Building a digital version of An Aldeburgh Musicircus

“I’ve just agreed an interesting interactive video project with The Space for the summer, so you should have a fun start!” – the last line in the email I received just before my first day working at Aldeburgh Music back in Spring. As ominous as that sounded, I’d nearly forgotten about it in the blur of new faces and places, trying to remember codes to doors, and the excitement of a new home by the sea.

But when we started to discuss the filming of a 1,000 musicians spread over a 400 metre stretch of Aldeburgh’s seafront, all playing different things at the same time, so that each performance could then be pitted against any other performance online, I began to feel a bit apprehensive once more. That feeling grew after initial meetings with Daniel and Aly at AVCO, the developers of the Musicircus online experience, led to the conclusion that every video made had to be isolated as possible – i.e. with very little extraneous noise – something that seemed impossible given the proximity of other musicians.

Planning shots, with a view

Filming absolutely everything that was going on would not be possible either, so Tracy Virr (chief Musicircus organiser) plotted to make sure we could cover as much as possible. With the help of some very detailed spreadsheets, endless post-it notes on large maps of Aldeburgh, and a tool called Workflowy, a plan started to fall into place.

I formed 4 camera crews, made up of professional events camera operators and media students at Suffolk New College. They each had 3 cameras and sound recording equipment, but for more complicated performances, for example a full orchestra or 100-strong choir, there was an additional sound recording team with many more microphones and more wind-protectors than I have ever seen! For a little icing on the cake, I also booked a remote-controlled quadcopter-mounted camera and operator.

On the day, we gathered early, painfully early for one crew member travelling from south-west London. I gave all 20 a tour of the site, putting the timetables they had been armed with in the week before into context and distributing equipment to each team. Before we knew it, the 3 airhorns along Crag Path sounded and 2 hours of musical chaos had begun.

At this point there wasn’t much more I could do, other than hope the crews had battled through the crowds (we’d hoped it would be busy but the road was more densely packed than expected) and enjoy the show.

Two hours later, the crews returned with empty batteries, full memory cards, and a little bit of sunburn. While they headed off to get their well deserved fish and chips, the most stressful part of the day for me began: copying all the footage to hard drives (twice for safety) while keeping it organised to make the start of the edit easier. With 500GB of video and audio across at least 25 cards, this needed a lot of concentration to make sure everything recorded was ingested.

After that it was a relatively simple, but very drawn out, process of syncing all video and audio, and cutting together as many performances as possible. I sent drafts of the first 12 or so videos to AVCO to start putting their ideas into practice. They were using an open source Javascript library called Famo.us, which provided a framework to easily manipulate objects in 3 dimensions and render them quickly using the computer’s graphics card, something that is normally unavailable to a web browser.

AVCO tried a lot of different ways of visualising it, from a hedgehog type layout with videos at the end of the spines, to floating videos moving backwards and forwards, but after some work with Justin Spooner of Unthinkable Consulting, came up with a much simpler flat layout, like a fruit machine. This made it fun to play with as well as making it easy to find new videos.

I ploughed on with the remaining performances, ranging from a single camera view of an autoharp player in the shelter next to the Moot Hall, to a 6-camera edit of the CBSO playing Ravel’s Mother Goose.

These all came together a couple of weeks before the launch, and we tested, tested and tested some more to see what the different browsers and platforms were capable of. On devices like the iPhone where only one video could play at a time, AVCO had the online version fall back to audio only, so as many people as possible could use it. Testing is always gruelling, but I do find it oddly interesting learning the limitations and capabilities of different bits of kit.

We’d aimed to have the online experience ready for the end of the summer, so it was a great moment to be able to release it on John Cage’s 102nd birthday, the 5th September. The digital version of An Aldeburgh Musicircus lives on The Space – I hope you enjoy it even more having read a little into how it was created.

Thanks to the crew:
Camera operators – Ian Ellerby, Jasmine Robinson, Tom Maine, Matt Dove, Victoria Butcher, Alex Smith, John-Connor Shaughnessy, Samuel Miller, Olivia Penny, Laura Katkute, Eddie Chesney and Daniel Wilcox
Sound engineer – Alex Barnes of Apple and Biscuit Recordings, Freddy Harris
Aerial camera – Louis-James Parker
Roaming cameras – Joseph Barton, Harry Marshall, Freddy LaBella, Daniel Roberts and Darren Simons (special thanks to Darren for organising the Suffolk New College students too!)