QLab is the tool that I use to run almost all of my projection projects. It is extremely powerful and extremely flexible for both projection and sound playback. It also has a reasonable amount of show control capability, plenty for most theater situations. Note that the advanced audio, video and control capabilities are licensed separately, so you only pay for what you need. QLab is also available on a rental license basis extremely inexpensively — so inexpensively that any theater company can afford to use it for short run productions. Be sure to inquire about educational pricing if you are using it in an educational institution, significant discounts are available in some cases, including the rental licensing.
There a couple of additional resources for QLab available from the Figure 53 website. The first is an extremely active, and very helpful e-mail list. The second is the QLab wiki, which has lots of information from various users about hardware configurations, and an amazing collection of AppleScript which can be used to add additional features, save huge amounts of time on programming complex but repetitive shows, and extend QLab in various ways.
In general, I recommend against using presentation software for theater projection. QLab is almost always a better choice then Keynote and it’s probably always a better choice than PowerPoint, however there are a few situations that are well-suited to presentation software. In particular, I’ve done a number of shows where the projections were essentially providing “title cards” specifying locations or dates. I’ve often projected these on the main curtain from the rear of the house. In this situation, if you have a dedicated projection operator (rather than needing to trigger projections from a light board via show control) using Keynote can have advantages. First of all it handles the text immediately, you just select a font and type, rather than having to create a graphic of the text that you want to display. This allows much more flexibility, and speed for changes and experiments during tech.
Keynote also provides some very interesting text transitions allowing one piece of text to turn into another which can sometimes be useful, however they need to be used sparingly and only when there’s a good reason — they become cheesy very very quickly.
Show Cue System
This is the closest product I know of to a version of QLab for Windows. It was originally known as Sound Cue System, however the name has changed as projection capability has been added. The user interface is much less intuitive than QLab and overall it’s less polished and somewhat less stable. That said I have only had it crash during programming, never in show running mode. I’ve done very complicated interactive sound design work in this system, and have been quite happy with it. It’s also a reasonably capable show control system which I’ve used to run very complex and tightly timed sequences reliably. (In one case over 100 cues in three minutes, in perfect synchronization to music.) That said, I have never used it for projection — it’s just never been necessary. My personal preferences QLab, and I only turned to Show Cue System when I need to run the show from a Windows machine. It’s also quite inexpensive, less expensive than QLab.
Projection Screens – AVStumpfl
I have a strong preference for screens from AVStumpfl over anything else I’ve used. They are well made and work great.
AVStumpfl also makes a projection and show control system called Wings Platinum which I know very little about.
The problem of moving signals from here to there
Often in the theater it is a very desirable to locate the computers which are generating the images to be projected far away from the projectors or other display devices. Video signals sent through traditional video cabling does not hold up very well over long distance runs (I tend to think that it starts to get risky anytime you’re going much further than 100 feet, although often you can get away with much more than that.)
Fortunately there is an easy solution, which is not absurdly expensive. They’re called baluns. These are devices which allow you to send signal very long distances over standard category 5E cable. This is typically known as ethernet cable, commonly used in networking. Let me be clear, and this is extremely important, these devices are not sending signals over a network, and cannot be connected to a network in any way. Let me say that again, do not connect any of this type of device to your network it will break things. What they do is use the same type of CABLE as a network to move audio and video signals long distances with minimal pain. They are available in many varieties, from a number of vendors. The ones that I have had the best luck with come from Energy Transformation Systems, and those are the ones that I recommend.
I use this type of system all the time to keep my display computers in the booth, and route signals cleanly to projectors flown on the stage.
The Big Guns
There are some things that QLab won’t do, the big one for me is edge blending across multiple projectors. It’s also extremely limited in terms of random-access, on the fly, designers you go types of work which are sometimes required in large-scale popular music performances. It also does not provide any geometry correction for dealing with off axis projectors and such. There are very powerful tools for dealing with these kinds of situations, they come with a very powerful price tag and often a steep learning curve. Keep in mind that many of these products (though not all,) are really intended as “digital lighting” products. This mostly means two things. The first is that they are controlled primarily from a DMX lighting console, as a very sophisticated moving light, requiring over 100 channels of DMX. The second is that the content libraries that tend to be included are primarily abstract, and designed to be used as moving gobos. I have to say, I have a strong bias against controlling projections from lighting consoles. I find it extremely cumbersome. However, sometimes the power of the tool is worth it. If you are going to use these tools, make sure you have plenty of time to work with them to get really good at programming before tech, or better, higher a professional programmer who is an expert in the particular system you’re using. Also, if the system you’re using is controlled from a lighting console, have a separate console for controlling the projections, so that the lighting programmer and the projection programmer aren’t fighting over the console.
I’m going to basically just give you a list of the most popular of these products without much commentary, and leave it to you to determine what’s appropriate for your use.