Attention all manufacturers of projection equipment, listen up: ED spoke with a number of projection designers about the state of the art in projection design, and they all have a serious list of improvements in technology, equipment, software, and hardware that they would like to see implemented to expand their art and make the integration of images that much smoother into the production as a whole. No requests for imaginary products like “Bend-a-Beam in a Can” or “LumaStop” here — well, OK, projection designer Michael Clark would like to see physics tweaked a bit so that he can have light without heat — but otherwise this is a list of items that would make their lives easier and, hopefully, raise projection design to the next level.

Projection design has come into its own in the past decade; today it is considered a viable design element for theatre, concerts, opera, and other live productions. This may be due partly to the fact that we as a society have grown accustomed to receiving a barrage of images. “We receive media in so many different ways: — television, the Internet, etc.,” says Clark, a designer who has worked most recently on The Elephant Man on Broadway and Hedwig and the Angry Inch in Washington, DC. “We are used to multiple screens, it is very relevant and very important.”

Producers and directors have become more comfortable not only with projection in a production, but also with all of the requirements needed to support it. Still, producers will still fight to keep from cutting seats or building a complicated cooling and sound-baffling system for the projectors. “Projection has been used in theatrical productions, much more so in the past 10 years, so lighting designers and producers are not as surprised by projection,” says Sage Carter, whose recent work includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a tour of Miss Saigon, and Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum. “In the beginning, producers would be shocked by all of the costs and the long-term maintenance. You still have to clear up some issues in the beginning of the production. You need to think ahead and know how to plan for it.”

Even though those old warhorses, the Kodak Ektagraphic and Ektapro slide projectors, are still used in many productions today, especially smaller-budget projects, gone for the most part are the corporate industrials with racks and racks of slide projectors that need to be synchronized. Video projection has supplanted many of these applications. Research and development for digital cinema is driving a fast pace for new video projector technology. Bob Bonniol, who with his wife Colleen has designed the tour of Footloose, Godspell, and two productions of Burn the Floor, sees video projectors following a variation of Moore's Law for processing power in computers. “Every year video projectors are coming out twice as bright for about half the cost,” he says. The price decreases in computers are also benefiting projection designers who need greater processing power, as video images gets larger and more complicated.

Footloose tour photo: Bob Bonniol

All designers maintain that the production must always dictate the use of film or video, in that there is still a different feel to the medium, a digital feel that has yet to change. “A few years ago, I would never have used video in theatre,” says Elaine McCarthy. “I found that it was very distracting for the audience, that there was a physical reaction, a perception shift. I am trying to incorporate more video into my designs. My motto is ‘Do no harm.’” McCarthy, whose most recent work includes War and Peace in Russia and at the Metropolitan Opera, Red Frogs at PS 122, and the upcoming Into the Woods, finds a number of directors who are concerned that it will upstage the performance. “Video projection is another tool; it has assets and liabilities,” she says.

War and Peace photo: Elaine J. McCarthy

For Wendall Harrington, whose recent work includes directing, working on a book about projection, and designing projections for Ballet Mécanique for Doug Varone and Dancers, and Othello with the San Francisco Ballet (which was taped for PBS to air in May), the decision to use film or video is “Is this the right tool for this application?” Adds Jan Hartley, whose most recent credits include Obon: Tales of Rain and Moonlight for Ping Chong and Théâtre de Complicité's Noise of Time, “My use of video has been very minimal, probably 15% of my work in the past few years, but it's going to be more since it's the way of the future.”

Not surprisingly, a number of similar items show up on all of the designer's wish lists. Currently, video projection has gotten better and more affordable to the point that most designers are at a 50/50 split between film and video. Some designers are just now moving into video, but all of the designers I spoke with see video as the wave of the future. There is still much room for improvement, since everyone is looking for brighter projectors with higher resolution, and, of course, lower costs, especially for theatre budgets. To get a bright enough, full stage image, most designers are looking for a minimum of 5,000 ANSI lumens, but would prefer 8-10,000 lumens.

