Projection Toolbox: Projections Unchained

Tony-nominated for his work on the hit Broadway musical revival of Cabaret, Mike Baldassari has designed lighting for theatre, concerts, major corporate events, and television (including an Emmy nomination for the lighting direction of Garth Brooks Live From Central Park). In the concert arena, he has designed shows for Mos Def, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young.

When pioneering Seattle rock band Alice in Chains decided to reunite and tour in the fall of 2006, the band called upon Baldassari to create a modern look and feel for the tour. He had previously designed a number of shows for the band's management company, as well as lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell's 2002 solo tour, Degradation Trip.

One of the unique aspects of this tour was the blending of prerecorded video and live video with conventional lighting. Baldassari used three High End Systems DL.2 projectors to provide the video elements during the show. I had a chance to interview the designer and learn more about this innovative application of video as lighting.

LD: What made you decide to incorporate video for Alice in Chains?

Mike Baldassari: From the first meeting with the band, they said they wanted a “video element” to the show, and they wanted the audience to walk out at the end, and say, “Wow, what did I just see?” We discussed various options, LED screens, and such, and landed on the DL.2 because of the versatility and the amount of content it came with. If we had gone with a conventional projection system, we would have been limited to only one place the image could be projected, and it would have to be focused from a ladder or the truss everyday. That is not something that is necessarily easy to do on this size tour. With just three projectors, I was able to provide the band with a complete video package — all controlled from the console we were going to be using anyway, nothing extra. Not only did they get “projections,” but because of the built-in cameras, we were able to do various forms of IMAG and manipulation of live video. Additionally, the video did not just project onto the backdrop, but I also used video to light the amp scrims and even some of the guys in the band.

LD: Where did you find/create media?

MB: With the exception of a video tribute to [former lead singer] Layne Staley [who died in 2002], which was produced by the band and sent to the DL.2s from an external DVD player, the rest of the content was from the onboard catalog of content. One of the great things about the DL.2 is that because the image is so easily manipulated, it's very easy to customize the stock content to be not recognizable as such; everything can look custom. I sent the band to the High End website, and they were thrilled with what they saw was available — essentially for free.

LD: How were projections controlled in this setting?

MB: They were fully integrated into the regular lighting cue lists on the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 3. We made extensive use of the collage generator, which allowed us seamless images on the backdrop using two or all three of the projectors to fill the projection surface.

LD: What was your experience like incorporating the video into a conventional lighting rig?

MB: Frankly, it couldn't have been easier. Because the video content was cued the same as a moving light, it was very easy to combine the two elements into the same cues. Thus, the line between where the projection ended and the lighting took over was completely blurred.

LD: Are there any tricks you found for the DL.2?

MB: Because it's essentially a projector in a moving-light yoke, as I mentioned earlier, I could also use them to light members of the band or on the amp scrims, and not just projections on the backdrop. I could use video as a light source. Also, the video image itself could move around the stage.

For the song “Down in a Hole,” I used two of the DL.2s collaged on the backdrop and the camera from the third to shoot the band. I then mapped the IMAG image to a cube and moved the cube so you only saw one side, totally filling the screen. When the band sang the refrain, “down in a hole, feeling so small,” the cube tumbled away from the audience down into a star field that was moving toward the audience. Of course, the whole time the cube was moving, you could still see the IMAG of the band on the cube — an amazing amount of computing power.

For another song, I again used two projectors collaged on the backdrop, mostly projecting a gently moving sea. For Cantrell's guitar solo, we shot him with the third projector and colorized it similar to the water. The result was that he appeared to be floating in the water during his solo and then faded back into the water when the solo was over. Because of the onboard camera, the lighting director is able to “see” where the camera is pointing before it's used and make small corrections to the pan and tilt right up until the actual cue is taken. At the end of the show, we also used the onboard infrared illuminator from one of the projectors to shoot the audience (in the dark) and project them onto the screen from the other two projectors. Because we did this without any light whatsoever on the audience, it was really fun to watch the audience recognize themselves every night on the backdrop and go crazy once they realized it was “live.”

LD: Any thoughts about the convergence of lighting and video?

MB: I think this is much more the future of where lighting is going. I've said it for a long time, but the idea of getting little bits of glass and metal into a beam of light is so “analog;” it's time to move on to truly digital lighting.

For more about Mike Baldassari, please visit

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