I never hid my suspicion of video used in a theatrical setting. My earliest objection was artistic — human beings can rarely compete with moving pictures onstage, any more than you can look away from the television image you see while walking past the appliance store. Later, my objection was technical: the scan lines of analog video were always moving, even if the image was, in theory, still; the constant refreshing of the picture was apparent and itchy if not downright distracting. And we all know the projection designer's creed: First do not distract. Or, it's about the actors, stupid.
Over the years, while I was hauling PIGIs onto balcony rails and learning far more than I care to about HVAC, video equipment advanced rapidly. Digital video eliminated the constant scanning, video projectors became brighter, more portable and relatively quiet, and the Dataton Watchout system allowed you to change the fade rates without having to re-render overnight. The icing on the cake was the elimination of the time and expense of creating large-format film.
It's a seductive package. As a designer you could promise nearly limitless effects; it wouldn't be just like a fire, you could project a real fire. If the director doesn't like this fire, hold on, in just a few minutes I'll download another one right here at my tech table. You want the burning of Atlanta? If you can license it, it's yours. Of course, you have to watch out for the “because I can” school of design, and the zooms and pans can have that video crispness that makes me think of Wide World of Sports, but with diligence and ace programmer Paul Vershbow even that can be overcome.
So I was seduced. I had a happy experience with The Education of Randy Newman at Seattle Rep, and Vincent in Brixton on Broadway, and when I spoke at this year's BLMC I essentially said, “Large format is dead, the future is digital video.” While this may ultimately be true, for reasons that have more to do with economics than artistry, I feel have a responsibility to recant a bit. It's not unlike dating; it starts out, he's perfect, you tell all your friends he's perfect, then the more time you spend with him you find out he snores and is way too attached to his mother. What do you do? Tell all, I say.
I recently designed a one-woman show, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which opened at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway and closed after one performance, thank you very much. The brilliant Ellen Burstyn filled the evening with stories of a time long past, her eloquence so powerful it fills the room with image. That was the idea anyway. We tried it out at the Old Globe in San Diego last year and only partly covered the stage with the image; coming into New York, it seemed better to extend the image across the entire stage, at times enveloping her within the story. If I was doing this play a few years ago I'd have suggested a couple of 2.5K PANIs, which would have to be enclosed in an air-conditioned box on the balcony rail. That is if they had not cut the projections for the expense of altering the balcony rail to carry the load.
But one day I sat in tech with a lovely 10,000 lumen LCD projector equipped with Watchout and projecting a stage picture about 40 feet wide. It was bright enough, even on a relatively unwelcoming surface and well-lit stage. It was quiet enough with the application of a little acoustic foam, and fast enough to handle all the changes that need to be made. But the raster drove me insane. The little monsters were about half inch wide, each and every one of them. I ran at the highest resolution I could, using every Photoshop trick known to man to eliminate raster; I even tried to look at the show with the lens slightly out of focus (“Well it's memory,'”I tried to convince the director).
Sharpened up, I was still stuck with the little squares. The solution of course would have been three video projectors side by side projecting smaller interlaced images, just like old 35mm soft-edge panoramas, or DLP technology, but as Michael Clark, the most pragmatic of my projection posse wisely pointed out, a one-woman show, even on Broadway, would not support it, any more than they'd have supported the two PIGIs on the rail. So what's a girl to do? Grimace and bear it, but be forewarned for the next time.
The recent Simon and Garfunkel tour had a different set of issues. I was to create short video packages (an expression I hate) to open the show and its second act. Leaving aside the practical politics of a show that inherently has no director and therefore too many directors, the video was to be presented on a 16 by 9 LED wall supplied by Nocturne that hung above the stage. “Think high-contrast images,” warned my associate Sage Carter, so I tried to tell the story in the boldest images I could secure, but the loss of any kind of nuance was for me a tragedy. I'm trying create an evocative history of the careers of Simon and Garfunkel, woven throughout with historic and personal images. In a project like that the color temperature of Kodachrome can tell part of the story-well, maybe on the monitor. We went through a variety of formats. Watchout was not considered tour-able enough so the playback was through Doremi decks. We ended up with a perfectly acceptable image, but even the manager was not thrilled by the way Paul and Art looked in the live video magnification, and, really, “acceptable” is not where I live.
The high contrast of the screen makes it ideal for the job it's doing — that is, you can read the image in all lighting conditions and from the furthest seat in the stadium — but it's also the very thing that makes it disappointing. Like that boyfriend, it's great that he's “available,” until it turns out to be the other side of needy.
So what's the upshot of all this? In projection, like relationships, you have to be honest with yourself. There's always some trade off, and it's better to go in with your eyes open to avoid disappointment. I'm sure, in time, that video projection will get better resolution at a reasonable price, and I'll learn to work around it until it does. Maybe PIGI will make a lighter, quieter projector using a film stock you can process in the ladies room. Maybe boyfriends will fulfill their promise too. For now, I'll keep playing the field until the real thing comes along.