Contrary to the myth of digital printing, it's not all just a process of providing a designer digital file to a printer and getting the perfect output. The road to realizing stunning scenic art onstage by digital methods still involves a scenic artist's eye (both on the computer and on the printed piece) and plenty of shop-based decisions. In the end, implementing digital printing techniques involves developing a new set of techniques and work methods that build on and complement the traditional scenic artist's skills.

River City Scenic Inc., a Cincinnati-based scene shop, recently completed the fabrication and installation of scenery for two revue shows onboard Royal Caribbean International's new 143,000-ton “mega-ship,” Adventure of the Seas, under the title The Velvet Rope. The scenic designers for the shows were Vicki Baral and Gerry Hariton of Hariton/Baral Design, and the costumes were by Edwin Piekny. The larger of the two shows utilized four distinct printing solutions in particular. Each of those printing jobs was incorporated into scenic pieces that went beyond the scope of what one normally thinks of as traditional backdrops. These four solutions help shed light on the process of producing digital scenery.

The four digitally printed pieces in question played against each other in pairs. The kimono drop/costume played in front of and revealed the silk wall when it dropped. The mirage canopy draped from upstage into the audience and revealed the lace canopy on its reverse side when the side in the audience dropped to the stage.

Kimono My House

The kimono drop/costume provides examples of matching fabric choices to production needs, of printer's proofs, and of costume and scenic designers using digital files to collaborate on a finished printed costume/scenic effect. The scene in question starts with a singer wearing a kimono upstage center. The fabric of the kimono trails out behind her and appears to sweep up out of sight into the flies, spreading the full width of the stage. Kimono costume and drop are printed in an intricate gold flower pattern on a rich red background. The singer walks forward with a fabric train spreading behind her on the stage floor. She exits offstage and then on a musical cue, dancers grab the bottom of the kimono train drop and run downstage, the top of the train tripping and falling Kabuki-style as they go. The dancers float the drop over the stage, creating a visual transition into the next dance number. With the falling of the drop, the silk wall has been revealed — it's a full-stage hard wall gridded into what appears to be the paper-walled interior of a Japanese room, with a watercolor of a samurai covering the panels. While the dancers continue to float and billow the kimono train, the center two bottom panels slide open to allow the unseen entrance of several more dancers. Finally, the kimono train is whisked offstage.

Originally, the designers conceived the train of the kimono as a huge scallop with the top of the train extending the full width of the stage, with the sides swaging down toward centerstage to an area behind the kimono-clad singer. The bottom offstage edges of the silk wall were to be visible behind the kimono drop swag. However, in rehearsals, it was discovered that the dancers needed to have the straight edge of a traditional rectangular drop at floor level to grab and dance off with. To create the effect, the kimono was reconceived as a rectangular drop and the bottom offstage edges of the silk wall were added to create the illusion that the kimono was still swaging in front of the silk wall unit. Working in Photoshop, the designers created a composite file of the draping kimono with the silk wall unit revealed at the bottom edges. A drop shadow was added to give depth to the edge of the draping kimono train and to create the illusion of some distance from the wall.

From the early concept discussions, the same fabric was to be used for both the drop-sized train and the kimono dress fabric. Material of china silk weight was needed to allow the train to do the Kabuki-style release, and then to drape and billow for the dance episode. The finished drop needed to be as opaque as possible to cover the silk wall behind. A final requirement of the designers was that the drop have rich and saturated colors.

A look at a fabric sample book from Digital Industries and a talk with the sales rep helped to narrow the choices to three fabrics. A 1' × 2' sample of each was printed with the red and gold needed in the final kimono fabric. The first sample, poly silk, was the ideal weight, draped beautifully, and took the inks well with a good sheen, but it was too translucent to mask the wall behind. Poly pongee was slightly heavier than the silk, draped decently, and was almost opaque, but the finish was somewhat dull. Finally, the poly satin had wonderful color and sheen but was way too heavy and did not drape well. Not totally satisfied with any of the three fabric samples, the designers lobbied for traditional painting on china silk by the paint shop. As is often the case, though, lack of shop time at this point in the process prevented going that route. Printing was decided upon and the shop/designers settled on the poly pongee.

