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Life of Pi gets alive with zactrack SMART

Award winning lighting designer Tim Lutkin again specified a zactrack SMART real-time tracking system to provide a highly dynamic lighting and follow spotting solution for the multi-award-winning Simon Friend-produced stage version of Life of Pi.

The show opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway in March, and Tim has just won a 2023 Tony Award for his impressive lighting design which blends seamlessly with the production's video elements.

The show, which premiered at The Crucible in Sheffield, UK, in 2019 and then transferred to The Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End in November 2021 to universal - and ongoing - rave reviews, features a plethora of atmospheric, intricate and beautiful projections on the floor and set walls created by video artist, Andrzej Goulding.

One of the major lighting challenges has been not flattening these elements which bring a lot of depth and texturing to the picture, whilst highlighting the characters and accentuating the action onstage.

After some pandemic rescheduling, Life of Pi, which is directed by Max Webster, premiered in the US at the acclaimed American Repertory Theatre (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts in December 2022, which is when Tim switched to zactrack.

Having used zactrack successfully during 2022 on Back to the Future also in London's West End, and shows at Disneyland Paris, he discussed sourcing a zactrack SMART system for Life of Pi's ART and Broadway runs with lighting supplier, Christie Lites.

Christie sourced the zactrack SMART system from ACT Entertainment, zactrack's North American distributor, which also provided technical support for the system, both onsite at ART in Boston and during the Broadway transfer.

"With that previous experience, I knew what a massive difference it could make to this show," stated Tim, adding that the cost effectiveness of the SMART system also made it very viable for all concerned.

Nine Martin Mac Aura PXLs are utilized as the main follow spots, all rigged on advanced bars above the audience, together with some additional overhead and back Mac Ultras are integrated into the zactrack system. "This offers the scenario where Pi, all his family and all the puppet characters in the show can be tracked and highlighted throughout the performance," noted Tim.

The set up enables subtle effects to be created like the rear following fixtures flashing and bumping colors on Pi whilst in the boat, and the turtle puppet is tracked with great precision and cool water effects created using the gobos and animation wheels of the Ultras. "It is a beautiful thing," says Tim, also recalling a 'Beyonce moment' when Pi has 16 pristine, chiseled beams of back light following him and making a dramatic statement.

Previously, working with two standard follow spots, "we simply would not have had the capacity to easily do more complex visuals like this" he explained, adding that it's also the first time he has used Mac Ultras on a zactrack system.

Up to 10 active Trackers at any one time can be linked to multiple lighting fixtures or objects using zactrack SMART, and Life of Piutilizes 11 Trackers in total. Apart from the three on Pi, these all live in different character costumes - designed by Tim Hatley who also designed the set. "It's a trick we already learned for smoother show running," explained Tim Lutkin.

The Tiger has two trackers, and the other puppets have one each, activated as needed via data embedded in the lighting cues.

With video and lighting inextricably linked in this production, there are also a few cool video tricks that have been prompted by zactrack.

Designing and developing the lighting and overall visuality of the show has been a fully collaborative effort between Tim L and Andrzej, whose creative lives have intertwined a few times over the years, enabling them to enjoy the same fluid and imaginative language, vision and ideas exchange.

Instrumental to Tim's own FOH team are programmer Paul Toben, who "has worked magic with the system" underlines Tim Lutkin, and his associate lighting designer for this project, Tim Reed.

"We also have a good laugh," stated Tim Lutking, adding, "zactrack will have a big part to play in the future to further integration and co-operation between lighting and video departments which is hugely positive." A point he illustrated with examples of how new tweaks to the show like adding ripples in the video as Pi plunges into the sea, and extinguishing tracking lights at exactly the right times as he disappears over the horizon, have all added to the richness of the performance's visual and emotional journey.

The devil is in the details as they say! Prior to winning the 2023 Tony Award last week, Tim and Andrej won a 2022 Olivier Award for Life of Pi's lighting design, with Tim Hatley getting another for set design, and the production picked up three more Oliviers to add to its 5 x UK Theatre Awards collected in 2019 and 2020.

Photos: © Courtesy Matthew Murphy and © Evan Zimmerman


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