Edinburgh Tattoo: The story behind the biggest show of the 2014 Edinburgh Festivals
The projection artist behind the state-of-the-art video used in the 2014 Edinburgh Military Tattoo
This article is from 2014.
He’s worked at World Cups and Golden Jubilees, but projection artist Ross Ashton still gets a particular thrill from the Tattoo. Claire Sawers talks to him about lighting up Edinburgh Castle and that special Scottish summer weather
In the past, Ross Ashton has projected giant fire-breathing dragons onto Edinburgh Castle, covered the ramparts in massive white cobwebs, turned the barracks into a Gotham City skyline, and beamed intricate patterns of anchors, saltires and theatre curtains onto the walls. Yet the man responsible for the state-of-the-art video projections every year at the Military Tattoo can’t work his own telly properly.
‘Weirdly, at home I’m a bit of a luddite,’ Ashton confesses. ‘We moved house not long ago and I’ve still not got round to setting up the surround sound system on the TV. I suppose it’s something to do with working with projections and images all day; you come home, and screens and cables are the last thing you want to see!’
Ashton and the team at The Projection Studio in London have been providing artwork for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo since 2005. As soon as one Tattoo is over, they begin planning the following year’s spectacle, carefully measuring the distances, mapping out exactly where the designs need to fall, and liaising with the organisers on what music will be played.
‘As buildings go, Edinburgh Castle is definitely one of the most challenging and complex ones to work with,’ says Ashton, who also beams glowing pictures onto the likes of Buckingham Palace, Durham Cathedral and York Minster when he’s not working on the Tattoo. ‘It’s incredibly dark stone, so a lot of designs wouldn’t even be legible if we tried to project them. And funnily enough, the stone has a habit of getting wet in Edinburgh,’ he deadpans. ‘It’s been known to have the occasional rain shower,’ he adds, clearly a man in the know after spending nine consecutive summers in the capital.
But despite this tendency for the heavens to open in Edinburgh, the Tattoo has never once been cancelled. And it’s been running since 1950. ‘It’s really true that the show must go on,’ says Ashton. ‘Luckily it doesn’t affect the projections much, it just makes the stone even darker when it’s wet. But after ten years, I know the tricks for getting the best and brightest results. It’s the soldiers marching who I feel sorry for! Performing in wet kilts can’t be very fun.’
Soggy tartan aside, the soldiers themselves provide much of the inspiration for the artwork used. Ashton works closely with the Tattoo’s planners to find out which marching bands, troops and motorbike display teams will be taking part, and ties the designs in accordingly.
‘For example, this year a marching band from Malta is taking part. We’re working with illustration students from the City of Glasgow College, and because Malta is famous for its lace-making, they’ve created these lace patterns that we’re going to drape all over the castle. We’ll mix their designs with geometric patterns based around the Maltese Cross and the St George’s Cross.’
This year’s Tattoo will be themed around the Year of Homecoming 2014 and, according to Ashton, aims to celebrate the wide Scottish diaspora. It’s a tribute to the Scots who have settled all over the world, bearing in mind that a good portion of them may well be sitting right there in the crowd: it’s estimated 70% of the Tattoo’s audience come from outside Scotland.
‘We were thinking about these Scots who have emigrated over the past couple of centuries, and now their grandsons and granddaughters – and great grandsons and granddaughters – might well be back performing on the Esplanade, or sitting up in the audience.’ Ashton is half-Scottish himself – his mother is from Ayr – and he loves that his work provides him with an excuse to relocate to Edinburgh every summer.
‘I’ve come to know the city pretty well over the years, and it’s a great place to spend a month. I know the weather intimately too because of my work. It’s not unusual for the castle to be totally hidden by the haar; you see the fog rolling in late around midnight or 1am. Then it hangs around until about midday, but it usually burns off.’
Ashton enjoys his regular Tattoo gig, more so than some of the other very high profile jobs he’s had in the past. Creating the closing ceremony for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg may have been a career highlight, but the charms of the beautiful game itself were a bit lost on him. ‘I’m really not a football fan,’ he laughs. ‘I mean, they’re just the dullest games to watch!’
Looking back through his CV, he remembers the New Year’s Eve celebrations in London as ‘always being lots of good fun’, where he’s beamed 100m tall films of Boris Johnson, Ricky Gervais, Helen Mirren and others onto the side of buildings, and let them deliver their Hogmanay messages to the crowds. He’s also worked on Buckingham Palace four times now, including the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002.
‘You might think I’m just saying this, but it’s a real privilege to get asked back year after year to the Tattoo,’ says Ashton. ‘Normally my projects are one-offs. I don’t get pre-show nerves anymore, but what I do get is that moment on the very first night of the Tattoo when you first hear the pipers and drummers en masse, and they flick all the lights on at once: that gets me every time. That’s a moment I really live for.’
The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Castle, 0131 225 1188, 1–23 Aug, Mon–Fri, 9pm, £25–£60; Sat 7.30pm, 10.30pm, £27–£62. Preview 31 Jul, 9.30pm, limited half-price tickets
available from 21 Jul.