Projecting La Grande Jatte: Sunday In The Park With George

Sunday In The Park With George, inspired by the famous pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte, by George Seurat,where the painting is reproduced in Act One, and “Chromolume #7”, a kinetic light sculpture is simulated in Act Two, is currently on Broadway. The revival, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Seurat in 1884 and his illegitimate grandson in 1984, is at the newly renovated Hudson Theatre. It was designed by Beowulf Boritt, sets; Ken Billington, lighting; Kai Harada, sound; Clint Ramos, costumes; and Christopher Ash and Tal Yarden, projections, and directed by Sarna Lapine. Read about the set design, lighting designsound design, and costume design hereYarden and Ash discuss the design of the Chromolume here.

For the projections, the creative process revolved around research, storyboarding, and conversation with the director and other designers. “Tal and Sarna knew early on that they wanted to represent the creative process that George, the lead character, was going through and show how the final painting evolved from the process of studies,” says Ash. “First through sketches of people and landscapes, then painting, then finally evolving into Seurat’s pointillism that uses only solid dots of paint in only 11 colors like ‘light’ that the eye blends to make colors. For instance, the flower on the hat of Dot is only made of red and blue specs that the eye combines into lavender.”

Ash notes that the content creation process for Act One was really about collecting as many studies of Seurat’s that they could find. “Sarna brought us a book on Seurat’s work that we referenced often,” he explains. “Lining the book were post-its and notes from James Lapine that I assume he had used at some point when writing or directing parts of the piece. That’s where we drew most of our inspiration,” Ash adds.

“Using first Photoshop to ‘erase’ and ‘cut out’ parts of the images that we either wanted to add back or remove entirely, we manipulated the sketches and paintings to ‘fit’ our canvas in a way that also played well on the stage behind the performers,” Ash continues. “For the most part, we weren’t interested in becoming another character in the play. It felt best when we were serving as a lens into George’s eye in each moment as he is studying the actual people of the park. The park begins to take shape around him from sketch, to colored texture, to rough painting of the park as his studies and the play evolves. In the final moment right after a moment of chaos, George halts time and brings order to the whole. As he places people in the literal and figurative canvas, the painting begins to emerge through a slow sequence that seemingly, softly, stroke by stroke, reveals itself. Finally, George places the last characters into the painting and the image fills out with the remaining trees, boats, and background people. There’s a final burst of saturation and intensity as Sondheim’s final, incredible French horn rings out, and the painting is completed: button, blackout, curtain. That leaves us with an actual print of the Seurat painting.” 

All of that animation was created in Adobe After Effects 2017, using the Photoshop image of the original paintings and sketches. This allowed the designers to use animated masking layers to reveal each element as they chose. “The timing of the events was created based on what we had seen in rehearsal and then storyboarded onto a rendering of the set that Beowulf had created,” notes Ash. The final video pieces were rendered in HAP codec and sent to both primary and backup Dataton Watchout media servers.

“Competing with lighting in a mostly white space, we knew we needed a vivid projector. We decided to use the new Panasonic PTRZ31kW 30,000-lumen laser projector for the back scrim,” points out Ash. “The best place to put the projector was in the back of the upper balcony, sandwiched between the two followspot operators. Fortunately, the projector is just quiet enough that we only had to build a minor amount of sound insulation around it to deflect from the closest audience members. For the floor, we have a Panasonic PTDZ21k 20,000-lumen projector.” Sound Associates, working with engineer/programmer Daniel Mueller to create the rig, supplied the projectors.

“In Act Two, there is a presentation that contemporary George puts on before presenting the Chromolume,” says Ash. “It was a fun challenge for Tal and me to create an ‘80s-style slideshow, animating each image in and out as if it were from a carousel projector, also designing it in a way that we could quickly and easily replace any image at any point in time, and not have the whole thing fall apart. We designed each slide to be its own one-second, self-contained movie that had the animation of both the in and out built in. In Watchout, we created a user composition that lined up the slides nose to tail, and in our main timeline, we created pause points at one-second intervals just before the ‘out’ animation begins. The cues are all run through MIDI through the lighting console, so every time George needs a new slide, the stage manager calls the next lighting cue, and the slide happens.”  

The final image of Act Two, the look for the park in the ‘80s, is not something the projection designers discovered on the first try. They found there are a number of approaches to consider when you revisit a park that was just seen in a memorable tableau.

“How real are you?  How recognizable? How do you need the image to evolve? Do you use the vocabulary of painting or photography, or both?” Ash asks. “When the full cast returns for the final moment in Act One clothing, do you go back to the original park? Will James Lapine like what you have created? All of these were big questions that didn’t seem to have a clear answer for a long time. There was a moment where we wanted to use an out-of-focus image of Paris at night that we thought could tie us back into the Chromolume and floating dots of light. There was another moment where we cut the scrim from the scene. In the end, we created a hybrid image that called upon the shapes of the Act One park with the trees replaced with an apartment building. The skyline we filled with a city and left one remaining tree among lampposts. Once George is alone in the park, his song carries us into a night version of the image. The interior of the building lights up, the city comes to life with twinkling in the background, and the river has a lulling movement. When the cast fills the stage at the end, we almost imperceptibly evolve this night image into a ghost of the original park as we leave it at the end of Act One. As the cast retreats, we slowly resolve back to the contemporary park at night, and the composition of that park needed to line up perfectly with the painted park for the effect to work well, but I think we were able to make a little magic in this moment.”

During the Chromolume scene, the designers had the idea of recreating the original Seurat painting through points of colored light. “Using a particle generator in After Effects, we translated the painting into a kinetic flurry of colored dots of light and projected it full stage,” says Ash. “From certain points of view, you can make out a brief moment when the dots pause briefly to form the images of Dot and the park. This light on the wires was both intentional and a happy accident. We knew it would happen, but we didn’t realize how mesmerizing it would be.”

From points of paint to points of light, with its combination of simplicity and high-tech design, this revival of Sunday In The Park With George is more than a delightful romp in the park.

Stay tuned for more on the creation of the Chromolume!

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