They take their opera seriously in Banff. At least they do at The Banff Centre, where the August 2012 Vancouver Opera co-production of Don Giovanni used cutting-edge 21st-century technology to evoke 18th-century Seville, Spain. Director Kelly Robinson called upon projection designer Bob Bonniol and lighting designer Harry Frehner to create a design that would be entirely projection-mapped, as well as use the projectors to perform as lighting and special effects devices for a cinematic approach.
“I have enjoyed a great relationship with The Banff Centre over the years and with Kelly Robinson,” notes Bonniol, who points out that The Banff Centre has embarked on a multi-year initiative called IDEA (Interactive-Design-Entertainment-Arts) to explore the intersection of theatre, electronic gaming, interactive arts, media implementation, and how that intersection affects, and could be leveraged by, arts and other industries. This production is a prime example.
The cinematic approach for Don Giovanni was a perfect solution for an opera in which the action moves fast: in this case, during one 24-hour period. “We are essentially following Giovanni at the end of a desperate burn,” explains Bonniol. “He’s a person with addiction issues, and he’s hitting bottom. These last 24 hours are the desperate flailing at the end, and he’s constantly being chased. From a scenic point of view, we had to be able to move very quickly and smoothly between locations. We also had to be able to really paint different pictures, if you will, from grand ballrooms, to underground cisterns, and ultimately at the end, to hell.”
Vancouver Opera had previously built this set for a production of Lillian Alling, designed by Sue LePage. “The set had the advantage of a lot of levels and doors, which suited the need for Giovanni and Leporello to make their quick escapes,” says Bonniol, who worked with Bretta Gerecke to alter the set. “Bretta is a genius scenic designer, a real unsung hero of Canadian regional theatre and opera,” praises Bonniol. While Gerecke was simultaneously executing a production design in the theatre next door for Secret Garden, she helped Bonniol reshape the set, adding new stair units on its front angles and projection-friendly paint treatment.
The projection mapping fundamentally went beyond the 2D plane. “In this case, we were painting the entire set with texture,” says Bonniol. “We were putting blood on performers using projection. We were doing work that one might aptly describe as really kinetic gobo stuff. We also tried hard to erase the boundaries for performers. Kelly created a ‘prologue’ that played out during the overture, where we see Giovanni stumbling around his palace, hung over, ultimately arriving downstage to get ‘made up’ by Leporello and the servants.”
In Lillian Alling, the set was topped by three vertical screens used with rear projection, but Bonniol switched to front projection in order to get fuller coverage and to provide as much downstage space for blocking as possible. “I wanted to rake the screens back from downstage to upstage in order to make them feel more epic and to help alleviate keystoning from our first-electric projector position,” Bonniol explains. “I went to the TD at Banff, Robert ‘Rocket’ Rombough, and asked if it were possible. He and his rigging crew jumped on that and were able to get it done quickly. The net effect was a spectacular sense of height and scale. Once I had the set in order, I used five Christie Digital Mirage 20,000-lumen HD DLP projectors to map every inch of it. We projected on the walls, the facings, the steps, the floor, everything.” The video gear also comprised one d3 Technologies d3 Designer workstation, two 4RU d3 servers, and one Vista Spyder X20 video router.
Bonniol shot the performer on a green screen stage, for a combination of the actor moving through virtual spaces on the set and appearing in person in certain places. “It achieved a sense that the stage was enormously deep, and it gave us opportunity for comic moments,” he notes. “Giovanni is momentarily stunned and fascinated with an enormous busty statue of a woman. Or he seems lost in an area of columns and halls.”
The ability to put performers into the projected space was critical for the appearance of the Commendatore’s ghost. Robinson wanted the ghost manifested mostly as a shadow, but the shadow had to be supernatural. “Kelly asked me to make that media in such a way that the Commendatore would create areas of subtle distortion around him all the time, and in cases of extreme emotion, would ripple and warp the scenery.” To do so, Bonniol extracted the Commendatore’s shape from the footage and created a model in MaxonCinema 4D and animated it.
“One thing I really wanted to impart scene-to-scene was the sense of perspective,” notes Bonniol. “In Giovanni’s ‘world,’ he is a grand puppet master in a glamorous environment. When the psychology of a scene is about him engaging in seduction or weaving some plot, I tried to give the world an extra sense of scale and gloss. His reality distortion field is in effect, but when the scene shifts to the point-of-view of the women or men he is swindling, it was important for me to take the same environment and bring a sense of it being soiled, and in actuality, way less glamorous.”
