed smoothly.”

On the technical side, the artwork wasn’t projected onto the stage. Instead, it was fed onto a 8 ft. by 20 ft. LED wall. This helped the tech crew avoid issues such as ambient light or actors walking in front of the screen.

“This year we brought in a LED video wall component,” Tolin said. “If you go to any large-scale rock concert, you will see that they have some sort of video element on stage. It’s a similar thing. This specific product came in about two-foot squares, and they all snapped together. We can basically feed content to it like you feed a computer monitor.”

The three artists then got to see their project live during the performance.

“My favorite part of the process was going to Mary Poppins and seeing the final backgrounds on stage behind the actors,” Finn said. “We all attended the show together, and one of the directors went out of their way to come and thank us for our work. We appreciated that very much and were proud that everyone enjoyed seeing our work.”

Overall, Baker was impressed with the effort the students put into it.

“This is really not an easy task to do,” Baker said. “They all worked on different parts of it. I was really impressed that they pulled this off. They seemed to have a good time doing it too.”