Lately, I’ve been getting a large number of requests from educators looking to include content on media/projection design in their curriculum for good resources on how to go about the projection design process. Unfortunately, as of yet, there is no complete resource for media design, as there is for scenic, lighting, and costume design. There are plenty of good piecemeal references. Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White’s book Live Movies and Steve Dixon’s tome Digital Performance do a great job of giving a decent cross-section of the history and theory of media in performance. Online resources like ProjectorCentral.com can provide plenty of technical information. But there is no central repository of projection knowledge and no go-to location for those techniques and processes unique to theatrical media design.

Though this short form column is no place to go into theory, conceptualization, and composition, I’ve decided to commit a series of entries to step-by-step instructions on a variety of techniques that will help first attempts at projections be easier and more effective.

Let’s talk about focus grids. Many productions that I have seen from theaters and academic departments first attempting projections are beset by the tyranny of the white rectangle – the 4:3 flat plane of the projection screen. While the standard format is appropriate for some shows (particularly where the video is being used to comment on mass media), many times the projection design is best served by breaking out of the rectangle.

If you have spent your entire life watching movies and TV on rectangular screens, it’s sometime hard to imagine breaking out of that box, but projections can be made to fit to any surface and any shape. The easiest way to do this is through a technique I call shooting a focus grid:

  1. Position and focus your projector(s) so that the image area, or “raster,” encompasses all the objects and surfaces on which you wish to place projections. (If there is no time to do this after the projector load-in due to the schedule of production, there are other methods for precisely placing imagery. Check back later for tips on how.)
  1. Attach a computer running Adobe Photoshop to the projector via whatever connection method you plan on using for the production video signal (VGA, DVI, RGBHV, S-video, etc.), and set the resolution of your display to be the same as the native resolution of your projector, most often XGA (1024x768). Set your external display to “clone” or “mirror” your primary monitor.
  1. Open this PSD format, multi-layer focus grid (or a similar file of your own creation) in Photoshop and make the Guide layer active. This is the layer we will draw the scenery into.
  1. Make the image full screen by going into Expert mode by pressing the “F” key until the background turns black. Press “tab” to turn your Tools and Layer palettes on an off. If you have Rulers on your image, pressing “[CTRL]R” will turn these on and off. Press “[CTRL]+” and “[CTRL]-“ to zoom in and out until the image fills the screen from edge to edge. (Note: substitute the [CMD] or open apple key for [CTRL] on Apple computers.)
  1. Now, with your eyes on the projected image on the stage, use the Paint Brush or Line tools set to a bright color to literally draw in the edges of the scenery surfaces on the stage. It’s fun to do and fun to watch. If you have multiple scenes or layers of scenery, try adding extra guide layers and shifting colors for your brushes.
  1. Once you have finished, save the grid file with a new filename. Now you can use this image to place content in Photoshop and After Effects by placing pictures and videos within the bounded areas and filling the areas outside the lines with black. If you are using a multi-layered playback software like Dataton Watchout, you can fill the area outside the lines with black to create a mask that can be placed in an upper layer of Watchout.