Bonniol built the geometry for all the scenery in Cinema 4D, which allowed him to control the lighting very specifically. He then painted on texture, either glossy or soiled, depending on the perspective and psychology. “I would also subtly alter the model geometry,” he adds. “Columns might decrease in height slightly, or statuary might acquire cracks and deformations. The speed with which we moved from place to place was really filmic, and so I relied on filmic conventions to help with that. Sometimes, literally, I would use wipes one might commonly see in film. Other times, I tried to use geometry and the 3D environment shifting in an entirely theatrical way, like wall flying or moving on from the sides.”
At the end of the opera, Giovanni is offered a choice by the Commendatore’s ghost: Repent, and continue to live, or don’t, and be dragged down to the underworld. “In our production, this represented the last ultimate high for Giovanni, and he seizes on it. Death and hell appeal to him as the pinnacle existential experience,” notes Bonniol. “This scene had to be the ultimate crumbling and destruction of the lie Giovanni has constructed. When we first see Giovanni’s palace in the prologue, and later during the ball at the end of Act 1, I wanted it to have the deceptive gloss and scale of Giovanni’s world. But it’s important to know that this is all a facade.”
Bonniol and Robinson decided to interpret the story as if Giovanni and Leporello were actually squatting in an abandoned palace. “They’ve broken in and furnished it with stolen objects and slapped a coat of paint on, so to speak,” says Bonniol. “But in the last scene, this veneer is falling away, and we are getting the full view of what is a broken down palace, housing a broken down life. The walls now have cracks, and there’s grungy grime on everything. They’ve literally had to hock the light fixtures, so it’s all much dimmer and shadowy.”
When the Commendatore poses his choice, Giovanni’s flagrant defiance leads to the destruction of person and environment. Since he had constructed the palace in 3D, Bonniol literally shattered it in Cinema 4D, disintegrating it in slow-motion, as the scene culminates. “I wanted to portray first the destruction of the lie and then take the scene into the appearance of hell,” says Bonniol. “Kelly had encouraged me to go all the way—flames, flames, flames. It struck me, though, that these flames were supernatural. They didn’t have to behave like plain old fire. So when the flames first appear, I had them flitting and dancing about in the space, racing from right to left, down to up, a bit ephemeral. Then when things really catch, I wanted it to take on a sort of boiling sense.”
Bonniol created the flames in Cinema 4D, using a third-party fluid dynamics system called Turbulence FD that he calls “really, really deep. It helps if you understand the kind of math applied to weather forecasting and cloud construction. I don’t understand it at that level, but I was able to wrap my head around the parameters enough to get really compelling flames that looked nothing like the stock stuff in most productions.”
Bonniol rooted the production in Seville, which he refers to as “just one of the most gorgeous cities. The whole region of Andalusia has an incredible collision of Western European and Middle Eastern architecture, so I really availed myself of these Moorish grilles and patterns,” he says. “The doorways all had a grand arched aspect. The stonework was all incredibly ornate. Often it was enough to reveal some amazing detail of this kind of architecture in the shadows and then just sketch out the rest of the form, and you had instant magic onstage.” Bonniol used his own arsenal of photographic references of the region and modeled most of the architecture, using the photos as texture maps for added details. “I also purchased a few detailed models, and one in particular, the Alcazar, was so extensive that I was able to use various pieces of it for various locations,” he adds.
For Bonniol’s projection-mapped set, he was drawn to the d3 system to serve the media and take care of the mapping. The team at d3—Ash Nehru, Zak Heywood, and David Bajt—assisted with getting 3D data into the server and finalizing content templates. “The server is amazingly powerful and also amazingly simple,” says Bonniol. “It really works from the ground up to remove a lot of the complexity of blending and mapping. It’s a ‘young’ platform, so it benefits from a really fresh approach. Being young, it also has its issues, but the whole d3 team was great in responding with quick software updates.”
Bonniol brought in Jason Rudolph to program. “He’s absolutely unflappable and deeply knowledgeable,” he says. “He hadn’t worked with d3 in quite a while, but he immediately grasped it, and we were off to the races.”
1 d3 Technologies d3 Designer Workstation
2 4RU d3 Technologies Servers
1 Vista Spyder X20 Video Router
5 Christie Digital Mirage 20K Lumen HD DLP Projectors