They say politics makes strange bedfellows; so, apparently does projection technology. The latest jukebox musical to hit Broadway is a small, intimate revue with a regional theatre pedigree, featuring the music of a country legend. It not only employs projection design, but it is also the first to use an LED wall as a major component of its set. Even stranger, the financing to get this expensive screen on a Broadway stage was as creative as the design for the show itself.

Ring of Fire is an odd bird on many levels. It purports to be about the life and music of Johnny Cash, but there's no real narrative to the piece. It features not only music written by Cash but also a selection of songs he covered, the most jarring of which is “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song he covered late in his life. And it comes on the heels of the well-received biopic, Walk The Line, but is not affiliated with the film. First produced at the Arena Stage in Buffalo last fall, Ring of Fire is the brainchild of Richard Maltby, Jr. (whose long list of credits ranges from conceiving and directing such musicals as Fosse and Ain't Misbehavin' to the lyrics for Miss Saigon), with set design by Neil Patel, lighting by Ken Billington, projection by Michael Clark, costumes by David C. Woolard, and sound by Peter Fitzgerald and Carl Casella.

A Magical Screen

Patel's simple, rustic wooden set serves as the framework for Clark's projection design, which consists of a 20' wide × 9' high 60-panel Daktronics ProTour 8i LED wall that can split into two separate units. The wall displays a variety of set pieces, from the exterior of a farm to an old-fashioned kitchen to a seedy hotel. Sometimes, the images move, and sometimes, they remain static, but once you get past the initial jarring notion of this giant wall serving essentially as the main backdrop for the entire show, it blends in surprisingly well.

“Richard had this idea of a hyper-realistic magic wall, whether it was projection or LED technology,” Clark explains. “He was interested in the idea of having doors on the set that were magically projected so people could walk through them, or a window that could open, something like that. We began to research all the different LED products to see what was really going on, and it quickly became apparent to us that some of the ideas we wanted to do, while fabulous, were technically too complex for the ultimate clean look of the show that he wanted.

“At the same time,” Clark continues, “the weight and noise of an LED screen were huge concerns for the Broadway stage, but they were becoming quieter and more lightweight with the promise of fewer and quieter fans and remote ballasts for power, and suddenly, this possibility began to present itself. Neil and I lobbied really hard and said, ‘If we're going to do this, we really need to do it in Buffalo.’”

Eventually, the producers agreed with them. The only problem was that the major projection suppliers at the time did not have a suitable product. So, in a somewhat remarkable arrangement, Sound Associates, who had already supplied the audio gear for the show, worked out a deal with Daktronics, and the producers acquired the ProTour 8 wall, which has a street value of somewhere around $1.4 million. The video department of Sound Associates oversees the care and maintenance of the wall. “They all worked together to take something that was out of our price range and bring it into something that was going to be available for us to use for our show,” says Clark.

Virtual Prop Shopping

Once Maltby got the screen he sought, the next step was figuring out what to put on it. “Richard basically wanted me to work like a scene painter and create a scenic backdrop that could magically transform and not be flown in or out,” Clark says. To that end, Clark and his assistants, Chris Kateff and Jennifer Kievit, turned Clark's office into an Adobe® Photoshop® scenic studio, tracking down images from stock archives on the Internet and books or incorporating photos Clark had taken while visiting family in Virginia. Most intriguingly, Clark and his staff also served as prop masters. “We went prop shopping with Neil and took photos of hundreds of objects photographed in front of a green screen and then digitally placed them into the set.”

Prop shopping? Scenic backdrops? Sounds suspiciously like the work of a set designer, and, in fact, Clark worked closely with Patel and his assistant, Tim Mackabee, on the content for the screen, particularly on the interiors. It was, in many ways, uncharted territory. “Initially, we were all trying to figure out what we were doing, because in a certain sense, this is something that hasn't been done before, certainly not by any of us,” Clark explains. “Neil was instrumental in helping me in terms of perspective and proportion. He would talk to Richard, who would say there should be a window over here or some wainscoting there, and Neil would sketch it out. We'd scan Neil's sketch and then fill in the details.”

