Creating imagery that integrates well with scenery and lighting has always been my goal. Artistically, it is very satisfying for me to witness a live event where the audience is unaware of the lighting, scenery or projection. I believe that the imagery should only attract attention to itself when it is specifically intended to do so. In fact, there is a point in this process when most of my time on a show is spent working with my assistant who programs the media servers. The reason for this is that the imagery is just right for the intended purpose, but the sequences involving the use of the imagery as well as physical stage elements, performers, sound and lighting, have not yet been brought into perfectly synchronized harmony. This lack of harmony or integration leads to an emphasis of components of the stage language causing them to look out of place. This is usually produced 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 approach can be found in the San Francisco production of Swan Lake. It was choreographed by the San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director Helgi Tomasson and designed by Jonathan Fensom. A longtime collaborator of Mr. Tomasson’s, Jennifer Tipton, lit the production and Michael Ward designed the wigs and make-up. I worked closely with Jonathan Fensom on the design for over a year. The primary goal of the design was to be clear and establish every location with a strong stage picture whereby scenery, lighting and projections gel into a unified whole. No one should be able to distinguish between the lighting and video projection or from painted backdrops 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 decide on the absolute minimum 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 the crucial fine adjustments needed to make such a design work.
Of all the design decisions I made for this show, two had the most profound effects on the programming. The giant moon that looms above the stage was projected using DLP projectors - not slide projectors. It had its own dedicated projectors because it needed to glow like a moon and therefore be brighter than the surrounding projected scenery (catered to by other projectors). The silhouette of a dancer running past the curtain covering the stage during the prologue was projected and was equally important programmatically. It was not a real shadow cast using a follow spot on a dancer, but it had to look that way. The shadow had to stumble when the evil sorcerer Rothbart cast his spell, transform into a swan and fly away into the night sky. For practical reasons, that sequence was front projected as well.
Apart from the two effects mentioned above, I can name two other design choices which served to integrate the projections. The projected sky backgrounds had to match the painterly style of the physical scenery. Additionally, the sky had to move at a speed that would not draw attention to itself, yet move quickly enough to feel “alive.” At times these backgrounds had to be just visible enough to create a contrast on the gauze covered RP screen, allowing the blacks to appear blacker while insinuating a depth which did not physically exist. It is an old lighting trick and since projectors are a source of light, often the same rules apply. This point can actually not be stressed enough since the successful integration of video projection on this show crucially depended on the matching of the colors of lighting and projection design. If Jennifer changed a color, hue or intensity, I had to do the same. 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.
On opening night, I sat next to Jennifer and a patron leaned over to compliment her on the preset design on the giant curtain. As it was a projected watery texture achieved without the use of lighting instruments, I was flattering in two ways. On the one hand, the projections were mistaken for lighting and on the other because it was deemed to be as good as Jennifer’s work.
My core team included my associate S. Katy Tucker and my assistant and programmer Peter Vincent Acken.
(A version of this article was published in LiveDesign Magazine, January/February 2010)