Creating A Chromolume: Sunday In The Park With George

A week before Christmas, we were contacted to see if we could join the production of Sunday In The Park With George, which was scheduled to begin previews in less than two months. The opportunity to work on such a brilliant show with a great creative team at the opening of the newly restored Hudson Theatre was too good to pass up. Recent productions have been known to feature masterful projection designs. So it was clear that our challenge was to “bring order to the whole” and create a unique approach to both the world of 19th-century George Seurat and his contemporary—well, 1980s—grandson George: the inventor of the Chromolume.  

The first meeting with director Sarna Lapine included a presentation of ideas for the Act One projection design as well as ideas for the Act Two, often underwhelming, Chromolume #7. For Act One, we focused on Seurat’s creative evolution from sketch to pointillism, which reveals itself in a final tableau vivant of the title painting A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte. We felt that “contemporary” George had been short-changed in past productions and deserved something a bit more impressive to be an artist worthy of a commission at the Art Institute of Chicago. We presented Sarna with a few examples of installations from recent concerts and corporate events and looked at a sketch from set designer Beowulf Boritt. It was clear that what we were after was a dynamic kinetic lighting installation that was both surprising and immersive.

We created an animated 3D rendering in Maxon Cinema 4D of an array of kinetic lights forming various shapes and color patterns over the audience and presented to the producers Riva Marker, Jeanine Tesori, Adam Speers (The Ambassador Group), and to Jake Gyllenhaal for approval. To say the least, the response was very enthusiastic (Jake Gyllenhaal: “F’k yeah, Chromolume!”). The challenge became very real in that moment. We were to design the installation of a huge array of motors and lights over the audience of a newly renovated Broadway theatre that would install in only a few weeks. Easy.

 

We immediately plotted out an array of motors, lights, pipes, and truss that would suspend over the entire orchestra section of the audience, made several site visits to the Hudson Theatre, which was under renovation, discussed weight loads with engineers, and began contacting vendors during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Note: Holidays are not the optimal time for receiving speedy replies. Neil Mazzella of Hudson Scenic and his team, including Kyle Ferguson, worked tirelessly as both technical supervisors and scene shop to pull together this immense addition to the production in the final hour.

DMX-controlled winches are both fairly new and now popular for events and concerts so we quickly ran into a shortage in the market. We became very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to acquire a significant number of motors and lights for our three-month residence in the theatre. Fortunately, Pieter van Berkel of Stage Kinetik responded on New Year’s Eve that his company would be able to supply the necessary gear from Germany. With budget authorization from the producers, we began to dig deeper into the design process.

Given how little time we had to “tech” the Chromolume once we were in the theatre, it was essential that we accurately previsualized our ideas. Using a recording of the music for the Chromolume, an original composition by Michael Starobin, we created video content that we imagined would control both the lighting and movement of the kinetic sculpture. We thought pixel-mapping might be a way to go and Cinema 4D allowed us an environment that we could accurately model both the lighting and movement of the lights in 3D space. In C4D, we created a rough model of the space and the array of lights. To visualize the pixel-mapping, we applied the video content for the color “lighting map” as a color and luminance texture that was parallel-mapped over-top an array of duplicated spheres that was mapped according to the design. We then applied the video content for the “movement map” as the texture for a displacement map. When played back, it gave us an accurate example of how the dynamics of the sculpture would feel in space.

Working with lighting designer Ken Billington, we decided that we could control both the lighting and winches from the ETC Eos lighting console pixel-mapping feature. The Eos would do the heavy lifting to convert the individual video pixels to a sequence of DMX RGB values sent to Glow Motion’s “pathfinder” wireless LED communication interface. On a separate console, operated by a rigger, would be all the motor control with its own content to control to positions of the motors. Lighting programmer Victor Seastone and winch programmer Chelsea Zalikowski were instrumental in the execution and troubleshooting of the mapping. They worked with ETC to create a pixel-mapping environment that would allow us to control motors through video content, over a live audience safely. Also key to the success of the Chromolume were projection programmer Daniel Mueller, production electrician Jimmy Maloney, associate production electrician Ron Schwier, and board op/electrician Brian Aman, who all put forth an enormous effort in overcoming the unforeseeable hurdles that come with putting new technology into a new Broadway theatre.

There were moments when our team could relate to the character Dennis, the Chromolume engineer, when he laments to George, “I am going back to NASA. There is just too much pressure in this line of work.” Thanks to a huge collaborative effort across all departments, we made George’s “Chromolume #7” a truly unique and memorable theatrical event worthy of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s seminal musical Sunday In The Park With George.

Read about the set design, lighting designprojection design, sound design, and costume design here

For more, read the March 2017 issue of Live Design as an interactive PDF. 

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