Digital video plays on the legitimate stage

Scott Parkinson (Cassius) in Julius Caesar. photography by Liz Lauren

Synchronization of racing clouds and stars that move across five massive screens, with the passing of “night” into “day,” creates a new perspective to the familiar play at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theatre.

Capturing digital images of the stars and clouds and projecting them above the thrust stage, where Shakespeare’s political drama is played out, required intense and creative camera work by designer John Boesche. He is the visionary who created the Field Museum’s 2001 “Chicago: A New Canvas,” stunning outdoor imagery projected on exterior museum walls.

To acquire images from space for the show, Boesche accessed NASA and US LANDSAT footage on the Web. He then placed the five screens high above the stage to look like the sky.

Five Epson model 8100i projectors ? three front and two rear – and five Panasonic DVD players brought the projected skyscape images to life, via an “S” signal from the DVD players to the projectors.

Since projection was front and rear, finding a suitable projection fabric was important. After a lot of experimenting, a white, stretchable lycra proved capable of successfully providing the same likeness in brightness, color and contract for both?projections.

Boesche shot a number of daylight sky scenes from his third-floor, North Side studio and overlaid them on the NASA shots. The videos were composed and programmed to appear as one continuous image. The culminating effect eerily created a feeling of ancient Rome.

Boesche worked with editor Logan Kiben in Final Cut Pro, but editing proved to be a major challenge. By deciding to change one particular sky scene run necessitated changing all five screens and lining them up with the adjusted video and took days to incorporate the adjustments. All five new videos were needed before the change could be completed.

Each video is constructed out of segments originally about an hour long. The longest single cue for a tape playback was 20-minutes, after speed was increased to keep up with the action on the stage below.

Because the sky?captured on tape?does not move as quickly as the time-frame?of the action on the stage below, most of the projections had to be played 25 times the original speed. It was then fitted into the show time, while the sky scene could not look like it was being repeated.

Although traditional painted scenery and physical sets are destined to be integral to live theater, “Julius Caesar” definitely proclaims that the marriage of digital videos and the legitimate theatre has arrived. — Pennie Layne