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Digital Scenery @ High School

Discussion in 'Multimedia, Projection, and Show Control' started by MNicolai, Nov 10, 2016.

  1. MNicolai

    MNicolai Well-Known Member Fight Leukemia

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    I'm working on a high school project where they're going to cut the fly loft out of the project in favor of doing digital scenery. My current concept in the works is 3-4 13K laser projectors onto a black RP screen on the upstage side of the acting space plus a front projector and a grey sharkstooth scrim downstage that they can track out and project onto to create depth and play with different visual effects.

    This school is located in a low-income area, so I have a careful balance to strike here. My eventual solution needs to be practical and cost-effective while also giving the students as much opportunity and potential to go wherever their creative hearts desire. I'm also trying to make it adequately versatile because if it sucks or isn't bright enough or it's not accessible to entry-level users then it has strong potential to become abandoned or used way too infrequently to be justify the purchase.

    I want to put it this up for discussion with those of you who teach at high schools and/or do lots of video work.

    What are the essentials to your workflow?
    How involved are your students in the video design process?
    How much of your own content do you generate?
    Do you use pico projectors and scale models to mock up designs and try things out?
    Do you use cameras and editing software to home-brew your own content or do you exclusively pull from the internet?
    What kinds of obstacles do you run into with your process?
    What do you do to prevent any given show from visually looking like every other show you put on?
    Do you use a dedicated media server or use a more lightweight solution like Qlab for putting your cues and effects together?
    Do you incorporate projector mapping or do you stay more toward simple 2D projection?
     
  2. ruinexplorer

    ruinexplorer Minion CB Mods Premium Member Fight Leukemia

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    Right now you are way out of balance. Since you say that this is in a low-income area, my guess is that this is not a magnet school. This means that there is likely one person in charge of the facility, maybe two. The likelihood that either of them will be versed enough to run a video program is slim to nil.

    First off, I question the use of digital scenery over traditional scenery. Video is great at supplementing scenery or for very special needs. I understand the desire to go this route, but I think that you will have some very unhappy clients shortly down the road. The first instance is, as you say, keeping it looking fresh. If you want to look at a colossal failure. If you don't believe me, look at how well received The Woman in White was received on Broadway. It wasn't that the video was done bad, just that it distracted the audience from the show.

    Secondly, if they are in a low-income area, are they going to be able to maintain this level of technology. I understand that you are probably suggesting the laser projectors as a selling point of low maintenance. However, with the amount of hours they are going to likely be used, they could probably go with projectors with lamps and have a service contract. If you look at some of the Panasonic projectors, they have pretty good maintenance.

    The skill level required for this is probably way more than a typical high school could muster. They would be much better off with fewer high technology tools like this and having a better lighting and sound package. Spend the money on wing space so that they can have scenery wagons.

    This to me sounds like when theaters wanted to get rid of all of their conventional lights for a handful of moving lights. It just doesn't work.
     
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  3. MNicolai

    MNicolai Well-Known Member Fight Leukemia

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    I share your concerns, but this is a specific request by the school district that they have asked me to assess the feasibility of. Right now I'm just fact-finding and developing a proof-of-concept. The primary headline for what that may turn into will be "Don't pursue this if there's even a chance it will not be maintained long-term, and don't put anything in stone until you have a technical supervisor on-board that can manage this type of facility and system."

    Of course, they would still have the option for a static set and to do shows without video or with video just as a highlighted backdrop behind a set. They just wouldn't be putting the expense into a fly loft and all of the building and life safety codes associated with it, as well as the expense and safety concerns of a counterweight or motorized rigging system.

    My position is that for this to be viable and make financial and academic sense, it would have to be approached like a Project Lead The Way STEM education program. If it's not going to be directly integrated with the curriculum by someone who is experienced in this field then it has a high potential for abandonment and disrepair within the first 5 years.

    First things first, I am looking to see what others across the country are doing and how well it has worked for them.
     
  4. Mike R

    Mike R Member

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    I think there are distinct differences between Digital Scenery, Digital Backdrops, and Multi-Media Projections. The system you described above would be very effective for all three of those. The key, as you have said, is that there needs to be someone on staff who knows how to use the system effectively.

    I have seen and worked on too many professional shows who used projections that look awful. The equipment used was all top of the line, but the Professional Projection Designers provided content that was too low of a resolution, so we basically watch 8-bit video running across the set the whole show.