The projection team amassed a huge library of individual items to have on hand for meetings with Maltby. Clark would show the director an image, and if he said he liked it, but it needs to be a green hutch, for example, Clark's team would act accordingly. “We were able to change things incredibly quickly because we had all of these compositions available to us as individual elements. We'd just save a new file, give it to Paul Vershbow, our programmer, and boom! Within a minute or two of Richard's request, there it was. Any director would be happy; it's like instant scenery.”

Clark also utilized 3D modeling on this project, specifically Autodesk® 3D Studio Max®, for scenes such as a bar fight, among other set pieces. “We have beer bottles fall off the shelf in the bar scene,” he explains. “We rendered about 30 bottles as individual 3D models that could then tumble and fall in space, and a couple of them break. I think this kind of thing is going to become more interesting in the world of projection; not only can I see what the image is, but I can interact with it or get right into it. It does things that surprise me.”

As previously mentioned, the LED screen splits apart and moves at various times throughout the show. In those instances, Clark and Vershbow employ Dataton Watchout to treat each half as a separate display. Medialon Manager does the work of cueing from the MIDI channel sent from the ETC Obsession lighting console. “We treat the left side of the wall and right side of the wall as two different displays,” Clark says. “Then, we have them set up in the stage window that way and basically just copy the pictures. Paul adjusts them, pixel by pixel, until they line up, and then they create a panorama when the wall is together.”

Once Maltby approved the compositions, the images were digitally painted and digital light was added. “That's what's so great about the LED screens,” Clark says. “We added streaks and shafts of light peering through curtains, up against walls, or against beams in order to get dimensionality. It's essentially a flat picture, so we needed to give it some depth and dimension. The cool thing with LED technology is that, because of its inherent intensity and the fact that it's basically a wall of light, once we started to paint in the lighting effects, everything started to pop.”

Ironically enough, though the screen was chosen for its brightness, the creative team discovered that sometimes brighter isn't always better. “When we started using high-value compositions, the LEDs began to reveal themselves much more, and it would really make the characters stand out against it,” he explains. “We learned that a darker value and less intensity gave it a more magical effect. That took quite a bit of trial and error. Running a wall at 20% of its potential made it look more magical than going full blast.”

In the end, Clark feels it was the right choice. “The LED screen solution was great for this project,” he says. “It was really a step forward for what can be done on the legit stage with this technology.”

Down Home and Digital

“The idea of the digital backdrop was to identify each song in the show with a specific location and be able to link them all together smoothly and fluidly, to follow the journey of the piece via the images, from a farmhouse to a road house to the Grand Ole Opry,” says set designer Patel. “The images create a blueprint for the show.”

The non-digital portion of the set creates an environment, or cocoon, for the music: “The set evokes a rural setting with wooden floors and wooden portals that are very different from the high-tech quality of the screens. We wanted to place the performers in a human setting and have some visual tension between the two design elements,” says Patel, who added an old-fashioned painted backdrop with sky and the horizon that sits behind the LED wall. There are also band platforms and a few pieces of actual (not digital) furniture, such as a kitchen counter that transforms into a harmonium for the next song.

Ring of Fire represents Patel's first musical on which projection screens are a major element of the decor. Working with Maltby and Clark, he created storyboards, with simple freehand line drawings formatted to the size of the screens. “I went for iconic rural American images,” he says. “Michael then turned them into images with more heightened reality than a photograph.”

When it came to adding an element to the farmhouse kitchen, for example, Patel got the real items, such as a period refrigerator and the right style chairs. Clark then photographed these items and added them to his digital arsenal. “The more the images were based on real things, the better they looked,” notes Patel, who adds, “I am usually more reactive to the projection design. This time, I was more involved. Last December, we trucked the props and furniture to Michael's studio, dressed the set pieces, and photographed them.”

