We've created a monster and here's how. Making Shelley's Heart come to life was a labour of love, but a labour nonetheless. The entire project spanned three years of blood, sweat and tears, AKA, "production," which included film shoots, recording sessions and theatrical performances. Here are a few of the highlights...
Inspiration strikes: in December 2015, Bradford G gets a bright idea. He decides to create a location-aware story set in St. Peter's churchyard in Bournemouth town centre with scenes that are geo-linked to specific sites in the actual churchyard, including the Shelley Tomb. In other words, people will use the sat-nav sensors on their phones to locate and unlock short interactive videos that piece together a larger story.
The project will be titled Shelley's Heart. Like the film Roshomon, it will tell a single story from multiple perspectives and like the web series, the Lizzie Bennett Diaries (a modern update of Pride and Prejudice), it will feature modern alter egos of classic figures. Also, it will merge fact and fiction. Mary Shelley and the Romantic poets will be confronted by her greatest fictional creation, the monster.
Research and Writing: 2016-2018. Next it was time to hit the books and pound the laptop keyboard. G typed up many drafts of the original story and read many books about Mary Shelley and the Romantics. Over 300 facts about the authors and their works would be included in the final project. During this period, he also discovered that 2018 was the 200th anniversary of the original publication of Frankenstein. He decided that would be the ideal year to launch Shelley's Heart, so he aimed to debut it on Halloween day, 2018.
He also explored many interactive multi-media stories and studied their mechanics.
And he read books about interactive and transmedia storytelling.
Testing: Between 2016 and 2018, G tested the interactive narrative of Shelley's Heart dozens of times with different groups of people including Bournemouth University's MA script writers, MA fiction writers, BA English students, BU staff and his own family. These tests took place on the BU campus, in St. Peter's churchyard, in his home and even in an Airbnb in Rome (after visiting the Keats-Shelley House Museum).
Staged reading: Winchester Theatre Pub, Bournemouth, January, 2017. Although Shelley's Heart was originally designed to be a location-aware story, Doppelganger Productions Artistic Director, John Foster, suggested it could also be developed as a theatrical work. This approach would enable Bradford G to recruit actors and a stage manager. For this early version, audience members shaped the unfolding action by voting with an app on their phones. The performances were strong, but the internet was a bit laggy. Also, we realised it would be too expensive to produce a full theatrical version with so many actors on stage. We needed to modify our approach.
Booking: March 2017, John Foster secured two dates for a stage debut of Shelley's Heart, November 25th & 26th, 2017. Could there be a better venue for our premiere?! The theatre is part of Shelley Manor, the home Mary Shelley's son, Percy Florence, built for his ailing mum. Matthew Vass-White, director of the annual Shelley-Frankenstein Festival endorsed the project and so did Rev'd Dr. Ian Terry, the Vicar of St. Peter's church. Over the next 8 months, sets, wardrobe, multi-media production elements, technical challenges, rehearsals and funding would have to be sorted, but first...
Audio Recording: In the summer of 2017, Bradford G reassembled the cast to record an audio version of the script for the proposed location-aware story app. Sound Designer Steve Rafter recorded these sessions. In order to stretch the budget, the finished project would be a combination of audio-scenes enhanced with looping images, some live-action and even a bit of animation.
Wardrobe fitting and make-up tests: September, 2017. With the stage debut rapidly approaching, it was time to get our actors in costumes and make-up.
Location Shoots: October, 2017. At this point, Shelley's Heart featured 11 characters (3 more would be added later!). There was no way to fund so many actors for the stage play and to coordinate costume changes for the three main actors who were all playing double or triple roles. The solution: shoot footage of characters in costume and in key locations that would appear in monitors on stage. The live actors would interact with these figures, greatly enhancing the production values of the piece. Best of all, these elements could be then incorporated into the finished location-aware app! The Vicar generously allowed us to organised two night shoots on the church grounds and to use an out building known as the Chapel of the Resurrection to house our kit, change wardrobe and apply makeup effects.
Studio Shoots: Bournemouth University, Talbot Campus, October, 2017. We also included two days of studio shoots on the schedule. This allowed us to film actors performing internal monologues with scripts in auto-cue and clear audio. We also shot them in front of black curtains, white curtains and green screen to make various effects shots possible.
Theatre Set Construction: October-November 2017. Creating an interactive multi-media set presented some unique design challenges. Technicians Dave May and Ed Sedgley and set designer Mark Phillips helped to sort these issues and create stage elements and a lighting scheme that allowed the audience to influence the on stage action using audience response clickers broadcasting radio signals (no more concerns about laggy internet). Bradford G's family did without a TV for 3 months so that their flat screen could be fashioned into the front of the Shelley Tomb. A desk monitor became the screen encased in a tall, narrow set piece. Also there was a projector hidden in the back of the tomb that directed an image onto a massive screen toward the back of the stage. To keep the screen from getting washed out, two large lighting units were placed on either side of the stage and rigged to switch on and off in sync with various cues related to the two monitors and projector on stage. All of this would be coordinated via a small laptop in the wings.
2 weeks of Rehearsals, Bournemouth University, Talbot Campus, November, 2017. The performers needed to practice interacting with characters projected onto a screen behind them, so they performed facing a large monitor. This allowed them to see where to stand and which way to look. We also recorded these rehearsals with the monitor. Between rehearsals, we studied these videos and came up with new blocking ideas.
