Large slabs of stone bear witness to the daily activity at Stony Creek Quarry in Branford, CT, where beautiful pink granite was quarried for the base of the Statue of Liberty and portions of the Brooklyn Bridge. For two weekends, June 19 to 22 and June 25 to 29, one section of the quarry was totally transformed into a performance venue for the site specific Terra Tractus, produced by Projects For A New Millennium as part of the nonprofit organization’s 20th anniversary.
Terra Tractus examines the geological history of the earth and the quarry itself, as both evolved through ancient history to an imagined future by way of elemental, tectonic, and man-made forces. Video designers Daniel Fine and Matthew Ragan created a multilayered environment to enhance the story.
“We were very interested in exploring the intersections of lo-fi, DIY, stop-motion techniques, and hi-fi, algorithmic digital art,” says Fine, who knew Jamie Burnett, the show’s co-producer/lighting designer, from his days living in New Haven. “When Jamie came to LDI@ASU, we reconnected, and he asked me to design the projections for the quarry show. I knew, at that time, that it was too big a job and too short a turnaround to do by myself, so I asked fellow ASU student and colleague Matthew Ragan to co-design.”
Ragan and Fine worked together to develop the content and the system as well as projector selection and placement. “This was the seventh show Matt and I worked on together and third as co-designers,” says Fine, noting that the content was a combination of stock video clips, custom art created in Derivative TouchDesigner by Ragan, and custom real world 3D models built by Fine and local artists, and animated using After Effects. ASU alum Alex Oliszewski joined the team onsite for tech week during the content creation phase, and all content was created in two weeks.
The video designers also used multiple live cameras, miniature models, realtime digital art, stop motion animations, and visuals reacting to music in realtime (the music was by composer, Istvan B’Racz, who Fine has worked with since 1996). Three Christie 12K Roadster projectors covered the throw distance of approximately 205' to the quarry wall. “In the planning process, Dan and I found ourselves staring down the barrel of an impossibly huge venue and asking ourselves how we were going to help projection fit into this place that felt distinctly earthlike and yet simultaneously otherworldly,” notes Ragan. “We finally settled on a projection area roughly 120'x33'. This enormous projection area gave the audience an ultra-wide screen experience.”
TouchDesigner also served as the media server. “Matt created a custom warp and blending patch, and we used Mary Franck’s TouchDesigner Rouge VJ application for playback,” explains Fine. “TouchDesigner ran using a custom built PC that was originally configured for my thesis project, Wonder Dome.”
Transforming Stony Creek Quarry
Fine discovered that the major obstacles, other than working in an active quarry, “were the balance between narrative storytelling, traditional playback and cueing, and the ability to remain flexible and be able to VJ. The director and main collaborators were looking for very specific storytelling moments, while also wanting us to have artistic freedom to interpret the story outline. We were tasked with the responsibility of specific narrative moments that could be abstract to a certain degree but had to communicate meaning and story to an audience at the same time. These very specific moments needed to be cued, but since the sound design was being live-mixed every night, and timing could change from show to show, we also needed the ability to be a flexible VJ in the moment. Rouge allowed us to cue specific movies and also to composite, VJ-style, many elements on the fly.”
Burnett’s lighting also evoked the surprising and beautiful visual atmosphere in the quarry, which he describes as “a world where continents collide and create fissures and lava,” with fixtures placed as high as 75' on the ledge of the quarry and as far as 300' from the ETC Ion console in the booth. To solve the issue of running extensive cables throughout the active quarry, he used five universes of City Theatrical SHoW DMX SHoW Baby 5.
The color palette for the lighting took its cues from the video. “We had the luxury of being in the quarry with the video for four nights and got to see what they doing, so we adjusted the color palette accordingly before installing the lighting,” explains Burnett. “We used their color as a motivating source to enhance the quarry, and then used the light as if the projections continued throughout the quarry when warranted.”
A triangular fabric screen indicating a mountain was pulled up by chain hoist motor cantilevered over the edge of the quarry, with six climbers on the crew doubling as performers, four of them in any given show on a rotating basis. “We needed the climbers since a lot of the lighting gear was sitting on edges of the quarry. They cross the quarry during the show on two 350' long zip lines, with a third line to pull up a large sheet of paper painted each night during the show with black light paint and illuminated with two Altman Lighting blacklights. The climbers wore helmets lit up with wireless controlled CTI QolorFLEX LED tape using SHoW DMX D4 dimmers.
“We had one week to set up rigging and projection, as well as clear areas for the climbers using a machete to clear shrubbery to create a path they could negotiate in the dark,” says Burnett. “We then spent four all-nighters, dusk to dawn, to set the lighting before opening, tweaking and changing things every night.” The end result was a breathtaking visual environment set in Stony Creek Quarry, which lends itself perfectly to becoming a site-specific performance venue.
Read and see more in the July issue of Live Design, now available for free download for iPad or iPhone from the Apple App Store.