    To combat this issue, you could suggest that the Theater Department team up with the Art Department, which usually offers classes in Photoshop or other digital media production.
     
  5. egilson1

    egilson1 Well-Known Member Premium Member

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    I would tend to go with a LED wall vs Screens, as trying to light a stage with screens is a tough job. the LED wall is much brighter and you can light subjects who stand right in front of it. And the prices keep dropping.

    just my 2 cents.
     
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  6. np18358

    np18358 Active Member

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    What are the essentials to your workflow? Qlab and a good director who is flexible.
    How involved are your students in the video design process? I am a student, and the design process is almost all student led, with minimal teacher input (no more than other departments).
    How much of your own content do you generate? We collaborate with students who do digital media to create the content in After Effects. They then will come to tech to scope out any content based issues, however we will do the actually projection and operation in QLab. All of the content is custom. I see this as the biggest issue. The time and skill required to create the content is mind blowing. I think the learning curve on any After Effects style program would be a near insurmountable obstacle in and of itself. Nothing is purchased online.
    Do you use pico projectors and scale models to mock up designs and try things out? No. Would like to try, but usually the time line doesn't work out like this.
    Do you use cameras and editing software to home-brew your own content or do you exclusively pull from the internet? The content is made either completely in After Effects (for fairy tale like content), or pictures are taken, then modified in Photoshop, and animated in AE. Nothing pulled except the rare still image to be incorporated if the artwork is quite complex.
    What kinds of obstacles do you run into with your process? Difficulty with directors not wanting to adjust blocking and having unrealistic expectations for the timeframe to make significant changes and create new content. As we work with projections rather than screens, they consistently block inches in front of the surface to be front projected on (even after discussion of how this cannot be done). Also the non-theatre students have difficulty integrating into the production process. The whole Video is sort of in Purgatory between Lighting, Scenery, sometimes Props/Effects, and often we need to work with costume and makeup to get imagery to animate. Getting everyone on the same page for this is difficult.
    What do you do to prevent any given show from visually looking like every other show you put on? Not too difficult for us. Haven't had an issue with this.
    Do you use a dedicated media server or use a more lightweight solution like Qlab for putting your cues and effects together? QLab.
    Do you incorporate projector mapping or do you stay more toward simple 2D projection? Mostly 2D, but an occasional bit of simple pixel mapping off of scenery. Nothing with projector mapping multiple walls of a set or anything like that.
     
  7. BillConnerFASTC

    BillConnerFASTC Well-Known Member

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    What expertise does the school district base this request on? This seems like the idea of a person who has never been responsible for making performance happen.
     
  8. Van

    Van CBMod CB Mods Premium Member

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    Not a condemnation of anyone's work but as a TD who's worked in rural, low income and small theatres in school districts all-over, this sounds like a horrible Idea. the associated costs for producing content alone make this a no-go from the start. One person, with the knowledge of how to program and create content for a system like this, loses their job and you are into a national search to replace that person at twice to three times the cost.
    Also, as my own opinion, coming from TD's perspective, the Multi-usability you lose by simply value-engineering the fly loft out of the picture is a no-go.
     
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  9. MNicolai

    MNicolai Well-Known Member Fight Leukemia

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    I wouldn't call it value engineering at all. We're talking about redirecting several hundred thousand dollars into the performance systems that otherwise would've gone into steel beams, precast walls, fire protection systems, complying with the additional building code requirements of a theater with a fly space, and so on. If you asked most high school theater directors if they could have a fly loft or they could have $$$ to equip their facility with, I think many would accept the $$$ and not think twice about it. I've seen a lot of high school theaters that got their fly loft and their Ion but then didn't have money for enough fixtures to cover the stage in more than just a one-color wash. It may be a different variation on the art form of theater but I don't consider this approach a compromise on the integrity of the art that could be produced here.

    In my experience, high schools are hard-pressed to build scenery that can be flown safely. The extent that the fly loft offers them options is that they can move their borders around, trim down the size of their acting space, and fly backdrops wherever they'd like. But backdrop rentals of any size aren't exactly cheap, and there are very real safety concerns to flown scenery.

    The risks may be different but I believe they're similar in magnitude to a traditional theater. In some cases it may even lower the barrier to entry because if you have just a few highly committed individuals you can put on an interesting show. Whereas if you're dependent on building a full set and background and only have a few committed individuals, you end up with some walls quickly nailed together by however many parent volunteers you could scrap together and then a fresh coat of paint. In either case if you don't have committed faculty or students, it doesn't matter how tall your fly loft is or how tricked out your performance systems are because you'll end up with a two-color wash in front of a black curtain.

    It's also not as if every performance needs to be motion video or static images. They could also go more traditional and use it as a cyc that they can apply gradients to it that would be more compelling than you could get out of a cyc only lit from the top. I would say most high schools I've encountered are only using a top-lit cyc because they either don't have the fixtures, cables, gels, and lamps for a ground row, or because a ground row would get in the way of the acting space.

    I do consider the small scale light and projection lab an important part of this facility because it will be much more accessible to students of whatever interest and skill level to try things out at small scale with no risk and learn what they like and what they don't like and if this is their thing or not. If it is their thing, they'll get a better experience in this situation than most colleges can afford them in terms of hands-on experience. If it isn't their thing, they don't have to put a full show together half-butted to find out in front of 700 people a night for a week that they didn't know what their final product was going to end up looking like.

    Meanwhile, if they want to put on a farce there's nothing stopping them from building a set with a bunch of doors in front of it and not incorporating video into that show. Just because they have it doesn't mean they have to use it full tilt on every event.
     
  10. ruinexplorer

    ruinexplorer Minion CB Mods Premium Member Fight Leukemia

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    You did come here asking advice. We understand that this is what you thought would be good and maybe you were looking for others to agree. The reality is, this will likely not get as much use as in comparison to its cost.

    From your original proposal, you state that you want a black screen with 3-4 projectors from behind. I am guessing that you plan on these being blended with short throw lenses to get the coverage. Have you ever maintained a system such as this? I am willing to bet that their theater teacher will not have even the remotest clue how to do so.

    You also are only looking at a single projector in front. I assume that you are planning on a permanent mounting system for this? I say this because with you having the concern of stagnant use, but you may be setting them up for that with your choices.

    You feel that committed individuals setting up video will be easier to find than committed individuals to build a set. Plus you seem to feel that if the onus is put on the parents that it will be shoddy. Sure, it may be safer if you can find the right individuals to put together projection, but making sure that you have the talent to use it versus the ability to find someone to build a safe set may prove difficult.

    Certainly having a model to get an idea of how the projected image could be helpful. Will they be able to know it will work or not based on that model, not exactly. To find the right model might be a challenge, but that's what you get paid to do.

    What kind of infrastructure do you plan on including with this? Are you including the package to develop content? Are you building this future proof? After all, this is a rapidly changing field. A little over decade ago, we didn't have media servers like we do today. How tied down will you be making this school by the decisions you make today. That money built into the building itself will get many more years in return than a rapidly changing technology which will be near obsolete in 5-10 years. Most projectors aren't in production for more than five years (certainly there are exceptions), and manufacturers only are required to service them to five years past the end of life. This is a challenge that you are obligated to consider. Manufacturers are looking at many laser projectors as essentially disposable, in that the life of the projector is equal to the life of the solid state illumination. Granted, they will probably run into other issues before this, especially if you are looking at laser phosphor.

    I agree that getting them the opportunity to work with some video technology is a wonderful thing. But we need to learn how to use it properly. As I said, take a serious look at Woman in White. Audiences will have a disconnect with the scenery differently than they do with a painted drop. Yes, it can be done right, but even Broadway is still struggling with this. But this project will likely pigeonhole this school. It is hard to say how well your concept will work fully as we have no idea about the size of the space. As the godmother of projection, Wendell Harrington has often said, she has talked herself out of work probably more times than she has done a show. Video is a new reality of the future of theater, but it should just be a part of the design, not THE design all of the time.
     
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  11. sk8rsdad

    sk8rsdad Well-Known Member Premium Member Fight Leukemia

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    There are many, many, alternatives between digital scenery and a fly gallery. There are precious few high schools in my province with a fly gallery and somehow they manage to stage large productions in spite of being unable to fly scenery. It's not as simple as one or the other.
     
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  12. EdSavoie

    EdSavoie Active Member

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    Ditto on that experience. While I happen to be in one that is lucky enough to have a fly system, we have done productions more most of the set pieces were waiting patiently in the wings. Something I've noticed, and been told by people who work at the NAC, is that having good sized wings is incredibly important. You could have the biggest stage, with the best fly system, but it means little if you can only have a handful of actors with props crammed in the wings. Many pieces are either too heavy for simpler fly systems, or aren't practical to fly.

