Projected Perspective - Darrel Maloney On His Approach to Video & Projection Design

by Michael Eddy

Projection and video designer, Darrel Maloney has taken an interesting, if not circuitous route to where he is at the moment. Which is currently working on designing his seventh Broadway show. Maloney graduated in 1992 from NYU with an MFA in scenic and lighting design back when there wasn’t a whole lot of projection work going on in the theater. After working in—and looking for work in—theater for a while, Maloney quit to teach himself video production. He moved west to California, started a company doing post production and animations for television, film, and commercials. After about a decade of this work, he got a call from an NYU classmate who was beginning work on a new show and that it would be right up his alley and drew him back to the theater.

These days, Maloney is much in demand, providing noteworthy projection designs for Broadway shows including American IdiotOn Your Feet!AllegianceThe IllusionistsA Night with Janis Joplin, and Everyday Rapture. Other shows include The Tony Awards; Checkers, Vineyard Theater; Found, Atlantic Theater; Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus; and Surf: The Musical, Planet Hollywood, Las Vegas. Maloney is the founder and creative director of the design and production studio The 13th Studios.

Stage Directions: What brought you back into designing for the theater?
Darrel Maloney: Well, I had been out of the theater-side of the business for about a decade when I got a call from my NYU classmate, Christine Jones who said, ‘I have this show I’m doing and there’s going to be a lot of video. I think that you’d be good at it.’ I wasn’t sure, but she persisted, so that’s how I started working on American Idiot.

I was ready to try something else, so her timing was good. I had left theater because it was hard to make a living doing it in the beginning. When I started my post-production company, I made money. But then, I was still unhappy because while I did have money, I didn’t really care about any of the stuff that I was doing.

Now I have a balance; I can take the work that I find interesting; that I just really love doing. When I look at a project I am looking for something that’s interesting. What that is can be so many different things now; but what I like to do is to learn something. As long as it’s something that I can learn from and have an interesting story. I want work that keeps me interested in the work.

How do you see the role of the projection designer as a part of the collaborative process?
I’ve found that projection by itself really lies in that space between lighting and set. That’s kind of one of the things that I’ve enjoyed about doing it, because it kind of crosses both those worlds. Getting to work with both the set and lighting designer, and create these images has been pretty exciting.

Talk about the use of video projection as scenery.
What I’ve been working on in the last couple of years for the Tony Awards is translating the scenery, into digital scenery. This is an area that I am doing more and more work. I have to say, I’m not one to always want everything moving all the time. Sometimes, I think that can be distracting with people on stage, but, what I do like is that you can still have that image slowly evolve throughout the scene. Then there are moments that you want to highlight with some kind of motion, of movement, and you can do that.

With projected scenery, for me, it’s always nice when there’s something real scenically as well as the projection that melds together. For On Your Feet!, one thing that we tried to do in the beginning was some projected notes. But whenever they would interact with them in a realistic way, to me, that is when we would run into trouble. In the end, we ended up going with real notes because it was important for her to have that physical connection with them. I think that projection can do a lot; I just don’t think you can do everything. Having said that, with the Tonys and the high resolution of the LED screens being so good. There are times, even in the audience when I’m watching that I can’t remember exactly what was a real piece of scenery and what was video on an LED screen.

One of the problems is that the perspective doesn’t match entirely. Anything real, in perspective on that stage, has to be taken into consideration. It will look great from a certain number of seats, but from the rest, it won’t. This is where I went back to my theater training with Oliver Smith, who was one of my teachers at NYU. I’d been trying to make a realistic set out of projection, but I was fighting with the perspective. I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t work. So, I went back to look at Oliver’s work and how he dealt with perspective; how he got it to work for his designs. I found that his work is not in any kind of real perspective; his work is like the gesture or the idea of a place. I’d look at his design for Times Square; it was the idea of Times Square. It has perspective, but it’s not a realistic perspective. It’s the feeling of what it’s like to be in Times Square. I was looking back on that and was like, ‘oh, exactly!’ I’m not trying to make a realistic space around a stage; I’m trying to make the feeling of that space. The idea of that space. The emotional connection of that space.

