It’s been five years since I’ve designed a theatrical production with UCA Theatre. My last design was The Bacchae that was both a set and a projection design project. This time around it’s Radium Girls and again I designed the physical scenery and projected imagery. Radium Girls was directed by my colleague, Chris Fritzges.
About Radium Girls
From wikipedia – “The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with self-luminous paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey, around 1917. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to give them a fine point; some also painted their fingernails and teeth with the glowing substance.
Five of the women challenged their employer in a case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers.”
The play, by D.W. Gregory, tells this story through one of the girls, Grace Fryer, and the president of the U.S. Radium Corporation, Arthur Roeder.
The design team, which was made up of myself and theatre faculty and students, met several times to discuss the play including what the story means and what our production goals were. One of the big goals scenically was to include projected imagery. The main reason for projections was that the play has many scenes in different locations and it shouldn’t be staged with a lot of traditional scenery. The thought was that projections could quickly change and help inform the audience of where the different scenes were taking place. Another overall goal was to use scenery that was abstract and allowed for interesting staging, such as multiple platforms at different heights, rather than being realistic looking. Realism is best used for costumes and properties (props) – the things that are closest to the characters want some authenticity, while the playing space can be more abstract or symbolic.
Chris started the process of developing the design by discussing different themes he saw in the story. The following are a few of the larger themes:
- The Corporation vs. the Worker
- Masculine vs. Feminine
- Science vs. Business
- Fighting time
- The media
Some visual themes/motifs included clocks, gears, and flowers.
The next step in the process was to do some research. The play’s time period was the 1920s and it recounts actual events so the team, including a student dramaturg (one who is dedicated to researching the play in detail and making his research available to the rest of the team), looked for pictures and articles about the girls, Marie Curie, the U.S. Radium Corporation, radium products and research, and general 1920s trends in clothing, art, and architecture.
I was ultimately most influenced by the work of Hugh Ferriss, the U.S. Radium plant, and timepieces of the era.
Sometimes the set design will just come to me and I quickly work on about three variations of an idea. Not for this play. Instead, I drew sketches of several different ideas and shared them with the design team. The gear and clock influences are a thread throughout the ideas as well as the factory windows, which are referenced in the play. What I was unsure of, was the actual projection surfaces – how integrated should they be into the playing spaces? Also, should we project flat on typical screens or consider other shapes for projection surfaces?
After looking at sketches for a couple of weeks, we decided that we liked three levels of platforms and that they should be round (more feminine shape, clocks, gears, radium symbol). We also worked out the size of each platform. The projection surface ended up taking a little longer, but we finally worked out a projection mapping-oriented wall that had an industrial skyline silhouette at the top. The projection mapping aspect of it was that the screen was not just one plane stretching across the back of the platforms. Instead, it was broken into multiple planes at different angles. Doors through the projection surfaces were the last pieces to go in.
We made some last-minute changes to the heights of the platforms for time and cost savings, which ultimately made the set work better. You’ll notice that the doors are above the platforms in the renderings because I was trying to show the change in height as fast as I could… Also, since it had been awhile since I had done a theatrical set, and I was preoccupied by the projected imagery, Shannon Moore, the theatre Technical Director, was instrumental in dealing with some finishing touches like steps and platforms on the upstage side of the set through the doors.
Lastly, I created a painter’s elevation for the platforms. Two platforms were clock faces and the third was a watch/industrial gear.
After the set design was done we moved onto the projection design. I primarily worked with Chris rather than working with the whole design team. The cast also had some input on projection ideas. Chris and I met three times to go through possible imagery for each scene. In the early meetings I discussed imagery ideas that were documentary-like. Imagery would be based on period photos, actual photos of the characters portrayed, newspaper clippings, etc. As we got into discussing the imagery and getting ideas from the cast I felt that the documentary idea wasn’t working with the production style and ideas. The final overall design concept was experiencing each location using either symbolic imagery and/or closeups of objects that would be in that particular location.
