A Collage of Madrid

In order to avoid projection shadows and projections on the actors, the design team hung the projectors mid-stage and at a 25° angle so they’d only hit the back wall.
In order to avoid projection shadows and projections on the actors, the design team hung the projectors mid-stage and at a 25° angle so they’d only hit the back wall.
Projection Designer Sven Ortel Imagines Madrid for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

The Lincoln Center Theatre production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, directed by Bartlett Sher, translates the 1988 movie of the same name by Pedro Almodóvar into a Broadway musical using technology and visual design to help capture the essence of the story. The show, which opened on November 4 in the newly-renovated Belasco Theatre let the creative team take the romantic madcap tale set in 1987 Madrid and add in their own style while keeping Almodóvar’s signature mayhem and love for women. The design team includes scenic designer Michael Yeargan, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, costume designer Catherine Zuber and projection designer Sven Ortel. Ortel provides the quickly moving imagery that helps move the story along.

Ortel, whose credits include work on the cutting-edge visual productions of The Woman in White, The Little Mermaid, Hitchcock Blonde and Jumpers, was originally brought onboard for only two segments but as the show developed it became obvious that there was no easy way to make the quick scene changes with only conventional scenery.

“I got involved fairly early when Bart and Michael were still working out the design,” says Ortel. “The scene changes are all pretty quick, I suggested they could use projections to help with them.”

Rather than use an LED screen for video imagery, Sven Ortel turns the back wall of the Belasco theatre into the projection surface.
Rather than use an LED screen for video imagery, Sven Ortel turns the back wall of the Belasco theatre into the projection surface.
Ortel originally considered using an LED video wall at the rear of the stage for his imagery since it would solve one technical challenge—how to project around all of the scenery without casting a shadow—but it didn’t fit the feel of the show. “On the model, we took the LED wall out and put a brick wall in; we really liked that look. We knew that it would be difficult from a projectionist’s point of view to get through all of the scenery, but I liked the idea of projecting on the back wall, because it would have such an organic, real look to it.”

It became clear that the projectors would have to be mounted at mid-stage above the lighting rig so Ortel worked closely with Lars Pedersen, director of technology for Scharff Weisberg, Inc. (SWI) to find the right projector that would give them the brightness and resolution required, but also able to work from a very steep angle of 25°.
“Sven wanted to create an image on the back wall of the theatre but we had to do that from the grid,” explains Pedersen. “If we just did it with front projection, we would have shadows and not give him the effect that he was after. So we put three projectors on their sides and hung them really, really high in the air and used the warp engine in the media servers to actually correct the perspective of the image.” Most projectors will not work mounted on their side and at such a steep angle but the Barco SLM R12+ Performer projectors can, and three of them solved Ortel’s back wall challenge with each one handling a third of the overall projection.

Ortel and Pedersen chose to go with coolux Pandoras Box for the media servers. This choice had a lot to do with the coolux system's ability to track the scenic automation. “I used Pandoras Box for control. It was fantastic for that integration with automation,” comments Ortel. In addition to all of the projectors, SWI supplied seven Pandoras Box media servers, two Pandoras Box Media Managers for control and two Pandoras Widget Designer Pros to integrate with the PRG Stage Command automation system.

“The Widget Designer is an application that allows connections to the outside world,” explains Pedersen. “We used it for the automation tracking. There were several winches for the set pieces that we linked to the proprietary coolux Sensor Link with a hardware connection, which then fed back to the Widget Designer Pro. Depending on the set pieces, whether they were moving across stage or vertically, the video would track with them. We have found that the hardware connection is a far more robust and reliable solution when it comes to automation tracking. You match the encoder to the winch that you are actually connecting to and it becomes a gear and pulley system basically.” Ortel notes that, “The encoders in my system know where the winches are at all times. Pandoras Box is also incredibly good for doing X, Y and Z movement, which is exactly what I needed for this show; it was incredibly smooth. Both Scharff Weisberg and PRG were very, very helpful and worked with us to make it all work. It really took a joint effort to be successful.”

Sven Ortel’s projections weren’t meant to be realistic (note the giant tomatoes on the left), but to creative evocative images.
Sven Ortel’s projections weren’t meant to be realistic (note the giant tomatoes on the left), but to creative evocative images.
Tomatoes and a City’s Character
For the content itself Ortel knew that an important character is the city itself. “Madrid is actually a central character; I wanted to concentrate on that, particularly when it comes to the scene changes, because in the script it was written that Madrid comes to life in a burst of colors and swirling imagery.” Ortel went to Madrid and shot for a few days from dusk to dawn and took more than 2,000 photos and video clips to use as an imagery library.

To put all the content together into the final show design Ortel worked with associate S. Katy Tucker and assistant Lucy Mackinnon, who would create and adjust pieces that he could put into the system and move around under the control of programmer Michael Kohler.

“I was trying to create that coherent language,” Ortel explains. “I don’t come into the theatre with a master plan, because I know that things change once you sit down in the orchestra. You have to establish a vocabulary in the first few scenes, which you then have to stick to and hope that you don’t have to go back on yourself and change everything that you have developed. I started in the first scene to create Madrid using slow pans of multiple buildings. I created a kaleidoscope collage of buildings that don’t really sit next to one another, but they evoke the sense of Madrid. Madrid, like the skyline of Paris, isn’t particularly interesting. It’s only when you put the Eifel Tower and the other recognizable buildings together that it looks like Paris. I made this massive fake panorama of Madrid; layered it; and panned it around. That idea was actually inspired by Pedro’s use of the skyline of Madrid in the movie, because he created these cardboard buildings in the movie; buildings that aren’t really there. When I used my created Madrid everybody said ‘that’s exactly what it looks like; that’s exactly what it feels like.’ It’s not what it looks like, but it rings true, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”

In the end, Ortel was pleased with the results, both in how well the colors translated and how it tracked the scenery. “It was tricky and I thought a lot about why did I let myself be talked into not using the LED wall; it would have been so easy,” laughs Ortel. “Just switch it on. Nothing would be in front of the projection; nothing bumping into the lens. It was worth it in the end because I do really like the look of the brick wall with the projection on it.”