Projections for The Planets – A look behind the scenes

Projector Lens
Creative Commons License photo credit: libraryman

As promised in my post on Tuesday, today I’m going to give you a look behind the scenes at the technology that I used to create the projections for The Planets.

This basically breaks down into two sections, creating the media to be projected, and actually running the show.

Creating The Media

On Tuesday I mentioned the DigitalSky 2 software which I used to create the 3-D space visualization sequences. The system is extremely sophisticated, and in fact has its own scripting language. By writing scripts I’m able to “fly” the camera through the 3-D model of the universe. It can also manipulate what objects are visible, and increasing or decreasing their size. In order to create the effect that I was looking for, I often had to increase the size of the planets and moons in view. This is because the distances in space are so gigantic, compared to the size of even the largest planets and moons.

The other major elements in the piece are mostly NASA images. There is a tremendous amount of maturity are available here, which was a great blessing, though as you can imagine, it could complicate the process of selecting material. In general I was looking for a combination of the most spectacular, beautiful and highest resolution images available. Fortunately, many images were available at far above HD resolution. The higher the resolution of the image, the more choices I have in how to use it. With the largest images, I’m able to show a small portion of the image, and then slowly move across it. This is the so-called “Ken Burns effect.” This effect allows me to take a static image, and give it motion.

Projecting The Show

When I set out to do projections for any piece were I’m collaborating as a part of a live performance, one of my primary goals is to not do anything to get in the way of the performers. One of the things that this means, is that I don’t want to create projections as a movie. It would’ve been very easy to create the projections and burn them onto DVD, and then just hit play at the beginning of each movement. The problem with that, is that then the conductor would have to follow the timing of the projections in order to stay synchronized. To my mind, that’s an unacceptable compromise to ask for in most cases.

My answer is a software package called  QLab. This amazing Macintosh software allows me to create each “visual event” of the show as a separate cue. By doing that, I’m able to essentially “edit” the projections in real time, during the performance. I read the score as the orchestra performs, and trigger each cue at the appropriate moment in music. This allows the conductor the flexibility to adjust the tempo as it feels right, and I’m still able to keep everything in perfect synchronization.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind-the-scenes of The Planets. Do you have questions? Please ask in the comments, I’d be happy to do my very best to answer them for you.

Projecting Holst’s Planets

So in my last post, which now feels like ages ago, I mentioned that I was going to be creating a gigantic projection design for Holst’s suite The Planets, to be performed with The Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra.

Poster for The Planets with The Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra

It had been my intention to blog about the creative process as I was creating the piece. As you may have determined by now, that didn’t happen. Instead, I ended up putting virtually every free moment I had into creating the projections. It was worth it.

The performance was really extraordinary, and received an extended standing ovation with the conductor being called back for additional bows three times.

More importantly, the audience was truly engaged by the combination of music and imagery. I was able to talk to a number of members of the audience after the show, and was really blown away by the response.

At some point, I will have some extended excerpts from the piece to share with you, I am dealing with some technical issues about how to convert them into a format that I can upload.

What I do have, that I can share with you now, is the trailer that I created as a preview for the orchestra’s website.

I’d also like to share with you my program notes, which I think will give you some idea of my thought process and creative process.

Creating imagery for “The Planets” is a daunting task for a projection designer. Holst’s amazing music was written about the astrological planets, that is to say, the significance that the planets have in classical astrology. In Holst’s time, the beauty of the astronomical planets
(the actual objects in space) was just beginning to be discovered through powerful telescopes, and was not widely known.

Today, we are fortunate to have an amazing and almost endless catalogue of images of the universe. Images, from ground-based telescopes  and spacecraft such as Hubble and the Mars Rovers provide an incredible wealth of scientific knowledge and also of visual texture and beauty. It is in this second capacity, as artistic images, that I draw on them for this piece. I also draw heavily on the 3-D space visualizations which it is possible to create using modern computers and the amazing DigitalSky 2 software. This software was created here in New Hampshire by Sky-Skan, and is used in
planetariums all over the world.

Each movement begins with imagery of the planet that it is named for, from there we go wherever the music and the visual rhythm of the
imagery lead. In some movements we explore the planet and its moons, in others we fly to the very edge of the visible universe. I’ve made a choice not to be bound by the science of what these objects are, but simply to allow the music to lead my eye wherever in the universe it is drawn. So I invite you to approach experiencing this
piece as I do, as a feast for the ears and the eyes, and let your heart take flight.

I’ll have another post going up on Thursday where I’ll talk about some of the technology behind the show.

And by the way,  I’d love to bring The Planets to a performance hall near you!  If you know of a local performance of The Planets that might be interested in projections, please let me know!