The stripped-back vocals of Portugal’s Salvador Sobral took centre stage at last year’s Eurovision, but what will be the talking point of the 2018 song contest? A dress, perhaps? Specifically, the 52m-squared garment worn by Estonia’s Elina Nechayeva, a gown with memorising animations beamed across it as the opera singer belts out her powerful Italian opera La Forza?
Quite possibly, according to the bookies, many of which have predicted that the song – and its inventive gown – could take the top spot in Lisbon.
But how did the dress projections actually get made? Is there a message behind the animations? And just how difficult is it to move such a large outfit on stage? We caught up with Team Estonia’s video artist Alyona Movko to find out how they tailored Elina’s enthralling performance.
The first thing you need to know: the projections on the dress aren’t inspired by a random screensaver. The Estonian dress team wanted to mirror the story – one of a blossoming, dreamlike love – hidden in La Forza’s lyrics and Elina’s physical performance.
“There is a girl. She is an icy queen where love will melt her heart. The snow will become water. And after there is glowing, like a fairytale. And with Elina’s hands there is growing of flowers – and after that she sends out these flowers, sending her love. And she is filled with love,” explains Movko. “It’s the same story with colours in the song. They go from pastel colours to full red flowers. It’s about love.”
Getting the dress on stage is the biggest challenge
The reason? When one Eurovision song finishes, the next act only has 35 seconds to get their performance ready. That means a team of “at least eight, perhaps more,” according to Movko, has just over half a minute to pull out Elina’s gigantic garment on stage and in the exact position required by the projectors.
This tight turnaround is a key reason why the dress isn’t made from a special and sturdier fabric normally used for a projection screen. “The dress is just normal material,” says Movko. “And we have a 52-squared metred dress so we have to keep the weight down – it’s only around 8kg. Also, you can’t put something heavy on an opera singer!”
The dress was always imagined as a theatrical performance
Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise once you learn about Movko’s extensive work in Estonian stage productions and singer Elina’s time at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre.
“The idea [of the dress] came from when we started our national selection. We wanted something that looked theatrical, but in a very modern way. I’ve worked in the theatre and this is the same.”
However, owing to the limited 35-second changeover time it would be impossible to get both an elaborate set and a performer ready. The solution Team Estonia conjured up? Blend Elina herself and a set together: turn her dress into the stage.
The performance and projections took a lot less time than you’d think
The time taken to create and generate the animations, find the dress, map the projections onto it, make sure the animations translate to TV when captured by a camera and finalise the choreography?
“Two weeks. From the idea to the final result,” reveals Movko. “It was a very intense two weeks, though! It was important to make the choreography – to make Elina part of the stage and make it all work together.
“And the animations. They needed to be stylish, but for the story also really understandable for each person. For everyone, from child to grandmother.”
The projectors at Eurovision are much more powerful than the Estonian team predicted
In fact, Movko estimates the Eurovision projectors are four times stronger than the ones they used in the Estonian national selection process. And, as the semi-final footage above reveals, that means the dress will look even more dazzling than we’ve seen it before.
“It means that I can play more with colours, [make them more] like optical illusions. It’s now a very 3D performance with very powerful details,” she says.
But could adjusting to the new equipment at Lisbon’s Altice Arena present a challenge to Team Estonia? Will it be like driving a Formula 1 car after learning how to ride a bike? “We’re not worrying!” laughs Movko. “In Estonia, it was much more technically challenging. And we only have two days for rehearsals in our national final. In Lisbon, there’s a very professional team to help with the projections. It’s crazy!”
The dress almost didn’t make it to Eurovision
While Elina and her dress are tipped for success, the Estonian team almost didn’t have enough money to send the gown to Lisbon. After Estonia’s broadcaster ERR couldn’t fund the dress and the projectors – a sum worth a reported of €65,000 – and the Estonian government withheld support, it looked as if we’d never see the full performance on the Eurovision stage.
However, just when it seemed like all the work had been for nothing, the dress was saved. Brands like Saku Suurhall, Carglass, Estravel and River Island stepped in and offered to sponsor the dress. “We made it!” says Movko. “Just!”
There won’t be a special projection on the dress if Estonia wins Eurovision
And that, according to Movko, is simply due to limited rehearsal time. Since the dress and performance have taken so much effort to get perfect, the Estonian team haven’t assembled new animations if they were to lift the Eurovision crown.
But hey, will anyone really be complaining if we’re treated to an encore of that mesmerising performance? Certainly not us.
The Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final is on Saturday 8th May, 8pm on BBC1