AUTHORS NOTE – This is the first in a series of articles about combining digital printing and traditional scenic art. Over the coming months I’ll be showcasing the work and imagination of some incredibly talented Scenic Artists. If you’re looking for some wonky, in-depth analysis complete with VIN diagrams and percentages and ratios, this series may not be your cup of data. BUT! There will be cool scenic tips, techniques and discussions. B.I.T.N. would like to thank Scenic Artists Brigitte Bechtel and Angelique Powers and their teams, without whose help, talent and skill this series would not have happened.
“Had to have high high hopes for a living …” – Panic At The Disco
HOW THIS ALL STARTED …
Can digital printing be accepted in the Scene Shop?
For 40 of my 51 years, I’ve had the pleasure of working in, on or around Live Entertainment in all its many forms. For part of the last 15 of those years I’ve been selling digital printing to theatres. There’s always been some tension between print and paint in the shop and I get it. Here I am, trying to convince some Technical Director or Charge Scenic to use my machines to digitally paint a drop, or a season’s worth of drops, instead of hand painting them, effectively taking money out of some Scenics pocket. I’m the “VR” to a Scenic Artists “R”.
But when it comes to scenic art, even though I offer a high-tech solution, I’m a hands on experiential nerd at heart. There is no substitute for the feeling I get when I can immerse myself in some set, environment or special effect in real time.
Don’t’ get me wrong! I enjoy a good CGI dinosaur as much as the next person, but nothing beats that “through the looking glass” moment of something live and interactive. Being immersed in other worlds, coming face-to-face with strange creatures, real-world, tactile creations conceived by talented designers and brought into existence by the skilled minds, eyes and hands of Scenic Artists.
It’s easy to see how I can feel a little conflicted when I show up at the shops, sample books under arm. But that’s part of the job so off I go.
But here’s the thing …
I work for Big Image Systems, a large format digital printing company that does something no other printer can; print on extra-wide 100% cotton theatrical textiles like Muslin and Scrim. I can produce backdrops, murals and flats seamlessly up to 40’ x 160’. I can produce these at 450 square feet an hour. I can deliver them finished anyway you want, flameproof certified, folded, boxed and ready to hang. Half the time, none of the shop space.
Bada-Bing Bada-Boom …
I never want to push out a Scenic Artist. I have worked with some amazing theatres and scene shops and been a part of some incredible productions over the years. However the theatre and live event work I get is usually due to the nature of the image. Fine granular detail or photo-realism.
Drops murals and flats that would take too much time and too much space to execute in a shop and still may never really capture the extreme realism of the Designers vision.
It also doesn’t help that, historically, Scene Shops and Designers have had to accept materials never meant for the theatre. Backdrops of heavy, crease-prone Billboard vinyl or some other Synthetic substrate with a seam every 10 to16 feet, not able to replicate the true colors and depth that the Designer had imagined.
These and others issues have combined to create a reticence about digital printing in theatrical scene shops that was baked in long before I got there, and not without good reason. Frankly, I sided with the Scenics on this one. But what I offered was different, old arguments need no longer apply.
After years of seeing this play out I thought it was time for a new approach. There had to be a way to re-introduce printing to the world of scenic art in a way that threaded the needle between all or nothing. I needed a new way to frame the debate and let everyone know that I come in peace.
Fortunately, I work for a company that doesn’t believe in the “zero-sum game.” This gave me freedom to think this through, find a new way to present myself and what I offered that didn’t involve the old arguments. But how?
After weeks of deliberation and thought I finally hit upon a wildly radical idea;
Just ask them …
I know, right? In today’s world getting an answer and,(maybe more importantly), accepting the answer even if you’re wrong seems quaint and old-fashioned. Until now I’d been dealing with and struggling against obsolete facts and mis-conceptions about digital printing and so too, I felt, were Scenics and Designers. It was time to get answers for myself. Either way it went I figured I’d learn something.
