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Projecting to The Balcony

Hideaki Tsutsui • Projection • January 1, 2010

A moment from UTEP’s The Balcony.

A media server supports a black box production of The Balcony at the University of Texas, El Paso

In the May 2009 issue of Stage Directions I wrote an article about what to look for when designing lights while projections are being used. In discussing what kind of problems might arise I used examples of media servers and how they can aid with troubleshooting these areas. I emphasized the importance of student designers familiarizing themselves with this technology. In keeping with this topic I’d like to share the production process we went through using projections with Hippotizer Stage media server in a student-designed production of The Balcony in a black box theatre at the University of Texas at El Paso.

From left to right: Jorge Munoz, master electrician; Loren Barton, Hippotizer Specialist at TMB; Juan Ontiveros, the LD for UTEP’s The Balcony; James Hicks, props designer; Joel Zapata, carpenter; and Marq Gonzalez, projection designer.

This incredible opportunity began last March at USITT. I met with Colin Waters of TMB and discussed the possibility of hosting a session of The Hippotizer School at UTEP. We also discussed using a Hippotizer in one of our productions as part of the educational process for our students. The faculty decided that our upcoming student production of The Balcony would be best suited to use this technology. Chuck Gorden directed the show but was the only faculty member on the creative team, students did the rest. The student designers were: Renee Rocha, scenic design; Juan Ontiveros, lighting design; Orlando Rodriguez, costume design; Don Cieslik, sound design; and Marq Gonzalez, projection design.

From the start Gorden felt it was imperative for the projections to be subtle and to cohesively blend with the other design elements. Since our students were new to this technology I worked closely with each of them to help them visualize the potential of the projections within the spectrum of the other design elements.

Setting the Scene
One of the first issues was deciding where images could be projected scenically. Rocha came up with the idea of a large window that would also be used as a rear projection screen. To take things a step further and create a deeper sense of illusion, which was a key element in the director’s vision, we decided to treat the stage floor as another projection surface.

The “window” in the design for University of Texas, El Paso’s production of The Balcony was a rear-projection screen.

Designing projections in a black box can provide its own set of challenges. There is usually an issue of optimal projector placement in a smaller and more restricted playing space. Our black box theatre at UTEP is no exception. Due to our space limitations it would have been impossible to place the projectors at a standard 90° angle to the RP. However, with Hippotizer’s technology we were no longer limited to the normal restrictions between the projector and projection surface. We had the freedom to place the projectors at whatever angle we needed in order to keep them secure, out of sight and unobstructed.  The Hippotizer Stage media server allowed us to easily manipulate and correct the keystone and geometrics of the projections with a few simple mouse clicks. The technology allowed for a creative vision that otherwise would have been unattainable.

Deciding to use the floor as a projection surface added a different challenge. A projection surface is typically white or gray in color, which can be problematic for a lighting designer since both of those colors bounce large volumes of light. Also, since we didn’t want to use projections on the floor during scenes, it was imperative that the floor be able to stand on its own and provide the aesthetics necessary to tie the other scenic elements together.

As a possible solution to this problem we considered using one of the projectors as a lighting fixture. Since the introduction of Icon M in 1999, to today’s DL.3 from High End Systems or the Barco DML-1200, this solution seemed to fit with a growing trend in theatrical lighting. This solution was nixed because, while those fixtures/projectors would fit the bill technically, using projection during the scenes would have caused the actors to be in the projected images, distracting the audience. In addition, the director wanted the projection to be a supportive element, unlike the projection he used during our production of Threepenny Opera, where it was almost another character.

The answer to our projection surface dilemma was to carefully select the colors and textures that would be painted on the floor. After the scenic designer settled on a palette that fit the vision of the show, the projection designer used this palette when designing the projections. This served two purposes: it brought out the color on the floor, and saturated the colors in the projections. By staying away from a white or gray surface we eliminated a lot of the light bounce and intensified the colors we did want to use.

While we projected static images on the RP window (and nothing on the floor) during a scene, the Hippotizer software allowed the projection designer to add video effects on the floor and RP screen during scene changes to support the flow of the show. Video effects were also projected on the floor at the top of Act I and Act II in order to create a carnival-like “fun house” effect, which set the tone for each act.  

Hunting for Images
Finding the right images for the production was obviously a vital component. Based on the director’s concept we found images that suggested the locations of each scene. When Gonzalez presented his first set of potential images the director was immediately drawn to an image of a painting. He suggested using it for the scenes in Irma’s office. Working off of this suggestion and seeking to create a sense of continuity throughout the show, all of the projected images acquired were photoshopped to look like paintings. The selection of the final images was a team effort by the projection designer, the scenic designer and the director.

The projection designer also collaborated closely with the lighting designer to meticulously create a color palette for each scene. For example, in order to contrast the fire-like effect of Gonzalez’s projections on the floor and RP screen at the top of Act II Ontiveros, our LD, used cool colors on the set, such as Rosco R61 and L201, and combined Rosco R60 and R51 in the same fixture with low intensity for a similarly contrasting effect. Ontiveros also designed his plot to make sure that the lights were focused off of the window/RP screen and calculated the distribution and intensity of his lights in order to enhance the projections on the window and the floor. For his part, Gonzalez deliberately picked images with colors that added to Ontiveros’ atmosphere.

Going to Projection
The Hippotizer Stage media server loaned to us from TMB ran projections and gave us full control of all images, layers, outputs and effects. The Hippotizer Stage comes with two 1024 x 768 resolution outputs that can run separate feeds in dual mode or be combined to create a single 2048 x 768 canvas. We ran the server in dual mode to two 6500-lumen Roadrunner LX65 Christie projectors.
The efficiency of managing and controlling the image files from a single source was a huge asset for our projection designer, as the software allowed Gonzalez to think and program his projections in much the same fashion as a lighting designer would, with the use of a single console.

For our production, the design team decided it would be more dynamic if the projection images were cued with sound. The Hippotizer Stage made it easy for the projection designer to cue the entire show using a time line built into the software. Since the software also supported live-editing of the timeline he was able to edit the cues in real-time during tech rehearsals—making the rehearsals run much more smoothly and efficiently.

After our experience with it I can say that the Hippotizer Stage is an outstanding piece of technology, allowing projections to be a more integral part of a production without limiting or hindering the other design elements, and would recommend students become more familiar with it and other media servers, as they are clearly becoming more important to the modern production process.
As theatrical artists, we must embrace and encourage the creativity and inspirations that comes from our inner eye.  We cannot allow technology to overcome creativity.  We should not depend on technology. Instead, we should allow technological growth in our field to enhance our technique and bring our creativity to the new levels of endless possibility.

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