Radium Girls – Set and Projection Design

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.

Design Process

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.

Design Influences

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.

U.S. Radium Corporation plant and dial painters

Set Design

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?

The sketches for the Radium Girls set design

The sketches for the Radium Girls set design

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.

Radium Girls set design front view

Radium Girls set design front view

Radium Girls set design side view

Radium Girls set design side view

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.

Painter's elevation

Painter’s elevation

The Set

The Set

pre-show-photo

Pre show and Intermission look

Projections

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.

Doors

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.

Technical Stuff

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

Radium Girls Tables

Radium Girls Tables

Final Thoughts

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.

  1. 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…).
    1. There were 50 images – the most I’ve made for a single show
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
    1. 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.
  7. 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.

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Metallica – part I, S&M

One of my Introduction to Film students discovered that I worked on the Metallica S&M (Symphony and Metallica) concert. He wanted me to talk about it. I told him I would do a blog post on it. Here it is.

His first question – How did you get the gig?

How I got the gig…

Take a moment of silence for the two birds that died for this one blog post.

The 1998 Purdue Musical Organization (PMO) Christmas Show is where the story starts and I don’t want to blog about the Christmas Show again, even though it was huge, and the show the next year was pretty huge too. In the spring of 1998 I was a graduate student in scenography (a theatre term for production design) at Purdue University. I was asked to co-design the PMO Christmas Show with the manager of the Elliott Hall of Music on Purdue’s campus. The Hall of Music is a 6000 seat theater designed with the same consultant that helped design Radio City Music Hall in New York so it is very similar in size (100′ wide stage for instance). The Christmas Show had a budget of approximately $250K and its proceeds funded the Glee Club’s (yup Glee Club – Purdue had no Music major at that time, but had one of the biggest music programs in the country – weird) travels and programs for the following year. The show sold out 6 performances every year and drew people from all over the region. It was also featured on PBS on a regular basis during the Christmas season. Just a reminder – 6 shows at 6000 people = 36,000 people. Ticket prices varied based on distance from the stage, but nevertheless, this concert made a lot of money.

The show required a lot of physical scenery, which were sets built and painted during the summer. When I was brought onboard I recommended that we use projections as part of the scenery. The co-designer/manager, Steve Hall, drew a crude sketch of how he wanted the people and existing painted drops to be used and he wanted lots of pictures of Santa Claus. I took that brief and turned it into a set and decorations. I then worked with the PMO grand dragon, Brian Breed, to develop imagery ideas for each of the songs. Throughout the summer, I worked with fellow grad student and now professional scene designer, Robert Kovach, to create all of the physical scenery. We mainly painted, while Ron Clark and carpenters built the scenery. Throughout the fall semester I created imagery that would be projected during the show.

DesignRendering        Christmas01 1SantaDesign

At some point during the summer I took a road trip with the video director at the Hall, Bill Callison, to visit with some guys in Nashville, TN, who would lead the playback and projection equipment and video logistics for the show. The guys were Scott Scovill, owner of MooTV, and Jim Lockhart, compositor/artist and essentially only employee at MooTV at the time. We walked through the problems – 66′ wide by 24′ tall screen space – needs to be bright enough for a live staged event – need playback  – the image size required multiple projectors and some edge overlap/blending.

MarchOfTheToySoldiers

JimAtTheControls

Jim worked out the overlap and blending. I created the imagery at a single raster size and then we ran the full image through three After Effects composites, which would break the image into three different sections with appropriate gradients that would blend together properly when overlapped using multiple projectors and video servers. Nowadays the playback software does this automagically.

We had three pairs of projectors. Any one of the projectors were more expensive than my house… One of each pair was a digital projector with a short throw lens. It was crazy expensive just by itself. The analog projector below it was dialed in to match the digital projector since it had more image warping capability. By the time all six were aligned and properly blending we had a total of 33K lumens on the screen. FYI, a typical classroom projector runs at 3K lumens.

We played the imagery back on three DoReMi video servers and triggered them using a single Dataton timeline. All this stuff can be done by elementary students now, but in 1998 we were a select few in the world that could pull off such a project. Pretty cool.

Now to the point – I impressed the guys at MooTV. They saw that I could create imagery in 2D and 3D very fast and at a high level of quality. Scott called me the “Art Factory.”

Images: design sketch – me putting details to Steve’s overall ideas. Maquette of one of the 12′ Santa sculptures I made. The maquette is made with cheap paper-mache material from Hobby Lobby. The set as seen on stage. The set with with a large part of the Glee Club and the animation of the March of the Toy Soldiers I created in 3D. Jim Lockhart in our lair.

Fast forward 4 months.

Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony

I had read about this project in Entertainment Weekly. I was excited because I had been a Metallica fan since I was 13 years old and I loved classical music. Out of the blue, I got a call from Scott Scovill. He said he had a gig he couldn’t talk about, but was with a symphony and a famous band. I said Metallica. He said yes. I said I was in, what do you need? He told me the brief, which was to bring Mark Rothko – like paintings to life. They had tried a few things, but they were not working out and they thought I might have a different take on it. I did. My art abilities and training in art history became very useful and I threw together a couple of demos. It was a little over a week before the show. I suggested that I be there on site rather than working from Indiana. Scott agreed. A few days and animations later I was on a plane to California.

