Projection backdrop tips with Price Johnston, Broadway designer and theatre professor at CSU.

Projections Advice with Price | Part 1

Digital projection tips with Price Johnston, Broadway designer and professor at Colorado State University

I recently had a chat with globally renowned projection designer Price Johnston, and he offered up some great advice to teachers and directors who are trying to get started using digital projections in their shows.

I've posted the full chat below, but also plucked out 5 tips that I found especially helpful when you're trying to make sense of projection design and how to start using it in your school shows, community theatre and dance performances. Hope these help and let us know what else you'd like to learn about in the comments below!


1.) The Content Really Matters

Many teachers and directors starting out can get hung up on the hardware. Price says to get your equipment in order the best that you can, but then don't forget to really focus on the quality of your projection content.

2.) Work Things Out Small First, and Without an Audience

Seems like common sense, but the show isn't the time to try using projections for the first time. Price says if you can work out your projection ideas on a smaller scale, even with a classroom or business projector, it really helps when you do decide to go larger. You need time to play first.

3.) 5,000 Lumens is a Good Baseline for Your Projector

Price says that there are so many factors that can be at play when deciding how many lumens to purchase or rent in a projector, but that 5,000 lumens is a good place to start. That gives you enough brightness in your projector to burn through stage lights. He says, "Ideally you want as many lumens as you can get."

4.) Don't Get Hung Up on Resolution

Often when we make media purchases such as televisions there is big focus on resolution. Price says that because your audience sits a good distance away from the screen, don't make resolution a top priority. He says to pick a good native resolution, like 1280x720 or a little higher, but don't go overboard.

5.) Contrast Ratio Matters

One of the specs you'll see when purchasing a projector is contrast ratio. Getting a high contrast ratio allows your blacks to be a 'true black' and not video gray with a visible rectangle on the edges. Price reminds us that a true blackout does matter in the performing arts, whether it be theatre, dance, or opera.

Here is my full chat with Price and below that a breakdown of what topic we talked about if you'd like to skip around:

0:00 — Introduction
1:04 — How Price started in theatre and projection design
2:30 — Shows that impacted him at a young age
4:45 — Landmark shows Price has worked on
9:16 —General tips for getting started with projections
13:10 — Number of lumens you need in a projector
16:27 — If you're looking to buy a projector, what you need
23:37 — Recommended software for projections
28:19 — Projection with a $0 budget
35:04 — Tips for keeping light off the screen or projection surface
47:57 — Traveling with projection equipment for easy setup

About Price Johnston: Price Johnston’s career in design has spanned theatre, dance, and opera in both the U.S. and abroad. With work in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Moscow, Athens (Greece), London, Atlanta, St. Petersburg (Russia), and Denver, he has designed over 180 productions. His credits include: the world premiere of Jomandi Productions’ Lavender Lizards Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream by Tony nominated playwright Ntozake Shange (14th Street Playhouse, Atlanta, Ga. and the 2004 National Black Theatre Festival), the Off-Broadway production of Two Rooms (Trilogy Theatre, New York), Guys and Dolls (2000 British Tour), and the world premieres of Huckleberry Finn: The Musical, and A Southern Christmas Carol (Cotton Hall Theatre), written by award-winning playwright/director Rob Lauer. Other design credits include American Buffalo, Oh What a Lovely War, Assassins, The World Goes Round, and Never Enough, choreographed by Shapiro and Smith (Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.), Company, Art, The Complete History of America Abridged (Greenshoe Theatre Company), Swamp Gravy: Down at the Depot “Georgia’s Official Folk Life Play” (Cotton Hall Theatre), Clue: The Musical, The Miracle Worker, Lighting Director for Bates Dance Festival (Lewiston, Maine), Sabrina Fair, Hamlet (1990 American College Theatre Festival Nominee), Janis Brenner’s Lost/Found/Lost (Isadora Duncan International Dance Festival – Kransnoyarsk, Russia), The 2008 Jeff Award-Winning Production of 1776 (Chopin Theatre – Chicago), Passiones (Athenaeum Theatre – Chicago), Lighting/Sound/Video supervisor for the international touring dance company David Dorfman Dance: Underground, The Pee-Wee Herman Show (Club Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles), A Midsummer Nights Dream (Moscow Cosmos Theatre/St. Petersburg Music Hall, Russia), and the Chicago premiere of I Sing! (Chicago Playwright Theatre). Price has also served as Production Manager for Live Design International (LDI), the LDI Conference – LDInstitute and Live Design Broadway Training and Masters Classes (Lighting, Concert Sound and Projection Design). His recent work includes the 2015 Drama Desk Award Nominated - Best Projection Design - Donogoo (The Mint Theatre, Off-Broadway - New York), Young Frankenstein The Musical (Union Colony Civic Center Theatre - Greeley, Colo.), the World Premieres of Eh Joe and Beckett’s Women (2015 Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival - Enniskillen, Ireland) and The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway (Stephen Sondheim Theatre - New York). Price holds a M.F.A in Lighting Design from the University of Florida, and a Bachelors Degree in Theatrical Design from Colorado Mesa University. He is a member of USITT and the iDMAA.

1 Response

Terri New
Terri New

November 25, 2020

Thank you so much for this great interview. Informative and insightful!

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