In the Eye of the Hurricane: Key Largo Projections

(Photo by Jeff Lorch)

Director Doug Hughes asked projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson of PXT Studio to join Geffen Playhouse’s production of Key Largo a few months prior to tech. They joined the design team comprising scenic designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski sound designer Alex Hawthorn, and costume designer Linda Cho. “Peter K. advocated to bring in projection to be able to create realistic storm effects for the hurricane scene,” recalls Pietras. “He recognized that there were limitations to what lighting would be able to do to create truly realistic effects.”

The set was already designed and underway when the projection designers joined the team. Beatty—who won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for the production—had Calgary, Alberta-based F&D Scene Changes mix mica powder flakes into the paint to make the set more receptive to projection.

“John Lee Beatty is incredibly savvy when it comes to projection on his sets,” praises Thompson, who worked with the scenic designer to determine the best combination of materials to capture projection and allow projected illumination to come through the window. “I’ve never seen a set designer so present leading up to tech and throughout the entire process. The set was beautiful and fully decorated on the first day of tech in a way I don’t know that I have ever seen before…He ‘set’ an incredibly high bar for the rest of us by his example.”

The set was designed before projection was introduced, and consequently, the skylight was very close to the grid. “We hardly had any room to fit projectors and to get the amount of throw we needed,” says Thompson. The projection team ultimately covered the ceiling section with a single 12K Panasonic laser projector and a brand new .3 on-axis lens, called ET-DLE020, that was not available in the U.S. until right before tech began. “We literally reached out to our friends at Panasonic to help us get this lens. I’m almost positive we were the very first theatrical production to ever use it, because it just wasn’t available.”

Three 10K Panasonic laser projectors from the Geffen’s supply lined the balcony rail to act as window sources for the invisible fourth wall. “So much of what we did was blend in with what Peter was doing with lights,” notes Thompson. “We were like magical lighting instruments with an infinite library of gobos.” The team ran everything through a Dataton Watchout media server.

The projection pair created a storyline that broke down the stages of the storm and shared this with the rest of the creative team. They worked closely with Hawthorne, who created an organic and generative soundscape that the team ensured was in sync with the projections. “There was a great deal of dramaturgy to the storm,” explains Thompson. “We were always checking in with each other, ‘Does it build even more here?’”

“We really wanted to bring in a heightened theatricality to the storm effects,” notes Pietras. “At the same time, the storm needed to feel dynamic, and it had to build and fluctuate organically. We didn’t want to use stock footage. It had to look real and change all the time.”

Pietras built the skylight in Maxon Cinema 4D and used X-Particles to generate physically accurate rain. She placed a camera below the skylight to capture the storm in different stages using different levels of turbulence and wind. “It was important to reference the actual skylight, including the mullions in the frame, as well as the angle it was designed at so the water could pool in places and slide down in a way that really sold the storm,” explains Pietras.

She then used the same camera setup to cast palm tree shadows throughout the storm as well as flying debris. “Since we were looking at this effect from below, I also needed to capture the quality of the glass in the final render,” Pietras says. “After exporting the movie files from Cinema 4D, I blended the debris, shadows, and rain in [Adobe] After Effects and ran everything through a blur filter so it wouldn’t look too crisp.”

Their favorite scene of Key Largo was when actor Andy Garcia shot at the hurricane while screaming “I’m Johnny Rocco!”

“We tried to make the biggest storm we possibly could, and Andy Garcia was still bigger,” concludes Thompson.

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