BEING BRUNEL: THE MAKING OF

‘Being Brunel’ is an ambitious attempt to take visitors inside the mind of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Visitors move through a recreation of Brunel’s head, along an ear canal, and into an interpretation of the great engineer’s mind itself. The six and half minute journey is an imaginative attempt to show visitors Brunel’s Victorian world through his own eyes.

Designing the Space 

These interpretations of the intricacies and nuances of Brunel’s mind were developed and created in the Centre Screen studio in Manchester. ‘What is unique about this project’, explained Creative Director Paul Kucharski, ‘is the way the full dome projection blends so seamlessly with the wrap-around POV content. It’s the end result of a lot of collaborative hard work with hardware specialists Electrosonic, developing a software/hardware solution’. The dome projection utilised two Optoma ZU650 projectors with wide angle Navitar lenses to create a completely-mapped dome video surface. The POV content was created using three additional ZU650 projectors, blended together with a Seventh Sense server capable of controlling multiple channels of uncompressed video’.

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The audio system was created by Centre Screen sound designer Peter Key, working alongside Electrosonic, and features four full-range loudspeakers in a left/centre/ right/rear arrangement. An additional speaker in the apex of the dome amplifies the immersive impact, and a single sub bass unit provides low frequency extension. This set-up enables a real flexibility in the mix, allowing sounds to match their accompanying images within both the dome and the landscape screen. A fixing of acoustic felt across the auditorium’s internal surfaces absorbs unwanted sound reflections, increasing speech intelligibility.

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This creative, practical approach was echoed in AV production. To recreate the famous incident when Brunel became stuck in a hot air balloon crossing the Avon Gorge, a 360 filming rig was created to shoot from an access cage hanging underneath Clifton Suspension Bridge. This was composited with a green screen basket shoot. The POV section utilised a custom-built head-mounted camera that allowed Director of Photography Jon Pegler to capture perspectives from horseback, and while submerged underwater.

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Filming underwater to recreate a scene when Brunel nearly drowned in the Thames required more ingenuity. The scene was filmed in an aqua tank. As well as great commitment from the crew, the key was great propping, making the scene believable.

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Seeing the World through Brunel’s Eyes

POV scenes produce their own challenges – how to tell stories from this interpretive perspective, and make the scenes engaging, comprehensible and credible? How exactly do visitors get the experience of seeing the world through Brunel’s eyes?

Dan Lusby, Senior Motion Designer  explained the process. ‘The POV section of the film went through various development stages, including portrayals of fragments of Brunel’s mind surrounding and mirroring the vision, to a more vein-like view through the eyes of Brunel himself.

‘At the end of the process, we decided on an organic red vignette, utilised in creative ways throughout the story. For example, we used this vignette to recreate a blink as Brunel shields himself from train steam, and to become bloodshot and distorted during the underwater scene.’

 

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Guiding the Audience

With the action of this story swirling around the visitor at all times, it was necessary to guide the visitor’s attention, both for clarity of narrative and to heighten the sense of immersion. Primarily this was achieved through the timing and rhythm of the edit and of the interplay between the POV sequences and the Mind sequences, with stillness in one sequence prompting the visitor to notice action in the accompanying sequence.

Recreating Historic Scenes 

Recreating historic scenes in modern locations produces other challenges. The client identified a period correct broad-gauge locomotive, the Firefly at Didcot Railway, as most appropriate. An ideal historical reference, but stationary. To recreate a speed trial scene, the Centre Screen art department had to add the illusion of motion and velocity to this stationary engine. This was done through the use of steam and smoke, creating the impression that the locomotive had just arrived in a siding.

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Proving the Concept

Keeping the client team involved and up to speed with the creative and consultative production process is vital. But demonstrating the concept without the use of the actual museum space has its own difficulties. How to demonstrate projecting onto a dome curve without access to the gallery? In this instance, we used Electrosonic’s prototyping workshop in Dartford to create mock-ups of both the Mind space and the Dock Office. A humble garden awning was used to replicate the dome curve. This physical representation of the gallery space allowed meaningful progress on vital visitor issues such as access, seating plans, viewing positions, acoustic finishes, visitor flow and timings, and was crucial in allowing us to prove the concept during development.