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Old April 1st, 2009, 05:02 AM   #1
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Projector in theatrical production

Hi people, here's a question for you:

What if I wanted to use a projector for stage backdrops in a theatrical production? Rather than have a painted backdrop, or no backdrop, I was thinking if a powerful enough projector be used I could have moving video backdrops, and so many other possibilities open up.

I would really like to know whether this is even a viable option. What hurdles or traps should I be looking out for? Has anyone ever attempted something like this? Will stage lighting outshine the projection? Any information or guidance would be much appreciated!


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Old April 1st, 2009, 07:24 AM   #2
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It is possible but remember that the brightness of the background image is governed by at least four factors:
- The light output of the projector (measured in lumens)
- the SIZE the images are being projected (an image projected 4 x 5' will be at least four times brighter than an image projected 8 x 10' using the same projector)
- the actual images being projected
- the reflectivity of the "screen" being used.
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Old April 1st, 2009, 11:25 AM   #3
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The power of projected images, when used correctly, completely redefines what can be done on a stage. But, as you clearly suspect, there are a number of concerns attendant to their use.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that you are mounting a production in a proscenium setting. All the audience is facing the stage and the performers project out toward the audience. If you're throwing any projected image from a location behind the audience onto a reflective surface on stage - be it a scrim, a back drop or whatever - that projected image, which is essentially a beam of light, will have to travel through all of the conventional stage lighting, which illuminates the actors. There are a number of ways of making this work but for those, you're better off consulting a lighting designer than me. Suffice to say, it can be made to work (I used this technique to considerable effect back in 1986 with my NY production of The Water Hen).

Essentially, your problems break down like this - front screen projection suffers diminishment when the beamed image must travel through the conventional stage lights. Also, there is the consideration that the projected image will very likely be picked up by the actors on stage. In a nutshell, you want to minimize the on-stage lighting spill onto the projection target surface. And of course, the darker the costumes, the less reflective they become. Generally, rear screen projection is the pro way to go but backstage space becomes the primary concern with this technique. Assuming, that you have an upstage scrim upon which you're going to be projecting your images, as in Sir Peter Hall's splendid production of Amadeus, for instance, you're going to need a minimum of 50 to 60 feet from the projector lens to the scrim in order to get a sufficiently large image. Of course, this problem can be circumvented by the use of strategically placed backstage mirrors but, as I'm sure you've already deduced, this can become it's own can of worms.

My feeling is that rear screen projection is probably your best bet followed by the use of actual video monitors onstage. Five years ago, I staged a multi-media production of A Clockwork Orange in Los Angeles which extensive use of on-stage monitors - a total of 7 in all. There are a lot of people who would warn you that the use of video in a theatrical production requires lots of expensive machinery and man power. This is not so. But planning and lots of pre-production experimentation are the keys to making it all fall into place. In ACO, what we did, basically, was synchronize three DVD decks, each of which played a different, yet fully integrated, audio visual stream through a network of cables to its assigned monitors. There were cases where only the large center monitor carried an image and, in those instances, the other two dvd decks carried only a blank or black image. Everytime the dvd decks were engaged, all three played some sort of stream in sync with the others. The recorded sound track for the production was carried on the A dvd deck.

Back to basics, every time you insert a gobo into a focused spotlight to throw images of leaves and tree branches onstage, you are, in point of fact, employing a rudimentary form of projection. The Great American Scene Machine introduced the concept of moving gobos on belts which enabled otherworldly atmospherics to be employed by theatre artists. You seem to be concerned with the use of photographic and video images which is essentially the same thing but with a variety of limitations as I've suggested above.

The two most impressive uses of multi-media I've ever seen on the legitimate stage were Des McNuff's production of Tommy on Broadway and Studio Scarabee's repertoire from the mid-seventies. Studio Scarabee are the people you should be researching. Trust me on this.
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Old April 1st, 2009, 01:13 PM   #4
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You would have to go rear as mentioned & you would have to work with a lighting designer to achieve your desired effect. The last thing you would want are the stage lights overpowering your screen. You would also need to check if you have enough throw distance depending on the size of the screen you are using

Throw Distance = lens size x screen length. Standard lens is 1.2

You would also need to co-converged 2 projectors for your show, the last thing you would want is for a projector to fail while the show is going on, the 2nd projector serves as back-up.

my 2 cents
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Old April 1st, 2009, 02:33 PM   #5
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I have used video pretty extensively on stage and even wrote a brief article on it a few years ago which you will find in the DVinfo archives here: Using Video On The Stage by Boyd Ostroff

Since then we've done a few more shows and learned a lot more. In fact, we are getting ready to load-in a production using a 50 foot wide rear screen and 20,000 lumen Christie s+20K DLP projector in about a week.

You can get very impressive results, but be prepared to spend lots of $$$. We own the screen ourselves, but are renting the projector, hardware and video servers for about three weeks from Scharff-Weisberg. The rental tab will be over $35,000.

Rear screens are custom made in any size you want out of vinyl material which is "welded" with more or less invisible seams. Figure about $5/square foot for one of these. This would be just for the screen itself with no frame, to be hung like a backdrop from the theatre's rigging system.

This is a complex subject, and one which interests me a lot. Funny, just a couple days ago I told Chris I should probably update that old article. Others have made some good suggestions here - and a few which I would also not really agree with.

The 20,000 lumen Christie projector is a thing of beauty. We used it earlier this year for front projection on a 48 foot wide white filled scrim and it was amazing. Even with full houselights and worklights on, the image was still quite bright.

My gut feelings (FWIW), for a screen up to perhaps 16 feet wide you might get away with a 5,000 lumen projector. A 10,000 lumen projector can do a 40 foot wide screen if you can keep the stage lights off it. But bigger is definitely better. LCD will be cheaper, but DLP is so much nicer. You get a higher contrast ratio so the black are really black. With LCD projectors you will still see a grey rectange on the screen even when sending it a completely black image.

And don't rule out front projection. We have used it with people in front of the screen, and it depends on the geometry of the theatre. If the projector is located high - like a balcony booth - then you won't get shadows on the screen from the people unless they get very close to it.

There's a lot more to it than I can get into with this one post, but I'll try to answer any specific questions you might have. Our production of Fidelio last fall was probably the most complex in terms of projections, and we spent some serious money between the production of the video, rental of 3 DLP projectors, video servers and control. I collected a lot of documentation on this here if you're interested: Fidelio
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Old April 2nd, 2009, 07:26 PM   #6
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I remember this has been done before with a gigantic semi-opaque screen (literally filled the whole stage) at our local Michael J. Fox Theater during a "Young People's concert" a few years back. Basically, animation plays on the screen cued to moments in the play, such as an airplane crashing.
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