    I will argue the safety aspect, because so long as you respect the notion of multiple attachment points that can each take several times the load (not as hard as you'd think) it is perfectly safe. The only thing we've ever had fall off a bar was an old disco ball that didn't follow this rule, there was only one attachment point between 20 year old plastic ring, and the motor. (I was but a junior in highschool at the time, our old crew chief had little concern in the way of safety.) Luckily the bar was lowered when it happened.
     
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  13. BillConnerFASTC

    BillConnerFASTC Well-Known Member

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    A few observations.

    Yes, there are too many examples of bad planning. Usually lack of successful experience and expertise.

    A manual counterweight rigging system and fly loft will probably last 25 to 50 years. I'm suspect what you're proposing will last 10 before out of date and hard or impossible to maintain.

    Ditto wing space, or what I call shove space - space to shove things and people. Even more critical without a full fly space. I've become very use to making the most of lower stages, ones that don't have the height to fly a drop or traveler, but they require more shove space. I believe getting curtains fully off the stage is critical, and that takes shove space. And that's in addition to shell tower storage, piano, show choir risers, etc. - which can't just be left in the wings.
     
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  14. AudJ

    AudJ Active Member

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    As a school teacher and tech person, I err on the side of longevity, not knowing when the next large dollar figure might come my way. I would rather have the building structure that would essentially be there forever (if maintained), as opposed to a tech system that will be outdated shortly after installation, and be unusable at some point without supplementing new equipment. Either way, I see a tech system being easier to accumulate through small grants and if that has to be done anyway, I see a building structure that will never exist in the future if it is not built now.
     
  15. TheaterEd

    TheaterEd Renaissance Man Fight Leukemia

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    I went from a fly loft school to a non-fly loft school and I will say that I miss my loft, and there is no such thing as enough shove space a Bill calls it (I like this term!). While I like the idea of being able to just project backdrops at will, the practicality of edge-blending and making this actually work is definitely prohibitive. I build 100% of my sets with just my students and the amount of time and energy it would save if we could just fly simple things in and out would be totally worth it. I feel like even with projections, you still need physical things for the actors and the audience, so If I'm still having to build a set anyways then what is this saving me? Now I have to also sink time into getting the projections to work because if we have the capability you know darn well the director is going to want to use it. Also, even just getting it to fade with the lighting system for blackouts is going to require someone with specialized knowledge or an extra student operator which is not easy to find sometimes.

    I'm rambling, so let me answer the questions you asked based on the last couple of shows we incorporated projections with.

    What are the essentials to your workflow? With the amount of other things I have to worry about being the TD and Facility Manager, the most important thing for me is ease of use and that students can do the work without my help.
    How involved are your students in the video design process? 100% I haven't worked with digital media since I graduated high school in 2004. I used to love it, but theater classes in college don't really focus on projections and it just doesn't come up often enough. The learning curve is steep and the software is always changing.
    How much of your own content do you generate? For the last show it was 100% generated by students, but in the past I have been asked to incorporate various videos and things into different band concerts.
    Do you use pico projectors and scale models to mock up designs and try things out? Ha! that would be neat, but not practical. Generally when we project we have to plan as much as we can and then just hope it works / work around it. For one show we needed to live feed a webcam so we just started up the feed and placed our set pieces to block as little as possible.
    Do you use cameras and editing software to home-brew your own content or do you exclusively pull from the internet? For concerts I mostly have pulled from the internet (we don't charge any kind of admission and always get permission when possible), but we haven't incorporated recorded media into shows. Just still images and some aftereffects videos.
    What kinds of obstacles do you run into with your process? Reliable and smooth execution. We are an all PC school so know Qlabs for us and getting our software to work is clunky sometime and works perfectly other times.
    What do you do to prevent any given show from visually looking like every other show you put on? Being in a dead hung proscenium, it's hard. We generally just need to choose shows that are different enough that we can do different kinds of sets.
    Do you use a dedicated media server or use a more lightweight solution like Qlab for putting your cues and effects together? Lightweight solution we use Show Cue Systems. It usually works just fine, but is really buggy when it comes to projections.
    Do you incorporate projector mapping or do you stay more toward simple 2D projection? 2D

    Basically my thought's are this. Finding the Unicorn that could run this make it work for the school program is going to be difficult, and replacing her when she leaves is going to be almost impossible. The person with this skill set is also probably capable of getting a much better paying job than your low-income school can afford. Ten years down the line when the projectors are outdated and the software is no longer supported by the manufacturer because three generations of newer and better software have come out you are going to have a school with a dead hung space and not even a cyc to light. Also, when one of these projectors goes out, can the low income school afford to replace it before opening night, or even this year?