Scroll through the gallery below to see some of Maloney's work:

25,15,0,50,2
1,600,60,0,5000,1000,25,2000
100,100,0,50,12,25,50,2,70,12,2,50,2,0,0,5000
0,0,0,0,0,16,0,0,4,0,1,0,0,1
Credit: © Matthew Murphy
ON YOUR FEET! On Broadway
ON YOUR FEET! On Broadway
Credit: D. Maloney
Checkers at Vineyard Theatre
Checkers at Vineyard Theatre
Credit: © Erik Kabik
Surf: The Musical
Surf: The Musical
Credit: © Erik Kabik
Surf: The Musical
Surf: The Musical
Credit: © Erik_Hartman
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera
Credit: © Erik_Hartman
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera Credit: © Erik_Hartman
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera Credit: © Erik_Hartman
Credit: © Erik_Hartman
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera
Summer King at Pittsburgh Opera

So that was the idea for the Ferris wheel in Surf: The Musical in Las Vegas?
I never intended to make a realistic Ferris wheel; I wanted it to have a feeling like a painted piece of scenery; to feel organic. But, the benefit of the projection is that then it could come to life. I wasn’t trying to create something realistic; I was trying to have the gesture of a Ferris wheel, but then being able to take it to the next level and match the image moving with the flying seat. That created the illusion of that space, but with a little bit of a twist and a with a little painterly artistic feel about it.

It would actually get applause every night. There would be applause when they first started rising and then there’s the effects part of it where they’re on the way back down and they go back into the Ferris wheel that would get a second round of applause. I’ve never really had that kind of moment again! 

What’s another design of yours that really stands out to you?
Checkers was one of the things that I was most proud of. The show took place in a box set. Most plays these days are like movies; there’s a three-minute scene and we’re on to a completely new location. With Checkers, I had these transition passes and there were these spaces where they’re going to draw on. The designs were based on political cartoons of the time, so the space is drawn on the walls. The image would hit for a moment and then the lights came up and the drawing would go away and they’d just play the scene. It looked like they were playing the scene inside the cartoon, but it was using the projections as a division; the last thing you saw and then it went into the scene. I thought that it was a really interesting effect. Once the actors were lit they weren’t acting in a cartoon at that point. It worked well.

Are you using more LED screens?
I was very skeptical at first. I’ve used a bunch of LED, a lot of low-res LED, which I really liked. It can really abstract an image. I did one show with the lowest res LED I could get behind two-way mirrors. The interesting thing about that was once they came through and reflected a few times, then you could actually see a softer image, in the reflection. But I was very skeptical of LED taking over, per se like a projected drop, because there’s something about projection because it’s a reflected thing, and has a more romantic feeling about it, a little bit more organic feeling. As opposed to having LED, which directs the light right at you. But, I have to say, as LEDs have gotten higher resolutions, it’s gotten better and better. On the Tonys, was the first time that I saw 3mm LED and it looks just as good as projection. 

What’s a show where you used LED screens to a good effect?
There’s an opera that I recently did with Pittsburgh Opera, The Summer King, where I had three very large screens of LED that were integral to the set. We used LED because I knew that we had these big scenic panels and they had to move. I also knew we had three days of tech and would have eaten up a lot of that time trying to set up and tech projectors. Also, trying to keep the light off the projection screens that large and balancing lighting levels with projectors all would have been an issue too. I pushed pretty hard on that show to get LED because LED solved a lot of problems. Also, since the show was about Josh Gibson and baseball, I thought that the reference to modern day sports was interesting.

Your video supplier on Summer King was Pete’s Big TVs, correct?
Yes, they supplied the video screens as well as the d3s on this production. I am working with them again right now on a Broadway show.

Is d3 a go-to tool for you?
Since meeting the guys at d3 [Technologies], I think that 90% of my shows have been on d3 media servers. One thing that d3 really does for me, is that with all its previz capabilities, I’ve used it very much as a design tool. It’s one of the things that’s actually changed a lot about how I work. With the previz capabilities, I can pencil out my projector shots and really work out a lot of my ideas; it’s a pretty key piece of gear for me. Also the company is very responsive. Ash [Nehru of d3] has come out to be with me when I worked on American Idiot and Surf. First, to see what I am doing and the tools that I need, and then, when I have a challenge, they work to solve it. On Surf, the video was made up of 136 60-inch low bezel LCD screens. The resolution of that screen was like 8,000 pixels by 5,000 pixels, which d3 had never done before at that time. So, Ash came out and wrote a bunch of code for me to handle that. He loves being challenged as much as I do.

Well it sounds like you are finding projects to keep you challenged as a designer.
Yes, for me, that’s what is interesting, I like to be learning. Sometimes, I have to do about 15 different jobs on a project. One day I’m a photographer; one day I’m a cinematographer; and one day I’m just doing 3D. Then, I’m doing 2D After Effects stuff. Then, I’m doing kind of technical stuff and figuring out the technical aspects for a project. Then I am designing an idea, working with the other designers. So, that’s what has kept it interesting to me; there’s always something to learn.  

You can see more of Darrel Maloney's work at http://darrelmaloney.com/show-galleries/  

Also read the Stage Directions post about the video technology on The Summer King and see a short video clip here: http://stage-directions.com/theatre-buzz/9490-the-summer-king-at-pittsburgh-opera.html