‘The first place in the world that black and white walked through the door together was the Savoy. They were joined by a simple thing called Swing.’ – Norma Miller
The Savoy Ballroom was a legendary dance hall on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets in Harlem, New York. It was known as “The World’s Finest Ballroom” and “Home of Happy Feet”. From 1926 to 1958 it’s twin bandstands showcased the world’s finest jazz musicians. The dances born on its mahogany dancefloor would sweep the world and live on to this day. The Savoy was the heart and soul of Harlem.
Welcome to The Savoy is a project to reopen the doors of the now lost Savoy Ballroom, in an immersive experience at the crossroads of immersive theatre and virtual reality. We want to transport people to the Savoy, Harlem’s most captivating nightspot and one of the first integrated ballrooms in the US, to experience the thrills of swinging big bands, breathtaking dancers and jazz age glamour.
We are now undertaking meticulous historical research to model The Savoy in VR, to give new generations the opportunity to experience this magical and important place, in an unprecedented show blending reality and virtuality. We intend to freely share all research here and we welcome contributions from the public.
Recreating the Savoy Ballroom from the late 1930s is a challenging project. The building itself was demolished in 1958. Almost all of the photographs of the ballroom are in black and white, and we have only oral history to remember the rich colours of the decor. Photographs were all taken at different times spanning many decades, during which time there were multiple renovations transforming the style of the ballroom. And photographers usually focused on the dancers or musicians, rarely documenting the details of the ballroom itself. With immersive design and technological approaches we hope to do justice to the legendary ballroom and its legacy.
This is a summary of the technological work ahead by our team from Tiny Planets and Novelab, to digitally recreate the building of the Savoy.
1. Layout documentation and reconstruction: using all the materials selected by the historic team (blueprints, floor plans, photographs…) and reverse calculating the properties of the lenses used to take the pictures (focal length, distance to subject…), we recreate the layout of the Savoy (walls, stairs, bandstand, dance floor, boxes…), the size and volumes (height, length, depth), and the position and shape of the ballroom’s interior, without texture, colours or details (it is called “gray boxing”).
2. Camera calibration & details modeling: we then sort and accurately position the pictures on the layout created and modeling artists start adding details to the reconstruction (windows, doors, chairs, murals, lights, carpets…).
3. Ambiance, materials, color palette and lighting: with direct feedbacks from historians, a team of lookdev and lighting artists then creates accurate color palettes, textures (ex roughness), materials and lighting, to recreate the look and ambiance of The Savoy Ballroom. The texturing phase is essential, as depending on the materials, the colors and the physical properties of each element, the light behaves differently when reaching their surfaces (ex a window versus a black curtain).
4. Audio: to recreate the unique acoustic of the Savoy, we are using the existing floor plans and the 3D models to simulate the acoustic response of the ballroom using real-time acoustic simulation and we use detailed individual sound sources and their behaviour to create a faithful, 3D and reactive soundscape and immerse the audience in the unique atmosphere of the Savoy.
5. An immersive theatre experience using virtual reality: recreating the experience of a night at the Savoy Ballroom represents both a technical and an economical challenge. Creating the feeling of being physically present at the Savoy in the late 30’s involves creating both the most immersive and the most interactive show.
Of course, it wouldn’t be possible economically to rent a physical space as big as the Savoy was and to cover up for the salaries of thousand of performers for a smaller number of spectators. And Virtual reality alone wouldn’t allow spectators to interact with 3D photorealistic animated characters, as no AI would make it possible to interact realistically with original performers or attendees from the Savoy (for example dancing with a hostess).
But using immersive technology in an immersive theatre experience allows us to “augment” the physical world (with real infrastructures, decors and live performers) to transform it visually and acoustically into the original Savoy. The real physical space will be transformed into the Savoy as it was in the late 30’s, most of the performers and attendees will be simple 3D animated characters but some of them will be embodied by real actors, interacting with the avatars of the spectators.
Welcome to the Savoy is an immersif theatre experience using virtual reality to “augment” the physical space (with real infrastructures, decors and live performers) to create the experience of stepping into the original Savoy.
Articles chronicling research into the physical structure of the Savoy Ballroom and how it was experienced: