As some people know, I originally started my journey into musical theatre with a desire to land in the pit orchestra. In my youth, I split my time assisting my father, a scenic designer, and studying classical music as a double bassist. I attended the New England Conservatory and later the Berklee College of Music, studying both classical and jazz bass.
I have mentioned many times in this column that much of the reason projections are brought into a project is to solve that age-old dilemma known as transitions. Maybe the show is based on a film and has 35 scenes in completely different locations — all of which can't possibly be rendered via physical scenery. Or maybe there is a special effect that just calls for something “other-worldly.” It is all part of what I call “the choreography of scenery.”
I have found that the most successful transitions share the same fundamental principles that are contained in most Western music: melody, harmony, and rhythm. I think it is especially important when working in a medium such as video to apply these principles to the media. It is very easy to say, “I need to fill 18 seconds, so if I start at point A and move to point B in 18 seconds I've done it!” While that may fill the time, it may not tell the visual story.
Think of the three principles of music in a visual sense:
Melody: I look at melody as the media itself. It might be a picture of a cat, or a starfield, or even a projected scenic backdrop.
Harmony: In music, the harmonic elements frame the melody. They also can let us know how to “feel.” For instance, a minor key is often denoted as sounding “sad,” while a major one is “happy” sounding. How does your melodic element blend with its surroundings? In an ideal design, the lines between the scenery, lighting, and projections will be blurred so that they simply create a seamless vista. Is the projection blending harmoniously with the scenery and lighting? Is it supporting the actors rather than detracting from them? Is the image telling the story you want it to tell? Is the color temperature and palette supporting the “key” of the story? In most situations, the melodic elements should seamlessly fit together with the harmonic elements.
Rhythm: How does the projection move? Does the motion help to tell the story? Is the quality of motion extending the emotional response you are trying to generate?
Let's take this concept a few steps further:
In most classic jazz music, there is a root chord (known as the “1” chord as it is built on the first note in the scale of the key in which the song is in). There are different chord patterns and sequences (commonly referred to as “changes” or chord changes) that are used as musical transitions to lead us back to the 1 chord. There are some familiar-sounding ones, such as the Plagal cadence (the definition of cadence is “a sequence of notes or chords comprising the close of a musical phrase”), which is a descending pattern from the 4 chord to the 1 chord (also known as the “Amen” cadence because it is so common in church music). These patterns cause tension and resolution. A “suspended”' chord naturally wants to resolve itself to a major or minor chord. There are many other familiar-sounding patterns, such as 2-5-1, 1-6-2-4-1, but the reason they all exist is singular: They are patterns that were developed over time because they were thought to be pleasing to the ear.
Visually, we should strive to create this tension and resolution. While the projection designer's toolset enables us to create literally anything one can imagine, we have all seen projections that look “computery,” “videogame-like” or images that “move around for the sake of moving around.” Just because we can doesn't mean we should.
I believe the way we apply the visual tension and resolution can and will help tell the story. An image that holds in place can create a similar feeling to someone staring or glaring, while an out-of-focus image might bring out a feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity. Ultimately, our work is there to serve the script and the actors onstage.
I know this sounds confusing at first, but I think that once we start to think about visual images as feelings and sounds, we can learn how to connect them (and help audiences to connect to them) on a more subconscious level. Because the most successful projections are the ones that you don't see, but you still remember.