Many times, a projection designer is brought in to a show later in the game than the other designers. Often it is after the show's budget has been set and sometimes even after the show's scenery has been designed or built. It is usually at this point that the projection designer looks over the plans to determine if the scenery has a surface that can act as the projection screen.
Sometimes the project calls for something very specific: a clip from a well-known old movie or stock footage of a flag waving in the wind. Sometimes it is something more surreal: a transparent smoky shadow that quivers or an out of focus leaf. But in all cases, the challenge is finding a surface to act as a screen to display the image in question.
In my opinion, theatrical video projections are quite simply graphical scenic elements made out of light. The projector itself is a specialized type of light. Because of this, the imagery you are projecting is also lighting the projection surface. The light picks up whatever the color and texture of the surface is. If you project onto bricks, expect to also see the shape and pattern of the bricks in the projection. If you project onto a painting of a sunflower, expect to also see that sunflower in the projection. In fact, if you project onto any surface with a texture, expect to see that texture in the projection.
If your design concept has room to happily coexist within these parameters, then you are in great shape. But sometimes, you might want to adjust your imagery to help it get the point across. The most basic Adobe Photoshop trick I use to enhance my imagery is to push the contrast. A high contrast image, where the light and dark areas are more distinct, will do a better job of standing out and cutting through the texture or pattern onto which you are projecting. In the example shown on this page, the high-contrast butterfly has a much better chance of standing out and being recognized if you were to project the two images side by side on a red brick wall. In Photoshop, you can use the contrast adjuster, or use Levels for more specific control over the different ranges of color or grayscale in your image.
Another trick I often employ is to add grain to my image. Having a grain or texture within your image may also help your image stand out against whatever texture is on the background onto which you are projecting. Most of the non-conventional projection surfaces I've encountered in theatre have been lacking in terms of the amount of detail they can display. But when the audience might be sitting 30' or more from the screen, it can be very forgiving. Photoshop has a number of filters that can add grain to an image, or you can add another layer to your image of a preexisting picture of some kind of grainy texture and experiment with the layer transparency.
Luckily, the people sitting in the 16th row are not close enough to clearly make out the window screen-like pattern that is the grid of pixels in the projector or the fact that each pixel might be 1" high or larger. Trust me: as long as the imagery is strong, it will be read and understood. The first picture of the dog on the opposite page may show more detail when examined closely in print, but when projected, the smooth tone in it will do a good job of illuminating whatever surface it is hitting. It will be harder to distinguish the image from the actual projection surface. The grainy image will stand out more against the texture of the projection surface since it is lighting it in a smaller and more random pattern and, therefore, distracting the audience from looking at it as a solid element.
A slightly different approach to enhancing non-conventional projection surfaces is a product called Screen Goo made by Goo Systems. Screen Goo is a specially formatted, highly reflective acrylic paint, designed specifically for video projection. The product promises great color fidelity with maximum gain and minimal hot spots. It is available in a range of colors to help match or enhance the color of your projection environment.
The bottom line is that just because there is no projection screen, it doesn't mean you can't have projections.
Got a problem that you need solved? Found a cool trick that you'd like to share? Looking for a recommendation on a piece of hardware or software? Comments? Drop me a line at Zachary@Borovay.com.