Projection Pro Tip #2: Lean Toward Front or Rear Projection?

This is part 2 of an interview with pro technical director Paul Ackerman. This interview will provide a series of tips for using theatrical projections—in a simple question and answer, ‘how do you go about it’ type format.

Mitch: Taking into consideration that every space is different and provides unique challenges, would you steer a drama teacher or director more toward front or rear projection? Do you have a preference as to what would be a good starting place?

Paul: “I don’t know that there is one answer. The advantage of rear projection is you you generally can keep more (ambient or stage) light off of the screen; you can control the screen better in terms of the light. In either case, the more you can place a screen within your design where it is out of the light of the people you want to see in front of it, the better off you’re going to be. The big advantage with rear projection is somebody can stand right in front of the screen and not cast their own shadow onto the screen—which you can’t do with front projection.

One of the things that we did to make ‘Muscle Shoals’ (one of their shows) work for us is part of the design, and that’s conversations with the designer, to say ‘yes, if you want these screens, let’s get them up higher so that we can front project on them and we don’t have to worry about shadows.’ Because all we had was front projection. I had actually gone into that because we had a big enough budget to say (to the director) ‘alright, let your imagination run wild, let’s make this a great show. Is the screen right behind them? Put the screen anywhere you want and I’ll rent the equipment to make it happen.’ But the projection designer and the scene designer said ‘no, no, from the front, above, great, let’s work with what you have.’ They were into making it great but making it great with the stuff that we had in hand. So we ended up saving a ton of money from what I had budgeted, which I promptly spent on ‘Evita’ (laughs). But that’s another story. But the fact that these guys, and this could be true for any size budget, they said ‘what do you have, how do we serve the show, and yet design it to give us an advantage.’ And so they said ‘Great, you’ve got a projector already, let’s do front projection. Because that’s what you have, but we’ll make these cheap screens work by keeping them out of the acting area light. And keeping it so performers are not standing in front of the projected image.’ And the design worked in that way.

The next challenge we ran into with that is we’ve got a super bright projector, it’s great—this Barco 14,000 lumen projector—so what the projection designer did in this program called QLab is he took the four simple screens, sort of odd shapes, and he masked them out in QLab. So ‘ that’s screen 1, this is screen 2, etc…’ So within the entire field of the one projection, within the cone of light, he drew each of the four screens. And so there was video black everywhere else. ‘So I’m gonna take this one slide and I’m going to put it across all four screens and this is going to be interesting.’ To see parts of this image, which was a great technique that he tried. Technically the problem for us (the tech crew) is once we said ‘these are the four shapes and we’ll front project and we can mask in QLab, that’s all great.’ But with the lens that we have, where our projector normally is on the balcony rail, which is this beautiful straight shot—we can’t get wide enough to hit all four screens. The angle of the lens was such that we didn’t have it. So to buy or rent a different lens would have been $10,000. So the next step in our solution to this is, if you want to get the projection cone wider, move the projector further away from the projection surface. It’s a cone that just keeps getting wider and wider as it goes back in distance. Well, we can’t move the balcony rail back but what if we put it at the back row of our balcony—it got us back far enough that we could hit all four screens. We had to build a scaffold structure to put the projector on and we had to ‘X’ out a few seats but that wasn’t a big deal.

So there’s just no ‘one size fits all’ answer. You have to look at what you’re trying to do, what you have to work with and the space you’re in. Just pushing these little pieces to make something that’s acceptable, that serves the show.”

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