Projection design for Les Misérables

December 7, 2015


Visual projections were a key element of last year’s fall production of Les Miserables. Projected set pieces and animations were used to add another dimension throughout the show. With over 30 text, image, and animated elements between the two acts, most of the time there were projections visible on stage.

Visual design

A majority of the elements were Victor Hugo’s original artwork with modifications to match our stage and set. The show opens with Victor Hugo’s artwork, then transitions into the first scene on the ship with Jean Valjean.

One of the cues was a transition from day to night inside a building, which was done with QLab’s internal color correction controls. A gamma and exposure correction was enough to achieve the effect.

The splashing water effect had to be cued to live stage action, so two video layers were used. The background was a simple wave simulation rendering done in Cinema4D, then the front layer is a rendered splash. QLab doesn’t have any internal overlay effects like dissolve or darken, so a video codec with alpha channel support like ProRes 4444 had to be used. The wave simulation was by Helge Kiehl using the HOT4D plugin.

One thing that became apparent was that what looked good on the computer screen does not always translate to the stage - a better projector setup with more brightness will help but it is something to be aware of when designing.

A couple of the cues had the actors walking from upstage to downstage with a projected city street background. To achieve the effect that the street buildings were moving along with the actors, the source image was split into the four geometric sides (ground, left buildings, right buildings, and sky) then animated in After Effects with the vanishing point effect.

And then a couple more animated cues for intermission and for the opening scene:

Technical specifications

Our school has a large-format Panasonic PT-EX12KE venue projector with 13,000 lumens of output power. At the max resolution and the throw distance to the stage from the control booth, each pixel was roughly a centimeter square, which is not great up close but it was acceptable from the closest front-row seats.

Cues were delivered with QLab. The third version of QLab has image-adjust features that allowed us to quickly match the color of the animated elements to match the set and mood. Animations were done in After Effects, Cinema4D, and Photoshop, with final geometric alignments to the stage done in QLab.

Projectors don’t project ‘black’, or complete darkness, when the input signal is black. This is called ‘video black’, and the small amount of light that is emitted becomes very visible during a total blackout and in darker parts of the stage. To compensate for this, we manually closed the shutter during longer parts of projection blackout and also used paper to block parts of the projection space.

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