Pico the Hits

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Salma Shaw & Roger Payano in Synetic Theater’s “Othello”

Roger Payano has a BS in mechanical engineering and an MS in industrial engineering and has worked in the defense industry, but when he was applauded recently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. it had nothing to do with his engineering prowess.  He played the title role in the Synetic Theater production of Othello, and everyone in the audience knew what his character was thinking, despite the fact that he did not utter a single word during the course of the play.  Neither did any of his fellow actors.

Synetic Theater won two Helen Hayes awards this year for earlier productions.  Prior to Othello this season they presented critically acclaimed versions of such other plays as Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also without any spoken words.  But Othello was different.  Audience members could literally see what Othello was thinking, thanks to a video-based technological breakthrough.

Theater has long used technology.  More than two thousand years ago, the ancient Roman poet we call Horace warned writers not to use a “deus ex machina” (a god from a machine) to resolve plots.  He was referring to a practice in ancient Greek theater, at least 500 years older still, of having a crane drop an actor playing god onto the stage to use supernatural powers to take care of problems.

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Nicola Sabbatini’s 1638 lighting dimmer

The exact dates when the spotlight and the lighting dimmer were invented might never be known, but in 1638 Nicola Sabbatini’s Pratica di fabricar scene e macchine ne‘ teatri, a theatrical-technology instruction book, offered plans for both, not to mention designs for set-changing, flying, and storm- and flame-simulating machinery.  Sweden’s Drottningholms Slottsteater, opened in 1766, still uses the original 18th-century, human-powered stage machinery (and lighting control), which can effect a complete set change — wings, flies, etc. — in a matter of seconds.  You can see it in operation here: http://dtm.se/visningar/bakom_kulisserna.asp

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One of Zahn’s moving-slide projectors

The use of motion pictures on a screen in theatrical presentations is much older than Sabbatini’s book.  Documentation exists that an 11-piece shadow puppet was used to entertain Emperor Wu of China more than 2000 years ago.  Johann Zahn’s Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium, first published in 1685, showed how to project moving images using mechanical slides in what are today called “magic lantern” or “stereopticon” projectors.  Below is a moving image from one form of motion slide, as shown on the Dutch magic-lantern site de Luikerwaal: http://www.luikerwaal.com/newframe_uk.htm?/boeken_uk.htm


Below this paragraph is another motion picture, said to be the oldest existing long sequence intended to be projected in a theater (older sequences shot by Eadweard Muybridge exist, and some of those were intended to be projected, but they comprise only a few frames each, arranged around a disk).  The motion sequence below was shot by Louis Le Prince in Leeds, England, in 1888.

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Was Le Prince trying to invent what we today call “movies”?  There’s no question that he wanted to be able to capture and project live-action sequences, and some say he succeeded before Edison.  But it’s not clear that he intended audiences to enter an auditorium simply to watch his movies.  At least one contemporary document suggests that his invention was intended to provide motion-picture backdrops for live performances.  In 1896, when the Rosabel Morrison Company performed Carmen at the Lyceum Theater in Elizabeth, New Jersey in front of a projected Eidoloscope movie sequence of a bullfight, Le Prince’s goal might have been achieved.

Faust boatMoving-image projection in the service of theatrical drama has certainly advanced over the past century or so.  When a new production of La Damnation de Faust opened at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, it utilized multiple high-definition projectors, fed computer graphics generated live based on input from motion sensing cameras, to provide images that interact with the human performances on the stage.  Thus, a character on stage could pole a gondola, the water rippling in its wake — except for the fact that there was no water, let alone wake and ripples; it was all projected computer graphics.

There are advanced projection systems today that can track moving screens across a stage and not only project on them but also pre-distort the images according to a varying screen angle.  Some can even project on non-flat surfaces.  Here’s one example: http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=LHLqATsdWQo&feature=related

Unfortunately, the more advanced the systems, the less they seem to be appropriate in live drama.  As Avatar showed, it’s possible to do anything in a movie, from atrophying an actor’s legs to creating an entire non-terrestrial civilization.  And movie tickets, despite recent price hikes, usually cost less than those of live theater.  Might computer-graphics-based images, like amplified voices, make live theater seem more like movies, and, if so, would it be worth paying more than a movie-ticket price to see it?

The wordless Synetic Theater performances don’t use amplified voices, of course.  And the company’s foray into video projection, though it involved such advanced concepts as tracking moving screens and presenting images on irregular surfaces, was remarkably live and human.

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Othello literally grapples with projected jealousy in Synetic Theater’s production (photo by Graeme B. Shaw)

There were no whirring projector fans.  There was no projection booth.  No illuminated dust motes made the projection beams visible.  At times the images seemed to come directly from Othello’s mind.

In fact, the images came from palm-sized, battery-operated, handheld 3M MPro150 pico-projectors, small enough to be hidden in costumes when not used and barely visible even when they were.  One is shown below on a small tripod.


Introduced for the business-presentation market, pico projectors might not be ideal for that purpose.  With just 15-lumen output, the MPro150 would provide 8 nits of luminance (think brightness) on a plain white screen just 2 feet high.  For comparison, a Panasonic TH-50VX100U 50-inch plasma display, with roughly the same size picture, would offer 1200 nits, 150 times more.  A smaller projected picture would be brighter, but then the business presentation might as well be shown on a laptop screen, also brighter.

On a dark stage, however, the images from the pico projectors in Synetic Theater’s production of Othello seemed perfect.  Tracking moving screens was no problem; the actors using the projectors just turned their wrists.  And the human foibles of such tracking seemed to keep the images human, too.  Similarly, projecting hands on the irregular surface of the waist of a character’s dress required only that the actor doing the projecting aim that way.

Perhaps Othello was the first example of what will be an age of on-stage pico projection.  Either way, it was a superb production.

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