In the business of show production, there seems to be an unending series of challenges concerning what you can do for less in an ever-changing landscape of client needs. As the president of a full-service production company, I see a long history of applying old techniques with new ones to get a job done. You have to be ready to apply things you learned a long time ago then mix them with new techniques or technologies that suit the project. It's never completely predictable what that mix will be. As creative artists working for clients, the new and different is always in demand: some restructured “old,” some brand new. Whatever the case may be, staying up to date with technology and keeping an open mind with a client's needs becomes critical to a successful project.
As an event production company, DaVinci Fusion often creates large-scale scenic treatments for an event and, as such, we are accustomed to thinking outside the box. There is always a new space, a new theme, and sometimes a new technique. On a recent project, we had to do some innovative thinking on how to use new technology to transform small-scale ethnic fabrics into a set piece that could be seen by a sit-down audience of more than 1,300 people and could be produced on a limited budget.
I was intrigued when The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, a client we'd worked with before, wanted to use fabric as a backdrop for this black-tie event, The Tech Museum Awards: Technology Benefiting Humanity, at Parkside Hall in San Jose. These awards were to be given to educators and social entrepreneurs from 11 countries who have used technology to benefit mankind. This is a world-class event with participants working in or from countries spanning the globe.
The client wanted the set piece to feature a multicultural tapestry of fabric representing the global nature of the awards — a great concept. In the initial discussion phase, many ideas were discussed — imprinted canopies, swagged and draped fabrics, multiple layers of things, but nothing quite stuck as a starting point. At times like that I like to go back to what's there already. So I asked what the invitation and promo literature looked like. And then I saw it. The promo material was bordered with patterns of cloth from all over the world. I knew then what would be the heart of the set: world fabric patterns.
The client brought in fabric samples they liked and our own team went searching, spending a lot of time in fabric shops. What an interesting world there is out there where people make their own clothes, quilts, and upholstery. I didn't realize that to “borrow” a sample of fabric, I'd have to leave a $40 deposit for each piece — I guess a lot of people never bring them back. We all convened back at the studio to review our choices. Fabrics literally flew through the air. But as the cotton and silk settled, many things became clear. Sometimes texture was important, sometimes pattern.
We discovered that the interplay of fabrics and the juxtaposition of textures, patterns, and colors was a complex and almost intellectual exercise. Working so closely with the fabrics we realized they truly do reflect the many threads of the multicultural tapestry that makes up our world. The patterns that we felt would be recognized as representing different cultures were mostly small prints. These small-scale prints were beautiful when seen close up. The problem was, if you got more than 5' away, the patterns and the nuances of the fabric were lost. We needed something the entire audience could see.
Enlargement of the patterns was an obvious answer. But depending on how we did that, we risked losing the unique, hand-loomed texture of the cloth. We decided to scan the fabric samples into the computer so we could preserve the visual context of the threads and textures and maintain the multicultural tapestry metaphor.
Once on that path, we were still left with the decision to paint or digitally print the fabric patterns. We explored the pros and cons of cost, turnaround time, and technique. Time appeared to rule out painting the set piece. The cost differential also became a factor: It was at least 50% cheaper to print than to paint.
The client still had it in mind that draping fabric was an important feature to maintain. That was a major challenge. Digitally printed fabrics typically don't drape well, and digital fabrics with coatings or sealants create a slope or drape on one plane that results in a very stiff, hard “hand” that affects the design. Still, we had used digitally printed canvas in projects before and believed we had the know-how and determination to succeed with this cutting-edge technique. We held to our thinking that to print was the solution.
We created high-density (600dpi) scans of the selected fabrics. Then we selected portions of the scans that we were to include and converted them from inches to feet. As you might imagine, this resulted in some pretty large files, and we found ourselves at the end of the line with our hardware and software — something we hadn't counted on when we started this project. Disk-drive space, software, memory size, and computer speed all became issues. All of a sudden I was walking through what felt like 4' of setting-up Jell-O. My New Year's resolution became very clear: The vision of dual-processor Macs danced in my head.
Adobe® Photoshop® was my mainstay on this project. I had an older version of Deneba Canvas that also was very useful, but as some of the files grew geometrically, Canvas had a melt down. So I switched to Adobe Illustrator®. I felt it didn't handle measurements as well as Canvas did, but it could handle the file size better. I would deal with the measurements in Photoshop and apply them in Illustrator. It was a little awkward, but workable.
Our design for the set piece consisted of three large panels, depicting fabric from three continents, hung side by side. Each panel was overlaid with three smaller, narrow vertical panels of a contrasting fabric. I chose to use only three patterns for the downstage patterns.
There were nine panels in the design, but I felt the spirit of “Universality” or “Oneness” would be better expressed by limiting the pattern diversity and extending the colors. I created a color shift in Photoshop for each of the three selected patterns and worked toward a rainbow feeling across the stage.
The upstage panel to be hung in the center of the stage featured a bold, yellow-and-black patterned African mudcloth, hand-pounded and sewn. It was layered with separate panels of a classic silk in a Chinese medallion pattern in hues of red and orange. The upstage panel to the left was composed of a tightly patterned Indonesian batik, also in yellow and black. It was layered with another silk fabric with a dragon motif in shades of blue. The right-hand upstage panel showed a coarsely woven green and brown Latin American fabric whose weave was turned on the diagonal. It was layered with a delicate, leafy Japanese cotton print in shades of green.
I wanted the fabric for the digital printing to have a soft hand. Even though most of the panels would be hung vertically, I felt that a soft fabric would be perceived as more realistic than a vinyl. Light reflectivity was also a huge issue for us. I wanted a very matte set with no flare or glare. When we first began printing we selected a fabric which had a soft nap, almost the texture of felt. But when the color samples came back, we weren't getting the color saturation we needed. We were one day away from deadline, and I decided to make a change so I dumped the soft hand and went to an impregnated canvas. It was stiffer, but it held the color better and I felt we could overcome a little stiffness. This set needed to pop and dull colors weren't going to get it done. Fortunately, the fabric was in stock.
Perhaps the most challenging part of this design was the signage. We needed to have name and sponsor recognition in the camera shots, yet a Plexiglas sign floating in front of our panels was not acceptable. A raised-letter sign with attachment bars was too expensive, plus there were too many words. So I chose the hardest option: to create a printed panel that would hang horizontally on a hard flat that would contain the graphic and the text, and would register perfectly with the hanging panels behind it. To accomplish this I took the final layout into Photoshop and flattened it. I took the crop tool and cut out the exact section that would mate with the rest of the set when they were hung individually. We printed that cropped portion, mounted it to a small flat and hung it on wires on site to meet the appropriate registration. It matched perfectly.
We were delighted when the museum said our digitally printed fabric was the most striking set design they'd ever seen. And we've heard nothing but rave reviews from the guests who attended The Tech Museum Awards. The audience didn't know what the panels were made of. People thought they were what they looked like: fabric. We were thrilled that we pulled off the illusion.
We believe there's an enormous future in working with digitally fabricated sets and hope to make further refinements to the process. Sure, there are still some technical difficulties to overcome, but production companies need to recognize the potential of the medium and learn more about how to design for it.
We also need to remember that concepts featuring small-scale elements can be effectively adapted to large-scale presentations. The patterned fabric whose beauty could only be seen by a few people close up was just waiting for someone to reinvent it as a beautiful, digitally manipulated image that everyone could appreciate.