Friday, January 9, 2015

Another Opening, Another Show

Well, feh.

The design basically failed. The show looks okay, though, and the client is happy.

What I had to work with is under thirty instruments, and about twenty channels of underpowered dimmers. The stage is narrow yet oddly shallow, with the cyclorama placed too close upstage of the scenery, and the borders and proscenium are low enough to prevent anything upstage of the Second House Electric from shooting very far anyhow.

The most important emotional idea I was trying to get across is dirt farming in the Texas Panhandle; hot, dry, big cloudless sky and unshaded sunlight. The play takes place over the 1930's drought and resulting Dust Bowl, thus I also wanted to show the darkened sky and near black-out conditions of the height of the dust storms, the increasing desperation and poverty, and as well several scenes that take place indoors, a couple of scenes at night or in a romantic sunset.

What I chose as an overall scheme was a key light, angled slightly from House Left, in a pale gold; this represents direct sunlight, and is paired with a couple of gobos in the same direction and color; one with foliage for early in the play when there are still growing things around the farmhouse, and one with a window opening for interior scenes in a church lit by natural light. (If I had the instruments, the latter would be two systems, one in Auction House/Courthouse windows across the front of the stage, the other in a central Church window).

The second system was a flat front of fresnels in a neutral lavender; this takes over progressively in all scenes when direct sunlight is presumed blocked. A third system is a backlight in a warm amber.

This latter is the first real problem. I intended it to represent generically the heat of the day, and it does suggest that. But it is also so bright and amber it feels like direct sunlight in those scenes when I'm pretending the sun is down or occluded. It is also just a bit too romantic-looking; any scene with that back light up feels too "nice" for the grimmer portions of the play.

My flat front also has the issues alluded to earlier; I can't push coverage up into the upstage corners of the set due to not being able to make the shallow angles required. Late in the day, I've been side-arming several of the fresnels down so they can reach further under the proscenium, but this just brings them into another problem area; they hit the cyclorama, casting shadows of scenery and actors against what is supposed to be the distant sky.

Fortunately, the lack of decent hanging positions for the flat front system left me with extra instruments, so I was able to re-purpose those towards a minimal but sufficient cool back instead -- using Rosco 65, "Daylight Blue," which is not that saturated or, in this context at least, romantic looking.

Also experimental in this hang was the Cyc Lights. In theater parlance, a Cyclorama is a seamless sheet of white or pale blue that extends across and masks the back wall. The cyc was important to this show because in the reference photographs of Dorothea Lange the near-cloudless sky is a dominating presence over the "Okies" she followed into California.

In any case, the usual Cyc Strips (long multi-element instruments) are not available. So we stuck five LED Par-Cans behind the ground row, with silk to try to diffuse and spread them a little. They don't blend wonderfully, but I've seen worse streaks on a cyc. The big downside to them turns out to be that, unlike my own software, they don't have a decent "gamma" map. So instead of being able to fade them softly down to black, they hop from dark to fairly bright -- and because each color channel responds slightly differently, they do so through several colors rather more saturated than desired.

There's at least one scene where I leave the cyc off completely because the "pop" of it coming on would distract from the slow cross-fade I've got going. But they work...and because they are DMX controlled, they don't use up any of my precious dimmers.

I did my homework. I went through the script collating every reference to location, time of day, time of year, and notated each scene as to what it was supposed to suggest. And then essentially ignored that work; the look of each scene is much more dictated by getting light on faces, and setting up the required contrasts with other scenes.

Particularly because this is such a small stage, isolation gets lost in most scenes. Which is a problem because it has a Classical arrangement of General Store on one side, Farmhouse on the other. The thing is, these two buildings are not supposed to share physical space. There is a good mile between them, at least. But when a scene that is supposed to take place in a dining room or auction hall expands to use the entire width of the stage, I end up with light on the two buildings and it looks like the scene is happening in a studio backlot sort of small-scale town.

This is also inevitable when my area plot is essentially three across, and one or two deep. I can set up a scene as taking place only around the Stage Right porch, but inevitably an actor will cross just one foot too far, and I'll have to add the rest of the stage.

My proof-of-concept DuckLight is in another show now; stuck inside a vintage radio we're using as prop in a couple of scenes. The LED is attached behind the dial with double-stick tape, which might not be technically accurate but motivates the lines about "So what if we can't hear anything; it has a real pretty light."

And, yes -- forget the nuisance of programming a color by progressively tweaking code and uploading it, this board has no ICSP header so I had to pry the chip out every time I put new code into it. That made for a rather long development cycle just to get a color that looks sort of like vacuum tube glow and comes up slowly over about ten seconds.

I also had a cold solder joint somewhere. Eventually I gave up trying to track it down, and soldered up a new version on Adafruit perma-proto. This time with an ICSP header!

Oh, of course. Not even thirty instruments, and one has to fail on opening night. A front light. Down Stage Center.

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