Sunday, August 23, 2015

Getting started with projection for a live production

One of the things I am often asked about is "What do I need to have projection/video for my next production?".  Obviously this will never be a simple answer and I will always answer with a battery of questions.  Instead of going into all of the questions, being this is a single sided dialogue, I will over the next several weeks go over what I see as a direction for design. 

I plan on giving you a parts manual of sorts.  Each part of a projection system will work together to bring about the end result.  Without understanding how the parts work, it would be impossible to describe the process.  Consider the end result of the video system like a clock face.  The end user doesn't really care what goes into the inner workings, only that they can tell the time accurately.  The clock designer will choose between an analog system with gears, springs, and other mechanical parts or a digital system with its related parts.  In both instances, there is the decision of how the end result should appear, the preliminary design, the assembly of components, and the final use of the product.  This is the same with projection design, which I plan on guiding you through.

First and foremost, does your production actually need it?  When moving lights left the realm of concerts and made their way into theatrical productions, it was "the" thing that many people wanted.  This is true still today to some degree.  However, theatrical designers did not always know how to use them properly and often times they were not really needed.  After many years of use, and misuse, many designers have come to realize when the production needs a moving light, how many, and how to effectively use them. 

Enter video projection.  There is a long history with the use of projected imagery for live performance.  Although, with the availability of cheap video projectors and playback systems, it is now within the reach of the masses, to some extent.  Now nearly every community theater has the opportunity to wow its audience in ways that required massive budgets.  This has caused big productions to go over the top to make themselves continue to stand out and smaller productions to sometimes choose to use video when either the production really doesn't need it or there might be cheaper and easier methods to accomplish the same look. 

Before I talk about how projection is accomplished, I will talk about the functions of the design.  The methods used to accomplish the functions can vary greatly depending on the needs of a particular show.  Without discussing this directly with producers, there would be no way to cover every nuance of a design.  With a clock, the function is primarily to tell time.  However, the designer may choose other functions including day, date, stopwatch, or many others all within the single unit.  The same can be said of a projection design, there can be a single or multiple functions within the same design.

The first function is Information.  The purpose of this function is to help the audience gain critical information separate from the production on its own.  For instance, the designer can provide time or place to set the mood without the characters stating this information.  It might end up rather comical for an epic like Les Miserables to have one of the characters singing when and where each scene takes place.  In another example, the audience may appreciate subtitles when viewing a foreign language opera. 

The next function is Scenic.  Scenic drops have been used as a method of enhancing a set for generations.  Many smaller production houses are often at a disadvantage as they cannot always afford the space to paint a full stage drop, even more if they have multiple drops.  However, many see the opportunities presented to them as they can create on the small screen and then project onto a large surface.  In addition, the same surface can now have a variety of images saving precious space or removing the need for a fly system.  This, one of the most challenging of the functions, is possibly the primary reason companies choose to add video to their production. 

The third function is for the purpose of eliciting Emotion.  While beautiful scenery may elicit emotion, generally that is not its purpose.  Instead, a designer may be able to more easily bring on an emotional response by showing images of easily recognizable symbols and icons.  If there is need for national pride, showing bold images of a flag waving in the breeze may accomplish this in a way that characters simply talking about may not.  Presenting moments from history, such as propaganda reels from World War II could set the mood for a scene before it even plays out.  By giving the audience something that they already recognize, with associated emotions, can improve the quality of a production in many ways.

While used more for live concerts than theater, projection can add Texture.  Often this will be more geometric and abstract patterns which work well as visuals along with music.  Although, depending on the mood of a production, these type of visuals could add value that could not be accomplished with lighting alone. 

Video is often larger than life.  However, sometimes a Special Effect is needed that cannot be produced any other way.  There may be a need to add fire to a fireplace where real flames are impractical.  A production could require a ghost to appear with an effect regaining popularity with a technique known as Pepper's Ghost.  Many special techniques will challenge the designer to find innovative ways to provide a new level of stage magic.  Some of these will require techniques found in the final function.

