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Playmill Spotlight Control

The Playmill Theatre (2022+)

Engineer/Computer Programmer

SPOTLIGHTS bokeh.jpg

The Playmill Theatre has an incredible history as a small and intimate theatre, but one thing we are always lacking is space. We have always had to find creative solutions for all staging and technical problems that originate from the building being too small. I’ve redesigned the entire technical system multiple times at The Playmill—including projection, sound, and lighting systems—but I’ve always wanted something in particular… spotlights.

Of course, traditional spotlights don’t work in our space… we don’t even have the luxury of having our sound mixer run the show in the house, so we definitely don’t have room for spotlight operators. We have always been limited by the capability of lighting at The Playmill due to spacing and lighting configurations. Without spotlights, we are severely restricted by what we can accomplish through lighting, especially when wanting to create darker scenes where spotlights would normally be essential.

Something I’ve learned as a designer and tinkerer is to create a blue-sky “dream” design and then invent the technology to accomplish it. This is something that I’ve always been encouraged to do at The Playmill Theatre.

With that in mind, I created a software package to remotely control moving-head lights. Each light was outfitted with an infrared web cam (secured with a mount designed and 3D-printed by Sam Merrill) connected to the main technical booth. On the computer was software I had written to translate Xbox controller input into movements and controls for the lighting fixtures. Each spotlight had its own monitor showing information about the light (such as brightness, connectivity, and zoom levels).

Control for each aspect and parameter of the light could be granted or locked through the main lighting console. Even in complete darkness, the infrared cameras and monitor crosshairs allowed operators to be incredibly precise in their positions and movements.

Here is a demo of a scene showing what the two spotlight operators saw while running a song in Disney’s Tarzan.

I’m very proud of the work done to take the technology featured at The Playmill Theatre to the next level. This new addition allowed us numerous opportunities to increase our storytelling capabilities while expanding our toolset.

I am currently in the works of creating a software package that could be rented out to other small venues that face a similar situation.
 

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The progression of our video wall. From tearing out the back wall, to installing each panel, to finally getting a single image across the entire screen.

Video Wall

 

All of the art was done in house, and a lot of consideration went into finding the right balance of how exactly we should use the wall. We knew we wanted to use the wall as a replacement for printed/painted backdrops, and decided early on that we'd want subtle animation and a strong use of depth and parallaxing. We knew we had achieved that when we'd shut off the wall and the room instantly seemed to shrink.

 

After I received images from our set designers, it was my job to recolor and alter them in order to give the show a unified palette. After that alteration was complete, I would begin to animate. The process of each scene was always different. With some images only needing subtle animation, and some that needed to have objects cut out, leaving the background needing to be repainted where those objects originally were. Most sequences were time specific. Thankfully the show was heavily underscored. As long as the music and video started at the same time, everything would sync up, and the actors would have aural cues to rely on. To help you understand the process I went through, here is a progression of coloring and compositing Kiss The Girl, my favorite scene in the show.

The Playmill Theatre has an incredible history as a small and intimate theatre, but one thing we are always lacking is space. We have always had to find creative solutions for all staging and technical problems that originate from the building being too small. I’ve redesigned the entire technical system multiple times at The Playmill—including projection, sound, and lighting systems—but I’ve always wanted something in particular… spotlights.

 

Of course, traditional spotlights don’t work in our space… we don’t even have the luxury of  having our sound mixer run the show in the house, so we definitely don’t have room for spotlight operators. We have always been limited by the capability of lighting at The Playmill due to spacing and lighting configurations. Without spotlights we are severely restricted by what we can accomplish through lighting, especially when wanting to create darker scenes where spotlights would normally be essential.

 

Something I’ve learned as a designer and tinkerer is to create a blue-sky “dream” design, and then invent the technology to accomplish it. This is something that I’ve always been encouraged to do at The Playmill Theatre.

 

With that in mind, I created a software package to remotely control moving-head lights. Each light was outfitted with an infrared web cam (secured with a mount designed and 3D-printed by Sam Merrill) connected to the main technical booth. On the computer was software I had written to translate Xbox controller input into movements and controls for the lighting fixtures. Each spotlight had its own monitor showing information about the light (such as brightness, connectivity, and zoom levels).

 

Control for each aspect and parameter of the light could be granted or locked through the main lighting console. Even in complete darkness, the infrared cameras and monitor crosshairs allowed operators to be incredibly precise in their positions and movements.

 

Here is a demo of a scene showing what the two spotlight operators saw while running a song in Disney’s Tarzan.

 

I’m very proud of the work done to take the technology featured at The Playmill Theatre to the next level. This new addition allowed us numerous opportunities to increase our storytelling capabilities while expanding our toolset.

 

I am currently in the works of creating a software package that could be rented out to other small venues that face a similar situation.

GIF of Prince Eric swimming to the surface.

A visual representation of the steps taken to achieve the final look of Kiss The Girl before any animation was added.

Floor Projections

 

Floor projections played a big part in the show, providing lightning for Ursula and her eels, as well as magic for Ariel's transformation. The process used was similar to how I achieved the rainstorm effect in Singin' In The Rain the year before. After filming reference videos of their choreography/blocking against a colored grid, I was able to design the video projections inside of After Effects. The goal here was not to be distracting, but to simply enhance what's onstage. With so many tools at our disposal during this show, it was a hard lesson to learn. Every detail needed to complement a character's action. I feel we achieved just that.

Triton’s Contract

 

Out of all the projections in the entire show, Triton signing Ursula’s contract had to be my favorite. This effect was one of our famous “what if” moments. Triton’s magical trident was a perfect opportunity to display some real magic on stage. I started by importing a scan of the contract into after effects. I overlayed some different animations I created and recolored some existing animations of fire to appear a little more magical. Major kudos to the actress playing Jetsam for getting the contract in the right spot every time for this projection!

 

Lighting

 

Our approach to lighting was different than ever before. With our light board listed on Ebay, we transitioned to lighting through QLab 4 via a Macbook Air. QLab 4, while new to lighting, was a perfect fit for our theatre's lighting system. With sound, lights, and projections all running off of QLab, complete playback control was able to be given to one "master" computer. This allowed for the entire show (microphones and all) to be ran by one single person. Being in total control of so many elements was both a thrill and completely agonizing experience. This has been my favorite show to run due to the intricacies in the execution of each performance.

Behind Stage Doors

 

At the end of our season I created a video explaining the design process of The Little Mermaid at The Playmill Theatre to be included in the theatre's behind-the-scenes video series "Behind Stage Doors'. If you are looking for a more in depth take on my approach to designing the show, it's a great place to look! Also, be sure to check out my post focusing on the sound design of The Little Mermaid here.

Episode of Behind Stage Doors I created focusing on my design aspects of The Little Mermaid at The Playmill Theatre.

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