Projection Design: A Primer For Tony Voters And Critics, Part One

People, Places And Things projections by Andrzej Goulding
(Johan Persson) People, Places And Things projections by Andrzej Goulding

Suppose a music critic understood the symphonic form, but just couldn’t hear the difference between a trumpet and a sax, and regularly credited the saxophonist for marvelous trumpet work. Suppose none of the judges of the Academy Awards knew exactly what a cinematographer did and omitted the award for cinematography.

Welcome to the world of the projection designer. 

Overlooking Projections

Two critics had opposite reactions to a design Zachary Borovay recently did in Maryland. “One thought it was heavy handed; the other said it was deeply moving,” says Borovay. “In both cases, they spoke about the projections but never mentioned who created them.”

The situation is no better across the pond. When Luke Halls did Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House in 2014, the director saw the piece as a journey inside Giovanni’s mind. “Video was the best way of describing that journey,” Halls explains. “We started with a simple set, a blank gray lump, which became more complex.” Critics raved about that beautiful “set,” which was gray—the LD and Halls had added all the color and motion. 

The UK production of People, Places And Things, which is transferring to St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, was nominated for many categories at the Oliviers. But since there is no award for video, Andrzej Goulding’s contribution was overlooked. “The video design itself actually created a lot of the lighting design as well as more video-specific cues,” says Goulding. But it was the lighting design that got the Olivier nomination. “Even the picture representing the lighting design of the show on the Olivier website was a photo of a scene only lit with video. Every show I do has my video work credited to either the lighting designer or the set designer, or both sometimes,” says Goulding.

Groundhog Day projections by Andrzej Goulding

Many imagine that Goulding’s contribution to Groundhog Day is simply the screens at the top of each act. “The LED portals surrounding the stage might look like lighting, but is all animated and created by me and is a brilliant case of video designer and lighting designer working together to create the various states of the piece,” he notes.

“You’re seeing this world on stage. The lighting designer and the projection designer should be working together to create one image,” says Borovay. “I’m not surprised that it’s difficult for people to work out what is the lighting, and what is the scenic design, and what is the projection design.”

Not that it should be easy. “We’re all doing our best when the lines are blurred,” says Aaron Rhyne. When people don’t understand what he’s done, Halls takes it as a compliment: “When projection design works really well, it’s incredibly embedded in the production, unless it’s a distinct idea in the show,” he notes. And Tal Yarden doesn’t want audiences sitting around thinking about the projection design. “Reviewers sometimes miss the presence of projection design and think it’s lighting or an effect. As much as I’m discouraged by that, I think perhaps I’m doing my job well because it’s integrated into a unified production,” Yarden states.

Anastasia projections by Aaron Rhyne

To Wendall K. Harrington, whose work is often credited as moving scenery, design is the “visual orchestra, whether it’s lighting, projection, or scenery. Sometimes the harps lead, sometimes the bassoon. The visual symphony should modulate and breathe with the story.”

“Even just the title of ‘projection designer’ is challenging, and people don’t understand what it is,” adds Borovay. “Sometimes you’re credited as production designer. Sometimes, projections are included as part of scenic design.”

Even though the audience shouldn’t leave singing praises of the video, it wouldn’t hurt to know a little something. “You might appreciate a piece by Gershwin, but if you can identify the clarinets, you can have a deeper appreciation,” says Borovay.

So What Is It?

Okay, so projection design is one element in a cohesive whole. But what exactly is it? “To me, projection design is the use of projectors, TVs, and any sort of media delivery device to create an image for the design,” says Jeff Sugg. “How to differentiate it from scenic and lighting design is an essential aesthetic question. My intention is to make that a much less distinct line.”  

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory projections by Jeff Sugg

“I would define it as a graphic element made of light that’s applied to the scenery in such a way that it can convey information about context; it can be its own character; it can provide location; it can be an additional layer of storytelling,” notes Borovay. “But it’s this ephemeral thing made of light, even though it’s an image.” 

“It’s a very flexible medium,” says Yarden. “Sometimes it can become graphic, sometimes it’s a lighting source, but most of the time it’s dramaturgical. It influences the audience’s perception of the theatrical work itself because there is a lot of content expressed through projection design in the way that film carries dramatic material. It’s a lot more than window dressing,” he says, adding that characters can be on stage and in pre-recorded projections that convey their emotions simultaneously.

“It most closely resembles the contribution of an actor performing a song or scene,” Peter Nigrini explains. “It’s a method of storytelling in the same way a song or soliloquy is. One of the things I love about it is that it’s so broad and its contributions can be so various. You can’t just put your thumb on it. That’s what makes it exciting and vital. What it is, we don’t entirely know yet, so it’s no great surprise that the observers—the critics, the Tony voters, the audiences—haven’t figured it out yet. We’re feeling our way to what it is. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated by not having even the possibility of winning a Tony. Of course, I’m frustrated by that. But in the end, there’s a price for being a trailblazer.”

Nigrini says it’s easy to overlook the importance of the projection, white letters on black, in A Doll’s House, Part 2, but even this simple design helped audiences know how to watch the play and created a point of view by invoking the French new wave. “What does 18' type on stage mean dramatically? What does it mean to have these interruptions? It’s important in the same way that if there’s only one chair, you better pick exactly the right chair. It has nothing to do with scenery and borrows more from cinema,” Nigrini notes. “A lot of what’s going on in projection design is about how the theatre is responding to cinema.”