During the transfer of the show from Buffalo to Broadway, Clark set up a website with all of Patel's original drawings and the screen images used in Buffalo. “The new images for New York were then added,” notes Patel. “We could go online and make notes as some of the images were changed or made more detailed.”

The LED screens are automated and move on tracks, with cables and controls buried in the stage deck. “In Buffalo, the screens were moved manually when they pivot, but in New York, they are completely automated and sit in a new frame system,” explains Patel. One of the challenges was finding a fiber-optic cable that could be bent at a 90° angle to fit under the deck as it carries data to the screens. Atlas Scenic Studios built the scenic elements, with motion control and automation for the scenery, screens, and rigging by Hyde Power Systems and Showtrak.

Patel does not feel that video will replace scenery per se, but finds it “an incredibly powerful tool. The idea of a bright, changeable surface is amazing and creates a lot of possibilities,” he says. “It is challenging to integrate the actors and the projections. In this case, the screen is an important part of the architecture of the set.”

Rings of Light

“We all went to the auto show at the Javits Center,” says LD Ken Billington. “We wanted to look at LED screens, and the folks at Scharff Weisberg suggested we go to the auto show to see every kind of screen available.” Once the screen was selected, it became an integral part of the technical process, moving around on stage to help decide where the musicians would be placed. “There had been a workshop in Nashville, and the company knew the staging,” says Billington, who watched rehearsals with all the images on the screen. “There was a freeform exchange of ideas between the designers.”

Once the level for the screen was decided (with Vershbow “playing the levels like a dimmer on a light,” notes Billington. “At full, it hurts your eyes.”), the LD set about lighting the stage. “I took a lot of equipment to Buffalo but had to stop when they ran out of electricity, literally,” he says. But he knew that moving lights were the answer to designing this show. “I needed a wash light, and the trims were low — 16' to 18'. One solution was the Vari-Lite VL2000 wash light, used along with VL3000 spots for their hard edge and zoom and City Theatrical AutoYokes as moving specials.

“In Buffalo, the followspot positions were too flat, and the light went right into the screen,” Billington adds, “yet didn't wash it out, as the images are so bright.” In New York, the steeper angles allow the followspots, two Lycian 1290 2kW Xenon units, to avoid the screens, and there was more electricity available, so Billington added an extra dozen moving lights. “All of the patterns on the floor are from the moving lights,” he adds. “In Buffalo, it was more about the floor; in New York, you can see the patterns from the balcony.”

In matching the lighting to the images and the songs (time of day, location, etc.), Billington added clouds to the pale wood floor to mimic the screen, for example, or green downlight in a song about growing beans, with the green on the floor to complement the projections. “I wanted to break up the space and make it interesting with the templates from the moving lights, yet restrain myself not to busy it up.” The color palette varies from scene to scene, with a range of ambers, pinks, and reds.

To help identify the performers in the projection-filled environment, Billington added sidelight in the entrances where the band sits. “You need a stronger backlight to edge the performers, especially with the brighter projections,” he says. “The lights can be bright and not wash out these images, even with bumps as bright as anything on Broadway. The projections shine right through.” In other projection shows, Billington faced the problem of performers standing too close to the screens and getting lost in a sea of video. “Not this time,” he adds.

To program the show, with his lighting team of associate LD John Demous, assistant LD Stephen Boulmetis, and moving light programmer David Arch (Bruce Liebenow served as production electrician with James Crayton, PE for moving lights), Billington used an ETC Obsession console for the conventional fixtures (primarily ETC Source Fours and PARNels used overhead on pipes or as sidelight, some with Wybron Coloram scrollers). The Obsession triggers both the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 for the moving lights and the video cues. The lighting package was provided by PRG. “Overall, it was a pretty standard rig,” says Billington. “The key was the balance between the lighting and the images on the screen.”