I see myself as more of a lighting designer than a projection designer. Until recently, my experience with projections has been a computer with PowerPoint or a VCR/DVD player hooked up to a single projector. I knew nothing of using multiple projectors and blending to project large images. Nor was I even remotely aware of the powerful software available to accomplish feats like that. So last year, when I was asked to design lights and a “small projection sequence” for a production of South Pacific at Wright State University in Dayton, OH, I was unfazed.

The show's director and Department of Theatre Arts chair, W. Stuart McDowell, wanted to approach the opening of the musical in an untraditional way; he wanted to remind the audience of the time period of the production. Although the show is basically a love story, it still takes place during World War II in the South Pacific, and McDowell did not want the audience to forget that. He intended to accomplish this using a shorter version of the opening Overture while a “small projection sequence” of images of the attacks on Pearl Harbor faded to images of South Pacific islands. Last October, during the initial concept meeting that was the only use of projections we discussed.

Last November, I had the opportunity to attend the Entertainment Technology Show-LDI in Orlando, FL, and when I came back my understanding of projections was radically different. During the LDInstitute I had the opportunity to participate in Bob and Colleen Bonniol's “Projection Design in a Day” workshop. During this workshop I was able to learn about projecting large images using blending and multiple projectors, and how I could use Dataton's Watchout software to manipulate these images, among other things.

After this show, I went back to Wright State full of fresh ideas and ways to accomplish them. I presented the idea of using a projected backdrop to the director and design team. The idea was met well by the scenic designer, Professor Pam Knauert, as it would complement some of the other realistic elements in the set. We liked being able to easily change the setting by projecting different images on the backdrop.

Fortunately for us, Stuart McDowell was to attend a conference in Hawaii, and he was very excited at the opportunity to shoot the material that might be used as background for his show. At this point, it seemed that the only thing left for me to do was to figure out what kind of projection gear we would need and, more importantly, where it would be coming from. At this point, I was not considering the cost involved because I figured that I would have no problem finding a company willing to provide the gear at a cost that would fit within the lighting and projection budget of $1,500.

After reviewing the drawings for the show, I determined that by rear projecting we would have a throw distance of around 17' to project an image that was 20' tall × 40' wide. As I set out to locate the equipment I needed, I again fell back upon my experience at ETS-LDI. I had the opportunity to meet several players in the industry, including Peter Scharff of Scharff Weisberg. I sent Peter an email detailing what we would like to accomplish. Peter called me back, and we determined that projecting a backdrop within the technical limitations was simply not feasible.

By the time I had this discussion with Peter, it was February, and the source material for the projected drop was already shot. So it was back to the drawing board to come up with another solution. After some additional brainstorming with my advisor, Professor Matthew Benjamin, we figured that we could front project a smaller image around 20' tall × 25' wide. At this point, the set designer and I were willing to make almost any changes necessary to salvage the projected backdrop.

I contacted Peter again with our new requirements and technical limitations. By front projecting our images, we were able to increase the throw distance to a more realistic 25', at the same time maintaining the smaller acceptable image size of 20' × 25'. Unfortunately, renting the necessary equipment to accomplish this was simply not possible given our small budget.

All was not lost, however, as Scharff Weisberg provided an attractive alternative. Peter offered to sell us a Christie L8 projector that had been used on Broadway but was no longer rentable due to “some color irregularity.” Despite that fact, such a projector would be perfect for our application, and as Peter put it, it would be “investment versus rental.” Even with this attractive offer, my budget was still woefully inadequate to purchase this projector. Unfortunately, the university was also unable to help due in large part to the recent purchase of a large new conventional and intelligent lighting rig for the Department of Theatre Arts.

It was clear that we would be unable to have a projected backdrop. At this point, the idea of using projections with a more traditional backdrop was tossed around. It was also met well by McDowell and Knauert. It had been suggested that perhaps we use slides to project selected images on the painted backdrop. While this was not a bad idea, it also brought certain technical limitations to the table. In the end, instead of going with traditional slides, I decided to research a relatively new product manufactured by Rosco called the ImagePro.

The ImagePro projects a vibrant full color image created from a simple plastic slide that is held in a special holder that fits in the iris slot of most modern conventional lighting instruments. We decided to use an image of Bali Hai, the mythical island in the story, to be projected on the drop. With a rented ImagePro unit and custom slides for only $35, this choice ended up being the best for the production in terms of budget, technical requirements, and the effect itself. The ability to fade up the full color image over a two and a half minute time span during Bloody Mary's song “Bali Hai” was an amazing effect. In the end, it and a moon gobo were the only projections used on the backdrop.

In conclusion, I offer the following advice to my fellow up-and-coming projection designers:

  1. Always dream big, then figure out how to scale your dreams to fit into the production. I think you'll find that you get a better product in the end.

  2. Don't be afraid to try something new, but be sure you give yourself enough time to figure it out and make it work.

  3. It's a good idea to ask rental houses and manufacturers for help in accomplishing a certain effect within a limited budget, but remember, you're more likely to get expertise for free than you are to get gear for free.

  4. Always make as many new contacts and see as much new gear as possible, because you never know when you might need it in the future.

Attention All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:

Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at djohnson@primediabusiness.com.