Digitally ever after: Video projections shine in 'Into the Woods' musical

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A single spotlight shines across the darkened stage of the Pavilion Theatre illuminating the innocence in Little Red Riding Hood’s face as she makes a dire mistake. Little Red, as the time-pressed student crew refers to her during technical rehearsals, is a character in the Penn State School of Theatre’s most recent production of the musical “Into the Woods.” She delivers her lines with intentional uncertainty, and disappears behind the looming wall of her grandmother’s house.
 
Based on a combination of timeless Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Penn State’s rendition of “Into the Woods” — a tale of what happens when happily ever after meets reality — is ripe with technological twists that modernize the classic show.    
 
As Little Red’s silhouette re-emerges on stage, as seen through the set’s cottage window, it's apparent that she and her grandmother have transformed into digital projections.
 
When the red-cloaked character begins to question her grandmother’s oddly sized eyes, ears and teeth, the old woman lunges and a projection of a wolf-in-disguise swallows the girl whole.
 
“That scene isn’t something we could have realistically portrayed with props and human characters,” said Damian Charkiewicz, the musical’s scenic designer and a graduate student in the School of Theatre. “We decided that 'Into the Woods' would be a great opportunity for us to use video to do professional-level projections and show the audience and other theater students what good projection design looks like, and that it’s a resource we have here at Penn State."
 
Theatrical projections, in the form of photos, graphics and video, have made it big on Broadway in shows like “Wicked” and “Rock of Ages.” While lighting and sound have consistently helped tell stories on stage, in recent years, projections have been able to add a layer of nuance to a show or make a grand statement.
 
In “Into the Woods,” the digital projections are black, shadowy silhouettes — made to look like the pages in a menacing pop-up book — that shine on the floor and walls of the theater to evoke the dark themes in Brothers Grimm folklore.

During rehearsals, professors serve as mentors, but students are in charge of the technical aspects of the show. They use a blend of video, sound, lighting and networking technologies to pull the production together.
 
“We’re teaching students the fundamentals of theatre technology during the day, but the core of their learning experiences come from doing hands-on theater at night,” said Curtis Craig, associate professor of sound design. “The School of Theatre provides valuable pre-professional training and prepares them for successful careers.”
 
To add authenticity to the musical’s props and sets, Charkiewicz and the director traveled to Eastern Europe to visit the legendary locales of Brothers Grimm stories such as “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” With its ornate architecture, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany — the real-life model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle — was a particularly inspiring location.
 
“As part of the School of Theatre’s graduate program, we visit London, Eastern Europe and Italy. It’s a great opportunity for us to see how other cultures do theater, art and architecture — it’s our greatest resource when it comes to doing research for shows,” Charkiewicz said.
 
After three weeks, the duo returned to the U.S. with a plan to make the dark storylines of “Into the Woods” come to life.
 
Enter Andrew Haag, a School of Theatre graduate student who is studying theater technology. As the projections designer for the musical, Haag was responsible for overseeing the design, technology and engineering for each of the show’s four projections involving Little Red and the wolf, Cinderella’s mother, a magical tree and a giant, though filming the projections was a team endeavor.
 
“The video shoot to film the projections was such a collaborative effort. Not only did we need camera and sound equipment, but also costumes and props had to be created early just for the shoot. The director was there as well to guide the actors and choose the best takes,” Haag said. “It’s easy to tell, based on the final product, how well our team worked together. That’s the fun of theater, everyone coming together for the greater good.”
 
First, the sound designer recorded the characters’ dialogue for each of the projected scenes. The audio was then played at the video shoot where actors performed their roles in front of a green screen, lip-synching lines to match the previously recorded audio. After the shoot, the “tech” team edited each video with professional video editing software to remove unwanted color, make the silhouettes black and layer images.
 
Haag also had to engineer how the video projections and audio files would talk during the live show. He uploaded the final version of each projection onto a separate Mac Mini computer, each of which communicates with the soundboard and a projector in Internet protocol language. During the technical rehearsals and live shows, Haag uses QLab, a multimedia playback software, to send digital cues to run the projections and trigger the soundboard to broadcast the accompanying audio. He made sure to match the characters’ lip and body movements with their lines, by preprogramming each pair of audio and video files to play within one-100th of a second of each other.
 
“The reason we have technical rehearsals is to go over timing with the stage manager, director, actors, orchestra and the crew who operate the lights, soundboard and projection equipment,” Haag said. “We practice to make it as smooth as possible, but it’s live theater, and things happen.”
 
When it comes together flawlessly, it’s magic.
 
One last time before opening night, the stage manager broadcasts a warning cue for a projection, followed by a “go” cue. Haag, at the projections computer, pushes a button and a tree begins to grow across the stage floor, accompanied by the creaking sound of branches. The spotlight sweeps across the stage onto Cinderella, who is unexpectedly granted a wish when the tree transforms into a projection of her long-dead mother. By the end of the act, Cinderella, in a sparkling gown and golden slippers, is on the run from the prince and has journeyed into the woods.
 
“So much goes into the thought process of creating a show, and I love seeing it all come together, but I’ll be happy when it’s over,” Charkiewicz said, while watching the scene unfold. “That’s the nature of theater — put it on, tear it down and move on. There’s always something new around the corner.”

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu.

 
 
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Last Updated March 11, 2014