Will Today's Lighting Designers Become Tomorrow's Projection Designers?

It's the kind of environment we all know and love: The space is still and dark. Onstage, the performers are standing in position, quietly chatting…On the wall, a spot op is aligning his edge. At the table, the LD is working with her programmer.

“Could you grab spot four and blue it up a little more. And a little more spread on that beam thing you just did.” The designer looks down at her magic sheet…

“Can you roll clip seven?” she asks the programmer. He quickly taps some keys on the group palette of his desk, and the crown of the stage, made of white fractal surfaces, explodes into rolling flame footage. The producers behind the table nod approvingly…

WAIT A MINUTE . . . hold on. We're talking about an LD here, right, a lighting designer. Why is she rolling the video?

We believe that the industry is seeing projection technology trickle down into the lighting realm. If our recent trip to LDI was any indication, that realm is sitting up and taking notice. Throughout the event, an undercurrent of excitement was heard: “Did you see those new LED curtains?” “Man, that High End booth was something. Did you see the Catalyst stuff?” or “You've got to check out what they've got running on a GrandMA in the demo room…”

Everywhere we looked there was a buzz surrounding new hybrid products. Projectors with moving light mirrors. Light boards sequencing and running video live. Convergence. So what are we to make of all this?

It seems apparent that advances in the gear are making projection technology an integral part of many new lighting products. Lighting designers are currently being offered the option of directable, alterable real-time video that behaves like a moving light (via Catalyst). Additionally, Catalyst and the NEV6 system (from Diagonal Research) are breaking down the barrier between lighting and projection programming. Via most any advanced DMX console, the NEV6 gives the LD the capability to think and deal with video effects like they would gobos or moving lights. Catalyst uses the Hog II or III to achieve much the same level of control. Palette-based, and with attributes appearing in all the appropriate places, video programming has left the rarified air of the Dataton Wizard and entered the more intuitive world of the lighting programmer.

We spoke to some of the current innovators to get their take. Obviously High End has taken a big gamble and a huge step forward with the introduction of its Catalyst system. We contacted Robert Hale, the High End product manager for Catalyst to ask him about the past, present, and future for their system, which they had developed with Tony Gotellier and Peter Wynne-Willson:

Q: Robert, how did Catalyst begin for High End? What prompted you guys to suddenly say, “Hey let's get into video technology”?

A: “It was back around 93 or 94. High End is always trying to look at what will be the up and coming technologies. We'd been seeing people using film projectors and video projectors to do virtual scenery and FX. We had already been working to advance image projection in our moving light lines. We innovated glass lithography, but we began to see that the end game was going to be video”

Q: Where did development start?

A: “I think like many other developers we first thought of having a moving light type of device that could project video. We began working with Texas Instruments to try to develop something around a DMD chip, but we found (as did most others) that we just couldn't get enough power to it. We realized that our R & D can't compete with the likes of Sony, or NEC, or the bigger AV companies, so we were going to have to wait for their development curve to reach ours. About two or three years ago we were able to show the first elements of the Catalyst system because projection technology had finally caught up.”

Q: Do you think that LDs are “getting it” (regarding the tools that Catalyst can bring to the palette)?

A: “The AV market has been quick to adopt it. They seem to understand a little more naturally because they are used to the devices and the media. We're definitely beginning to see LDs understand as well. The concert market in particular is adopting the product. We're seeing the lighting department ‘take video back,’ so to speak. Having control centralized in the Hog III is very powerful. Having all of the media control folded into it makes utilizing Catalyst really intuitive.”

Q: What's in the future for Catalyst?

A: “In the short term, we'll be seeing Version 2. It's OSX-certified, which gives us a lot of media management advantages. There's a big leap in features and functions. We'll be working to add more features and continue to develop the interface further. This video integration is going to happen. It's going to be a question of who has the coolest software, the best interface. We have a definite head start there.”

The results of this and other gear development are showing up on stages worldwide. Tom Petty and Peter Gabriel are both using Catalyst systems on their current tours. Music acts like Korn, Eminem, Rob Zombie, and Tool are using the NEV6 on tour.

There are other examples of the projection/multimedia technology crossover phenomena.

We talked with Peter Scharff, principal at Scharff Weisberg in New York City. For those of you who live under rocks, Scharff Weisberg has been at the forefront in providing high-quality multimedia gear and solutions. We caught Peter the day before a big opening in New York.

Q: Do you think projection and lighting are converging?

A: “Let me tell you a funny story about this. I was sitting in Brian MacDevitt's office one day; it was pre-production for Into the Woods. I was playing the part of the techno-geek. Brian told me he wanted to put a projector on a box boom, and I was telling him, ‘No, no, you can't do that.’ I tried to educate him about keystone correction, center positions. He stopped me and said, ‘Peter, you're not getting it. It's a light, I want it to be the sun, and have the giant step in front of it.’ It hit me then what he was talking about, and I saw how video was about to break out of its 4:3 box.”

Q: We know that Scharff has been doing some interesting projects with Catalyst. Can you talk a little bit about them?

A: “Actually we're in final programming today on a fantastic project at Grand Central Station. Häagen-Dazs is sponsoring a six — week installation of video art on the ceiling of the main hall. Different groups worked to develop different pieces of media projected on the ceiling. Most of those pieces are great examples of Catalyst breaking projection out of that box, and making more of a video object. For example, one group has developed an image of a street sweeper walking around, sweeping up the ceiling. You don't see any ‘video frame;’ he's just a figure walking around. Another group used two projectors. One was aimed at the center of the ceiling and displayed a ‘hole’ through which you could see the sky. Another projector was used to make birds fly in and out of the hole, and around the walls. The animators had been extraordinarily clever, building in perspective shifts to account for architectural details. It's really beautiful. Laura Franks is doing all of the programming.”

Q: We heard that Baz Luhrmann has been out to the shop…Anything going on in La Bohème?

A: “It was funny watching Baz ‘get the tool.’ When the artists doing the Grand Central project came onboard we had also brought them out to the shop to see what the equipment would do. It was wonderful watching them as they ‘got it’ and their ideas expanded. Baz was the same. At first he was like, ‘OK, what is this thing?’ And in short order he understood what it could do. Then he began to get excited by the opportunities. At one point he wrapped himself in velour and was standing in the projected image, a flame image. In the case of La Bohème, they'll be using it in a pretty straightforward way, to put super- and subtitles in different locations throughout the set. But I'd be watching for Baz to incorporate it to a greater degree in another project, now that he knows it's out there.”

As development pushes forward we will see what Catalyst has presaged, moving fixtures that project video. The not-so-far future could see racks of video servers sitting next to the dimmers, providing all of the luminaires with footage. Effects will range from simple kinetic gobo “texture” to stage effects to more traditional, literal projection. And lighting designers are going to have to adjust to this new tool set, and to the opportunities it presents.

So are we all out of a job (those of us crazy enough to call ourselves projection designers)? Not by a long shot. There will always be productions where projection is such a prominent and involved element that it will require its own practitioner. Additionally, it will be the current projection designers who begin to lead the exploration of what can be accomplished with this new toy box. Their lead in thinking visually could afford them an edge as the technology takes hold.