There are currently a wide variety of fabric printing substrates available; most are polyester or coated polyester fabrics specifically formulated and woven for receiving the inks used in digital printing. A check of the sample books from various printing companies will yield fabrics from sheers to heavy canvas and everything in between. Scrimlike materials are available, as are various meshlike fabrics. These are not the traditional scenic fabrics that scenic artists are used to painting on; each of the proprietary fabrics that a printer carries has been specially manufactured to take the high heat and accept the inks of the dye sublimation process. Each fabric will have its own unique way that it drapes, transmits light, and takes the inks of the dye sublimation printing process.

The first proof (full drop in small size, approximately 18" × 36") from the printer came back and neither the red nor the gold was a correct color match. This created a lot of concern, because a printed rendering had been sent to the printer to help them match colors. The color concerns were given to the printer and a second proof was produced that came back with very poor detail — the fine lines of the drop were not distinguishable. Also, relatively large “dots” of color appeared throughout the drop. Discussions with the printer revealed that the registration of the different color separations was misaligned, creating the fuzziness in the details. The dots in the proof would not appear in the full-sized version; it was just an aberration that occurs when a print job like this is massively reduced to the “proof” size. A third proof with some additional color tweaking was requested, which looked great when it came back and was approved by the designers.

The artwork was paneled by the printer into vertical runs, printed, stitched together, and hemmed before sending it back to RCS. All the shop had to do to complete the drop was add grommets at the top that interfaced with the trip mechanism.

Unless otherwise specified, proofs from the printer will come as small versions (1' to 2'-square) of the whole drop. A proof this size will usually give you a good idea of all the colors and the way the inks take to the fabric, but will not give you a clear idea of how the details will print. River City Scenic got full drop proofs of the kimono drop and ran into difficulty discerning the quality of the fine detail printing. It's helpful to get proofs that are full-sized or close to full-sized sections of specific areas of concern on a drop so you can see exactly the color and print quality in those areas. River City went this route getting full-sized printing of the red and green canopy and a 3'-square proof of just the rose.

Since the drop and costume were conceived visually as one piece, the dress fabric needed to closely match the look of the backdrop. Early on, Hariton and Baral saw this piece as a great opportunity for digital collaboration between them and costume designer Edwin Piekny. With the Photoshop file for the kimono completed, Hariton and Baral (in LA) emailed the file to Piekny in Las Vegas. As another Photoshop-based designer, he was able to select a portion of the kimono drop design, reduce the scale of the pattern, and paste it onto the rendering of the kimono that he had already designed. Piekny then sent it back to Hariton and Baral for approval within an hour.

River City Scenic received a Photoshop file for one sq. yd. of fabric, which was used to meet the costume shop's need for six yds. of reverse and repeat fabric for the kimono dress. This fabric was ordered on the same poly pongee as the kimono drop. Color and registration issues had already been resolved on the larger-scale drop fabric, so the printer was given the go-ahead to print the six yards of dress fabric. The completed dress fabric was checked in the shop and sent off to Miss B's, a Florida-based costume shop, for construction.

The Great (Silk) Wall

The silk wall provides an example of how printed product size and substrate led to the digital process selected and of the kind of intermediary digital work that can be needed at the scenic shop before a job goes to the printer.

The silk wall revealed behind the kimono drop suggests an overscaled version of a traditional Japanese shoji screen. Three-dimensional mullions divide the wall into 32 individual panels, eight wide by four high. The assembled panels combine to make a single full-stage image in Japanese style. The head of a brooding samurai is framed within red, gold, and orange flowers and leaves on a background field that gradually transitions from purple at the bottom to a deep rich blue at the top.

The silk wall piece suggested digital printing from the start. The highly graphic nature of the artwork made it a natural for printing. The small panel size meant that seams between narrow printing runs would not be an issue and the use of a hard backing meant that a vinyl printing surface could be used instead of the more tricky fabrics. The artwork came to RCS as a single Photoshop file without the mullions overlaid. An AutoCAD file showing the mullion layout was imported into the Photoshop file so that the full-stage image could be cut into 32 separate panel-size files for the printer. The finished width of the panels was 47½", a good match for the 48"-width stock for which the local printer's (Wagner Repro and Supply Co.) inkjet style printer was designed. It was decided that it would be difficult to keep the alignment of drop shadows from the mullions just right during installation if they were printed onto the panels, so the shadowing was left out of the printed files. Drop shadows were airbrushed in after the panels had been installed on the wall structure.