This final function I simply call Live projection.  The previous functions can all generally be prerecorded and played back through a variety of methods.  However, there may be a desire for something more organic or lifelike.  Going back to the realm of concert productions, one part of this function is known as image magnification, or Imag.  This is a process of using a video camera to capture the subject and project it live on larger surfaces which allows those further away to see what is happening "up close".  However, this function also relies on other live aspects of a production.  There are many different interactive techniques where the performers can help to shape the images.  This helps to augment the reality of a production by allowing something virtual become a bit more real.  In this function, the creativity of the designer could immeasurably make or break the show.

While a design may incorporate some or all of these functions, it may also blend some of them together.  The designs can be as ethereal as the imagery produced.  What I hope to present is not step by step instructions, but instruction and understanding.  I will introduce the equipment and the connections between it in order for the designer to let creativity run wild.

Visual Production

A couple of years ago I helped on a rather large scale project.  It was for a non-profit organization which I particularly like their mission.  So, when I was asked to help out with the visual aspects (projection), I accepted.  However, I didn't realize what I had signed on for.

I work on one of the biggest permanent productions in history.  While I am used to working with and conversing with professionals of a similar background, I often forget just how foreign video can be.  After all, most every household has some sort of television that has any number of peripherals connected.  However, even the most experienced home user does not have the necessary vocabulary to discuss a large scale production.

Here's the thing.  I am a geek for technology.  I love it.  I'm not just talking about the latest and greatest either.  I love all technology.  See, I went to school to become an archaeologist and my main focus was on ancient technologies.  Why do people make the things they do and what do they intend to do with them.  Well, this carries over to modern technology as well.  One of the things I love about theater is that we borrow technology from everywhere to make magic.  A recent addition (in some sense) is the use of video projections.  Of course, video is becoming more commonplace as the technology is more available and less expensive, but the roots of "projection" have quite a long history.

Now, back on track from my digression.  I was working on this production that wanted to transform the space with projection as a way to stand out in that space.  They came to me with the idea of several moving projection surfaces along with mapping onto some of the architecture of the theater.  No problem I say.  What kind of budget and time frame is there?  Well, that's where it all fell apart.  See, as with other theaters I have worked in, there is another production that is happening in the same space during the time of rehearsals and the night before the technical rehearsal.  That adds a new level of complexity.

The budget?  Well, let's say that it is flexible, but not entirely a large amount.  The schedule?  Short periods of time for rehearsals, virtually eliminating set-up/strike periods for the equipment.  So, everything needs to be able to be installed in such a way as to not interfere with the other production's show elements, but accomplish everything for this production.  Time for negotiations.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Partway through my last update, I got busy again.  So, it is still sitting in the drafts.  However, I am slowly getting back up and running.  I am currently creating some PowerPoint presentations for introduction to video.  I am also helping a student with her thesis project and will be one of the readers as well as teaching a couple workshops.  I have also decided to begin writing a textbook based on the introduction to projection. 

I may start to publish bits of the book or presentations here as a preview. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

I'm Back!

I know that it has been quite a while since my last post.  I haven't abandoned doing this, just life has been happening, a lot.  So, I will be catching up with some new musings in the following days about all that has been keeping me so occupied and sometimes unmotivated.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy endings, new beginnings

Tonight is kind of a sad night for me.  One of my friends is leaving and heading on to a new journey in life.  How appropriate on New Year's.  She will be greatly missed.  She's actually from the light side of the theater.  She is a bright shining star who will be benefitting a city filled with stars who don't shine nearly as bright as her.  I hope my friends in her new area will have the chance to benefit from her spirit.

There is often the division between performers and technicians.  Heck, I have been one to say "An actor [performer] without technicians try to emote, standing naked in the dark, while a technician without an actor is someone with marketable skills."  Funny as it is, it is just as negative as the nasty performers in our lives.  After all, with our marketable skills, we should be able to make more money than as stagehands.  We don't because we love what we do (or we don't stay in the business). 

While I will be sad that my friend is moving on to new adventures, I am very happy for her.  All of my friends who have left this show have gone on to do massively wonderful things.  I know that she will as well.  After all, we should never be sad about something we don't have, but be happy for what we have.  I am happy that I have had the opportunity of friendship with someone who has done so much for so many. 

Until we meet again.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Know where you are going

When I was starting out in college, I majored in theater (emphasis on technical theater).  Silly thing is, I only received an Associate of Arts (2 year degree program) in theater, because I wanted to be an archaeologist.  So, yeah, I went to another college/university to get my degree in that.  But I digress.

