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The Making Of

Early production stills

Each year, the production of Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir film is dependent on a massive collaboration by many people.

The most obvious are the choir members themselves, which this year number nearly 6,000 from 101 countries. This year the project also depended on the support of more than 1,900 Kickstarter backers who pledged more than $122K through December 2012 and January 2013 to make VC4 a certain reality. Once the project was funded and on track, many additional people began working tirelessly behind the scenes to provide the infrastructure, technical, creative and emotional support needed for this annual gathering on the Earth’s largest stage.

So here is a glimpse at the pre and post-production teams, and the challenges they faced while bringing VC4 to life.

Early Design and Development

Beginning in mid-February 2013, web designer/developer Damien du Toit from South Africa began the early stages of a redesign of the Eric Whitacre site,  ericwhitacre.com. In addition to refreshing the user interface and improving the overall experience, the intent was to provide innovative features while creating a new home for the Virtual Choir and the Eric Whitacre Community (previously the Fanzone). Guided by Eric and his manager, Claire Long, Damien built the foundation for the new site and also developed new tools to give Virtual Choir singers an enhanced experience.

In early March Claire brought Jack Rowland onboard, a two-time Virtual Choir member and support volunteer from the USA, to consult with and assist Damien in the continued development and testing of the site. Jack also served as a conduit from the VC community, contributing feedback and suggestions from VC members. Damien and Jack struck up a fast and efficient partnership, and like singers in the VC came to know each other well without ever having met.

Support and Testing teams established

As site development continued, Eric was darting about the Globe doing what he does best, sharing his music and inspirational musings while simultaneously writing the music for Fly to Paradise. The pressure was on, as the difference for this Virtual Choir was a hard deadline with a scheduled performance at Buckingham Palace on July 11, 2013. With Claire at the helm of the good ship Whitacre, the project kept sailing straight and true. At the home port in London, Claire was assisted by Rose Donmall, Celeste Collis and Joanne Steward, who performed many of the administrative tasks needed for the project’s success.

With the primary video recording tool up and running on the development site, it was time to do some testing. In early May, Jack recruited some members from previous VC projects who were known to have difficulty uploading video because of slow internet connections. Christy-Lyn Marais from South Africa, Marilyn Dale Teplitz from the USA and Chrissie Vincent from the UK did extensive testing, providing us with valuable information.

Around the same time in May, members of the VC Support Team were selected based on past Virtual Choir participation and self-motivated community involvement. The team, lead by Jack, included VC veterans Julie Souin and Maria Petrova from the USA plus Sally Goodwin and Chrissie Vincent from the UK. With plans to use the new Community Forum for VC technical support, the team completed extensive testing of the new features and functionality for several weeks leading up to launch.

Recording of Vocal Guide Tracks

Once Eric had completed the music, he called upon his pal Peter Hollens to record the individual parts so they could be used as learning tracks. These stunning tracks provided the first glimpse of how the piece would sound and they were incorporated into the interactive learning tool, an offline and desktop-based multimedia learning tool, and conductor videos for alternate recording methods.

Final Testing and Launch

With a proposed launch date fast approaching and anticipated stress on the web servers by an exuberant VC community, former VC manager and web technology professional Tony Piper was added as a consultant to ensure a robust and secure infrastructure was in place to handle the expected load. Tony’s past experience with the VC provided great insight in anticipation of the largest VC yet. The development site was transferred to a new server that was designed specifically with the VC4 in mind.

What followed was more testing, tweaking, uploading, downloading, clicking and recording. With a flurry of last-minute emails and Skype sessions between Eric, Claire, Damien, Jack and Celeste in the early hours of May 17, the final touches were made to the site. Visually-rich graphics were added, the interface styles were updated, and how-to instructions were documented.

After months of anticipation by the community and the collaborative efforts of many, Virtual Choir 4 was launched!

Choir Submissions Period

Reaction to the launch was swift and within in a short time Ben Leaf, a bass singer from the USA, had submitted the first video.

The Community Forum sprang to life, with hundreds and eventually thousands of members coming there to get help from the VC Support Team, and each other. For the first few weeks between 50-100 videos were submitted each day. Although Eric repeatedly pleaded for a lack of procrastination, more than 5,000 of the 8,000+ videos were submitted in the last five days. On deadline day, June 10, more than 2,400 videos were uploaded.

With about 10 hours to go until deadline, the servers were placed under tremendous stress, making it increasingly difficult for singers to successfully record their part. While the Support Team held things together in the Forum to calm the procrastinators’ fears, Damien, Tony, Jack and Claire met in a late-night Skype session in an effort to bring things under control. After much discussion a decision was made to disable the streaming video recording tool for the remainder of the submission period. The team then supported the community by helping them switch to the file upload method. In addition to the Support Team, a number of members from within the community jumped in to help, upholding a great tradition in the VC. Support Team members stayed online into the early hours of June 11, making sure every person who wished to be included had been given a fair chance.

In the 24 hours following the choir deadline, efforts were made to circle back and assist those who were struggling to submit their videos when the clock struck midnight.

Audio Production

After submissions had closed, Jack began downloading and processing the 8,400+ video files, separating the audio and reformatting the videos to uniform specs so they could be passed along for audio mastering and final video production. The bulk of the audio and video was sent to London on 1TB hard drives, with the audio portion alone measuring 500GB in size!

Craig Jenkins and his team had the epic task of cleaning, editing and mixing all the individual audio tracks. Producer Chris Elms then mixed everything into one track and combined it with the electronica track created by famed British composer and producer, Guy Sigsworth.

Video Production

With the animatic concept for the VC4 film still under development, the videos were sent to Cake where Paul Coward, Thiago Maia, David Pocull and their team continued their cinematic efforts and began cropping and sizing each of the more than 8,400 individual clips for placement in the film. The film concept was to create a character, an angel, who goes on a journey and discovers a whole new world which in turn reunites her with her wings.

Soloist Auditions Period

Grammy Award winning soprano, Hila Plitmann, recorded a rehearsal track for the solo part, inspiring more than 400 passionate women to submit solo auditions over a period of five days. Eric and Guy worked through each audition, selecting eight soloists who were added to the final mix of choir and electronica. The selected soloists (in order of appearance): Claire Givens, Joyceline Larroy-Haden, Marina Brouwer, Lauren McLean, Nikki Eoute, Tresa Ann Davis, Wei Jiang, Lisa Rogali and Rhonda Lee. Hila later recorded her own solo video for inclusion in the film.

VC4 is Born

The final, mastered audio was then synced with the video. After months of effort by thousands, Virtual Choir 4: Fly to Paradise was born.

As it is with all creative projects of this nature, it takes the efforts of many to achieve the final goal. The Virtual Choir thrives because so many people believe in its purpose. Although it begins in the mind of one man, it lives in the hearts and minds of many.

About The Virtual Choir

The Virtual Choir began in May 2009 as a simple experiment in social media and has since exploded into a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world in their love of music making through the use of technology, whether singing alone in their living rooms, their dorm rooms, their garages or anywhere they can connect to the internet; these videos are synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir. Read more...

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