I want to explain some common projection set-ups. I cannot say these are easy as experience has taught me that the attribute "easy" is very subjective—particularly when you are doing something for a living which is not well understood by many people.
My idea behind the focus on common set-ups such as front-projection is that it will allow me to shed some light on the basic concepts, challenges and technology required to make projection designs work. Hopefully, I can do this without overwhelming anyone with too many terms, techniques and technological jargon. Some jargon will be hard to avoid because this is a specialized field of work and the names for many things are well...special. They will either be explained within this text or inside the Key section of this site. In any case, I am interested in finding out what needs further explanation and how to balance the details with the principles.
While the possibilities of designing projections are seemingly endless, there is a fair amount of repetition of very basic configurations. The specifics of software and hardware equipment may change, but the bold strokes repeat themselves. This is because critical parts and conditions rule most design approaches. By conditions, I am mostly referring to the configuration of the theater; specifically, where projectors and projection surfaces are located in relationship to the stage and the viewing public. Part of the reason for repetitive configurations are the limited number of existing stage configurations. Most commercial theaters are proscenium theaters and most proscenium theaters on Broadway and the West End have a rather shallow stage. As a consequence, the options available to a projection designer are largely dictated by the architecture of the theatre. As the projection designer is entrusted by the producers to do a good job, I also have to consider the available budget, maintenance and servicing of equipment and the reliability of the chosen configuration and setup during an eight show per week schedule. Due to all of these conditions, we often place projectors somewhere in the front of house (FoH) to realize the concept of front projection onto a surface or surfaces which can be easily viewed by the audience. In this early series of what I hope will be many essays on common set-ups, I want to talk about this set-up, which for the sake of simplicity I am just going to call "front projection."
The Five Main Components
In order to create a basic front projection set-up or in fact any projection set-up, you will need need five main components: artwork that you want to project, a projector (or speaking more generally, an output device), a playback device, a surface to project on as well as a way to control the playback and output. In other words, once you have a piece of artwork or imagery you like to see projected onto a surface, you need a playback device that can send that imagery to the projector. The projector will turn that signal into light that can be focused onto the surface. The surface will reflect that light back into the viewers eyes allowing them to see the image. As mentioned before, it is also necessary to have control over the playback and the projector. This basic flow from artwork to the perception of seeing the artwork projected is aided by a myriad of different cables, connectors, protocols and signals. Your choice is in an ideal scenario dependent on what you expect to see and at which level of quality.
The quality of the projection I like to define loosely (and again for the sake of simplicity) as the marriage of brightness, resolution and contrast. In reality, most people have at least one of the five main components with which to start. This often affects the choice of the other four. Beginning with imagery, it is not uncommon for the director or designer to prefer a particular painter, photographer or (more troublesome for my profession) a filmmaker. The latter situation is worthy of is own article if not a series of anecdotes, so my example will be a photographer - at least the picture does not move...yet. The hypothetical task is to show the photograph on a gauze that covers the front of the stage when the audience enters, at intermission and after the show. That sounds like three cues for three states; pre-show, intermission and post show plus another three cues to take each of theses states out. However, the director wants the photograph to be in color and in focus when the audience comes in and when the show starts it is supposed to slowly shrink, become unfocused and desaturate to black-and-white. The latter needs to happen in sync with a lighting and sound cue. Part 2 will explain how to chose the right projector for this task.