When testing various vinyl printing substrates, the goal was to find a matte paper-like surface to prevent reflections and glossy highlights. The printing substrate that was selected does not come with a self-adhesive backing, but it proved an easy task for Wagner Reprographics to laminate a self-adhesive backing onto the printed panels before delivery to RCS.

The most difficult challenge for the printer on this job involved getting the colors right for the gradual transition of deep blue to deep purple in the background of the silk wall graphic. The problem seemed to arise from the imperfect file conversion of the RGB colors supplied in the designer's Photoshop file to the four-color CMYK format used by the printing machine. Several cycles of printer's proofs and color adjustments eventually got the colors just right.

When the panels came back to the shop, the carpenters peeled off the adhesive backing, applied them to the hard panels, trimmed the excess, and inserted them into the mullions of the assembled wall. The River City charge scenic then airbrushed the drop shadows in at the mullion edges.

Can-Can Canopy

The canopy tent is an example of how fabric conceived of as a repeating printed fabric lends itself to digital printing and of the difficulties of color matching. Set in a turn-of-the-century Parisian nightclub, the scene featuring the mirage canopy depicts a club that transforms into an exotic tent. Onto a stage framed in with swaging red and green curtains, a hamper disguised as a 3'-high by 4'-wide tent is wheeled by dancers to down centerstage. They attach four lines from motor winches to the corners of the mirage canopy tent packed inside the tent/hamper. Abracadabra! The lines pick up the canopy, pulling a large-sized tent out of a small one. The trapezoidal panel of swirling red circles on a field of green swags from in front of the proscenium to upstage, the widest part of the trapezoid being pulled out into the audience ceiling. For the change into the next musical number, the front corners of the mirage canopy lower to the deck to reveal a new drop; an oversized lace pattern, with a single large rose on a field of lace that serves as a transitional backing before the next scene, a Spanish villa set, is revealed.

The designers envisioned the fabric used for the canopy tent, the swag draperies, and the upholstery fabric for the hamper to all be the same. The fabric used in these pieces was conceptually different from the other drop-like pieces in the show: the fabric used for the mirage canopy, swag curtains, and hamper tent was conceived and designed as off-the-bolt fabric to be used to construct these elements, rather than drop what was incidentally divided up for printing and then reassembled into a large finished piece. The idea was to produce what amounted to a bolt of fabric with a pattern of repeated red circles on a greenish field.

Digital printing allowed the designers the luxury of getting custom-designed fabric for the tent and drape fabric and to match the fabric weight and quality with the piece that would eventually be attached to the back of the canopy. With the general fabric pattern worked out, the designers adapted it to 50" wide, the maximum that Digital Industries press was capable of printing. They incorporated a 1" seam allowance into their pattern on each side so that when panels were stitched together, the circles would be spaced the same across the seams as along the length of the fabric. The final designer Photoshop file was delivered to River City Scenic in full scale at 100dpi for a fabric panel 50" wide by 10' long. At RCS, the Photoshop file for this panel file was duplicated and pasted end to end with the original file to produce a 20' panel (a single 20' panel was long enough for one full height of the swag curtain).

Since the theatrical bit required it to look as if the large canopy was a large version of the hamper/tent, a smaller version of the canopy fabric was needed to upholster the fabric. The designers produced a file of the red and green fabric, this time with the pattern reduced by 50% and printed in a shorter run of just four panels.

As usual, choosing a fabric was a process of narrowing down options. After closely examining the samples in the printer's swatch book, one-yd. samples of four different polyester fabrics were received from the printer and the best two were sent to the designers. River City Scenic had had very good printing results using the 1304 polyester for traveler drops in the past, but its relatively heavier weight made it unsuitable for a use requiring two pieces stitched back to back that needed to drape well and also fit into the small confines of the tent hamper prior to vista deployment. Both the shop and the designers ultimately agreed on the slightly lighter-weight poly poplin.

