Editor's Note: This is the first of a two — part column by Elaine McCarthy detailing her involvement as projection designer on the Broadway revival of Into the Woods. Part One details the early planning and preliminary design details of the project.
The call came from lighting designer Brian MacDevitt. We had worked together last year designing both Judgement at Nuremberg and Speaking in Tongues. He asked me to join a meeting that was to take place two hours later with James Lapine and the design team for Into the Woods. Brian explained that they had some preliminary ideas for Cinderella talking to the birds, Cinderella's mother in the tree, and the giantess that involved projection, but they felt it was time to bring in a projection designer.
My preparation for this first meeting was limited to listening to the CD of the 1987 production during the subway ride downtown. We sat together in a tiny room in the Dodgers' office stepping through the script with Douglas Schmidt's set model and Susan Hilferty's costume sketches. When we got to the scenes where Cinderella spoke with the birds or Cinderella's mother mysteriously appeared in the tree or the giantess stomped onto stage, James would turn to me and say, “You're going to work your magic, right?” My natural reaction was, “Gulp.” Complex job, limited time, limited budget — what would you be thinking?
Projection designers are used to being brought into the production process late in the game — although this is changing as more playwrights call for projections in the script and more directors begin to think of projections earlier in conception of the production. After this first meeting, I began immediately to gather the tools and troops needed to tackle this unique design assignment.
Brian MacDevitt had suggested that we treat the giantess' video projector as a light source. The projector beam would represent the sun and, as such, would provide ambient scene lighting. The giantess would step into that light, appearing to block the sun with her enormous stature, casting her shadow onto the stage. The actors onstage would interact with a point of focus up and out in the house, while the audience would experience the giantess as a shadow. To aid in this effect, the projector was placed in an extreme house-right balcony position, shooting from above and at an angle. When focused from this angle, the light source created more depth and dimension as it hit three — dimensional surfaces — when focused dead-on, projections have a tendency to appear to flatten dimensional objects. Though this technique made perfectly good sense, it would provide me with the unusual experience of having to stand my ground in both LA and New York arguing against moving the projector to the normally ideal center position with the clean shot conveniently located in the air-conditioned booth!
I contacted Peter Scharff at Scharff Weisberg to discuss how to best engineer the technical setup. At the time Cinderella's birds were foremost in our minds regarding engineering techniques. To be most effective they wanted the ability to travel about the stage like a moving light. Since the birds had to move about freely in the same full-stage-projected image area as the giantess, we needed software that would allow us this type of control playback. At first we considered Catalyst from High End Systems, but Lars Pedersen at Scharff Weisberg, who would ultimately be my programmer, suggested instead that we look at Watchout by Dataton.
Designed as software primarily for multiscreen and videowall production, Watchout was exactly the tool for which we were looking. Although Cinderella's birds became marionettes once rehearsals began (and thus no longer my responsibility), the ease with which we were able to make adjustments to the video footage in Watchout was essential to the design process. Watchout provided us with the ability to deal with the video on multiple, independent layers. The giantess alone consists of the giantess video, a “gel” layer providing tint, a “tree gobo” layer allowing the video to blend better into the scenic and lighting environment, and a “mask” layer masking the projection spill off of the proscenium. We were also able to fade, rotate, scale, and position each of these layers individually.
In determining projectors, brightness, reliability, and cost were, as always, of primary concern. We decided on a pair of Barco 6300 (2,200 ANSI lumens) projectors converged for Cinderella's mother's appearance in the tree, and a single Digital Projection 15sx (12,000 ANSI lumens) projector with spare for the full-stage giantess. Both projector setups work effectively — we actually dim the Digital Projection during one cue because it is too bright!
The Dataton/Watchout playback control is slaved to the light board through DMX. The sound, in turn, is slaved to projection. Whenever there are projections and sound onstage, the light board triggers the series of cues.
Finding the time for all three departments to work together was a challenge, especially in an already intense and complex technical period. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier and his staff had an especially challenging job in creating sound cues for a moving target, since even the most minor changes we made in our timing affected his cues and vice versa. We progressed in tandem as best both departments could. Patience was truly a virtue and together the time was found/made and the collaboration was a rewarding one.
Coming Next Month: Using the latest technology to solve a giant problem.
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