By Michael S. Eddy

Lestat, inspired by Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, has just taken up residence in the Palace Theatre on Broadway after wintering in San Francisco. This musical take on vampires — with music by Elton John, lyrics by Bernie Taupin, and directed by Robert Joss Roth — is based on the visual concepts of the artist and filmmaker Dave McKean. The design team, which consists of lighting designer Kenneth Posner, scenic designer Derek McLane, costume designer Susan Hilferty, and sound designer Jonathan Deans, took a lot of visual cues from McKean's work on the production — visual cues that are a far cry from the days of Dracula-inspired vampires.

McKean is an illustrator of several award-winning graphic novels with author Neil Gaiman, including The Sandman series and Coraline; he has also worked as a conceptual designer/digital artist for the Harry Potter films. Mirror-Mask, McKean's first feature film as director and visual designer, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005. Lestat is McKean's first Broadway endeavor, and it requires quite a few different locales as well as spanning time periods during the course of the show. The creative team looked at a lot of different multimedia technologies to get the story across; video projection in conjunction with media server technology was the chosen method. Designer Howard Werner was selected to be the projections coordinator for the show. In the end, Werner and PRG Video would be responsible for one of the most complex projection systems to date for a theatrical production.

“Dave McKean was hired to come up with the visual concepts for the show,” says Werner. “That included everything from the video content to imagery content, to scenery and costumes. He has an influence on all of the visual aspects of the show. He created the actual film footage that we are playing. Of course, things changed as we were in the theatre, and I helped facilitate some of that; we created some content and modified some of his content, but he really did most of it.”

Lestat underwent major changes between its out-of-town tryout and its Broadway debut; critical reception was pretty harsh in its initial run, pointing particularly to problems in the first act. (Critical reception in New York wasn't any better, garnering some of the most negative reviews of the season). In San Francisco, the projector setup was nine Digital Projection, Inc. (DPI) projectors from the rear and three from the front of house. On Broadway, the setup consists of six DPI HIGHlite 12000Dsx+ projectors from the rear and two from the front rail. The projection system would need to be able to edge-blend these multiple projectors into large images that were initially conceived for the show. Werner came up with how the system would work. “We kicked around a bunch of different ideas, and I was sure in my gut to not do DVD or traditional video playback but that we needed something like a media server to have the flexibility in the theatre to make changes and manipulate imagery. We definitely knew that we needed the ability to edge-blend the imagery and sync multiple projectors together.”

Werner chose to go with the MBox Extreme from PRG for this production. The new MBox Extreme is the mixture of the EX1 from Vari-Lite and the PRG MBox. PRG Video would supply the equipment for the production as well as provide the systems integration necessary to engineer a very complex system. The software for MBox Extreme was being developed as Lestat started its initial design and layout. As a part of this process, software was created to solve many demands that Lestat would present, features that will no doubt be in demand by other theatrical productions in the future.

Werner had used the MBox previously in his work with the design firm Lightswitch, of which he is a member, based in the New York office. According to Werner, it worked very well. “Frankly, I don't know if there are other media server applications that are this big,” he says. “I needed something that would do what I had to do, but I also needed a team of people that could respond to the changes that we needed in the software. We were able to work with PRG in development. And having Drew Findley [video projections programmer] here with his relationship with them was really key to us being able to get the things implemented into the software that we needed for this particular application. Most of it, I'm sure, will remain in the software and be used for other applications, but we were crash-course beta testing it. It was a viable product before we started, but we were definitely putting it to the test.”

Choosing a media server proved the way to go for this production because much of the content would be modified, edited, and formatted, especially after the show was reconceived between San Francisco and New York. In the initial production, the projection screens were much larger and full stage. For the Broadway production, the screens were reconfigured into smaller, more fragmented screens. The content was also edited and manipulated to fit the new designs. “The imagery did change quite a bit,” Werner explains. “The imagery obviously had to be reformatted to fit on the smaller surfaces, but the concept of the imagery changed as well. The imagery was more suggestive and less literal. We were telling the audience where we were, but we weren't necessarily showing them a whole stage picture of it. We were just giving key elements of that picture but not seeing the entire façade of a street. A lot of that change we did in the theatre. Dave McKean would give us an image, and I would pick and choose what elements of that image we would want to use. By using the media server, I was able to slide that imagery around and manipulate it and mask out certain parts of it; all of that was stuff that we could do in the theatre, which was fantastic.”

Dealing with the images, both initially as well as during the reconfiguration for Broadway, was Andrew Bauer, assistant projections coordinator, who also works with Werner at Lightswitch. “Dave McKean had built a variety of video files. Usually, they were high quality animation files and TIFFs and JPEGs for the still images,” explains Bauer. “They had very huge pixel dimensions — great for us because we then could manipulate them any which way we wanted. There were times where we wanted to have a little bit more flexibility, which MBox gave us, and so we would take things down to its texture size, and we were then capable of moving it from screen to screen, manipulating the color, the size, bringing in the shutters, all of that kind of stuff. Then there were times when we wanted to bring it up to its maximum resolution, and so we would essentially cut it to have the maximum resolution that the projectors would allow and to fill the visible area on each screen.”