While getting my degree in theater I had to take acting classes.  Acting can be fun, but I prefer to be behind the scenes.  Something very useful that they teach the actors is to know where you are going.  This is useful for them when something goes wrong (someone forgets a line, there is some technical glitch, whatever).  It is obvious when you have an amateur actor on stage when something goes wrong because they will often freeze, run off stage, or do something really stupid.  On the other hand, a well trained actor will handle the situation so well that you, in the audience, will be hard pressed to know if they are covering up a faux pas or if they actually rehearsed it that way. 

We as technicians should follow their lead.  We should be prepared for all contingencies for when things not going as planned.  How will you make it look?  How will you get the set changes done?  How is it going to sound?  How are you going to keep the magic alive?  This is especially difficult for those of us who have very short runs (one or two weekends) like academic theater.  You have been spending all your time making the costumes, sets, setting up the lights and sound, and only have one week to rehearse with the cast to make magic.  How are you supposed to plan for every contention?

The first thing that needs to be done with any show is organization.  By having all of your paperwork prepared and carefully organized, not scribbles on random scraps of paper, then you will have a point of reference to make accommodations for the inevitable.  Do not depend on others to tell you what you are going to do, but give them the options to choose from.  After all, the stage manager needs your expertise to make everything run right.  They will just be coordinating the action, but you have to know where you are going. 

Hopefully, technicians who work on long running or permanent productions have the opportunity to rehearse contingency plans.  After all, there is more likely to be returning audience members and they will be able to spot mistakes unless you make it look like a planned change. 

Let's think about some of the things that could go wrong.  If you have to skip a scene (say a major scenic piece prevents you from going there for some reason), it should be simple to just jump a few cues and get on track with the next scene.  What will you do with any scroller units that have to change frames or a mover that has changes but are live in the cue you are in and the one you are going to?  What if the stage manager decides to do the skipped scene in front of the main rag but all your cues are written for upstage?  What if you are using wireless mics and now don't have time to switch packs on actors?  Can you accommodate a quick costume change?  Can you finish the rest of the show if the set piece is now blocking other scenes as well?

I can't tell you the answers to all of these scenarios, but I can tell you that a well seasoned technician will not build a show without contingency plans in place.  After all, everyone expects the show to go on and no matter what the problem is, they expect you to make it happen.  We make our jobs look easy when things go right, make sure that you do so even when things go wrong.  You will be appreciated.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Preparation can be confusing

I like to be prepared.  I don't like surprises (in a bad way).  So, yes, when I travel, my bag is usually packed with more than what I want, and hopefully I won't end up needing anything.  Such was the case with a recent business trip that I took.  First of all, the system that I was responsible for was tested and fully planned for any problems that could arise when arriving on site.  I was very thankful for that since we ended up with other challenges.

Now, this event had live performers as well who would be doing some stunts.  In preparation, we trained before hand as well as on site to make sure that if anything were to go wrong that we would be able to get our performers medical attention as soon as possible.  This goes along the line with normal training in basic first aid and CPR that normally goes into my work.  We also train in electrical safety (had my electrical hazard, safety toe shoes on for the entire event) as well as other hazards we may come across.

So, with all of the preparation that we have done prior to arriving on site, as well as the steps we were taking as soon as we arrived, I was more than a little surprised when the security supervisor for the site showed up the morning of the event to ask about an injury that had occurred.  He was upset that there had not been a formal report filed with the facility with the occurrence and wanted to get some of the details.  At first we were completely shocked to hear this (we didn't have a large crew, so I figured that we should have heard about it).  We make a couple of calls to those who had not arrived on site yet, no one had heard anything.  The overnight guard was still there and confirmed that it wasn't any of the crew that was working overnight.  Then the "Aha" moment came.  The guard said that it happened the previous afternoon when we were rehearsing for the performance.  I asked if it was one of the performers that they believed to have been injured, which he affirmed that it was.

It seems that someone observed our rescue rehearsal and thought that it was real.  First of all, I feel really good about that.  It means that we were well enough trained in saving someone that from the outside, it looked like we were really doing it.  After all, we had to get the performer on a spine board and carry him towards the point where the ambulance would have picked him up.  I relayed the entire event to the security supervisor, along with the approximate time that we practiced the rehearsal.  Phew, crisis averted.  No surprises here.