Size (and Noise) Matters

Size is also an issue for both large-format film and video projectors in most productions. “It is a big problem on tours where the large size of film projectors and support equipment eat up too many seats,” says Bonniol. “High-definition video may obviate large-format film projectors.” Fortunately, video projectors are coming down in size, and many of the smaller units are getting better lumen outputs. Still, there is a feeling that a gap remains between the small, desktop video projectors and the large models used in corporate and sports work. Carter wants to see more medium-scale video projectors. “I would like a 4-5K lumen projector the size of an Ektagraphic slide projector,” says Carter. “There is no really good middle ground. There is a gap between the desktop models and the very large, very expensive industrial models, which are too large and too expensive for most theatre work.” Clark would like to see a move toward miniaturization and a real way to reduce the heat. Large-format projectors require a lot of mechanical work to control the heat as well as the noise of the projectors; this can eat up a lot of budget and cause lost revenue from lost seats. “Video is better in terms of size and cooling,” says Carter. “You can use a video projector on the front rail with a small amount of baffling and proper airflow.” The noise of large-format film projectors is also something all the designers agree upon — it needs to be reduced. Harrington talks about the almost religious ritual of theatre: “There is a thrill to breaking the silence in a production. If there is no silence in the theatre, you have already lost 50% of why you came.” She continues to discuss the philosophical aspects of the theatre and the relationship to the audience. The audience wants to be thrilled and it is our job to figure out how,” says Harrington. “There is a fear of total quiet as there is in absolute darkness. This makes it all go, to make a delicious fear.”

For the upcoming Broadway production of The Elephant Man, Clark is using Ektagraphic projectors. “Slide projectors are small, quiet, and inexpensive,” says Clark. They will fit into the balcony rail very easily. Slide projectors still have it for sound, size, and flexibility.” McCarthy would love to see “a scenographic projector that fills the gap between an Ektagraphic and the large-format film projectors. A large gulf exists now.” On the upcoming production of the opera Dead Man Walking, McCarthy is looking at the Angstrom FineLite film projectors that are built around the Selecon Pacific ellipsoidal reflector spotlight. “This production will be produced in eight venues and the piece calls for a film feel,” says McCarthy. “Pani or PIGI would be the correct equipment, but the budget may not allow for that level. The FineLite is quite comparable to a 4kW Pani. There is a bit of halation, but the aria is a dream sequence, so it works rather well for this particular piece.”

All of the designers feel that video still lacks a proper ‘“black” — video black is more a gray than anything else and washes the stage in an odd, gray light. Some manufacturers are adding shutters and dousers, and some designers are having the crews home-build dousers to deal with the projectors that lack this feature. “Video lacks the ability to produce a real black,” says Harrington. “It produces a lot of light spill onstage.” Clark adds, “There is still the limit of no true black in video. Video is bright enough for theatre; it isn't dark enough.”

Getting It Done in Tech

Another possibility with video, although only the largest budgets can afford to do this, is the ability to have the necessary support equipment and an editor in the theatre during tech rehearsals. Robin Silvestri of Batwin + Robin Productions, whose recent credits include the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC, the BP Energy Center - The Alaskan Stories in Anchorage, AK, and the upcoming Harlem Song at the Apollo Theatre, would like to have a similar setup as lighting designers have in theatre. “The LD has his toolkit with him in the theatre. I like to have an editor with me in the theatre when we work. I can make a change on the fly, edit it, and have it ready in about an hour. It is better to stay and continue to work, to be a part of the ongoing design process.” Bonniol likes having video production assets in the theatre when he works. “I can spin on a dime and turn around an image in video faster than a film image,” he says. “I like being prepared when a concept changes during tech. It only takes a matter of hours to incorporate a change.”