In the scenes that were in character’s homes I tried to focus on fireplace mantels because I wanted to feature some style of clock. I included enough clocks that Chris mapped out the time that should be on each clock face starting at 1:00 and going to 11:45.
The doors didn’t quite work with the concept of closeups and symbolism so I had to come up with a way to change the apparent scale of the spaces depicted in the imagery. During an early rehearsal I attended I saw the problem and came up with a solution almost immediately. I chose to use as much of the screen as possible to do the closeup objects, such as a fireplace mantel, and then change the scale around the door to make it more realistic. I used the scale of the objects and wallpaper pattern to show that if one were to really bend their head around what I created that they could rationalize the different sized objects. I imagined what a door across a room would look like if I were standing close to the fireplace. The fireplace objects would be large in my view and the door small due to its distance away from me.
There were a few places where I tweaked this concept. In the exterior porch of the Roeder home I chose to keep the door in scale, but the house’s siding and eve would be large and out of scale. In the health department I created oversized filing cabinets that dwarf the door. In Grace’s home both doors are used so I couldn’t use the same technique so I made the props, like hanging lights and the mantel clock oversized.
Figure 53’s Qlab was used to playback the imagery on an iMac. A VGA signal was sent to two 4000 Lumen projectors at 1920×1080 pixel dimensions. Both projectors got the same image so they were overlapping each other to increase the overall brightness. Qlab was used to warp the image to counteract the warping from the angled screens (projection mapping!).
Blender was used for almost all of the imagery. I used as many pre-modeled objects as possible to save time. There are some recurring scenes with two newspaper reporters and most of those images were created in Photoshop. I used two computers concurrently to stay productive. My main computer is an iMac and I used it to do the modeling and setup lighting and materials in Blender as well as Photoshop work. I then moved over to an older Linux computer I have with two Nvidia graphics cards. Blender’s Cycles renderer can be accelerated using Nvidia cards (AMD cards are almost ready to accelerate too BTW) so I finalized the shading and lighting and did final renders with it.
Oh yeah, I also made some tables for the show
The show’s overall production quality was amazing. The set, projections, costumes (Designed by Shauna Meador), lighting, props, sound, and performances went together so well. We often talk about a unified production, but sometimes there is one element or another that just doesn’t seem to fit. Not in this case. The show looked really good and was well directed and performed. I can be very critical especially of my own work so I am surprised at how good I feel about the work.
There were problems of course.
- I started making the images way too late. I literally did 85% of the images in the last weekend before it opened (it was UCA’s fall break so that last weekend was several days…).
- There were 50 images – the most I’ve made for a single show
- Because I was so late I didn’t give Chris very many opportunities for feedback. I think he was happy with my work overall, but we should have been able to work together more.
- I wanted some of the imagery to be animated, such as spinning newspapers, smoke or dust in the air, subtle movements of objects, etc. There were no animations.
- We either started our whole process a little late or took too long to design the set – maybe both. Construction on the set should have started at least a week earlier than it did.
- The way I setup the projectors was lame. They were sitting on an angled board in the theater’s 2nd catwalk. Because they were not locked down by any kind of rig they had to be touched every night to make sure they were aligned to each other.
- The projectors were not perfectly aligned. Cheap projectors don’t have the tools to do fine adjustments aligning the images of multiple projectors so I got it as close as I could. The image looked out of focus toward the bottom left side (as seen by the audience) and overall had a soft look due to the slight mismatch.
- A workaround would have been to send individual signals to the projectors and used Qlab to do the final alignment by giving each projector a custom warping. Instead, I sent a signal to one projector and used the loop-thru to get the signal to the other projector. Sending two signals would have meant using a different computer too.
- The projections needed to be brighter. Dr. Greg Blakey, the lighting designer, did a lot of last-minute changes to the lights to try to keep as much illumination off the screen as possible. The only way we could have gone brighter would have been renting a large-venue projector (10K or greater Lumens) and that would have blown the budget unfortunately.
Some of the projections:
The images below are a mix of photos and actual projection images. The photos are untouched jpegs from the camera. When I have more time I’ll work on the raw images. The screen in these photos looks a little darker than it actually was live.