Scenic Authentic – Technology in Scenic Design – Part 1.

Article Written by Casey Hallas, Creative Director, Big Image Systems.

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 2010 I met a group of scenic painters at a bar one night.  I heard they were organizing an exhibition of their paintings. “Oh cool,” I said, “I print scenery.”

To which one of the painters replied, “You’re the enemy.”

I’m a painter but I don’t have first-hand training in painting theatrical elements on a large scale – but certainly, the purpose is clear; Theater scenery helps communicate place/time/tone.



Miniature Set design

I started working in new media in 1998 and through good fortune found myself in the new field of digitally printed theatrical scenery after moving to New York City.  It’s been a steady diet of production art since. A scenic designer historically creates a three dimensional miniature design and then scenic painters and carpenters execute the vision at full scale. When I first started out in printing for Broadway, some of the early jobs involved receiving artwork of this nature – very low-res concepts presented with the expectation from Broadway-level designers that our digital process could interpret such images in the same manner as a human could. 


A scenic Painter expertly replicates an original rendering on Muslin.

It was understandable that the digital process would take time to become an accepted option since not only were scenic artists confronted with the existential “Robots are taking over” threat, but designers themselves were suddenly in the position of realizing that if printing were to be used, then there was far less room for interpretation in the process;  their artwork would be replicated precisely as they’d designed it, and the pencil would give way to Photoshop.

Experience has taught that expression is in no way diminished – rather, it’s been liberated.


old opera drops

Digital reproduction of original 200 year old hand-painted Opera Scenic Drops.

Like all new technology machines tend to render certain jobs obsolete, or at least in less demand. I didn’t study this field, I studied Art History and worked in design – but I’ve been in theatrical printing long enough to see the transition to print well underway. Scenic Design is, however, the most open it has ever been – as rendering/detail is now possible with photographs, hand-painting, and computer-generated design all as tools for rendering.

As time has progressed I’ve seen production art ranging from computer (vector) rendered scenery, hand-painted and scanned or photographed miniatures, to a combination of these 2 types of imagery into a single piece of artwork. Vector objects convey a sense of crispness and decisiveness in the scenery and the hand-painted process a more painterly aesthetic.

Watercolor originals are exceptionally expressive in this manner.  The effects of bleed and blending are enhanced and magnified in printing, the painterly aspects reproduced much more literally.

GS-017-Courtyard-Garden Backdrops Beautiful

Backdrop number GS-17 Courtyard Backdrop from the talented folks at Backdrops Beautiful

In the backdrop rental industry, the most common aesthetic is what could be called “fantastic realism”, realistic yet soft, vibrant colors with a touch of cartoon, giving the audience instant frame of reference of the setting but general enough to be repurposed for multiple shows.  

With advances in digital technology for large format printing, designers have a whole new toolbox to draw from, and can begin to consider details that may be sacrificed in large scale scenic painting.

graphic-designerCase in point – in The Sound of Music the von Trapp family flees the Nazis during “Climb Every Mountain.” The most authentic expression of this scene is the Austrian Alps – a mountain-scape with trees or an alpine meadow. If representing a forest – oak, beech, ash and sycamore maple trees grow up to the altitude of 3940’. Above that is often a band of short pine trees, higher still, dwarf shrubs with alpine meadows still higher due to cold temperatures, dryness and high altitudes.

While this may at first sound like overkill, using technology now allows a designer to instantly explore these details, adding to the final product.  An authentic expression (if desired) would be to focus in on exactly when/where the scene is taking place based on historical information – which pass was taken by the von Trapp’s – or how the original scenic designer Oliver Smith presented it on Broadway.

Digital technology can do this.  It allows a designer and a production to instantly consider any aspect of art and art history in their designs.  It reduces the time it takes to explore alternative forms of design, (A Constructivist Fiddler On The Roof?), or to more accurately replicate actual art, (the actual post-impressionism of Toulouse Lautrec for Moulin Rouge?)

Printed Scrim Backdrop

Scrim Scenic Element

Scenery doesn’t need to be designed on the computer to be printed – it can be painted and reproduced from a real object – it doesn’t have to be 3D or vector in nature – it’s quite literally anything you can make and document. 

I am a painter with a BA in Art History and 13 years of printing experience in Theater.  Over the next several months I will be showing you how the combination of traditional forms of art combined with the use of technology can be a vital part of the design process.  We have chosen The Nutcracker for this demonstration.  There is perhaps no show more traditionally performed or sought after than The Nutcracker.

I will be exploring some of my own techniques to inspire you to design for printing on our Infinitus machine with tips on how to make production art to take advantage of backlighting, Translight printing techniques and possibly to save money on production costs. 

I hope to share with B.I.T.N. my thoughts on deconstructing texts, staging techniques and rendering as someone approaching the field from a very unique set of experience and study – rather than an expert trained in the field. 

This type of storytelling is more important than ever – we need it for community-building to encourage people to turn off TV’s and to consider artistry, and find heroes in those around us – because we need real heroes more now than ever so that our world continues to learn valuable lessons from Theater about the human condition and difficulties that we’ve faced to work toward a more beautiful and fair world.


Konstantin Ivanov’s original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker (1892)

Next stop, the Stahlbaum home …

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