Many of the other designers feel that the time to develop a film image is equivalent to making an edit in video. “The processing power is based upon the budget,” says Clark. “I can show the director a thumbnail image, but I will usually need to render the image overnight. I find that it is comparable between film developing time and rendering time.” McCarthy learned a valuable lesson on Judgment at Nuremberg last year. “I would take the digital video out of the theatre, have it converted to analog to edit, and reconverted to digital for playback. I now only work in digital and I have an edit suite set up in the theatre so I don't lose time.” McCarthy sees the time as comparable between film and video, but would love to see an improvement. “I want to think an image and then see it onstage. I am ready to be wired up,” she laughs.

Affordable digital video equipment is also an issue. “I would like to see cheaper digital disk recorders, so that I am not encoding video,” says Silvestri. “There are units available, just not on production budgets.” Hartley likes DVD technology and the fast access with it. “There are huge DVD drive arrays that you can take into a theatre where you have instant access between elements, so if you are cutting things and making changes, you don't have the tape roll where you go to the tape. DVD has a bit of lag time, but it is much better than DVT. I just wish the drive arrays were more affordable.” For Clark, the critical aspect for video is the server technology. “I like to use more, smaller projectors to cover a large area. I use the Dataton Watchout system to stitch together a seamless panoramic image. It does take a lot of processing power.” McCarthy uses Watchout, but for a different application. “For Into the Woods, I considered using the High End Catalyst to be able to adjust the image, but the cost was too high for the show. The image did not need to move that much. I used Watchout to layer images and colors as well as have the ability to shift the image since it was being projected onto an uneven surface of trees.”

Automated and Beyond

Designers are also eyeing automated fixtures as potential tools. Why should the LDs be the only ones to have all of the fun? “The incredible flexibility and image quality of today's moving lights is an area where I believe you will see blurring between the lines of projection and lighting design,” says Bonniol “As more projection designers realize and add the value of automated gobo work and more LDs begin to make projection design integral to their own aesthetic via the same method. When an x.Spot has the same lumen output of a Pani BP4 4kW, it becomes a compelling alternative.”

Lisa Cuscuna collaborated with Jules Fisher, Peggy Eisenhauer, and John Napier on the recent Jane Eyre, where she was quite involved in creating images for Vari*Lite automated fixtures in a way that had not been done before. “There is an amazing quality to the Vari*Lites, where the images were so striking and so bright,” she says. “The light source is so bright, it's so intense and the flexibility of programming them was really very exciting. It has really brought about a new look of something that has finally given projection the look that it should have onstage.” Her philosophy is to make up a number of smaller images that are a combination of photography, painting, and Photoshop processing and to use them as building blocks to build a larger image. Cuscuna has even started to democratize imaging by licensing her artwork to Rosco for use in its new ImagePro for ellipsoidals. “I have created over 500 images, which Rosco plans on making in plastic or in glass,” she says. “I would like lighting and scenic designers to have the ability to pull them together and build up their own images.”

One idea that is still on the drawing board but remains on the minds of many of the designers is an active matrix screen made up of LEDs or LCD technology. McCarthy envisions it as “a cyc that is essentially one large plasma screen that you can feed a video signal into. There would be no shadows.” “Imagine soft goods made of LCD cloth, capable of displaying any video imagery you stream to them,” says Bonniol. “It could revolutionize projection and multimedia, especially in touring applications.” Clark has seen some technology in Germany that points in this direction. “It's a long way from reality, but what a cool idea to have a full-stage, flexible, active matrix screen.” Hartley revels in the possibilities of such a technology. “I would love to have it where you could stretch it and have the ability to have an image in one small part of it or over the whole screen. Wouldn't it be great to see an image fold up as you open the curtain?”

Overall, the projection designers see video as the wave of the future, with the ratio of video to film sliding more in favor of video as it improves. As the technology marches forward, especially in high-definition video, large-format film projection, may eventually be squeezed out of the picture, at least onstage. The designers requested fewer new products in the area of large-format film projectors, although new improvements, especially in terms of reductions in size, heat, and noise would be greatly appreciated. There will still be budgets that can only afford the venerable slide projector, but as the technology improves and the prices come down, more projection designers, on more budgetary levels will be able to take advantage of the technology trickle down effect in creating striking images. The projected image seems destined to become more and more integrated into all levels of production.