Sitting near a pond in the middle of Cape Cod, it's difficult to muster useful thoughts about the future of projections. Then I realize it was that career in projections that brought me to this tranquil place, and I am grateful, energized, and aware of a never-to-be-repaid debt. Predicting the future is a losing game with technology moving as quickly as it is, but it does seem clear that every product meant to throw an image is getting brighter, quieter, smaller, and more reliable. That 20K lumen projector the size of a pack of smokes I used to dream of will soon be last week's news.
The world is getting smaller, we so often hear, and so is everything in it — from computers to cars to candy bars. The refinement of LED technology creating smaller and smaller sources pushed ever more tightly together will soon create a resolution so fine it will feel film-stock-creamy from three feet away, and that will really make LEDs a flexible stage tool. That increased resolution, combined with their physical malleability, will make for an interesting competition between hardware that throws light and hardware that is light. How will we chose if simplicity and price are not issues?
I would hope that something like clarity, resolution, and a natural feel will be important considerations. Am I the only antique who remembers with desire the wonderful texture of film resolution? Of course, we can understand images composed of great big dots — Roy Lichtenstein certainly clarified that for us in the 60s — but is this how we want to represent what we call vision as nature has provided it?
Speaking of nature, color as we have always known it is under attack. Every human has accepted a visual world that was colored by three objects: the sun, the moon (okay, that's a reflection of the sun), and the tungsten filament. Over time, this world view has expanded to include the tints created by limelight, later Kodachrome and Technicolor, and it didn't seem to hurt much. Now our planet is demanding the use of compact fluorescent lights and LEDs. Automotive lights and stoplights are colored by efficient, powerful, economical LEDs, but the color of the world is changing. The color temperature of the stoplight is different. Soon we'll be dating photos by the shade of red we see in a car's taillights. This is inevitable; as a planet, we must be more efficient. At the same time, there seems to be an endless march toward brighter lighting instruments for the stage and lights that move in ways that the gentle tungsten filament cannot bear.
Does this alteration of what we always understood as the color of our world matter? Is it important or necessary to replicate nature on the stage? Maybe it's these Cape Cod sunsets that are forced on me each night, but I have to ask, “Do we lose or gain something when we accept vibrant purple backlight as something that could possibly be produced by the moon?” This is just one of the many color questions that filter our future.
If you wonder if they are important, then consider this: When did we lose the ability to hear the unaided human voice? When did we lose the ability to see an actor unless he/she is lit with enough foot candles to create an opinion of his/her dental work?
Without silence, we cannot value what we hear. So, too, without darkness and shadow can we value what we see? The question to ask is this: What is the meaning of the color of light? That is for you, the future creators, to discuss. I ask you to keep this in mind: If we all believe that the measure of theatrical space is the human body, we then have the responsibility to maintain a theatrical space in which this human body can be shown off to be powerful; one that is a human in a world of its own understanding. Unless, of course, the play is about an alien landscape.
Looking into the future, I see a time when a screen of any size on stage will feel alien. There is a lot of important work going on with fog screens and the high-tech Pepper's Ghost effect from the folks at Eyewire. That, combined with the available brightness of the newer projectors, will, I hope, make that flat white rectangle obsolete. If I never see another one on stage it will be too soon, and I wonder sometimes if it isn't the set designers way of keeping the projections off the set — like siblings in the back seat of the car — they seem to say, “Don't you cross over into my space. Don't you put those images on my finely painted scenery.” It will become our job in the future to convince set designers that a white surface isn't necessary or even inviting. We wish to be “of” the production — not on it, or in the back of it. Time to think outside the box: Anything is a potential projection surface (except a mirror). We are looking for full integration into the theatrical space, so let's say, let my projections go, you have nothing to lose but your “ownership” of the stage.
That territoriality will, I hope, dissolve in the future, and the resulting harmony will save so much time and psychic pain that we can become even better storytellers. Nothing is more damaging to our creativity than that creepy competition that thrives on getting credit. In the Utopian universe I crave, the prizes are given for best design, not to individual designers, ensuring efforts that are shaped not by self-love, but by loving attention to others; in this case, the audience. Everyone wins in that scenario.
Thinking like this can lead to some negative convergence, I suppose — the designer or director who wants to wear all the hats, and good luck to them. Yes, advances in technology will certainly bring many things within the reach of citizens not formally trained in the discipline — not just for projections, but also lighting and scenery. This is not necessarily something to be wary of, as long as we keep teaching and preaching the gospel of the value of complexity, of layering, of asking the audience to join us on a journey into thought and using every available tool to make that experience life changing. Just remember, sometimes the perfect tool is someone else's worldview.
In the 70s, I did a lot of industrial shows whose theme was “The Future Is Now.” It didn't mean much then, other than giving you a reason to use space photos for backgrounds, and it probably doesn't mean that much now, certainly while staring at a perfect pond in Cape Cod. But if the future is anything, it is our hope to see the things we dream of become a reality. Things like watching your kids growing into fine citizens and perfect video black. The jury's out on my kids, but it seems like Barco managed to make my dream of video black come true. Now if we could just figure out a way for the thing I see in my head to go directly from my brain to the stage with nary a single piece of hardware. Maybe next year…