Fade To Black, Really

Nearly four years ago, Wendall Harrington wrote in Live Design (“Video Blackout,” a sidebar to “A Tale Of Two Edies”) that she was unable to use projections at certain key moments during Grey Gardens at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway because the projectors could not fade to black. Today, she would be able to accomplish just that.

For the uninitiated, digital video projectors are always emitting light. Even when the image is black, the projector is still emitting a small amount of light called “video black.” Depending on the needs of the production, you can get away with a small amount of video black. For example, some shows never actually go to a true blackout. With at least a few stage lights on, the video black can be blended into the rest of the transition. For times when we need to go to full black, however, we usually have to put something in front of the lens in order to black out the light. It can be as simple as a piece of cardboard tied to a string, or it can be more complex, like a DMX-controlled dowser, which essentially is an electronic version of cardboard-tied-to-string. The problem with these, of course, is you can see the dowser closing. As Harrington puts it, “Think of a singer in a projected atmosphere, the image fading softly at the end of a song, everything carefully calibrated to vanish with the final note, and then, a visual wallop, when the guillotine comes down to hold back the light coming out of the projector. It makes me want to scream. It ruins everything.”

As AJ Epstein pointed out (“Letters To The Editor”) in his response to Harrington’s article, there are several projectors that either blackout the projection completely, or use some fancy optical work to make the contrast between full black and full light so great that the video black becomes negligible. Unfortunately, those projectors are effectively too expensive or too old to be useful for theatrical purposes. However, a modern and reasonably priced option has come to my attention while working on the pre-Broadway run of Lombardi at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA. The Barco CLM series of event projectors have a function that can be controlled by DMX that will adjust the intensity of the projector lamp, allowing you to create smooth fade-ins and outs, timed and controlled with lighting.

Essentially the lighting desk sees the projector as another lighting instrument with its own DMX channel and attributes, including focus, zoom, and some minor color adjustments. While I was skeptical at first about the quality of the fades, I have to say that I have become a big fan of this projector after giving it a trial run. The fades were smoothly integrated and not “chunky,” as was my fear. Barco currently makes the CLM series in two flavors, 8,000 lumens and 10,000 lumens, which is not a huge range of options, but it will do the job for most applications, and is certainly an indication of things to come. The mechanical dowser, which has saved my neck so many times before, may have met its match.

Daniel Brodie is a freelance New York-based projection designer and multimedia artist. Recently, he was the assistant projection designer on Rock of Ages and Sondheim on Sondheim. Check out brodiegraphics.com, inc.

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