Howard Werner's Media Design For Spider-Man

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Howard Werner, media designer for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, has been with the production nearly since its inception more than three years ago. “There was a desire from the beginning to have media as a part of the overall design, and there was always a design element, especially in the second act, that included moving panels of video surface,” says Werner of the initial designs, referred to by many on the creative team as “version 1.”

Still in its infancy back then, Werner says the original plan was for rear-projected surfaces. “I didn't really want to do that but rather to make the video something self-contained that can move in ways we want it to move, not an army of rear projectors pointing at the audience,” he says. “We went through options and talked about the panels being LEDs from the beginning, but three-and-a half-years ago, the resolution that would deliver the images we needed was too expensive.”

Affordability wasn't the only issue. There was also some hesitation from other members of design team who didn't want it to look like a rock show. “I had done projects where we'd done LED screens with RP material to lessen that effect,” says Werner. “Everyone agreed on that, but we were stuck—still couldn't afford it. Then we looked at LCD screens. NEC had just come out with a screen with a very narrow bezel. No one was crazy about it looking like TV screens tracking around stage, but the resolution was good, and it worked out.”

When the show stopped construction on the theatre in August 2009 in August, the tracking LCD screens were in place as a part of the design, though not actually purchased or installed, but a year later, more products had hit the market that provided a lightweight and affordable solution. “We looked at 15mm LED products, and PRG sourced the proprietary product for us in the end, which is what we have now,” says Werner.

With entire scenes rewritten, reconceived, and even cut, a lot of work went into version 2—hard scenery didn't change, but quite a bit of the projection did—but that's just part of the process, says Werner. “I think the show we wound up with is far superior to the one we started with,” he says. “For example, there was a whole scene of a wedding in Peter Parker's nightmare. The church was all video, but that was all cut. But there are many moments in the show that are very much what we talked about four years ago. For example, the loom scene in the very beginning—that scene is almost exactly the same visually. The high school, for example, had many scenic visual elements in first act that are just what we talked about three years ago. Some things changed in the way the scene plays within the visual set, but the visual elements are the same.”

[caption id="attachment_501" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Spider-Man tracking screens mapping"]Spider-Man tracking screens mapping[/caption]

All content for the show is manipulated via PRG Mbox EXtreme media servers. The eight video panels comprise 100 each 15mm LED tiles at 2.5m x 10m tall, creating a total pixel dimension of 1,280x640. A PRG v676 console controls the video elements.

For version 2, much of the show visuals were reedited, with additional content created by Werner, and a lot of recuing done, particularly to Act 2. “The show has elements of Cirque and rock ‘n' roll,” says Werner, adding that, more than on many shows, scenery, lighting, video, costumes, and sound work very closely together. “It was a challenge, but to me, that's sort of the wonderful thing of what all departments were able to do—cohesive design using all elements,” he says. “There are moments where you don't know if it's a light source or a media source, and the set moves in a fluid way. Certain moments are more video-centric, and some are more lighting or scenic. In the video, if the screens are going to go to blue, [lighting designer] Don Holder uses the same blue. This is more so in the first act, where screens are more used like a cyc or a panel of color. I would take cues from Don. Where the sky is orange, the video legs should be orange.”

PRG wrote code, Werner says, “to basically track the position of the LED panels in the stage space, so that encoder software was able to give feedback to MBox EXtreme media servers to let them know exactly where panels are, and we can say ‘track image' at the same speed and rate as the panel is moving. Once that was written and tested, it worked in version 2. In fact, that software was one of the really nice pieces that made our lives a lot easier. By time we got to version 2, we knew what systems could and couldn't do.

“The production opened up the idea of using integrated projection technology into the Broadway market,” Werner says. “The real challenge was having a new director for version 2 and a new choreographer—for them to understand the vocabulary of the show and what we could and couldn't do within the systems we had already set up.” Jason Lindahl is the show's associate media designer/video technician. Phil Gilbert is the media programmer.

Check out the full video setup detailed here.

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