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Designer's Desk: 5 Tips for Using Projections on Stage

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5 Tips for Using Projections on Stage

Stage Partners linked up with Mitch Stark, Founding Creative Director of Theatre Avenue, an art and animation studio which produces theatrical digital projections.In theatre, storytelling is king. And one of the most effective storytelling tools is now more affordable and easier to use than ever. Not sure where to get started? Mitch shares helpful Tips for Using Projections that are sure to enhance your next school or theater play production.

You Don’t Have to be a Tech Professional to Make Projections Work for You!

When combined with your other design elements (actors, lighting, costumes, sets, props, etc.), projections can expand your ability to tell your story, even if you don’t have state-of-the-art equipment in your booth. How far will your creativity take you when the limits of budget and space are removed?

There are certain requirements to make projections work well in your space, but here are answers to the five questions we hear most often.

1.) What should I use for a screen?

Look at the surfaces in your theater. Right now (I’ll wait). Think it can’t be a screen? Think again. You can use everything from walls to ceilings to curtains to bedsheets to professional-grade material from Rosebrand. That said, light-colored and reflective surfaces work best. Here are a few options:

  • A blank wall
  • Sewn-together sheets
  • Sewn-together shower curtains (for rear-projection)
  • A surface painted with Screen Goo (a special paint that makes any surface a projection surface)
  • Your existing cyclorama
  • Fabrics like muslin from Rosebrand , Roscoe , or Gerriets
  • Material specific to projection from the same companies

Hang the material or stretch it around a frame. Some groups have even built their own frames out of wood or PVC piping. There are a lot of DIY videos  like this one  that can help.

2.) What projector should I buy?

If you are purchasing a new projector, there are lots of specs to consider, and so many levels of pricing, it’s like buying a car. But when you get right down to it, all you really need is a projector of basic-to-good quality because many projectors will get the job done. 

You can always level-up later, as your productions’ value (and budget) grows and your tastes become more refined.

The most important thing with projectors is BRIGHTNESS. Buy, rent, or borrow the brightest projector you can. This will help the image show up in the presence of ambient and stage lighting. 

Projector brightness is measured in ‘lumens.’ If you’re in a small space, and you can control your lighting, you can get away with 2,500 to 3,500 lumens. For mid-sized to large spaces like a high school or auditorium, you’ll need a minimum of 5,000 lumens. Our motto is always “the brighter the better.”

When it comes to other technical specs, just use common sense, or ask your favorite techie. There are customer reviews to look at, and also a lot of other schools, universities, and theatre companies that can offer up ideas and advice from their own experience.

Here are a couple projectors we can recommended in a lower price range. (If you want to go all in and purchase any 10,000+ lumen options, you’ll want to consult an A/V professional first.)

Optoma GT1080 (Short-throw projector) — 2,800 Lumens
Check it Out Here on Amazon  $749

Optoma X600 XGA — 6,000 Lumens
Check it Out Here on Amazon $1,229 

Panasonic PT-VX600U XGA — 5,500 Lumens

Check it Out Here on Amazon   $1,429

3.) How do I keep the projection image from washing out?

Your best bet is to keep ambient light and stage lighting from pointing directly at your screen. Focus your lamps about 5 ft off the screen if possible. You can do this by adjusting them down or using the barn doors to control the light spread. You can try using light trees in the wings as an alternative to overhead lamps. Or use any combination of these things—whatever works best in your space to give you the brightest picture.

And don’t forget, a bright projector is key! Even traditionally painted backdrops start to wash out if they are saturated with too much light, so don’t worry about it too much. Just try to balance the amount of light and the direction of your stage lighting.

4.) How do I keep actors’ shadows off the screen?

Keep your projector up high and tilt it down toward the screen. The closer to the screen the better. You can mount your projector from a light bar, or house ceiling in some cases. You’ll need to use your projector’s ‘keystone’ setting to correct the image in this case.

Also, consider a short-throw projector or lens. It cuts down the distance that the projector has to be from your screen, while still displaying a large backdrop image. If you have room backstage, try rear-projection, which means placing the projector at the back of the stage and projecting forward on your cyc or screen. Your screen will have to be a little transparent for this to work, like a normal cyc, but not so much that you see the projector lens light through it.

5.) I have the projection images. How do I project them?

Put your images into a slideshow software like Powerpoint or Keynote on a laptop. (QLab is a professional option if you want to level up). Connect the laptop to the projector. If you use a long cable, you can keep your laptop up in the tech booth so that the person  running it can collaborate with the lighting and sound technicians. You may want to put black slides in between your images for blackouts or even use the software’s built-in fades for smooth transitions between scenes. You can also drag animated movies or videos into Powerpoint or Keynote as a part of your presentation.

The bottom Line

The best way to discover how to make projections work for you is to get in there and try it. Be creative! Get your hands on the best projector, screen and laptop you can, set it up in your theater, and play. Tweak projector settings, try different images, adjust your theater lighting. You can research online all day and take other directors’ advice, but there is no substitute for seeing projections in your own space and making adjustments based on what you see. Don’t be afraid to delegate to a student, volunteer or tech to try it out for you. You will keep learning and discovering ways to make it look better for the next show; but you have to start somewhere!


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Mitch Stark is the founder of Theatre Ave and a projection designer for theatrical shows. He shares the insights he’s gained from 10 years designing for theatre and ballet companies internationally, for productions such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Swan Lake, The Wizard of Oz, Annie, Seussical the Musical, Lion King, and beyond.

Do you need projections for your show?  Theatre Ave designs animated theatre projections for schools, community theatre groups, and professional theatre, ballet, and dance companies. If you’re looking for something pre-designed and affordable, check out their collection here. If you’d like to explore a custom project with them, get in touch here.

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