Five celebrated set designers sound off on projection's increasing predominance on stage
As projections become ever more integrated into scenic designs on stage, their seeming ubiquity made us ponder the following questions: What does the increasing predominance of projections augur for the world of set design? Does it enhance the art or detract from it? Recently, five prominent set designers — David Gallo, William (Bill) Dudley, Michael Yeargan, Narelle Sissons, and John Lee Beatty — took time from their busy schedules to share their thoughts on projection. Has it become a collaborative tool in the design arsenal? Or something that will render the set designer's craft obsolete?
LD: How much have projections been a part of your work over the last few years?
Michael Yeargan: I'm doing this Ring Cycle for Washington National Opera, and they're playing a huge part of it. It's like a whole new world for me. That's been my big experience.
John Lee Beatty: I was going to turn down this interview because I thought, “I don't do projections,” but then I realized that three of my shows in the last year had them, so it's become a tool that, even for those who don't do projections per se, sneaks in. [For instance, with] How the Grinch Stole Christmas, all of the snow effects were on a video projector doing vertical snow, horizontal snow, diagonal snow, and then effects going by. To my surprise, we discovered there were ways to interface the projections with what I would call extremely old-fashioned scenery — velour drops with polka dots on them, things like that. As the projection of video has become easier and faster to edit in the theatre, it's become a very useful tool.
LD: Bill, with much of your work, such as The Woman in White, you've worked a lot with projection.
Bill Dudley: I have the last few years. I started in 1992, 1993. What interested me back then was the relative cheapness of doing it in 3D. You navigate your audience through 3D space, just like in the movies. With my projections, none of it is photographic; it's all CGI — environments, details, props, and lighting. The fun of it is working with a sympathetic lighting designer, matching the lighting on stage. When you have kinetic lighting, like with automated lighting, it can be programmed to move at the same time as your animation. [When this happens], you start to get a very strong perception of depth, and that's the main thing that interests me…It's revolutionized what I think of theatre now.
David Gallo: I don't think that projections are something I've used particularly extensively. Like any tool for a show that comes along — and they seem really appropriate for — we would certainly go in that direction. One of the things to consider is the way in which they're used. I've done shows where they've acted as the backdrop for the production, for instance, projecting onto the set or painting the set with it, which we're doing a great deal in A Catered Affair.
Narelle Sissons: It's been a large part of my work the last few years. Recently, I did The Food Theater Project, with LightBox, a very experimental piece that was performed in 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center in downtown Manhattan. Here, we took basically a warehouse — a big space — and used a lot of film. We created a supermarket environment. Also, in 2006, I did Leigh Silverman's Jump Cut, where projection was really an integral part of the show because the characters' lives were static, and their world was changing around them. I have been trying to integrate them into projects [to the extent] we really can't do the productions without them in the end. They become another character in the play.
LD: What makes you decide to use projection in your set design? What are the criteria? The director's vision? The budget? Or something else?
MY: Well in my case, with the Ring Cycle, it was very much the director's choice. To be totally frank, I still have a hard time with it…When you're working with the projection designer, it's hard until you really build up a successful collaboration with each other.
DG: I agree. I have done productions where I handed over my research and someone scanned it, saved it, and projected it. You know what I mean? I was like, “Well, thanks for playing!”
JLB: There's also the possibility that someone with the projections can co-opt the production. I've been on one I won't mention, where the producer got a line onto the projection person — they actually became more like business theatre. They leaned so heavily into projections as they went along the way that they suffered, and of course, when they got hung up on over-projecting, the lighting had to be pulled back. But now, as these video things get better, these projectors get better, and you start not to have to compromise so much on the lighting.
NS: That helps. I've had the reverse situation. When I did Jump Cut with Leigh, I suggested that we might consider — for the overall world of the production — projections on the wall of the room, and everybody involved in the production started to buy into it. They then spent money on getting a projection designer. But I agree that collaboration is complicated. It's the same kind of complication that I think we all face when first working in the theatre, and you're working with the lighting designer.
LD: How do you all approach your designs if projection is slated to be a heavy component?
NS: I want to talk to the director about what the bigger idea is: How can we actually harness this so that it becomes another character in the production, and it doesn't become a backdrop situation?
