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San Francisco Ballet’s production of Swan Lake featured a design that was to be clear and establish every location with a strong stage picture, whereby scenery, lighting, and projections gel to a unified whole. To designer Sven Ortel, this meant no one should be able to distinguish lighting from video projection or even from painted drops.

“As the designer, I have to determine the absolute minimum I have to show, while preserving all intended connotations and ambiguities,” Ortel says. “As I am dealing with moving imagery, a significant amount of meaning derives from the type and style of the movement...It becomes part of the responsibility of the programmer to make crucial fine adjustments for a design to work...
Of all the design decisions I made for this production, two had the most profound effect on the way it needed to be programmed. First, the giant moon that looms above the stage is projected using DLP projectors, not slide projectors. The moon has its own dedicated projectors because it has to glow like a moon and therefore is brighter than the surrounding projected scenery, which is handled by other projectors.

“Second, the silhouette of a dancer must be projected as she runs past the curtain that covers the stage during the prologue. It was never going to be a real shadow cast using a followspot on a dancer, but it has to look like that. The shadow has to stumble—when the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, casts his spell—transform into a swan, and fly away into the night sky. For practical reasons, that sequence is front-projected as well.”

Apart from those two effects, two other design choices served to integrate the projections. The projected sky background had to match the painterly style of the physical scenery, and the sky has to move at a speed that does not draw attention to itself but, at the same time, is quick enough to feel “alive.” At times, these backgrounds have to be just visible enough to create a contrast on the gauze-covered RP screen that allows the blacks to appear blacker and, thus, to create depth which physically is not actually there. It is an old lighting trick, and since projectors are a source of light, the same rules often apply.

The main challenge was to create something simple, which looks effortless and beautiful: swans flying past the moon in silhouette. It turned out to be quite tricky: swans flying across an HD panorama rear-projection of night clouds blended in a 16x9 aspect ratio. These swans intersect and are in sync with 4x3 aspect ratio swans across the center-stage moon projection, exit the 4x3 aspect ratio moon projection back into the 16x9 aspect ratio, and continue through the rest of the raster. The key problem was scale and plane intersection, and programmer Peter Vincent Acken’s solution was to use curve programming.

Design Team
Projection design: Sven Ortel
Media programming: Peter Vincen Acken
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson (SF Ballet artistic director)
Scenic and costume design: Jonathan Fensom
Lighting design: Jennifer Tipton
Wigs and makeup design: Michael Ward

Equipment
5 Christie Digital Roadster S+20K Projector
2 Christie Digital DS+8K Projector
4 coolux Pandoras Box Pro media servers
Coolux Media Manager software
1 MA Lighting grandMA