    I'm definitely for innovating and coming up with creative solutions, but this just seems like a system that would be too restrictive and cost prohibitive down the road. You know as well as I do that once the referendum money is gone, they are going to be scraping the barrel to maintain the system and personnel. I currently run an auditorium that your company set up in a very well off community and I still haven't been able to get an orchestra pit monitor because the DM receiver for our camera feed is $600 which puts the total cost over $1000 if I want a decent monitor. We have the money, but for that amount we could rent two additional drops for an upcoming show, so getting anyone to sign off on it is difficult to say the least.
     
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  16. BillConnerFASTC

    BillConnerFASTC Well-Known Member

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    I'm glad two "users" of these rooms have pointed out the perhaps regrettable "now or never" fact of school facility funding. There seems to never be an annual "capital" projects fund for anything in the high school auditorium and stage, and even a ladder or extension cord, let alone a dozen new light, is not without great ad lengthy effort. Vendors sometimes are critical that we put furniture in the lighting package (storage cabinets, paper cutters for gell (well - no longer), ladders, even a table for the console) along with sundries and expendables - a spool of black tie line, lots of jumpers, spare lamps, clamps, and safety cables, etc. But this is it for most.
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2016
  17. TheaterEd

    TheaterEd Renaissance Man Fight Leukemia

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    Possible Correction: I see you are in Florida now and have dropped that company name from your signature. I guess I meant to say your past employer. Congrats on the move to Florida! Hope your enjoying the change of scenery.....
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2016
  18. Footer

    Footer Senior Team Senior Team Premium Member

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    If the building steel goes up and fly loft gets constructed that is it. You are good to go. In 50 years when the stuff wears out you can go up and bolt new stuff in place and you are done. The system you are looking at will be out of date in 5 years and need a full replacement in 10 years. ALL of that investment will be gone. After 10 years steel and rigging will still be there... and still working fine.
     
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  19. gafftaper

    gafftaper Senior Team Senior Team Fight Leukemia

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    I manage a high school performing arts center. I normally work a 35 hour week, but that changes depending on shows. My impression of this project is cool but insane. Is the district going to commit to a full time person to just deal with the video? Are they going to provide the long term budget for maintenance, repair, and replacement in 10+ years? If the answer is yes, then cool. But if the answer is the expected, "Well we thought we could just..." this is a huge waste of money.

    There's nothing worse than theater projects that are not properly staffed, abandoned, and not maintained that become useless spaces.
     
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  20. MNicolai

    MNicolai Well-Known Member Fight Leukemia

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    A lot of good input here. Before anyone makes any voodoo dolls out of me I should say that right now I'm just playing devil's advocate and putting the concept through the ringer. Ultimately, I want to be able to afford students the best possible opportunities and video certainly has potential to open up the technical theater program to students who might otherwise quietly stick to the film and art classes. Executed successfully, it can also help elevate the arts within the school system and the community.

    The life-cycle expenses 7-10 years out are my greatest concern at the moment. I can put the infrastructure in place to give them flexibility and stave off stagnation. I can make it a fairly turn-key system in terms of being able to get an image up on the screen. I can give them the tools to create and play back whichever complexity of content they're ambitious enough to develop. It's all a moot point though if they can't monetarily afford to maintain this system 10 years out. However, at that point LED walls and projectors of this caliber may be cheap enough that this will be less of an issue.

    As for staffing, obviously this isn't viable in almost any form if they don't have a dedicated technical director with experience in video. If someone isn't available to guide students through this type of production process, it's all for nothing.

    At this point I'm inclined to say that unless projection/production/animation design is going to be brought into the curriculum to the nut-and-bolt level of an engineering or game animation class, I don't know that this type of system would ever be fully taken advantage of unless they routinely bring in professional designers for at least a couple of their productions each year. If they do that and if they can get some students directly under a mentor, that could be a really wonderful opportunity for students that very few schools are able to compete with.

    I refuse accept however that just because a solution here isn't obvious and isn't without complexity that this concept should be disqualified outright.
     

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