Building 19th Century France in Brisbane

NJW Designs joined with Griffith University to design and build the set for their recent acclaimed production of Les Misérables.

The project encompassed design, drafting, fabrication, automation, installation and technical management.

Company Director and designer Nathan Weyers joined with Melbourne-based theatre director Alister Smith earlier this year to design and build the set for Footlight Productions’ Les Misérables in Geelong. 

From Alister’s vision, the NJW team began with research; exploring the text, themes, time period and visual imagery related to the production.

Harnessing the enormity of the ports and large ships of 1800s France was a focal design element, as was using levels to differentiate class.  The set included catwalks, staircases, ropes, dock cleats and huge steel beams, all of which were sourced and fabricated.

Once the concept was sketched, the design team spent a week drafting construction drawings. The NJW technical department then added set-electrics and special effects.

Approval was sought by the Director and Production team before the construction drawings made their way to the workshop for the fabrication stage.

Over 70 sheets of MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard) then arrived in the workshop, destined to become aged and weathered timber floorboards. 

The first week was dedicated to undercoat, basecoat, graining effect, ageing and sealer, all requiring at least 24 hours drying time between coats.

Other parts of the build included guns, a barricade (fit to fight from) and hand painting final details onto custom printed hanging scenery, depicting the sketches and writings of Victor Hugo. The whole build took one month but was bumped into the Geelong Performing Arts Centre in one day. 

After a successful season the set was returned to the NJW workshop in Ballarat for modifications. To suit the much larger performance space of the Conservatorium Theatre in Brisbane, set pieces including catwalks, stairs and backdrops were enlarged and adapted. 

Assisted by a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, a skilled set of builders and scenic painters cut new staircases, welded handrails, and painted timber floors over two-weeks.

Meanwhile, rehearsals commenced for the triple cast of 80 musical theatre students from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. To help bring the vision to life for the new creatives and cast, NJW Designs built a scale model to travel to Brisbane. 

Using 3D print technology, all elements were reproduced at a 1:25 scale, allowing set positioning, scene change logistics and actor blocking to be realised.

Taking the project from the initial design phase many months ago right through to its second installation, the team from NJW Designs visited Brisbane in July to bump the set into the theatre.

Working over two days, and ably assisted by the mech team at the Conservatorium Theatre, the entire set was constructed, flown scenery hung and props checked and sorted, ensuring that Alister’s vision became a reality once more. Because at the end of the day, turning vision into reality is NJW Designs’ ultimate goal.

NJW Designs is a multi-faceted design and fabrication hub tackling projects for professional theatre houses to local musical productions.