Terminus Modern Ballet dancer with Theatre Avenue projections

Ballet Show Projections Chat - with Projection Designer Mitch Stark

Projection designer Mitch Stark

So you recently worked on two ballet shows, designing projection backdrops. What was the experience like?

Mitch: To begin with, I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I was captured by ballet in 2nd grade, watching Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Nutcracker on a tiny screen in my classroom. Even at that small size, as fuzzy as I’m sure the image probably was, I felt the magic of the art form. There was a mystery to it, a beauty to it. Even a color palette that still lives in my brain from that original experience. From there my love of ballet only grew up to now, when my daughter has discovered it for herself and we go see shows every year.

Old film still from Nutcracker ballet

Working on ballet shows has been an entirely new high. I worked with Victor Trevino, a renowned dancer and now director, on a classical version of Swan Lake. And then in a different way, I worked with a 20-year Atlanta Ballet veteran Tara Lee with her newly formed ballet troupe—Terminus Modern Ballet Company. There were wonderful similarities and of course, some differences too. What I found to be consistent was the specific artistic vision each director brought to the project, and yet how each of them also had a respect for what I was bringing to the table in terms of the art. They both knew what they were looking for and still there was room where they wanted to be surprised, even delighted by the discoveries made along the way.

Stills of dancers and digital projections from Terminus Modern Ballet Company

So you said your experience working with Victor was more classical. What was that experience like?

Mitch: Yes, so Victor came with a unique problem to solve. He was bringing his show to China and no longer wanted to have to deal with the hassle or expense of bringing traditional fabric backdrops overseas. It’s not a new tale about fabric drops. Often they are shipped everywhere so they can be old, ripped, musty, and to be blunt, sort of tired. Sometimes in a ballet troupe a drop may be used in the same show, year after year. And especially for returning audiences, the magic can start to fade.

So Victor was curious what this new technology of projections could bring to the show. He definitely wanted the look of the scenic art to be traditional, to reflect the oil painted or watercolor esthetic that has defined some of the best ballet drops. But he was also immediately aware of one of his limitations, which is that he is used to lighting his backdrops with different color gels, meaning that he can evoke a different mood or look from the same piece of fabric. You can’t put light on a projection the same way you can light a piece of physical scenery. But we found an amazing solution. I painted digitally the Castle Lake at Night scene from Act II of Swan Lake, and then we color tinted it in several different ways. The outcome was several digital images that could be slowly transitioned from one to another.

Victor was thrilled with the result! He said that in some scenes the moon would appear to glow more radiantly as the transition took place. Which is an effect that you can only achieve digitally. The result was subtle and elegant, and I think it respected the art form.

Can you talk about the process of creating projection art for the show?

Mitch: Okay, so the first thing that usually happens is I get a call from the director. In this case, Victor talked to me about what he was hoping to achieve for the show, and I asked him a lot of questions that could begin to hone in on his take for the story. It’s in this initial conversation, or even follow-up conversations, that I’m trying to understand and “see” what the director is seeing. Visual things can be very hard to talk about sometimes. It’s sort of like music. We bring such personal experiences, likes, dislikes, etc. to the table that having a common language is half the battle. In this case, I asked Victor if he’d be willing to send me some references. Usually these are images that the director can find in books, in movies, or on Google or Pinterest. It serves as a starting point. And no one image is totally right, or we would just use that. But having images to look at and discuss helps us narrow down the field and start to see the show together.

From there I start doing sketches. I’m a bit old-school so I still like dusting off the pencils, pens and markers. I usually make a lot of drawings. In this stage I’m really exploring. I’m exploring shapes, textures, and compositions—which is how the objects are arranged in the scene. There are hundreds of ways you can depict a castle. But only certain ways truly reflect the feeling of the story. Both in terms of time period and the overall shape. If you look at the shape of a Disney castle, it’s going to be very different than a real castle from Scotland or France or Russia. So I like to look at a lot of books and images and then make drawings to reflect the best ideas I see in each of them. 

Pencil sketches for castle digital projection backdrop

From the sketches then I usually transition to the computer and start making digital drawings and compositions, where I’m putting all the pieces together. I like doing what are called value studies, where you explore where the light and shadow is in the picture. For a ballet like Swan Lake, you want to evoke mystery, magic, romance and tragedy. And light, shadow, fog—these elements can start to capture that visually.

Sketches and process for Swan Lake digital theatre projection

And lastly, when I’ve got a digital drawing or sketch, I’ll dig in and spend hours and hours painting in Photoshop. Photoshop has lots of brushes that act and look like real oil, watercolor, gouache and beyond. It’s an amazing tool because you can be incredibly precise with color and even work in photographic textures, to give the painting the amount of realism you want. There’s usually a sweet spot. Where the projection doesn’t feel too photographic and yet stays a mature piece of art appropriate for classical ballet. Photoshop also keeps things in neat layers so that I can incorporate animation into the artwork, such as moving clouds, fog, or water. That’s what I love about projection design. There are no limits. Anything is possible. And it’s such a thrill to be able to contribute some magic to this age-old art form. Sort of brings me full circle.

To be continued…(more about Victor Trevino’s Swan Lake and also a discussion about Terminus Modern Ballet Company’s world premiere production of ‘Exstasis’)

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