Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Erin. Actor in Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Live theater has been going through a technological evolution just like most other arts. At Zach Scott Theatre directors and stage designers are incorporating more and more video projection in their work and, as in other arenas, the projections are dependent on the quality of the content. 

I got a call from the video designer at Zach, Colin Lowry, a week ago and he asked if I'd be interesting in helping to create both still images and video that could be incorporated into the play Mad Beat Hip & Gone via a large, rear projection screen. And by large I mean something like 16 feet by 24 feet. I jumped at the chance to do the work and to collaborate with Colin. He's very talented and working with talented people always makes you look good.

Since we would be jumping back and forth from still photography to full motion capture we needed to use lights that worked in both directions. All of our shots would be close up or medium length shots and movement in stills wasn't really an issue so I chose to work with our basic selection of LED panels. The image above tells most of the story. I used two 1,000 bulb Fotodiox panels aimed through a one stop diffusion screen for the front light. I used a small (14x14 inch square of white material as a fill card to the shadow side of my actor's faces, one 500 bulb panel on the background and, for most set ups, on diffused 500 bulb panel as a back light. The background was a roll of standard, gray seamless paper.

I chose to use the LEDs because they emit little heat and are most comfortable to work with. I decided to dispense with the adding of magenta filters to the light sources to cope with the small, green spike and just rely on the custom white balance from my camera. A slight gamble since I was also shooting in Jpeg and would have more limited options for color correction in post processing. As you can see from the sample above the color balance worked out just fine. Very little nudging was required to make the color file I've included at the top of the blog.

When I first heard about the size which these images would be projected I had the kneejerk reaction of thinking that I should shoot at the highest resolution possible. But Colin reminded me that the best projectors out there for this kind of work were limited to a fraction of the capabilities of the cameras these days and, that the distance from screen to audience would be at least 100 feet. In the end I shot everything at the maximum res of the camera so we'd have big files in case we wanted to use any of the images on posters for the marquees or in the Duratrans blow ups that are feature on the street facing wall of the Theatre.

Someone recently asked me if LEDs were up to the task of providing complete light for a portrait. I hope this blog answers that.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

Most of the images we took of four different actors will be used in black and white and will be projected during active parts of the performances. We had discussions about the conversion from digital color to black and white and in the end Colin and I agreed that the black and white setting of the camera I was using was a pleasing rendition and it rivaled what we thought we could get out of a program like Silver FX pro so we decided to tweak the parameters of the camera's monochrome present and shoot all the black and white images and video that way. It would save production time later on.

Erin. Actor from Mad Beat Hip & Gone.

We used exactly the same preset parameters when shooting video. It's nice to be able to do that because now the tonality of the video and the stills will match without a lot of time spent grading the video to match the stills.  And that's important since we'll be using some of the content from both media in simultaneous projections.  We also used the same lighting design in video and still production for much the same reason.  I am enthralled with the way the video turned out. We were going for a specific effect. We wanted our actor to slow down her action so that the audience would have to look twice to get that it was full motion video and not a still moving across the screen.

During the shoot we both kept a careful eye on the rear LCD monitor of the camera but it was great to toss the footage and the images onto a new Apple MacBook Pro with a 15 inch Retina screen and really dig into the images to access our success. I downloaded my memory card directly onto Colin's production machine's hard drive minutes after we wrapped the shoot.

More than any other play this year Mad Beat Hip & Gone is the one I've wanted to see. I love the time period, loved the ethos of books like Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Dharma Bums, and I love the jazz of that era as well. I expect it will be one of the coolest plays around this year and I hope the work that Colin and I did in the service of the world premier will be valuable. I think Steven Dietz has another winner on his hands. And I think Zach Scott is just the play to debut it.

I used a Sony a99 camera and the Sony 70-200mm f2.8 zoom lens to shoot everything. The camera is a chameleon and able to go between media effortlessly. Couple that with fun lights and it makes generating creative content that much easier.


  1. Sounds like a refreshing as well as challenging project. It would be interesting to see some views from the audience point of view. Doesn't it require a real flamethrower of a rear projection system to balance with stage lighting?

  2. That could be tricky for a fully lit set, but I'd guess that the live-actor would be lit with some sort of localised lighting and the back projection would not be too affected by it? Maybe the projection is a reminiscence, or thought, complementing the live actors spotlit cameo - or probably that would be far too simple . . .

    Bizarrely (as I last worked as a b+w printer 25 years ago, no colour and no video!) six years ago I was asked to shoot a washing machine on "spin", just the glass door, as a front-projected, video, visual-metaphor for the turmoil of a new immigrant, in a multimedia-plus-dance stage show she made for a town festival.

    The initial request had serious feature-creep, so lots of other stills, audio and video (not shot by me) were involved and edited together in my only attempt ever at a multi-media show, but I just followed the detailed instructions of the dancer/choreographer/subject so can't claim any credit. It would be fascinating to see how professionals make the real deal, as it were.

  3. Hi Kirk!

    What lights did you use on this shoot? The lighting is just awesome. Not sure if it is the monochrome settings, lighting, or a combination of all the above but these images have a very classic cinema look and feel to them. Makes me want to dump my strobes and shoot with LEDs all the time.

    Thanks and keep on shooting!


  4. The LED lighting looks fabulous. You made your point very eloquently!

    1. Thanks. I think it's all down to the modifiers.


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