Heart, Passion and Technical Smarts Bring Emojiland the Musical to Life

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(Jeremy Daniel)

Like many Off-Broadway productions, the story of Emojiland begins at a theater festival, in this case, the late, lamented 2019 New York Musical Festival, where the production was staged in workshop. Even then,   the show designer’s technical ambitions were clear as they hastily put together sophisticated animated visuals that enhanced the performance. After drawing critical attention at the workshop, the challenge was clear: How can we build on our dynamic staging with technology while working under the constraints of a small-theater budget?

Designer Lisa Renkel, who had been brought in to design projections for the workshop, was reengaged for the new production. Realizing the ambitious scope of the production, she decided to expand the video team by bringing on Possible Productions and their founder, Michael Figge, as co-designers.

The video technology team led by Renkel and Figge, brought an unusual perspective to the Emojiland production. While Renkel has significant projection design experience in traditional theater, she has been doing a lot of live music production lately in collaboration with Possible, a prominent creative company in the live concert world. This combination could be described as Lady Gaga meets 200-seat Off-Broadway house, which turned out to be the perfect mix of experience for this project.

"The level of commitment, devotion, and passion the team had for this project was very apparent to me right at the beginning," Renkel recounts. "About a year later, we got word that an Off-Broadway production was beging funded. Knowing everything this project was and what the potential could be and having worked with Possible in the interim, I knew it was a really great avenue to bring them into the process. I spoke with Figge about it, and we both jumped in feet first."

The work began with a close collaboration between Renkel, Figge, and the rest of the design team. While the script and cueing from the original production remained intact, the set design and visuals were going to be totally new. Plenty of time was spent brainstorming all kinds of ideas, many of them unfeasible due to the cost or complexity (custom high-resolution LED cubes, anyone?), but those concepts were refined until the team felt they captured the original intent effectively while keeping the budget under control.

"Scenic designer David Goldstein came up with this concept that the core scenic pieces were these exploding pixels with all these cubes in different angles and different planes, and as they placed closer to the edge of the stage they start to break away," Renkel explains. "That carried through the video and the set projection."

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Emojiland concept rendering

In essence, what the design team created was an imagining of the digital world within a smartphone as seen through a comedic lens. The set design, although wildly imaginative and relatively easy to build, would be a projection-mapping Mount Everest to climb.

Amongst the primary physical challenges were the constraints of the theatrer, which has limited ceiling height, as well as the complexity of the set itself that presents a multitude of small planar surfaces each at a randomized angle in reference to the stage centerline. Other key concerns were related to projector positions that might be obstructed by actors, as well as the number of projectors required to map the set and whether they would be affordable.

Seeking a gut check on design feasibility, Renkel and the team reached out to Lars Pedersen and his team at WorldStage early in the process. With an eye towards practicality and budget, the WorldStage team, which has years of experience providing gear and services to all kinds of theatrical productions, helped codify the technical spec. This collaboration helped Renkel and her team discard some less practical concepts while keeping the overall concept intact.

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Emojiland set with projections and upstage LED

The intricacy of the set also presented challenges to the designers and animators charged with creating the hours of content that would run throughout the performance. While in some instances content flows over the geometric pixel shapes, the content needed to map directly to each of many planar surfaces for many of the cues. That challenge was met by a team of animators, eventually as many as ten, working under Renkel's and Figge's supervision.

A key factor was finding a workable method for translating all of the facets into a template that the animators could work with – a process developed by Figge. “We actually kept the UV map live. If you can imagine unwrapping that complicated shape into a 2D map, it would be unrecognizable as a means to work in a flat sense,” Figge points out. “So we built the UVs in a projected perspective set. There was built-in distortion that we relied on a disguise media server to un-distort, but essentially, we wanted the UV map to look like the set as seen from audience perspective.”

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Emojiland UV map file

The technical design for the projection system was sketched out by WorldStage, relying on the modeling capability of the online app Mapping Matter and Panasonic PT-RZ970 and RX-110 projectors with wide lenses. The projectors were mounted in the grid, high and tight, to minimize obstruction and positioned so that every facet of each cube was illuminated by projections with relatively uniform resolution and brightness.

Media server choice for the production was unanimous with disguise winning the day. Everyone involved was very familiar with the platform and comfortable that the power, capabilities, and some new beta features would be critical to the success of the production. Possible Productions provided the 4X4pro server used in the show, which was programmed by Geordy van Es.

With all the pieces in place and working, thoughts tuned to the practicalities of staging the production and a plan that assumed there would be differences between the set "as built" and the 3D model the content crreation and installation planners were working from. With only a week in the schedule for installation and tech of the projection system, the team prepared to do a laser scan on stage as soon as the set build was complete, then use the resulting model as the final content production and alignment template.

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Emojiland projector mapping

Renkel remembers “a very insane couple of days for load-in, which ended up being between Christmas and New Year’s. It was a very, very tight turnaround for the amount of scenic as well eight projectors and an LED screen. Around December 31 the set was complete enough to bring in a few guys to do a laser scan for us. Then Shannon Harvey in the UK basically worked for two days straight and created the model, which we matched to what we had in disguise. In three or four days, we went from laser scan to projector focus to ready for tech – over a holiday! I don’t know that I would do that again.”

Once projectors were set and focused, there was much work to do to make sure the overlapping projector cones didn’t place content where it wasn’t needed. In larger projection arrays, this is common and is eliminated by creating masking layers in the media server to blank out the unwanted portions. But in the case of Emojiland, this tedious process was aggressively shortened with a neat trick. Using a NewTek NDI plugin for After Effects, Renkel was able to mark out the masking live on the set and see the results instantaneously via the disguise workspace. This turned out to be a tremendous time-saver.

After eight days of tech, the show was ready for previews in front of a live audience. Despite its complexity, the show required relatively few changes during previews as the script and basic cues hadn’t changed much from the original performance.

In closing, Renkel recounts, “Where we really succeeded, and pushed boundaries, it was because we had many incredible brains working together in multiple time zones. The story of Emojiland is one that is surprising and it resonates. I think that’s why everyone on the project was so driven and passionate despite the name that makes everyone shake their head and laugh. When you see it, it touches you in a really incredible way, and I was really thankful to be part of it.”

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Emojiland props derived from video content

Sidebar: In addition to co-designing the projections for the show, Renkel and Figge also designed the props. "Since the props for the show are life-sized cutouts of emojis you would find on your phone (and those emoji libraries are proprietary and expensive to license), we went through the process of creating our own emoji library and turned those graphics over to our property master to have printed and made into the props," she explains.

Video Production Team: 

  • Projection Designers: Lisa Renkel and Michael Figge (POSSIBLE) 
  • Assistant Projection Designer: Yaara Bar    
  • Animators: Chris Anderson, Mike Burgoyne, Gary Hebert, Joyce Hu, Shawn Wagner, Ismael Zendejas, and Nona Zieba 
  • Disguise Programmer: Geordy van Es    
  • Production Video Head: Don Ness Cieslik    
  • Video Operator: Drew Mercadante    
  • LED Technician: Zach Spenadel    
  • Laser Scan: Boum Creative    
  • Point Cloud to 3D Model UVs: Shannon Harvey    
  • Display Equipment Provider: WorldStage, Inc    
  • WorldStage Account Manager: Lars Pedersen 

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.

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