SFO ATD Ryan OSteen talks projection, mirrors & Don Giovanni

by Michael Eddy
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Details on San Francisco Opera’s Projection Solution

Designer Tommi Brem, said ‘To be honest, coming up with the concept was a lot easier than sorting out the technicalities. And to that I would say, ‘Yes. Yes, it was.’

We had 20 mirrors from the 2011 production of Don Giovanni. They were all six-feet wide by 18-feet tall and were made of a two-way mirrored acrylic that had a tint on both the front and back. We were front projecting on seven of 13 of the mirrors and rear projecting on the other seven mirrors.

All the front projection mirrors were parallel with the plaster line and we covered all of them in a fine, square-mesh scrim on the downstage side of the mirrors. That helped reduce the reflectivity of those mirrors, but you could still see through them when we needed. We ended up only putting imagery on seven of the 13 front projection mirrors, but we treated all 13 so they all looked the same. For these mirrors, we used four 20K projectors—two from the right and left box booms, where our organ bays used to be; and two from the balcony rail. Also, one of the mirrors had a small 10K Christie projector that was dedicated to it. That was a tricky hang from our first lighting bridge; it was close enough to the mirror that the brightness was not distinguishable from the 20Ks from the house positions. The projectors were a mix of Christie and Digital Projection units, which were all fed content from our PRG Mbox media server. 

The seven rear projected mirrors were arranged in an elliptical, zoetrope shape; so they framed out a half ellipse on stage. For those, we had to get some very tricky projector hang positions. We had three projectors in our wings with very steep projection angles from up on our ladder bridges, which are our upper wing lighting positions. The projection angle was incredibly steep, so there was a lot of sizing and formatting to hit the large mirrors. For these mirrors, we applied a [Rosco] diffusion gel on the back of the acrylic two-way mirrors. We could pass light through them when needed, but we did lose some of the transparency properties, however the diffusion essentially captured all the rear projection imagery. If it was lit from the front, you couldn’t tell there was a white backing there and when no projection was on it, it looked and worked just like a mirror.

There were a few challenges that we had to solve. First, we tried to mitigate the reflection of the projector’s source being seen in the audience. So, our first positioning of projectors for the front projections were up in our cove slot, which is all the way up in the ceiling, but that put the projectors so far away that the images were just almost unnoticeable. We toyed around with new lensing and more projectors, but when it came down to it we just decided that it was better to get the projectors closer by putting them in the box boom locations and stacking them up. So, we got the projectors closer and added intensity by putting more projectors on the job. 

It was a fun project, all in all. Tommi and Jacopo were coming to play in a sandbox with the toys that we had to offer. It was definitely a process getting there and it was more experimental than I think a lot of us here expected. There was some nail-biting trying to get it all to work. In the end, it was great to work with Tommi and his team; it allowed us to get outside our normal box.