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By National Science and Media Museum on

Set design meets augmented reality in Strictly Come Dancing

We go behind the scenes with Performance Designer Catherine Land to talk about the use of augmented reality (AR) on the show.

It’s one of the television highlights of the season, with millions tuning into BBC Strictly Come Dancing as we mark the weeks leading up to Christmas.

With its origins in the amateur dance contest Come Dancing which ran from 1950–1998, the celebrity reality show we know and love today launched in May 2004 and has just completed its 21st series. The format is a global success across some 60 territories worldwide.

Across two decades, Strictly has consistently pushed boundaries with the use of sound and vision technology, using innovative techniques to create atmosphere and give an added dimension to the dazzling choreography, costumes and music.

Catherine has led the art department on the show for the last ten years and with some 300 performances in each series, she’s overseen the design of a staggering 3,000 sets. In what must surely be one of the highest pressure (and maximum fun) roles in the TV industry, she and her creative team have the challenge of constructing and bringing to life set designs that have to make both an immediate and a lasting impression.

We asked Catherine to talk to us about the use of augmented reality (AR) in recent years, which combines with real life props and set design to create a more immersive experience for viewers.

Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how you arrived at Strictly?

After studying illustration at university, I was lucky to secure an entry level role with CBBC making props, working on off-the-wall shows like Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow. Then I sashayed into live entertainment via a few gameshows! I now work in mainly performance-based shows including X Factor, Britain’s got Talent and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.

When did AR become an integral part of your work on Strictly?

Strictly has always taken an innovative approach to graphics and lighting—the use of AR started in 2010. AR is anything that uses camera tracking and real-time graphics. So 3D overlays and 3D perspectives in the floor. We’d used overlays and forced perspective in the past but didn’t have camera tracking or the ability to render in real time, so it was only used when the camera was locked. Then in 2020 the industry developed the technology to track with the camera so more ambitious 3D AR was possible.

During the pandemic, we had the major challenge of trying to keep the programme going without a studio audience—we had to think creatively to keen the fun going. This led to the production team fast-tracking some of their ideas around the use of AR, so we could use fewer props but still create atmosphere. There was a lot of experimentation and we learned so much about the way cutting-edge technology can enhance traditional TV set design.

What did you learn from early experiments with AR?

Viewers will notice that we generally use AR at the beginning of a dance, to help set the scene. We sometimes integrate it at the end too. It’s almost impossible to integrate AR into shots from multiple cameras, so we generally only use it on one camera, which naturally limits the way we use it. In the early experiments we tried incorporating it into the dances more, but this can be risky because the dancers can’t see the AR and there’s a danger they will dance right through it! So, we took the learnings from the experiments in the pandemic and it’s evolved into an approach that combines three-dimensional sets and props with complementary AR elements.

Do you have any favourite examples? When does AR really come into its own?

One of my highlights from this series was Angela Rippon and Kai Widdrington’s Paso Doble with the clock floor projection—it was just wild. We could never have created something at that scale in three dimensions.

AR also really helped us with the creation of a snow globe on the Christmas special for HRVY and Janette in 2020. Imagine the logistics of creating a human-sized snow globe that dancers could step in and out of with ease! It just wouldn’t work. When we create three-dimensional elements, we have to think about how the dancers move in and around them—they’re important to create a sense of place and perspective, but they can’t impede the dancing in any way. Incorporating digital elements means we can essentially insert and remove things at the touch of a button.

Two dancers and a Christmas tree inside a computer-generated snow globeI also really enjoyed designing and realising the set for Jamie Laing and Karen Hauer’s gaming-themed Couple’s Choice in 2020. We created a three-dimensional ‘Dance Machine’ arcade game and then the AR team projected digital elements onto it, which made it much more realistic. Combined with the floor projections and immense lighting designs it just looked fantastic.

What about the recent series final? How did you use AR this time around?

Ellie and Vito’s show dance was really enhanced through AR. The AR team took a 3D render I had drawn of the real arch I was building and then replicated it in AR and in the floor projection. It was very impressive! The full effect was at the start of the dance: Ellie and Vito started in the middle of the real arch and the AR was so authentic-looking they returned back to it at the end as well.

For Layton and Nikita’s Show Dance the lighting and design team had built a special lighting rig. We then filmed the lighting rig flashing in the colours it would be in the dance—this was then replicated so it could be emulated all through all the screens. These are both great examples of staging working in sync with the graphics and AR.

How does AR help with the challenge of turning around one set from another?

Using AR can really help us to turn things around smoothly. Sometimes it’s used in quite subtle ways that viewers won’t even notice. A good example is the three banners we used for the reveal of this year’s finalists. The banners were made from a beautiful silk fabric and using what’s called a ‘kabuki drop’, they unfurled and dropped to the floor, revealing the names of the three finalists. We used AR to project their names onto the banners, which seems like a really small thing but it meant we didn’t have to print them onto the fabric, which would have made the fabric much heavier. We were really pleased with how elegant they looked.

Are there any other examples of TV shows using this technology, or is Strictly in a league of its own with AR?

It’s quite unusual to use AR in this way, particularly with floor projections. Comparable entertainment shows like Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor have black shiny floors, which can’t be projected onto. The Strictly dancefloor is wooden and light coloured, which works really well, and we use six projectors so that there are no shadows visible as the dancers move across the floor. The only other example I can think of is Dancing On Ice, which obviously lends itself to floor projections. I’d say we’re definitely pushing the boundaries with AR on Strictly—look out for even more innovations in 2024.

Strictly Come Dancing 2023 is now available on BBC iPlayer.

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