Nominated for a total of 10 Tony Awards this year, MJ: The Musical was created by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage. Included in the Tony nods is the entire creative team: two-time Tony Award winner and two-time Emmy Award winner scenic designer Derek McLane, six-time Tony Award winner lighting designer Natasha Katz, Tony and Emmy Award winner costume designer Paul Tazewell, two-time Tony Award nominee sound designer Gareth Owen, and two-time Tony Award nominee projection designer Peter Nigrini. MJ eventually opened on Broadway on February 1, 2022 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
“Christopher asked me to design the projection before the pandemic, as the show was scheduled to open in Chicago before New York, but ultimately the pandemic brought us straight in,” explains Nigrini. “When I joined the show, the design process was to a point where projection was a necessarily part of the design, which is mostly set in a rehearsal studio. This is a piece about an artist in a studio and watching this artist at work, but the production still needs to be able to leave that studio and put in front of an audience what Michael is imagining."
With the necessity of transforming the studio into the production that Michael was imagining, “that’s where the projection comes in,” notes Nigrini. “Layering images onto the set facilitating its transformation.” The primary location, the rehearsal studio, evokes a 1940’s industrial warehouse with an upstage wall of frosted glass with a ROE LED surface behind it, so that the glass works as a filter. Side windows allow light to come in. However, all of the set pieces can be moved to create an open space.
“The treated glass is critical for softening the look much of the time, but we can also go to a cleaner pop look with the LED when the windows move away” says Nigrini, who notes that in its “resting state,” while in the rehearsal room, the view out of the window is a view of Los Angeles, an industrial landscape with the skyline in the distance, looking out over the Los Angeles River. “It functions like a cyc, but with a lot more information in it. With the combination of glass and LED, some people assume it’s a painted drop.”
To bring the images to life, Nigrini starts “softening the edges to allow the space to change through the lighting and content. I was a bit skeptical of my own idea at first,” he says. “Creating images that appear to be scenery outside the window, like a fictionalized extension of our own stage picture.” In some scenes, like the Motown era of Jackson’s career, Nigrini’s images are quite realistic: “As if Derek had added lots of painted drops to fly in.”
For a Jackson 5 performance on Soul Train, the show really leaves the rehearsal studio for the first time and shifts to a television studio. “This is the first time the production dives into Michael’s head,” explains Nigrini. “It is a nightmarish moment of Michael confronting the cruelty of his father and the naturalism ‘goes out the window,’ as it were.” For the filming of “Thriller,” a seminal moment in Jackson’s career, Nigrini used a snippet of the original graveyard footage, obtained though the singer’s estate. “I looked at his vidoes, or short films has he preferred to call them, as research,” says the designer. “He was an incredible visual artist especially in the late 80s and 90s. I quoted some of the original videos or used them as a jumping off point or visual cues. There is a multiplicity of styles seen in his videos that I wanted to capture in my design, from an entirely white space ship for “Scream,” to the “Thriller” graveyard, and 1930s-era New York for “Smooth Criminal.”
Nigrini’s content creation was done in Adobe After Effects and Maxon Cinema 4D on Apple computers, with playback via four disguise media servers and Brompton processors for the ROE LED tiles. In addition, Panasonic projectors display images on the frosted glass windows, the walls, and flying set pieces. “You can put a pixel anyplace on the stage,” says Nigrini, who adds that 4Wall provided the entire system, “and were great to work with,” he quips. Full gear list below.
The new 30,000-lumen Panasonic projectors are smaller, lighter and quieter, making it possible for the team to pack much more gear onto the balcony rail. “These newly available projectors were the great gift of the pandemic , and made much more possible. We used a custom mounting method so that the lenses don’t point at the stage but bounce off mirrors to more efficiently use the space on the balcony rail. I have been using this method for a while,” Nigrini points out.
“The biggest visual challenge comes at the end of MJ, with Michael’s endless ambition to produce a great show,” adds Nigrini. “The final image is the opening night of the Dangerous tour. Michael rises from the floor and stands completely still for a long time “sizzling” as he says. We had to create this moment that Michael had been imagining, the entire show leads to that very moment. The show ends at the launch of the Dangerous tour in 1992, but still somehow we had to deal with everything that happened since, and spool our minds forward in barely a second, and bring the audience with us. Finally, here is Michael in a stadium full of his fans. Cut to black.”
Projection Designer: Peter Nigrini
Associate Projection Designer: Kate Ducey
Lead Animator: C. Andrew Bauer
Animator: Robert Figueira
Assistant Projection Designer: Brittany Bland
Projection Programmer: Dan Scully
Production Video: Asher Robinson
Associate Production Video: Chelsea Zalikowski
2 Panasonic PT-RCQ10 Projector
1 Panasonic PT-RZ21K Projector
4 Panasonic PT-RZ34K Projector
4 disguise gx2c Pro Server with SDI VFC
203 Roe Carbon CB5 5.77mm LED Tiles
14 Roe Carbon CB5 5.77mm Half LED Tiles
2 Brompton Tessera SX40 LED Processor
6 Brompton Tessera XD LED Data Distribution Units
2 Panasonic AW-HE130 PTZ Camera
2 Panasonic DC-BGH1 4K Box Camera
1 disguise OmniCal system
Imagine Communications Platinum MX SDI Routing & Multiviewing system
Avocent HMX6000 KVM System with 30 endpoints
Cisco Catalyst & Small Business network switches
Ubiquiti EdgeRouter routers and UniFi wireless system
Meet Peter Nigrini and Derek McLane in a television interview:
Peter Nigrini is a featured speaker at a July 13, 2022 Live Design webcast sponsored by ROE: LED Display, Innovation & Design