Integrating Digital Scenery on a Budget

Projections offer staging solutions for theaters regardless of size and budget. A common misconception is that equipping your theater with the proper hardware to run projections will cost an arm and a leg. We’re going to explore ways to successfully integrate scenic elements to increase production value without draining your production budget.

Let’s get started with the basics. Here are the three necessities to run projections in your theater:

  1. A light colored projection surface - This can be an existing cyc, scrim, painted back wall, painted flats, or dead hanging muslin. Keep in mind that your surface texture will be visible. If you decide to hang muslin, be sure to weight the bottom with washers or pvc pipe. You can also build a wood frame and stretch the muslin to create a large, removable canvas.
  2. A playback device - Mac, PC, or iPad to run the StagePlayer software and an HDMI or CAT6 Cable to connect to the projector. For distances under 50 ft we recommend an HDMI connection and feeding the HDMI cable down the grid to run the projections from the wings. If you prefer to have the projectionist running StagePlayer from the booth in the rear of the theater, a CAT6 cable will be required. An official Apple iPad to HDMI adapter is required for the iPad to directly communicate with the projector.
  3. A short-throw projector with a minimum of 5k lumens (lumens is the measurement of brightness of the projector). A projector under 5k lumens and a width over 16 ft will not produce an image bright enough to combat being washed out by stage lighting.

We recommend the Economy Lite Bundle, which can be reserve your rental here.

Projections will work with any projector, but it’s important to keep in mind that the quality of your image output is dependent on the projector itself. Projecting a large (over 40ft wide) AND bright image can prove to be costly, and often overpower your stage. There are many ways to produce a bright and crisp projection using a lower grade projector.

You can achieve a brighter image by reducing the size of the projection and thus cutting costs on hardware rentals. Think of a projector like a flashlight. As you shine the light against a wall and walk towards the surface, the circle of light gets smaller, but brighter. As you walk away from the wall, the circle gets bigger, but dimmer. The same is true of a projector.

One of the easiest ways to reduce the width of your projected image is to bring the travelers in on the sides. You can also dead hang complementary curtains that correspond with the theme of the show to jazz up the classic black travelers. For example, using free form, green fringe dropping down from the fly for a production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid during the scenes that take place under the sea, give the illusion of seaweed dancing in the wings all while framing your projected backdrop to fill the whole stage. Strategically adding twinkle lights throughout can also serve as a representation of fireflies in weeping willow branches during “Kiss the Girl”.

Another avenue to explore is adding built-set elements downstage of the projection surface. This creates depth, allows for new options for blocking an entrance, and can incorporate traditional design like groundrows and platforms.

I saw this successfully implemented for a production of Mamma Mia! This production used a reduced width upstage center projection surface for their backdrop replacement, and integrated built Taverna flats (each with entrances) downstage left and right of the surface.

For theaters without the ability to mount the short-throw projector onstage, we’ve got you covered. You can rear or front project from the ground, a table. or built-in shelves within platforms placed in front of the projection surface.

It’s important to note that there will be a vertical shift of the projected image when using a fixed lens projector from the floor, meaning the image will start above ground level. Use a platform downstage of the projector or design a “groundrow” scenic element downstage of the projection surface is great way to avoid a gap between the floor and the image. This will help create parameters for the actors to walk about the stage without casting shadows, help protect the projector itself as well as cover the projector from the view of the audience.

Staging “magic” in productions in traditional theatre without the help of projections can prove to be extremely challenging. Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a perfect example of a production that has moments that are impossible to manifest or even imply without the use of projections. The magic chalkboard setting is a must-have. Broadway Media’s official MTI approved Scenic Projection show package includes 2 different versions of the “Chalkboard R-E-V-O-L-T-I-N-G” scene to fit the needs of your production. Option 1 is a full backdrop replacement of the classroom with the chalkboard included in the illustration. Option 2 is the magic levitating chalk and writing on a black background. This version allows for the setting to be projected on a physical chalkboard. A clever staging of Option 2 is to put one of the children’s desks downstage and facing the chalkboard, with a small classroom projector built into a cubbyhole. This allows for the backdrop to be projected from the rear, while integrating a physical chalkboard for interaction with the actors, without sacrificing the magic.

Speaking of magic, “A Whole New World” from Broadway Media’s Disney’s Aladdin JR Scenic Projection show package transports the audience on a believable magic carpet from Jasmine’s balcony up through clouds and starlit sky. The traditional staging of this musical number relies heavily on the audience’s ability to read between the lines as well as extra stagehands on the crew. A common way to create the illusion of flying is to put a rolling cart on a pulley system with 4 stage hands (2 per side) to pull the actors across the stage, drape the whole stage floor in black fabric and then place the carpet on top of the rolling cart, with the actors on top. Using the projections on our upstage projection with the magic carpet stationary center stage, takes 2 clicks of your mouse: “blackout” and “cue next”. Think about adding a special “wow” factor to the magic carpet set piece, such as small fog machines mounted on the underside of the platform to create clouds while it “soars” through the air.

Production with multiple quick scene changes can prove to be problematic for theaters with small stage crews. Disney’s The Little Mermaid has a number of rapid transitions from land to sea that take precision and a ton of extra hours to get the tech of the show down perfectly. Traditional staging utilizes hydraulics for Eric’s ship and flying the actors portraying Ariel and Eric for the drowning sequence. Most theater spaces do not have the massive space required to implement this design successfully. Scenic Projections are perfect for productions such as this, with a large number of moving parts. Every element requires extra attention. Projections allow for Ariel to seamlessly transition from land to sea and allows for more focus on her costume change from fin to legs.

Digital scenery should be used as a tool to relieve the pressure of producing recognizable show moments to complete the story. Here’s to the MacGyvers of our industry!

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