Open Air Preview: St. Peter's Church, Bournemouth, 19th of November, 2017. To give the public a taste of the upcoming performance we staged this interactive half-hour performance. The actors clustered together for group scenes and split apart for internal monologues. Audience members were free to select the character(s) they wanted to follow at any given moment. The performances were accompanied by sound effects and music broadcast via a blue-tooth speaker that was carried around the churchyard.
Interactive Stage Play: Shelley Theatre, Boscombe, 25th & 26th of November, 2017. We performed Saturday and Sunday for two capacity crowds, who shaped the unfolding action with audience response clickers. We also captured the first performance on video and subsequently included much of that footage in the location-aware web app. On the first night, the audience was free to skip ahead at any point. As a result, some key scenes were missed. We corrected this by changing some of the interface mechanics. On the second night, they had to experience at least one version of each scene, which made for a more satisfying experience. Even at this late stage in the process, we were still learning!
Rewrite and Redesign: winter-spring 2018. Initially, we planned to tour Shelley's Heart as a stage production in the Autumn of 2018. This was going to be part of a promotional build up leading to the launch of the locative app. Unfortunately, our lead actress was offered various film projects and chose to drop out of the project. Lucky her! Unlucky us. This was a make or break moment. It would be too costly and time consuming to reshoot and re-record all of the media with her image and voice, so the stage version had to be scrapped along with several of the large theatrical set pieces, just not the flat screen TV! We also held onto the wardrobe and begin to rethink the design of the locative version. A key change involved breaking the story into 4 self-contained but intersecting paths, one for each of the main characters: Mary, John, Byron and Percy's Ghost. This meant we could have 4 protagonists, each with his or her unique story arc. The staged version could only have a single audience so the story arc primarily focused on Mary, but with a location-aware story, individual participants could be freed up to explore different parts of the churchyard and to connect with different characters. Groups experiencing the app wouldn't have to clump together. They could break apart and explore the project in different ways at different tempos.
Another breakthrough involved meeting a new collaborator, Charlie Hargood, who had recently worked to develop the locative web-app, Storyplaces. There were pros and cons to a web-based solution. If we committed to the Storyplaces interface, images would be a bit more low res, slower to load and require more clicking to advance. HOWEVER, any smart phone with a 4G signal could access the project. It would be compatible with both Androids and iPhones and nothing would have to be downloaded! In other words, a large media-rich story could be accessed without using up all of the data on one's phone. We decided that the trade off was worth it and committed to the Storyplaces app. Charlie and his team then worked with Bradford G to create an elaborate flow chart for the piece and to geo-link specific sites in the churchyard to the Storyplaces server.
Yet another change involved rethinking the monster. In this new version, he would function as a key obstacle in the dramatic arc of each character. Our actor Steve Rollins would have a chance to show off his range, shifting between a variety of personae: menacing, meek, manic and serene.
Additional audio recordings: Talbot campus, May 2018. In order to flesh out the individual story arcs, three new characters were added. Timothy Lowe was cast as Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin and Fay Butler was cast in two roles: Fanny Brawne, the fiancée of John Keats, and Claire Clairmont, the half-sister of Mary Shelley and lover of Lord Byron. Two additional audio booth dates were booked in order to record the new material.
Additional wardrobe: Hampshire Wardrobe, May 2018, more period costumes were rented for Fay's two roles. Tim Lowe proved to be a cheap date, providing his own wardrobe (from a previous role) and supplying gravitas to spare!
Second Unit Shoot: Swanage, June 2018. With scuba kit and quadcopter camera fully deployed, Saeed Rashid captured these rock-star-shots to give the project real cinematic scope.
Additional Location Shoots: St. Peter's Churchyard, Bournemouth, June 2018. Our crew spent two more nights in the churchyard shooting the new script pages. At one point, some 50 homeless men were dining from a red food truck. They looked on as the monster carried Percy across the lawn in his brawny arms. Very touching, and surreal.
Additional Studio Shoots: Bournemouth University, Talbot Campus, June 2018. With so many divas in the mix, it was bound to end in a blood bath.
Post Production: Talbot campus, Bomo Audio, home sweet home, Summer and Autumn, 2018. Time to make some sense of this monstrosity! The workflow involved cutting over 200 small videos and assembling them into 60 interactive nodes with Premiere Pro and Kynt software. Binaural audio mixes were created to give key scenes a sense of 360 degree sound design. Logos and icons were also created and even a few animations for a few key scenes.
Locative App Debut: Halloween, 31st of October, 2018. In conjunction with a gala dinner, an academic conference and the start of the annual Shelley Frankenstein Festival, the Shelley's Heart Locative app is finally launched! YA-HOOOO!!! Crowds swarm, the churchyard is filled with squeals of delight, as giddy participants explore the story-paths for as long as they like, absolutely free of charge!
The Future: Shelley's Heart will be freely available for years to come. It can be enjoyed by anyone age 14+, basically, anyone old enough to own a smart phone. As it contains information featured on GCSE and A Level exams, it is an ideal field trip destination for secondary schools, colleges and universities. The team behind Shelley's Heart are planning events to widen participation for elderly, poor and disabled people. We will also promote it internationally via conferences and journal articles. StoryPlaces "demo mode" function will allow people in distant lands (like Pago Pago) to explore the churchyard remotely. Survey and analytic data related to both the actual and virtual visits will be collected so the project can be studied in all sorts of different ways. And who knows, we may even continue to refine and elaborate upon this crazy monster we've created just to see what else evolves.