A side note about computers. Laptops were popular at this time, but had very little power to do animation. I had recently built a nice computer based around the best Intel server/workstation class processor available and Windows NT 4. I needed to take it to the gig. My wife, Shauna, made me a carrier for my desktop CPU case so I could travel with it as if it were carry-on luggage. This was pre-9/11 so I made it, but please imagine me walking though an airport with a large desktop computer in a padded bag. Awesome, but it could never happen again. There is another story I could tell regarding getting a monitor at the gig, but I will save it for now. It became a trend (aka, running joke) with MooTV gigs.

The gig was on Wednesday, April 21 and Thursday, April 22, 1999. We arrived on-site on Saturday. Sunday through Tuesday we setup the video gear, which included an 18′ tall x 24′ wide LED video wall and several portable racks of video equipment. In 1999, that LED screen was worth $1 Million. UCA has something similar in its football stadium now – didn’t cost that much… John Broderick (J.B.) was the lighting and scene designer. He saw the screens being assembled and said that they should not be completely assembled. I immediately became a fan. The wall was assembled by taking screen sections and attaching them vertically into narrow columns hung by chain motors and then connecting them horizontally. He said don’t connect them horizontally. Let’s adjust the height of each column so they do not align. Then let’s rotate each column so they are not flat to each other. It is not a rectangular screen, but a series of vertical columns with imagery that spans across columns in a dis-jointed manner (too academic a description?).  I got what he was after and I was invigorated – and it was Metallica of course so I was on top of the world.

JB looked at the imagery we had created by Sunday. He identified animations that should correspond with certain songs. He wanted an old-school liquid light show for the opening number (Ecstasy of Gold and The Call of Ktulu), so we sent our camera man out to shoot it with a hippie in San Francisco. He also wanted a few other things that we needed to create there on-site. Jim and I worked as much as we could to create the rest of the imagery. The lights, sound, and projection were being powered using Show Power, which were generators outside the venue. When they shutdown, we shutdown. No all-nighters for us!

As far as imagery was concerned, the highlight of my professional life was this gig. Before coming to California, I had created a 3D animation of what I thought a Rothko painting would look like if it were in 3D space. I made blocks of color typical in his popular paintings into 3D blocks that looked 2D when viewed straight on, but broken into 3D objects in different planes of depth when seen from the side. I created an animation that turned around these blocks in 360 degrees so it could loop easily. I then ran an effect over it so it looked similar to a painting. JB loved it and assigned it to “Outlaw Torn.” It would be the only thing on the screen during the song. I was ecstatic. Why? “Outlaw Torn” is my all-time favorite song – to me, it is the greatest song that’s ever been recorded (BTW, #2 is Creedence’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and #3 is S&G “Sound of Silence”). I could post about it all by itself, but I simply love the song and the fact that my favorite work for the gig was assigned to my favorite song put me in a place I have not been since or expect to ever be professionally. The S&M version of “Outlaw Torn” is the ultimate music experience and I highly recommend listening to it as loud as you can – preferably with a 5.1 system and the official DVD set to 5.1.

We had some other things going on the screen. We had a live camera backstage shooting at the wonderful texture on the back wall of the theater; we had access to the 5 cameras shooting the concert under a different vendor (the main cameras for the DVD); and we had one of our own cameras (run by the same guy who grabbed the liquid light show – aka Schmaba – awesome and talented guy, who happened to give me some great advice that I can share in a later post). We used an Abakus DVEous to warp and twist live video. We used a video switcher to key warped video into the dark areas of animated Rothko-esque imagery. We threw the kitchen sink at the screen to be as creative as possible in a live concert environment in a short amount of time. The DVD video director, Wayne Isham, was not always thrilled with what we and JB came up with, but we did not seem to care. It was funny that we were working with the hottest video director of the era, but he seemed to be 2 steps behind us. Unfortunately, he got the final say on the DVD edit, so our screen is not featured as much as it could have been if we were more collaborative with him.

All of this imagery had to be coordinated for the concert. Jim and I were big Metallica fans, but Scott, the director, who ran the switcher, which controlled the screen, was not as familiar with the music – he was our boss, but he was at a loss. Jim was running the playback of the animations using a Media 100 video editor (crazy compared to the tools we have nowadays for realtime playback) so he had a job. Our video engineer, Barry Otto, was running the Abekus. I was done, or so I thought. By Monday evening it seemed I needed to be the assistant video director (the Stage Manager for you Theater types). I ran the show. I called cues for Jim, Barry, and Scott, so all aspects of the screen could be properly coordinated with the live show. I had a lot of experience doing similar work as a light or sound board operator or stage manager in theatrical productions so I was was equipped to handle it, however, I was truly scared by the scale and importance of the project. “Outlaw Torn” was the only time during the show I got to rest and enjoy the show  – I was fine with that.

There were some other cool moments. Wednesday night after the show, Metallica and the Symphony recorded some singles. They turned the P.A. around and played and recorded “Master of Puppets,” which we stayed around to hear. The bosses wanted to go back to the hotel so we missed the other recordings they did. There were also some weird moments, such as yelling at Wayne Isham, being yelled at by the Bass tech, and hoping we were really pulling this off.

Some images from the show. These are from “Outlaw Torn.” Notice the unity of the stage lighting and screen imagery;)

vlcsnap-2014-02-25-20h36m16s8 vlcsnap-2014-02-25-20h36m46s79 vlcsnap-2014-02-25-20h38m41s192

I have a Metallica part II, which was their summer Sanitarium Tour in 2000. I have some thoughts about catering at the S&M gig, but I think I will hold them for part II.