Projector for digital theatre projection backdrops

Projection Pro Tip #3: What Tech to Buy First?

Theatre technical director Paul Ackerman talks about what tech to buy first when starting to use digital projections

This is part 3 of an interview with professional tech director Paul Ackerman. This interview will provide a series of tips for using theatrical projections—in a simple question and answer, ‘how do you go about it?’ type format.

Mitch: If you’re a high school director, for example, wanting to start using projections in your shows, where do you invest your budget most up front? In a projector, in a screen?

Paul: “Screen would be last. The screen is going to change for each show. If you’re locked into one size screen, every show is going to look the same. Unless you’re blessed with a theatre that somehow has enough depth that you can say, ‘alright this is our backdrop. We’re going to project just on the backdrop, from behind, so we don’t have shadows. It’s just like a painted drop, except we’re changing it with light.’ If somehow, you were lucky enough to have the space where you could pull that off, then that would be a choice. But even then, I think you’re still better off (prioritizing the screen last), because any kind of fabric can work with that. A big seamless piece of fabric and not necessarily a rear-projection screen is still expensive. At the end of the day, a brighter projector overcomes a less ideal screen material. So it always goes back to just buy the brightest projector you can afford. They change so often. The technology, the signal type changes so often. It’s just brutal (smiles). The one thing that will get you through for the longest amount of time and the most situations is just buy the brightest projector that you can afford. And put your money there.

The one thing that will get you through for the longest amount of time and the most situations is just buy the brightest projector that you can afford.

And then the other component with each projector is what lens do you get with it. I’d almost always say get a zoom lens. So that gives you more flexibility. But then of course there’s not one zoom (lens type) that covers the whole thing. If you get into photography, you know that. And then that comes down to the physical space that you’re most often in. And what would work in that space. When you’re getting to that level of technology, even if you’re a high school drama teacher, you should find a vendor you can trust who can help you with that. And you know how that can be with vendors. There are some that just want to make a sale and then others that want to make a success. And know that you’ll keep coming back if you make it a success.”

My Main Takeaways:

• Prioritize the screen last, it can change with the show.
• In some spaces, you could just designate a screen (or cyc) as your ‘go-to’ spot for all projection images. Like a traditional painted backdrop, just using digital projections instead.
• Prioritize the projector first—buy, rent or borrow the brightest projector you can afford.
• If you’re looking at lenses for a projector, a zoom lens can give you flexibility.
• If you’re getting into higher level tech decisions, like buying lenses, try and connect with a trustworthy vendor who can help evaluate your space and give you the best options.
• Avoid vendors who just seem in it for the sale, not the success of your show.

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