Layla: Raise the light. Over here. 65 Lumens on this spot…perfect. Lock it.
Layla Paige directs the student crew as they set up lights and video recording equipment in the great hall of an historic train station repurposed into a museum. Several generations of Americans had not experienced travel by train, but high speed trains had finally arrived in some locations, and had breathed new life into stations like this one, which now has a duel identity as a museum and working station.
The locals called the museum “The Whistler,” not because of the artist, but because of all the train whistles that used to signal their arrival and departure. Clever marketers at the museum had built on the idea by creating “whistling events” to take advantage of lively acoustics in the great hall, and by creating a very “sticky” musical logo that could frequently be heard from the pursed lips of visitors exiting the museum—even from people walking around town. So even though the museum had a long formal name, locals just called their beloved institution “The Whistler.”
Local media was covering the event and was on site in force.
Reporter: Your bio says Layla Paige, age 30. Musician. Composer. Zoologist. Filmmaker. Teacher.
Layla: Sounds pretty good, huh?
“Which song did you chose for the project?”
“Move like Jagger.”
“Move like Jagger. By Maroon 5. They were popular when I was a little kid. I learned to whistle when I was five. The song has a great beat and fun whistle part. We’re in “The Whistler” you know.”
Gotta keep setting up, now. Thanks.” Layla walked away from the reporter, unaware she was quietly whistling the bar from the song.
Layla gathers the members of her crew—27 students from local high schools and universities that competed to be a part of the project.
Layla: Good work guys. We’re right on schedule. Let’s walk through the sequence one more time. We go live with the remote feeds at 11:55. I’ll say a few words to the students—my little pep talk. That will be our final audio and video check. Those connections are hot now. Still got a stable reading?
Student crew member: Yes, on all 18 remotes.
Layla: Let’s make this room rock tonight!
The acoustics, stories, musical connections, aesthetic qualities of the architecture, and the social vibrancy of the museum had all drawn Layla Paige to pursue the position of artist-in-residence. She loved projects with technical and artistic challenges—work that harnessed the creative energy of many people and channeled it through a vision that she leads, but also a shared vision.
On the surface, tonight’s project seemed relatively simple. Layla and her crew would make a short film—something she had done hundreds of times. This wasn’t the first time she he had worked with musicians to score a film, but it was the first time the orchestra consisted of students performing the music in classrooms, libraries, community centers, and other museums in 15 locations around the world.
Layla had worked remotely with the students for weeks to select their instruments, learn the song, and get their feedback on the story. She wanted them to have a real stake in the project, and she knew it would make better art.
When students first agreed to participate, they were introduced to the song and had to choose an instrument to play from the collection at The Whistler. The collections team had digital files on most of the instruments that could be 3D printed locally for each of the 15 locations. To pick an instrument, students learned about its provenance, its contextual history, and its acoustical properties. For students without musical training, simple instruments were available that could be learned well enough in a few weeks.
The train station-turned-museum featured huge Andy Warhol murals of endangered animal species from Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas. Of all the collections, the students liked these best, and wanted the animals to become the characters in the story of the film. Layla loved that idea, having always loved animals and worked for animal causes, so she wrote a story about the animals coming to life.
Layla selected other collections to use in the film, including a large mechanical clock, a Lincoln Continental car from the 1960s, a Crosley record player from 1953, and a drum acquired in 1998 from the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, part of the museum’s collection of musical instruments.
Time ticked away. And as if everyone wasn’t already acutely aware of the deadline, the giant mechanical clock reminded. Mechanical because Layla loved the look of the moving parts. She brought it in to created dramatic effect for the film, but it was having a dramatic effect on the crew, too, because they all knew the entire project—performance, experiments, filming, and editing—was due at 8:00 am the next day. The sadistic rules of the creative competition.
Layla has always taken creative risks and pushed boundaries. Tonight was no different, except for the additional variable of the experimental tech. She would rely on her brother Jacob, and a little luck, to cover that base.
Layla made a choice to create the film in TOTAL 3D, the full surround format of choice since immersion lens technology had enticed people to experience media spherically. This meant, of course, that she would shoot her video—her POV—through her eye -piece mounted stereoscopic camera. She can direct the audience POV and tell the story by framing shots in the traditional way, but the final media product will allow viewers to also explore the full virtual environment and shape their own story by using their own 3D viewer technology.
