I-mag, or Image Magnification, is simply the use of video cameras to capture live action and send the live stream to large video displays, providing a dispersed audience with a close-up view of the subject. The technique is used in virtually every arena-sized tour so the folks in the cheap seats have some idea of what’s happening on stage. I-mag is also used in most large corporate events and even some smaller ones, where it becomes not so much image-magnification as it is ego-magnification (Hey buddy, we can see you just fine from 20' away).
Until recently, I-mag use was a rare occurrence in theatrical productions, because it didn’t seem necessary in the more intimate environment of the theater, and it’s likely that the director wanted the audience to take in the whole of the production, rather than a small sliver on a screen. However, recent evidence points to more extensive use of live camera technology in theatrical production, and it is worth examining these applications.
Video capture for the theater stage has been used in specific instances for some time, typically to reproduce surveillance, or live news footage. There were also a few productions that used video capture off-stage to provide the audience a glimpse of action backstage or, in one case I remember, in the alley outside the stage door (if anyone remembers what that production was, let me know).
In the past, camera and transmission technology were challenging to use on stage as good-quality cameras were bulky and connections were usually via a cable that had to be wrangled or integrated within the set. Wireless transmission schemes were used in a few cases but were generally avoided due to cost and reliability concerns.
Nowadays, non-broadcast 4K cameras are readily available and inexpensive. In fact, you may have one in your pocket right now! In addition, putting together a battery operated, wireless connection system is much easier and affordable, so it makes sense that more directors would consider integrating live video capture into their productions.
One well-known director that appears to have a soft spot for on-stage video capture is Ivo van Hove, and he was able to utilize this technique to the nth degree in Network on Broadway, which relies on a very sophisticated video system designed by Tal Yarden. However, I saw a different van Hove production that used video capture in an environment far different that the on-stage television studio of Network. The Comedié-Française production of The Damned, (also featuring video system designed by Yarden), which I saw at Park Avenue Armory (where it made its North American debut), takes place in pre-WWII Germany and van Hove created a number of live capture effects, one of which was devastating to experience.
The camera system is introduced early at the start of the production, capturing actors on stage getting ready to attend a party. The captured images were displayed on a large LED screen, upstage center. In this first instance, the technology seemed a little gratuitous, and at other times, the camera operators stalking the stage were a slight distraction. However, it was undeniable that the close-up shots of the actors amplified the emotional impact considerably in this fraught environment.
The pièce de résistance of the video effect involved caskets, which were used to signify the burying of the dead, a common enough occurrence during the rise of Nazism. As each performer met his or her end, they were led stage-left to a riser upon which a number of funeral caskets sat. The casket lid was opened, the performer was laid down in the satin-lined interior, and the lid was firmly closed.
At that exact moment, a video camera located within the casket, and focused on the performer’s face, was fed to the large-screen display. Watching the live video of the actor in the casket performing their final moments and death throes on screen is not a visual I am likely to forget for a long time.
More recently, I attended a performance of the tradition-shattering production of Oklahoma! at the Circle in the Square and witnessed another application of live video capture. At points in the staging, an actor would trail other performers, and the resulting close-ups were projected on the upstage wall, heavily filtered and fairly abstract. I imagine the choice of integrating live video into the scenic design was motivated by the director’s (Daniel Fish, with scenic design by Laura Jellinek and projection design by Joshua Thorson) desire to break all boundaries between cast and audience, which is a hallmark of this invigorating production.
Among many non-video examples of this boundary breaking, is the bit when the fabulous and adorable Damon Daunno as Curly exits the stage and directs a sly wink at a woman in the audience. The evening I intended, the winked at woman was my wife!
Throughout a 40-year career in the entertainment technology business, Josh Weisberg has experienced each of the evolutionary leaps in sound, video, and lighting technology from a seat in the front row. Combining a rare level of business management and technical engineering acumen, Weisberg has a keen understanding of the mechanics of running a technology business as well as the engineering and design chops clients rely on for all types of projects. Currently working as a technology and business consultant (having stepped down from the leadership role at Scharff Weisberg and WorldStage in 2017), Weisberg utilizes his expertise in large-screen display design as well as other event technologies for clients in the event, arts, theater, and spectacle sectors.