Back To The Future, Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard's popular musical is taking London's West End by storm, bringing the adventures, thrills and spills of Marty McFly, Doc Brown and a classic DeLorean car to life as they tumble between time zones onstage at the Adelphi Theatre, delighting audiences and critics alike with a spectacular hi-energy production, and a string of foot-tapping hits in a show produced by Colin Ingram and his team and directed by John Rando.
Award-winning lighting designer Tim Lutkin and lighting consultant Hugh Vanstone worked closely together and specified a zactrack SMART automated follow system for the show, which allows single and multiple lighting fixtures to be selected and to follow actors and dancers using a combination of tag-and-anchor and UWB (Ultra-Wide-Band) real-time radio tracking technology. This ingenious package brings enormous flexibility to the production. In addition to enabling specific lights to be used as remote follow spots, activated from the console cues for precise moments, Tim has developed a unique style and creative treatment utilising zactrack with multiple light sources, which has been successfully applied on several shows including three major productions at Disneyland Paris.
"I specifically wanted to use this technique on Back to The Future," explained Tim, referring to highlighting groups of performers - chorus, dancers, etc., - with several moving lights dotted all over the rig. Rather than having light coming only from one angle or dimension as in 'traditional' follow spotting, zactrack SMART allows simultaneously selected lights to cover all angles and illuminate and track their targets from a 360-degree perspective all around the stage. This produces a beautiful, sculpted layer of lighting that makes the performers absolutely pop against the backgrounds and scenic elements, also adding depth and dimension to the stage space and overall visual picture, creating a unique lighting aesthetic. Using multiple fixtures enables faces and bodies to be covered by the zactrack controlled lights, freeing up other fixtures on the rig for other tasks.
For Back to The Future's iconic final scene at the Town Hall, a front gauze flies in for projections, so traditional FOH follow spots / positions could not have been used to highlight the two main protagonists during this critical time.
However, zactrack controlled lights upstage of the pros are activated to precisely pinpoint Doc and Marty, as Doc races against the clock preparing the DeLorean and the clock tower to harness energy from the lightning bolt to power the Flux Capacitor that will blast Marty - who arrives just in time - back to 1985 in the car! "At this point, zactrack becomes the 'lighting identity' of the show," states Tim, extremely satisfied with the results. The lights being used with zactrack SMART on this show are Claypaky Sharpy Washes, but most types of luminaires can be used. Using zactrack for this show saved a huge amount of time during programming.
"As an LD, you have three priorities - making the scenery and settings look amazing; giving the whole space an energy that sets the tone of the piece and highlighting the characters and all the action. Being able to light people and objects like this is a fantastic asset. You can use steep angled tightly focused luminaires from the front and complement with softer back-lighting from the upstage fixtures, all of which combine to produce the striking cinematic look that was Tim's goal recreating some of the ambience from the landmark 1985 movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. Other lighting challenges included developing different treatments and looks for the juxtaposed time periods - the stiff and repressed 1950s and the flamboyant and vibrant 1980s - achieved with a judicious mix of concert and theatrical lighting disciplines.
zactrack SMART is designed as a plug-and-play device from the Austrian-based innovators which can be set up and running in a venue within 15 minutes. It uses self-calibrating mesh network technology to accurately calculate the stage dimensions - just like magic! A single zactrack server can control lighting fixtures, video effects and 3D sound simultaneously. It integrates with any stage network and is programmed via the lighting desk of choice - in this case an MA Lighting grandMA3 used by programmer Chris Hirst who was also Tim's associate on the project. A grandMA2 console is being used for the current run. Back To The future is the first show on which Tim has used the new zactrack SMART product, following the three Disneyland Paris shows which all utilise zactrack Pros. Based on a great experience with these, he was delighted to spec the brand new zactrack SMART system for this one. Colin Ingram decided that the production itself should invest in the zactrack, both as a cutting-edge technology and as a powerful and dynamic solution bringing value and flair to the stage . . . which is straightforward to set up and use. zactrack SMART had just been launched when Back to The Future originally opened in 2020 at Manchester Opera House. It then closed due to the pandemic and re-opened again in September 2021 at London's famous Adelphi Theatre. The producers have been wanting to get this production onstage since 2013, and the resulting show is a great tribute to their determination and passion for the project. "It's been a fantastic and highly creative experience all round," commented Tim, who recently won a 2022 WhatsOnStage (WOS) 'Best Lighting Design' Award for his ground-breaking work on the show. Winners are selected by voting by the theatre-going public.
Lighting equipment for the West End run is being supplied via Encore. The eye-catching set was designed by Tim Hatley, video was designed by Finn Ross and sound by Gareth Owen.
Ambersphere Solutions Ltd is the exclusive distributor of Zactrack in the UK and Ireland.
Adelphi Theatre Strand, London WC2R 0NS
Photos by Sean Ebsworth Barnes