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  • Jason Simms

UP IN THE CLOUDS: Depicting the Heavens On Stage

The sky is everywhere, and thus it often finds its way into set designs. Ever tried to cram a sky in a room? You can't -- unless you are artist Berndnaut Smilde. But even he can only manage one cloud at a time, and his clouds dissipate after a few passing seconds. Over the centuries, scenic designers, lighting designers, scenic artists, and theatre technicians have developed tricks of the trade to create skies audiences can practically believe.


Every scenic designer will tell you that recreating realistic nature on stage is not only challenging, but quite expensive and time consuming. Skies are no exception. We often have to create the illusion of infinity within 2 or 3 feet of depth. Fortunately, centuries-old tricks of the trade remain effective as well as some new printing and projection technologies.


Painted Drops

The most tried and true method for accomplishing an onstage sky is with paint. More specifically, long-standing painting techniques that create a large image that can be lit from the front and back allowing shifting appearances. We call these large paintings translucent painted backdrops or 'drops'.

HOW IT WORKS:

  • First, the scenic designer provides a to-scale paint elevation to the scenic artist. This elevation should be a miniature version (usually in 1/2" scale -- 24 times smaller than the final product). This elevation along with conversations allow the scenic artist to understand which parts of the translucent painted drop should be more translucent or more opaque (how much light is able to transmit through the drop).

  • The scenic painter then begins to create a full-scale layout of the paint elevation while maintaining it's proportions using the ancient grid method or an image projector. These methods transfer the paint elevation in larger form onto the painting surface. The most common painting surface is muslin that has been stretched, squared, and sized. Sizing is a treatment that gives more structure to the muslin allowing it to better retain paint and shape.

  • After the layout transfer of the design is complete, the scenic artist then begins to apply paint and other media to adjust the translucency of the drop in specific desired areas. This allows the drop to recieve backlight creating a sense of variation and depth. (Think about looking through clouds while on an airplane; the thinner the cloud, the more light can pass through it, the thicker the cloud, the less light can pass through it.) Methods for obtaining translucency are varied and complicated, You can see some of these methods in action by visiting Jacob Caire's website; there he displays some step-by-step process photographs of the AS YOU LIKE IT drop at the Juilliard School.

  • Once the translucencies of the drop are determined and executed, the Scenic Artist can add details and color to the drop. This is usually done using spray techniques that keep the paint thin to maintain intended translucencies. Sometimes an opaque landscape is painted at the bottom of the drop to create a horizon.

  • When the drop is painted and hung in the theater, the lighting designer steps in and lights the drop from the front and the back in order to mimic the shifting natural atmosphere. Strip lights or cyc lights are most commonly used to light the drop. These lights are designed to create a large linear swath of even light across a long distance. Using different intensity and colors of light, the lighting designer can create dawn, sunsets, high noon, and the darkness of night. Often, a scrim -- a large piece of open-weave fabric -- is hung in front of the drop to help regulate brightness & visibility.

Large Format Printed Drops

Thanks to new technologies, printing large format drops is becoming more popular, and skies are no exception. This method is often more time and cost effective than a painted drop; however, it is rare that the sense of depth a painted drop provides can be achieved. A skilled lighting designer, though, is often able to use lighting tools and techniques to bring a printed drop to life.

HOW IT WORKS:

  • First, the scenic designer provides a high resolution to-scale digital image (usually from a photograph or a painting) of the sky as desired.

  • This image is then sent to a professional print shop that specializes in large format printing. (These companies are also known to print billboards and large signage.) It is also determined which material to print on. Available materials include, but are not limited to: matte vinyl, polyester poplin, and polyester sheer fabrics. (Sheer fabrics are useful for layering and creating depth much like a translucent drop). It is also possible for a scenic artist -- using different mediums -- to adjust localized areas of translucency to the back of printed drops.

  • Once printed, the drop is hung in space and the lighting designer lights the drop to best suit the design intentions.

Digital Video Projections

With video projection technologies becoming omnipresent in theater, it is no surprise that projections can create active and changing photorealistic skies. Because a projector needs a certain amount of space between itself and the surface being projected on (depending on the specifics of the projector), this is not always a viable option.

In the RIVALS at Bristol Riverside Theatre, a projection of moving clouds was projected onto a painted mural in order to bring the sky to life with rolling clouds for the finale King's Mead duel scene.

HOW IT WORKS

  • A projection surface (any large neutral surface usually at the back of the theater) is prepared for projections. This surface can be anything from a painted wall to a large piece of fabric.

  • The video is designed, usually by a video projection designer, and is projected on the large surface much like a cinema screen.

  • Sometimes the projection acts as an augmentation of the surface, meaning the surface may already have some painted detail or textural quality to it that the projectionist or projection designer uses to their advantage to better enhance the overall effect.

Augmented Cyclorama

The most common method for creating a sky on stage is using a cyclorama or 'cyc' that receives lighting augmentation. A cyc is a large piece of fabric (usually white muslin) that gets hung at the back of the theater. In addition to strip lights, the lighting designer may use lighting templates or gobos to create a sense of clouds, depth, or texture upon the cyc. Again, it is common for a scrim to be hung in front of the cyc in order to maintain brightness and visibility control.

Regardless of the method used, it is not uncommon for the sky material to be curved. Curvature allows the sky element to wrap around the scenery providing the illusion of panorama.

Regardless of methodology, putting a sky on stage is no walk in the park. As with all theatrical endeavors, it takes strong collaboration from start to finish. As technologies progress, there will no doubt be advances in how we achieve cramming heavens in a box, but the oldest methods of execution are sure to remain steadfast.



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