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Confrontational Projection

Hideaki Tsutsui • Lighting & Projection • May 1, 2009

At UTEP’s production of The Threepenny Opera, projected images were intended to help send the political messages of Brecht

A University of Texas, El Paso production of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera highlights ways to keep projection and lighting working together

Make no mistake about it, technology is always evolving.  Projector technology has reached a level where one  can project images that can enhance or even replace  scenery. New tools are available that allow designers to manipulate the content such as Coolux’s Pandoras Box, Green Hippo’s  Hippotizer, Martin’s Maxedia and PRG’s M-BOX. But when new  technology is added to a production it raises new questions.  Should projection be a part of the scenery, the lighting, or something altogether separate? What is the relationship between  lighting and projection? As designers, we need to be aware of  problems raised by adding projection to a production, including  composition versus focus, positioning of projector versus lighting fixture position, and content versus light cues.

In educational theatre, if the scenic or lighting designer wants  to incorporate the idea of projection then it might naturally fall  on her/him to execute. However, sometimes it is the director’s  idea. In this case, the production team needs to figure out who  will handle it. Then, perhaps, a decision about who has the  expertise to oversee the process is made. Of course if a student  shows particular interest in projection, that is ideal. Then it  becomes a question of who will supervise. It is important to delegate the responsibility during the preproduction.

Projection design can fit into many different departments depending on its function in the play. In this case, it fell under scenery.

At the University of Texas at El Paso Theatre and Dance  Department, our 2008-2009 season kicked off with a production  of The Threepenny Opera. The production was directed by Chuck  Gorden, with costume design by Crystal Herman, lighting design  by myself and scenic design by Ross Fleming. When Professor  Fleming designed the scenery, he decided to incorporate projection into his design, so in this situation projection fell under  scenery. Professor Fleming’s design called for a large window (10  feet wide by 13 feet high) with an RP screen for the projection  surface. With support from staff at UTEP we were able to acquire  the Titan HD-600 Projector by Digital Projection, which has  8000 lumens. Projection was designed by one of our students,  Christian Contreras, who was supervised by Fleming throughout  the design process.

Projection Placement and Scenic Design

Before we could proceed with other elements of design, we  had to decide where to place the projector based on screen  placement, size and performance space. We calculated the  throw distance based on the lens and screen-size to determine  that the projector needed to be 24 feet away. While that may  not sound like that far a distance, keep in mind that we wanted  to rear-project. Twenty-four feet behind the screen to the back  of the stage is a drastically longer distance than 24 feet in front  of a screen.

Luckily, the UTEP Wise Theatre’s scene shop is located directly  behind the stage with a center-stage loading door that allowed  us to put the projector in the shop. Some theatres may not have  the upstage space to allow that sort of distance, so a projection  designer may need to look into wide-angle lenses or might need  to put the projector downstage and front project. The projection  designer may also need to mount a projector on a pipe and fly  it, which leads to keystone problems. A projector itself can do  some keystone correction, but it is sometimes not enough and  this is where tools like Pandoras Box or Hippotizer come in.

The director wanted to use the RP screen for the Macheath reveal at the beginning of the show, which meant careful placement of lights, and cueing around the video.

Early in the production process, the director and the design  team need to make decisions about when the content of the  projection will be occupying the screen. Will it be on at all times  during the show or will there be a scene or moment that there  is no image on the screen? If there will be no image, will it be a  blackout or will they allow the light to bleed from the lamp? For  The Threepenny Opera our director wanted to have a silhouette  effect when we revealed Macheath at the top of the show and  again at the end of the show. We needed to cue this sequence  very carefully because there were several projected images for  the opening sequence that had to work with the lighting cues.  I placed an 8-inch Fresnel on the floor to accomplish the effect  and I placed strip lights at the bottom of the window to help  support the illusion of sunlight hitting the window.

Lumens vs. Watts

In the case of The Threepenny Opera, the projected images  were intended to help send the political messages of Brecht.  Christian designed extremely creative images and animations  to go on the screen. The projector lamps were arc (Xenon)  lamps that projected 8,000 lumens at 5600°k. It was easy for  the projected images to capture audience attention because  they had a different aesthetic compared to the rest of the  elements on stage.

More lumens from the projector would have meant brighter lights on the set to keep the relation between screen and set in balance.

As the lighting designer, I had to pay a lot of attention to  the color temperature of the projector lamp and the color  that was projected on the screen. If I were to design with a  12,000- or 15,000-lumen projector, I would have needed to  have more foot candles on stage from my luminaires to bring  the actors forward from the bright screen. After all, a screen  should not be the brightest object on stage when the actors  are performing. It’s important to keep in mind that focus and  selective visibility are crucial to creating a good composition  with light.

Among many challenges I had was to keep the light off  the screen. Our jail scene, for instance, had Macheath standing only few inches away from the screen. I decided to utilize  hi-side positions to light him as well as the jail bars. During  his song, I used one follow spot with Rosco 119 filter on it to  soften the edge, then irised the beam into his face so that his  facial expression was readable from the audience without  washing out the image on the screen.

Because projected imagery can be a very powerful element  on stage, some of the light cues were called at the same time  with the projection. With this production I decided an image  or some kind of color needed to be on-screen at all times.  I did not think it would work compositionally if the screen  was merely blank. Current technology does not allow a true  blackout from a projector. The DLP technology projectors  are better than LCD projectors when it comes to delivering a  blackout. With the LCD projectors, projectionists will need to  have some kind of dowser to mask the light. City Theatrical  makes very handy DMX controlled projection dowsers for  just this reason. Otherwise, one can plan on having a student  manually run a dowser.

The use of projection can be a great tool. A picture is definitely worth a thousand words and the trend of the projection is  inevitable. Today’s audiences are so constantly inundated with  imagery that it is a natural evolution of theatre to add projections using current technology. It is still an expensive technology, but it is a great addition for students to use to learn and  grow. In the end those students will be more marketable in this  competitive industry. 

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