Immersive trailer for Opera North’s The Turn of the Screw promises cutting-edge chills

The eerie score for Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw takes on a new life in a groundbreaking immersive trailer for Opera North’s forthcoming production of the spine-chilling opera, available to experience online now.

Made through a collaboration between digital creative studio Lusion, composer and sound artist James Bulley, the University of York’s Audiolab and the Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North, the trailer explores the creative possibilities for immersive storytelling made available by cutting-edge digital technology.

Accessible via the Opera North website, it captures the haunting atmosphere of Britten’s opera – based on the 1898 psychological horror story by Henry James – by bringing together spatial recordings made on location at Yorkshire Sculpture Park by Bulley, with visuals by Lusion’s Edan Kwan and Fred Briolet produced using the latest Web generative graphics.

It is one of the first batch of projects to come to fruition with the support of XR Stories, a £15 million investment by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the University of York, British Film Institute and Screen Yorkshire, a range of partners in the creative and cultural industries, and other universities in the region. Through such close collaborations between industry and academic institutions, XR Stories aims to make Yorkshire and the Humber region the UK’s centre of expertise in digital screen storytelling.

The complex, innovative process began with musicians and singers from the Opera North production recording excerpts from the opera, each in isolation. On an appropriately foggy November morning, Bulley and the team from the University of York’s Audiolab took this material to Yorkshire Sculpture Park at West Bretton, Wakefield. For each ‘chapter’ of the trailer – Dawn, Day, Dusk and Night – they played an excerpt back at a different location in the 500-acre site, through a system of eight speakers positioned across the landscape.

As dawn approached, the voices of the two children in the opera, Miles and Flora, were heard from the far side of the Sculpture Park’s Cascade Bridge, and the Governess and Mrs. Grose from the near side. Carrying an ambisonic microphone to capture a 360° sound field, Bulley walked a set path across the bridge, matching the path that would be travelled within the virtual landscape in the finished trailer. Heard on headphones, the binaural mixdown reproduces an uncanny impression of moving through the space.

“You pass the Governess and Mrs Grose, and hear the children in the distance”, explains James Bulley. “As you continue, the two women move behind you and your focus shifts to the children. Crucially you also get the distinctive imprint of the sound heard in the exterior space at that time of day: the mist rising off the water and the acoustic effect of that; the bird calls and the noise of the weir.

“Lusion have done an incredible job in creating a visual world for the sonic material to live within. Working from GPS markers, Google Maps, photographs, film and our notes, Edan and Fred closely modelled the visuals on the locations that we recorded at. The team at the University of York have really integrated the recordings within the virtual environment, shaping and crafting the audio into the setting, so the way in which the music bonds to the landscape is quite extraordinary. It’s something quite other, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, with moments of real beauty.”

Edan Kwan, Creative Developer and founder of Lusion, comments:

“This was definitely one of the most challenging projects we have ever worked on. In order to find the fine line between abstraction and reality for the visuals, we had to experiment with different real-time rendering techniques such as real-time reflection/refraction, particle system and real-time light tracing. We worked closely with James and the team from the University of York to bring the high quality spatial audio to life on a level that we have never experienced before. We are very happy with the outcome of the collaboration, and it was a wonderful experience to work together with such a talented creative team.”

Composer and sound artist James Bulley comments:

“The finished work goes far beyond what any of us imagined, and the process has taught all of us a great deal: in terms of techniques for recording spatialized music, there wasn’t really a reference point for us when we began work on the project. 

“This feels like the beginning of something that could be very interesting in lots of different ways. It’s particularly fascinating for opera, because there’s such strong narrative within the singing. When you place the singers within a landscape and record them in such a way that is sympathetic to the storytelling, it produces a sense of the narrative that isn’t possible in fixed scenarios such as the conventional recording studio, or even the opera house.

Jo Nockels, Head of Projects, Opera North, comments:

This was a truly exciting project to be involved in. Working with the incredible combination of the University of York’s Audiolab, Lusion and James Bulley has enabled us to push technology into new creative shapes, resulting in a trailer that draws out all the mystery and eerie beauty of Britten’s music in a brand new and immersive way. We hope that it piques the interest of new audiences to see the opera itself”.

The Turn of the Screw immersive trailer can be experienced at operanorth.co.uk/turn-of-the-screw-immersive-trailer now. A good pair of headphones is recommended for the best possible experience, and the processing requirements of the piece mean that it cannot be accessed on mobile devices.

Opera North’s production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday 15 February, and tours to Theatre Royal Newcastle, The Lowry, Salford Quays and Theatre Royal Nottingham in March. For more details and booking, visit operanorth.co.uk or contact Box Office on 0113 2233600.

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