Transforming perception into reality via projections for Swan Lake at San Francisco Ballet
Creating imagery that integrates well with scenery and lighting has always been my goal.
Artistically, it is satisfying to witness an event where the audience is unaware of what is lighting, scenery, or projection. I believe that the imagery should only attract attention to itself when I want it to, and I can control when that happens.
In fact, there is a point in this process where most of my time on a show is spent working with my assistant, who programs the media servers. The imagery is already just right for the intended purpose, but the sequences that involve the use of the imagery, as well as physical stage elements, performers, sound, and lighting, have not yet been brought into perfectly synchronized harmony. That lack of harmony or integration will lead to components of the stage language drawing attention to themselves and looking out of place. That can be caused by many things, but I think it is usually caused by differences in timing of cues, color, brightness, speed, and rhythm, all of which I can control without touching the actual imagery files.
An example of this kind of integrated design is San Francisco Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, choreographed by SF Ballet’s artistic director Helgi Tomasson and designed by Jonathan Fensom. A longtime collaborator of Tomasson’s, Jennifer Tipton, lit the production, and Michael Ward designed the wigs and makeup.
I worked closely with Fensom on the design for over a year, the primary goal of which was to be clear and establish every location with a strong stage picture, whereby scenery, lighting, and projections gel to a unified whole. To me, that means no one should be able to distinguish lighting from video projection or even from painted drops, for that matter.
Creating imagery that looks simple and unadorned, while conveying the exact intended meaning is always fraught with difficulty. As the designer, I have to determine the absolute minimum I have to show, while preserving all intended connotations and ambiguities. As I am dealing with moving imagery, a significant amount of meaning derives from the type and style of the movement.
The meaning is inherent in the artwork itself, as well as in the way the artwork is edited together and manipulated with the aid of the playback equipment. Therefore it becomes part of the responsibility of the programmer to make crucial fine adjustments for a design to work.
Of all the design decisions I made for this production, two had the most profound effect on the way it needed to be programmed. Peter Acken, my assistant and programmer, will testify to that a little further on. First, the giant moon that looms above the stage is projected using DLP projectors, not slide projectors. The moon has its own dedicated projectors because it has to glow like a moon and therefore is brighter than the surrounding projected scenery, which is handled by other projectors.
Second, the silhouette of a dancer must be projected as she runs past the curtain that covers the stage during the prologue. It was never going to be a real shadow cast using a followspot on a dancer, but it has to look like that. The shadow has to stumble—when the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, casts his spell—transform into a swan, and fly away into the night sky. For practical reasons, that sequence is front-projected as well.
Apart from those two effects, two other design choices served to integrate the projections. The projected sky backgrounds have to match the painterly style of the physical scenery, and the sky has to move at a speed that does not draw attention to itself but, at the same time, is quick enough to feel “alive.” At times, these backgrounds have to be just visible enough to create a contrast on the gauze-covered RP screen that allows the blacks to appear blacker and, thus, to create depth which physically is not actually there. It is an old lighting trick, and since projectors are a source of light, the same rules often apply.
This point can actually not be stressed enough, since the successful integration of video projection on this show crucially depends on matching the colors of lighting and projection design. If Tipton changes a color, hue or intensity, I have to do the same.
Acken will discuss below the technicalities involved in programming the moon sequence, but I would like to point out that the main challenge was to create something simple, which looks effortless and beautiful: swans flying past the moon in silhouette. It turned out to be quite tricky.
My core team also includes my associate video designer S. Katy Tucker. Our gear consists of five Christie Roadster S+20K projectors and two DS+8Ks, four coolux Pandoras Box Pro media servers with Media Manager software, and an MA Lighting grandMA console.
Sven Ortel is based in New York and London, working internationally designing projections and imagery for theatre, opera, dance, musicals, and beyond. Recent projects include Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and The Ring Cycle in St. Petersburg, Russia and at the Royal Opera House in London. As an associate of Mesmer, he conceived the video system and process that realized the technologically groundbreaking musical The Woman in White.