According to Matt Corke, product specialist for PRG, projection control consists of a network including an MA Lighting grandMA doing Art-Net, as well as MA-Net to the MA Lighting NSPs for additional processing power for all of the universes of DMX. The grandMA generates the data to drive not only the MBoxes, but also Wybron Coloram scrollers, which are in front of the projectors. It is also dealing with the SerialBox software (see sidebar, “Thinking Outside the SerialBox”) with Art-Net to control the projectors' functions. In the basement of the theatre are the MBoxes and the backup console. The main console is slaved together with the main lighting desk via MIDI in the booth.

The MBoxes are outputting RGBHV video, which then goes through a video router — a matrix switcher from Sierra Video Systems — which enables video projections electrician Justin Freeman to see what any of the MBoxes are outputting. The CorioScan Pro SG units are converting the RGBHV into a composite signal for the router switch, and then the Corio has a pass-through that sends the RGBHV to a patch panel and the V-Multi cables — heavy-duty RGBHV snakes that have break-outs and break-ins — to each of the projectors. The Colorams sit in front of the projector, because even when the projector is projecting black, it's video black and not completely dark, and also because the scrollers allow Werner to do very smooth fades out of an image.

Werner has what he calls an analog blackout method. “One of the big issues with video projection is that you cannot fade out to absolute black, and on the stage, that is not acceptable,” he explains. “We came up with the solution of putting a Wybron Coloram in front of the projector that scrolls from clear to black over a gradient. By using that, we could smooth out the fades and achieve a true blackout. We custom designed a scroll of gradient black, so it went over 3' or 4' of film from clear to black. We took some Duvetyne tape and blacked out the end of the scroll. It cut the shine on the scroll and got us to absolute black. It was a very analog way of doing it in a very digital system.”

Findley, with a background at Light and Sound Design and PRG, has been programming media servers for the last couple of years now. “From my perspective, this is definitely the most elaborate system that I have seen put together. It is also one of the most precise. When I came into this, I thought that we were shooting too high. Everything has to line up perfectly. The projectors have to shift within millimeters of where they have to be for the images to line up — for things not to be blurry, for things to catch correctly — but everything just works to the ‘T’ every night. Watching the workflow in the theatre, it is hard to imagine how this would be able to happen without a media server. Because things change so much, as soon as things go onstage and actors come onstage, everyone involved — Howard, Ken, the directors, Dave McKean — looks at it and says, ‘If we could only change this little bit here and that little bit there.’ Being able to make those changes right on the spot, to tech it right there and have it in the show that night, it's pretty impressive. It amazes me how quick we are able to do things.”

It became apparent that there would be a need to be a high-level of control over the projectors for Lestat. To solve this challenge, Matt Corke — product specialist for PRG who was deeply involved with the network — created a piece of software that has been dubbed “SerialBox.” This rather ingenious piece of software won praise from Howard Werner and Drew Findley. Corke walks us through SerialBox and how it came to be.

“In a typical situation, you set your projectors, focus, zoom, and lens shift to project onto a particular surface. It turns out that, with the scenery for Lestat, there are vertical panels that track left and right. There are also more panels further downstage and then projecting from the FOH upon scenic scrim, as well as projecting onto the panels upstage. It became obvious that we would need not only to be able to shift focus for the projectors, but also to potentially shift the zoom and also do a lens shift in order to make the shots that we wanted to make when the scenic pieces moved.”

Corke says he spent a lot of time talking to manufacturers to try and figure out which projectors had these features, and more importantly, which projectors that had features like this that were repeatable, in a precise way. “With off-the-shelf products, you are limited to very specific command sets, and you can't change information on the fly,” he says. “What I started looking at was being able to do that ourselves — knowing that we were going to use the grandMA console with Art-Net, and with the help of the guys writing the MBox software, which also receives Art-Net — to put together an application that also received Art-Net and sent serial commands to the projectors. Initially, the product was called SerialBox, since it would send serial commands, but it turned out, given the locations of the projectors, that we eventually ended up sending Ethernet commands to the projectors. We were lucky that the projectors that we picked could actually receive Ethernet. Given the length restrictions on serial, it would have been much harder to do that with a single computer outputting the serial commands. With Ethernet, we were able to have a single computer doing that.”

In simple terms, Corke says the software basically receives Art-Net and sends ASCII commands to the projectors. “The original version was intended to treat the projector like a moving light, so you have a zoom, a focus, lens shift vertical, lens shift horizontal, and you would have a channel for the shutter. It actually ended up being 10 or 12 channels per projector, and you would, in theory, be able to spin the encoder on the control desk and, indeed, have the lens move in the appropriate manner.”

Corke made some fairly major changes to the way the software treats the projectors. “It went from a level-based application, which was 12 channels per projector, to a cue-based structure, where you would manually enter cue information into the software and that would only tell the software which cue to run. That worked out so much better from everyone's point of view once we got into the theatre. It was much more reliable, and you were able to take control over what you were doing. You just send them a command that says ‘move the lens to this point.’ With the Digital Projection projectors, they have very precise encoders on the lenses, which have a physical value for where the lens is. The nice thing about the software is now you can send commands to the projector to ask it where the lens is, so when you get a set focus, you ask it where all of the axes are. You write that down and write it into your cue, and then when you get back to that cue, you just tell the software to play that cue back, and it sends those commands to the projector. It says to send the lens back to these positions. Given the complexity of all of the projector moves, it would have been impossible to do it without something being this flexible.”