A former lighting designer, whose credits range from Adam and the Ants and The Fixx to Suede and Flock of Seagulls, Malcolm Mellows has lately been working behind the scenes to help put projection on stage. After many years working in the rock-and-roll concert arena, he is now project manager for the London offices of XL Video, one of the major providers of projection technology in the West End. Mellows' current projects include the controversial production of The Woman In White, where XL Video supplied the projection equipment as well as technical support [see full story on page 18]. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux met Mellows in London last September for a cup of coffee that stretched into a three-hour conversation about the recent proliferation of projection in the theatre.
ED: How did you move from lighting to projection?
MM: In 1990, I joined the now-defunct company, Presentation Services Ltd (PSL). They were a corporate video company that had a small entertainment division. We worked on two landmark tours in terms of projection: Depeche Mode's Devotional tour, which had two large screens and nine small screens, and Peter Gabriel's Secret World tour. In 1995, we opened an office in Burbank, CA, where we had 18 tours in the first six months, from Meatloaf to Smashing Pumpkins. One of our first outings was Ozzy Osbourne's comeback tour, Retirement Sucks, that culminated in the first Ozzfest. These were AV “rich” and changed the way AV worked in America. While in the US, I encouraged my friend Chris Mounsor, then an audio company project manager, to take over my former position in London, and he joined the operation in 1996.
ED: What accounted for the sudden popularity of projection in rock and roll?
MM: Our job was to make video easier, less expensive, and more tour friendly within the rock-and-roll environment. We were not using broadcast engineers on tour, so projection became an affordable design choice. Also the technology was there. For Depeche Mode, we used the first stable LCD projector, the Barco 5000, with 2,000 lumens. It traveled easily, converged automatically, and could be flown upside down or from any angle. Over the years with the 8000 and 9000 series projectors, the lamps got brighter, at that point up to 5,000 lumens, and now, far, far beyond.
ED: When did you join XL Video?
MM: By 1999, I had left PSL to work as operations manager for American High Definition, an excellent scenic film and video company that did many of the televised awards shows in the US, as well as much scenic studio projection for feature movie production. In 2002, back in the UK, XL Video was being formed by four colleagues — Lee Spencer, Des Fallon, Richard Burford, and Chris Mounsor — who asked me to join them. I went back to the UK and joined XL Video as project manager, specializing in theatre, performing arts, television, and some corporate projects. By then XL Video had 90% of the concert touring market in the UK. My goal was to open new markets, such as West End theatre, and since 2003 we have supplied over 50 theatrical productions, including, in the past 12 months, Jerry Springer The Opera, Madonna's Up For Grabs, Ballet Rambert, and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
ED: Why this sudden explosion of video on stage?
MM: For one thing, we have simplified video for the theatre, making it more user-friendly and budget conscious. People have gone from a little bit of video to loads of video in the theatre, and we help put the packages together. As in The Woman In White, with video you can show so many more scenes than you could with set pieces, and there is no problem with scenic storage on stage. The technology is now more accessible, yet for some people it is still a dark art. Some purists don't like the idea, but video provides great flexibility. You can change things more easily in tech rehearsals. You can cut or change scenes at the last minute without great cost. Once you've got the video equipment and a media server you can change the “scenery” late in the day. In the theatre, you can project on things that are generally not projection surfaces, including fabric and scenery. Anything is possible.
ED: What happens when a show with a lot of video goes on tour?
MM: The video facilitates touring. There is less set storage, as much of the show is on a disk. You tour your projectors instead of the sets. When a West End show goes on tour, video can replace large scenic elements from the original show. Take the current Miss Saigon tour. It has over 20 minutes of video, mostly in the second act, for the helicopter scene and the dream sequence. It is hard to tour complicated sets like that. We supplied the projection equipment, including a High End Systems Catalyst™ and a Barco R12 ELM projector, for video designers Dick Straker and Sven Ortel of Mesmer, one of the leading theatrical video design companies in London. Commissioned video material came from three different sources, including animated cartoons by Gerald Scarfe, CGIs from Tronic Studios in New York, and Mesmer.
ED: What's next? Where is the technology going?
MM: LED technology, as the prices come down, could be useful in the theatre. Barco's MiPIX LED technology is adaptable and can be used in scenery or anywhere on stage. Price is important, as theatres don't have the same budgets as big rock tours. There is also the High End Systems DL1 moving head projector, as used in Bat Boy: The Musical. This is an ideal device for the theatre and especially budget-conscious theatres. You get more bang for your buck and it's very flexible, with keystone correction. We hope for brighter versions of that in the future. There is also a move toward high-definition for more realistic images that you can project in juxtaposition with painted scenery, for example. You can also project on surfaces that are not normally projection screens, such as translucent 3D mirror foil, that is less than one milimeter thick. It can be used like a modern Pepper's Ghost effect, replacing the thick glass mirror. You can also cut slits that performers can walk through. Playback methods are evolving as well. For a performance by Lorna Luft there was an MPEG server with custom control run by the piano player with a click track run by time code for the orchestra.
ED: What about noise?
MM: Noise is certainly a concern that we have had to deal with. We have developed a proprietary sound absorbing system that is used on The Woman In White and on Bat Boy. This helps make projection easier to integrate into a theatre production environment. Current versions of XL's sound absorption system removes up to 75% of projector fan noise, without the need for full enclosures and therefore without costly air-conditioning. Further developments are expected.
ED: What about convergence with lighting?
MM: It helps to have a sympathetic lighting designer for a good collaboration. Physics comes into projection placement and the angles are important. And as we get brighter there is the consideration of ambient light levels. In rock and roll, there are people like Willie Williams who have total visual control. A theatrical LD might not have that visual overview and has to collaborate. Sometimes the projection is under the control of the lighting designer, or it might be the scenic designer. Video can be run from the lighting desk, such as a Whole Hog or Strand console, such as on the Miss Saigon tour, where there is just one operator. Yet The Woman In White has too many video cues and there are two digital operators in addition to a lighting board operator.
ED: What would you tell someone considering the use of video for the first time?
MM: Every show has its own solutions. There are the artistic considerations, budget considerations, and the quality of the images themselves. You can combine large format images, such as PANI or PIGI, with video, and have one huge image for an entirely new look. You can also use plasma screens as windows, for example, where you can show the weather, with live input from cameras. As the technology advances, only your imagination limits what you can do.