Jacob helped his sister by digitally mapping and modeling the grand Romanesque room, and by creating the animations of the animal images in the historic Warhol murals. Layla’s film would insert her POV camera movement inside the digital model.
LAYLA, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? WE GO LIVE IN TWO,” yelled Jacob as her saw her walking slowly toward the camera rig. “You look a little green. Are you OK? Are you sick? Great timing.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Pull it together, sister. It’s show time.”
She waivers again.
“Do you have the flu? Want some water”
“SHIT. I mean great. I mean, now? Why didn’t you tell me? Are you OK?
“Stop asking me if I’m OK. I have my biggest project ever rolling in less than 60 seconds and I just want to…blurrgh.” She vomits into the trashcan. “We need to stop talking and get ready.”
“What was that,” yelled the audio engineer. “A friggin bomb?”
“The storm. Dammit, it’s early.
“Power spiked on the camera,” yelled the video tech.
Layla: Jacob. I didn’t tell you sooner because I lost my first one. Now get ready.
Layla feared for the health of her baby just starting to take shape in her body, and she feared how her life is changing so quickly. She had committed to this project months ago before she was pregnant.
Tech: We go live in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
Layla, speaking to the students at the remote locations: We are about to something no one has ever done. And we’re going to have a blast doing it. Remember to watch the screen for the timing. Hit your entrances crisply. Anticipate. Remember the dynamics were rehearsed—softer on the third phrase. I’m going to put on my headset, and on your screens, you will see the virtual world I am seeing. When Jacob activates the animation, we get four measures on the drum. Watch for my downbeat for your entrance. Once we hit that, the rest will follow. Most of all, have fun. We will be great together.
Layla puts on the viewer, takes a deep breath, lifts her arms above her head, and counts off the 16 beats of drum intro. With a big downward motion, the orchestra hits their entrance. She can hear the live mix through her headset as the she directs her view toward the murals. The Warhol animals, which already seem to vibrate with life—begin to move and stretch in Jacob’s animation as if awakening from a long sleep, then appear to leap from the murals into the room, where they begin to circle faster and faster.
Layla is in her zone. In the story of the animals. The Grevy’s zebra looks up at the giant clock as if to say, how much time do we have? She hears the music—the best the students have ever played it. And then she feels it. Another wave of nausea. No. Push through. Push through.
Boom. Another flash of light and deafening thunder. This time the images flicker.
Layla, speaking through her microphone: Jacob, talk to me. Are we stable?
Jacob: That last lighting pushed us to 6.8 megahertz. Right on the edge. We only need to hold out for 43 more seconds. Dammit. We lost two of the remotes. Okay. We got them back.
Layla continued to direct her gaze—her live POV framing of the film—according to the plan she laid out in storyboards with the students. But it was all she could do to focus on the story while fighting the nausea and distractions of the storm that threatened to take down the whole project. Push through.
In the story, the Grevy’s zebra moves closer to the lion. But the lion was no longer the biggest threat to its existence.
Layla thought about the baby growing inside her. How could she protect her? Would she be Okay?
10 seconds left. Jacob’s animations have worked perfectly, moving around the room, telling the story.
As the last phrase of the song—the sticky little whistling part, whistled by Layla—came to the final note, one more boom of thunder added a final and unplanned punctuation. Layla didn’t hear it, because she had her head back in the trash can.
An hour later, as they added graphics and wrapped up the few edits allowable in a “live” event, Jacob stepped behind Layla and rubbed her shoulders.
Jacob: How do you feel?
Layla: Great. And relieved. We pulled it off. Thanks for helping me make it happen.
Jacob: I don’t mean the project. How are you feeling?
Layla: Oh, pretty good. The morning sickness should end soon. As long as I have it, I figure the baby-making magic inside me is working. I have a lot of follow up with students and teachers for my project over the next few months, but I won’t be taking on anything this ambitious until after she is born.
Jacob: Sounds like your next project will be your most ambitious yet—the pregnancy/birth/parenting project, I mean. I hope you’ll include me in that one, too.
Layla: Count on it. Getting to be with you was one of the reasons I did this project. I missed my brother. As she sat staring at the video and thinking about her life, she began whistling that sticky little tune once again, quietly, without even knowing it.