Since this printed piece was a repeating pattern, the proofs were ordered as full-size 4-sq.-ft. pieces of the fabric, instead of small versions of the entire digital file. Even though an exact designer rendering was supplied for the printer to match, getting the colors right proved to be difficult with the two strong complementary colors in the pattern. The first proof came back with the red closely matching the rendering, but the green verging on the pastel. River City Scenic talked to the printer and a second proof was run. This time the proof came back with the green matching the rendering, but the red had shifted toward magenta. Worried that there were major problems with the file or the printer, RCS immediately got the designers talking directly with the digital printer technician. Since the designers knew how the Photoshop file was constructed, they were able to talk the printer through the changes that resulted in an almost perfect final proof.

Much of what keeps the process of design computer to digital printer from being seamless has to do with the physical realities of changing media. Whenever a scene shop delivers a digital file to the printer, it is accompanied by a designer rendering. While a traditional scenic rendering is usually a guide for the scenic artist to get an idea of style and color, leaving much to the artistic skills of the scenic artist, the digital rendering is exactly what the designer wants the finished piece to look like. The difficulty in making that happen occurs in the transition from the virtual to the material world.

When printing to fabrics, it is very difficult to match a color rendering on paper. The designer's color rendering has the advantage of being printed on reflective bright white paper, which gives the colors of the ink a boost in saturation and brilliance. Vinyl printing surfaces can often duplicate the bright whiteness of the coated paper of a rendering.

However, fabric-printing substrates can't match the smooth bright white reflectivity of the rendering paper. No matter what fabric you use, the surface you are printing on will be more matte than the paper of the rendering. It is not bright white, flat, and reflective. In dye sublimation, the inks are heat-fused into the fabric substrate. Each fabric will take the inks differently. Also, the denier (or thread count per inch) will affect how much airspace there is between the dyed threads, reducing the area of fabric that can be colored. Scrims further reduce the printed area per square inch. And the transparency of sheer fabrics that are dye printed affects how intense the dyed colors will appear. Also, unlike with coated papers where the inks sit discretely on top, dye sublimation colors will absorb into and interact with the fabric and each other, causing color shifts and/or muting of colors.

The challenge for the digital printing technician is to look at the real physical output from the printer of ink or dyes on a specific fabric and then, based on past experience and an artist's eye, figure out how to tweak the files so that the colors and contrast of the art as it prints on the selected fabric substrate match the designer's supplied rendering. Even in the digital world, it comes down to educated guesses based on experience and a scenic artist's trained “color eye” to get as close as possible to the designer's rendering.

Converting between color printing process languages seems to be a source of at least some of the problems we have had with initial proofs being way off from the designer's renderings. Generally, all of the designer files for digital art have come to us as Photoshop files saved in RGB colors — that's the RGB of video monitors and most inkjet printers. The dye sublimation printing machines at the printer that we've had outputting the fabric scenic pieces are four-color CMYK machines. The printer we work with is happy to accept files in RGB colors and convert them to CMYK, but they admit that converting any file never yields perfect results.

The thirty 20'-long panels of the full-sized pattern were checked at the River City shop and shipped to ShowBiz Enterprises in LA for sewing together. ShowBiz fabricated both the mirage drapes and the mirage canopy and eventually attached the mirage canopy back to back with the lace canopy. Working out of LA, Hariton and Baral were able to stop in at ShowBiz to check on the Mirage fabric panels before they were assembled and were also able to see the mirage canopy draped in its stage configuration before it was shipped back to River City Scenic.

Four 20' runs of the smaller pattern were ordered and sent back to River City Scenic, where the shop carpenters used it to upholster the hamper.

Must Be the Lace

The lace canopy is an example of successful overpainting on a printed piece. Since this piece was to be attached to the reverse side of the tent canopy, the same poly poplin fabric was chosen for printing. The red of the rose and green of the stem and leaves were of most concern in terms of color matching, so River City Scenic ordered a first printer's proof that included the entire rose only. The 3'-square proof returned with the oversized lace field printed beautifully in both detail and color. However, there was the loss of color saturation and contrast in the rose petals, and the rose flower was more orange than the red of the rendering. By now, time was getting short and the printed lace canopy piece had to be sent to ShowBiz in just a few days.