BD: There's a growing band of really good video technicians that I, as a designer, have never used. I've never used a separate video designer. That's another complication. I use this guy from The Blue Man Group in Europe. He's terrific and a good technician. Here, there was no problem with hierarchy, and that's important if you're responsible for the overall look of the show.
JLB: It's all getting better, and it's no longer just one guy who knows how to do it. They're actually developing people who have some sensitivity to the collaboration, as well. It's like the situation with moving lights, which are projections, after all; it's almost the same way, where now, there's a whole school of moving light people who actually are sensitive collaborators.
MY: I'm amazed at how fast the technology is changing everyday, and what amazes me is how easy it is to change the imagery once you're in the theatre. [The technology has] made it so much more flexible when something doesn't work.
LD: What do you find the most challenging and rewarding aspects of integrating projections into your scenic designs?
MY: I usually go into it with such trepidation that I'm always relieved when something miraculous happens in the theatre. My main experience has been this Ring Cycle; there are these endless interludes where you're trying to change a lot of scenery behind a curtain or behind a projection screen, and it's wonderful the way it can fill in that gap for an audience, taking you into the next scene or forming a transition.
BD: [What's challenging is the] lead time to do it because of the 3D process. At times, I've had a co-model working with me, but the last two, I've done it on my own. You do burn the midnight oil, but it's fascinating. I go to see all the big SFX movies by the time they reach London, and I marvel at the techniques; I do learn from them. I go to those more than art galleries, quite frankly. There is a tremendous worldwide energy in it. You can go onto websites and see what people in China or Russia or somewhere are doing using the same software. I've always believed that this stuff has to filter down into the theatre eventually.
DG: What's rewarding is when it works and what it does to whatever story you're trying to tell. I don't have a huge computer vocabulary. But as John was saying earlier, when you encompass the idea that moving lights are projectors, and all of this is part of the tools we have in hand, I think what's interesting is what they really are, in terms of projected light. I'm working on two productions right now that are going to be using projections. One of them is very high-tech and involves working with all sorts of interesting people that are hopefully on the cutting edge of that technology. With another thing I'm doing, we're actually playing with magic lanterns, filmstrip projectors, overhead projectors, and all sorts of stuff you get from the A/V closet from your local junior high!
JLB: I've done two shows in the last year where we've tried to make the projections look inept! The efficiency with which you can make them look inept with good equipment is amazing. I mean, you can actually edit things to make it look like bad television and poor projection. We used to suffer so hard to make them look actually somewhat decent! Now, you're working backwards trying to make it look as bad as it used to look.
LD: Bill, you do the projections yourself?
BD: I don't specifically hire or purchase the projector. What I do is agree on a format. The great thing at the moment is that the projectors are all going up to high-definition, so that the quality is instantly better. So having established that, you then design the proportions of your screen to fit a known ratio. It doesn't matter the size so much as the ratio. When TV screens went to widescreens…you can work within that, and it can blow up to that proportion exactly.
DG: I was the assistant on Tommy for years, and there was a time in the early ‘90s, when I was serving John Arnone, the set designer, and Wendall Harrington, the projection designer, that I thought I knew everything about slide projectors and stackers and lenses and all this. Unfortunately, that doesn't get me a lot of work anymore! [Everyone laughs].
NS: The scenery is changing so dramatically isn't it? One minute, people are talking about using something that's new, and the next minute, something else has come out. I had an experience where we had very little room to rear-project onto part of the set, so the projection designer bought this gigantic mirror — it must have been about 20' across, 15' high — and yet she shot the images through the mirror upstage, and then it bounced back onto the projection screen, so we could double the length of space. I think we only had 6', and we needed 12'. It was remarkable to see this whole rigged setup behind the set.
DG: Once, with Blue Man in Chicago, we couldn't get a large enough image, and we blew a hole in the floor and bounced it off a mirror, which hung at a 45° angle.
LD: Do you think projection will ever realistically replace sets with “virtual” sets?
DG: I don't know how it could.
NS: I don't think so. I think there's room for everybody to work together. I think some of the most exciting productions I've seen recently have been an inclusion of these new media that people are starting to dream up. We have to be more educated and learn about these different media. We have to embrace it to move forward.
JLB: I think this is the same discussion we had when electrical lights joined the theatre, but it's part of the whole palette now.
Iris Dorbian is the former editor of Stage Directions. Her first book, Great Producers: Visionaries of the American Theater (Allworth Press), is set to be released this spring.