Amélie projections by Peter Nigrini

 In Amélie, the theatre directly borrowed from cinema. “How do we adapt a film and capture the speed at which locations can change on film in the theatre? How do we interject a cinematic language into the theatre?”

Nigrini asks, adding that he’s working on Ain’t Too Proud, a new musical with 85 scenes or so. That’s the sort of book playwrights wouldn’t dare write before the age of projection design. “One of the things projection allows us to do is structure theatre differently.” 

“Evan Hansen is instructive in that very rarely does projection convey information about location,” Nigrini continues. “Projection is there to try to evoke a feeling, a mental state. What does the world look like inside Evan Hansen’s head? How do we share his internal view with the audience? How do we manifest his loneliness? How do we make this isolation physically present?”

Projection design can be transformative. “For the Werther I did at the Met, you’re suddenly in a ballroom, and you don’t know how you got there,” says Harrington. “It’s the music that makes the walls melt, and I hoped to create something of the feeling of falling in love, that moment when gravity seems to lose its pull.”

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Werther projections by Wendall K. Harrington

Rhyne did Liesl Tommy’s production of Appropriate at Signature Theatre in NYC. “As the play progressed, the house aged. The walls started off clean and stark. We added grunge and haze on the walls, and at the end, it was a dilapidated house with tears on the walls,” explains Rhyne, who tried not to make it feel like a video piece. He thinks it’s likely the audience didn’t know video was responsible for the slow changes.  

For Vincent In Braxton, Harrington did a 45-second introduction that took you from the present to Van Gogh’s time, the streets, the clothing. “When people walked into the theatre, they thought it was the show curtain,” she says, “then it moved into that particular time and place. Then Van Gogh enters, walking on stage behind the scrim that had just described his journey. Projection can move and change and take an audience from their current moment into the place and time of the play.”

“In Ragtime, projections created depth, breaking the back wall by creating diagonals. The most fun was creating the sense that the train was moving terrifyingly upstage and away from Tata when it was actually physically moving down stage,” Harrington says.

“Dance design is dominated by lighting, as it should be,” Harrington continues. In The Firebird at America Ballet Theatre, “there are five physical trees on stage and a projected forest. What no one sees is that every time the light changes on a physical tree the same thing happens in the forest. It is a unified visual, then crazy stuff starts happening in the projected forest. The world changes, even though the physical scenery does not.”

American Ballet Theatre’s Firebird projections by Wendall K. Harrington

“In Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, I think we’ve done some great things that aren’t noticeable,” Sugg says, noting that projected shadow work could be mistaken for real shadows. “Charlie also has an LED wall in the first act that is a group of tiles that have been exploded into a disconnected array forming a loose circular shape: a large surface onto which moving graphics and sometimes photo realistic images are put. That element helps move the story forward in the Golden Ticket-winning sequence. Projected elements throughout that first act could be mistaken for moving gobos that enhance the portals, drops, and the cyc. In the second act, when we get into the factory, the set is a blue box. We project on three walls and the ceiling of that box. Animated shadows combine the worlds and maintain the integrity of the scenic narrative.

“The decision was made that this entire factory is one room that transforms through the imagination,” Sugg continues. “Projections become very useful in helping to illustrate and animate those transformations. In the Mike TV sequence, we are projecting onto five moving panels using IR tracking via Black Trax and d3 to place the image. We are right on the cutting edge of the technology available to us, but in service to the narrative of that song. I think that illustrates the breadth of what we’re doing in that show.” 

Audiences who enjoyed the chromolume in the Huntington Theatre’s production of Sunday In The Park With George probably wouldn’t have been able to decide what was video and what wasn’t, Borovay thinks. The design team wondered whether to create the chromolume or leave it to the audience’s imagination. The result was a marriage of lights, scenery, and imagery. “Visuals were more modern than the era but retro in a way. We borrowed from the old technology, too.”

Sunday In The Park With George projections by Tal Yarden

“In Rock Of Ages, video was a specific element, not overlaid on scenery,” says Borovay. “It began to take on personality, like a character in the show, and then it was unmistakable. But that was very specific to that show and wouldn’t work for every show. It wouldn’t work for Waiting For Godot.”

Yarden recently worked with co-designer Christopher Ash on Sunday In The Park With George. “It’s been approached in different ways by different designers,” says Yarden, “but always implicit in the piece is the need to reveal the incredibly unique texture of this painting. That happens primarily through projection design.”

Yarden notes that a lot of playwrights include projection design in their texts, and not just in musicals. Paula Vogel, for instance, specified projections for Indecent. “She was very concerned that the audience be able to understand when her characters were talking in different languages. Text projections helped in a very simple way,” says Yarden. “I just did a production in Amsterdam of Salome, which famously has the Dance of the Seven Veils in it. In thinking about how we wanted to present this dance, we created a dance video where Salome is dancing with the object of her obsession, John the Baptist. So we see her on stage dancing alone and in the projection doing the same dance with John. It’s a flexible medium and it’s quickly becoming an essential one.” 

Stay tuned for more in Part Two!

Or read the rest and more in the October issue of Live Design for free.

Suggested Articles:

Scenic designer Christine Jones shares how she is coping with COVID-19 closings.

GLP's 10 Out Of 10 with award-winning West End & Broadway Lighting Designer Neil Austin, can be seen right here.

What could be better for 4th of July weekend than the filmed version of Hamilton on Disney Plus?