Rather than go through several rounds of file manipulation and printer's proofs (and days of overnight mail back and forth), River City decided that their painters could fix the rose in an afternoon of airbrush work in the River City paint shop. So the printer was given the go-ahead to print the drop, sew it together, and ship the drop to the shop. By overpainting the rose in the shop, three to five days were saved and the cost of two or more printer's proofs. With the rose overpainted, the lace canopy, (stitched together at Digital Industries, but still with unfinished outside edges) was sent to ShowBiz for attachment to the back of the canopy tent piece.

With the successful production of the pieces in the Adventure of the Seas show, it has become apparent (to us anyway) that digital printing for scenic pieces has become a process we can incorporate into the production of a show as easily and cost-effectively as the traditional scenic painting methods used in our paint shop. It's an option that does not replace the need for our paint shop, but rather complements its capabilities.

Incorporating the digital printing into the Velvet Rope production was made possible by several factors. First, the designers on this show are “digital designers” capable of delivering Photoshop files of their designs to the shop. Hariton and Baral work totally within Photoshop after they scan their initial sketches and watercolor renderings into the computer. The delivery of digital images and hard-copy renderings that are exactly what the designers want to see is essential to a good-looking end product. (Without supplied digital files and digital renderings, traditional painting techniques by skilled scenic artists are still the way to go.) Secondly, the continuous evolving of digital dye-sublimation printers along with an ever-increasing variety of digital printing fabrics made it possible to produce extremely high-quality outputs that met designer, shop, and client expectations. In addition, our experience working with specific printers gave us the confidence that high-quality output was possible to achieve in reality. One last thing that made everyone involved in this show lean toward digitally printed elements is the five-year expected lifespan of the show. If wear or damage occurs to these pieces over the course of those five years, it will be a quick and easy matter to have new pieces printed using the stored printer's files. And given Royal Caribbean's record of duplicating successful revue shows onto other ships in its fleet, modifying the digital files to make the pieces fit the dimensions of a new stage should be a snap.

Steve Nelson is a carpenter and an installation technical director at River City Scenic. He is also the technical editor for Dramatics magazine. David Spencer is co-owner and technical director of River City Scenic in Cincinnati, OH.

Mirage Canopy Tent

Printing substrate: poly poplin
Printer: Digital Industries
Process: dye sublimation
Artwork supplied as: Photoshop file in RGB colors
Artwork resolution: 100dpi at full scale

Canopy & swag curtain fabric (large-scale circles)

Printed at: Full scale
Finished size: Symmetrical Trapezoid 34' across front, 14' across back, and 24'-6" deep Print run large pattern for canopy and swag curtains: 30 panels @ 50" wide × 240" long
Canopy sewn together by: ShowBiz Enterprises

Hamper/tent fabric (small-scale circles)

Printed at: full scale
Print run large pattern for hamper: four panels @50" wide × 120" long
Hamper Upholstered by: River City Scenic Inc.

Silk Wall

Printed substrate: banner paper (vinyl) with self-adhesive backing laminated on after printing
Printer: Wagner Repro and Supply Co.
Process: inkjet
Artwork supplied as: Photoshop file in RGB colors
Artwork resolution: 400dpi for 1" = 1'-0" rendering
Printed at: 1,200%
Printed panel size: 32 panels @48" height × 65" width
Finished wall size: 45'w × 16'h

Kimono Drop/Costume

Printing substrate: poly pongee fabric
Printer: Digital Industries
Process: dye sublimation
Artwork supplied as: Photoshop file in RGB colors, 1" = 1'-0"
Artwork resolution: 400dpi
Printed at: 1,200% at 100dpi
Finished drop size: 36' w × 16'-6" h
Sewn together by: Digital Industries

Kimono dress fabric: poly pongee
Printer: Digital Industries
Process: dye sublimation
Artwork supplied as: Photoshop file in RGB colors
Artwork resolution: 400dpi
Printed at: 100% at 100dpi
Print run: six individual one-yd. square panels, three right and three left
Costume fabrication: Miss B's, Inc.

Lace Canopy

Printing substrate: poly poplin fabric
Printer: Digital Industries
Process: dye sublimation
Artwork supplied as: Photoshop file in RGB colors, ½" = 1'-0"
Artwork resolution: 600dpi
Printed at: 2,400% at 100dpi
Finished size: symmetrical trapezoid 34' across bottom, 14' across top, and 24'-6" high