If it was successful I could work with, not instead of, Designers and Scenic Artists and be a part of their live experiences. If it wasn’t, then I would know to stop bugging these people and look elsewhere. Square peg, round hole, move on …
All I needed now was a plan …
THE PLAN …
… The plan arrived in the form of a small job with Arizona Theatre Company. A somewhat photo-realistic Muslin print of Francisco Franco for their production of “Man Of La Mancha” Designed by William Bloodgood. Printing the drop saved time, saved floor space and provided the photo-realism needed, allowing Brigitte to redirect hands to other places in the build. But because it was Muslin, she and her talented crew were able to apply traditional scenic treatments to get to the end result faster.
While following up with ATC’s Charge Scenic Brigitte Bechtel I got a chance to see how she and her team had taken this clean digital print and transformed it using traditional scenic techniques. The print was technically perfect, but it was the work done in the shop that gave it a life and a history …
That was the lightbulb moment …
It was simple;
Give Scenic Artists printed samples on theatrical materials and see if they can work with them. No rules, they could just do what they do best. Use the same techniques and products they would normally use in-house and find out if it’s something a Scenic Artist and Designer could or would work with?
And this time let’s record and share the results.
The point wasn’t to “Win”. I had no intention of trying to replace a Scenic Artist with a machine. What I wanted to find out was if our way of printing could be seen as a tool, not a replacement, for Scenics. A tool that could be used strategically to save time in the production schedule, give the Scenics a head start in the process. Could it be possible to use digital printing as a way to actually get a Scenic more work?
Now that I had a plan, I needed to try to convince some Scenic Artists to join in. In this respect I hit the jackpot …
THE SCENICS …
Brigitte Bechtel – Charge Scenic Artist – Arizona Theatre Company
I’ve been lucky to know Brigitte for a couple of years now in her capacity as Charge Scenic for Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson, but that’s just her latest chapter. Brigitte started in Louisiana, working her way up the east coast as a Scenic and Charge Scenic, eventually landing in Boston. With a BA in Theatre from Centenary College of Louisiana, graduating from Cobalt Studios Scenic Artist Training Program and earning an MFA in Production Design at Michigan State University,
Brigitte’s worked for the likes of Cobalt Studios, the Cape Playhouse, Emerson College, Mystic Scenic Studios, the Harvard University’s Hasty Pudding and ultimately on to Arizona. She runs a shop as good or better than most I’ve met and we were honored when she agreed to be a part of this.
As luck would have it, Brigitte introduced me to the next participant …
Angelique Powers – Charge Scenic Artist, Educator, founder member Guild Of Scenic Artists
Angelique has been Scenic painting professionally for over 17 years. For the last decade she’s been based out of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area with such companies as Vee-Star, Ordway Music Theatre and the renowned Penumbra Theatre. Angelique is A Founding of The Guild Of Scenic Artists, a Network dedicated to connecting Scenic Artists worldwide.
After speaking with Angelique she happily agreed to participate. At her core, Angelique is a teacher, and I got the feeling that this experiment could result in a teachable moment, something Angelique just couldn’t resist. Oh, BTW – Did I also mention her MFA in Scenic Art from Cal Arts, her BA from Rockford University and that she’s an Affiliate Faculty member at the U of MN and Carleton College?
Now I had the dream teams, it was time to get the samples together. Brigitte and Angelique would each get a set of three printed samples, (With one exception). Each set would be identical; same image on same substrate. Beyond that, no list of things to do. This wasn’t a contest, it was an experiment. Plus, who am I to tell them what to do anyway? No, basically I gave them each a set of samples and asked them to tell me all the reasons why this wouldn’t work.
THE SAMPLES …
Because Big Image Systems can produce large format digital prints on cotton theatrical textiles, it made sense to focus on three materials commonly used onstage; Muslin, Scrim and Filled Scrim, (Leno). The other critical aspect in sample selection was image. I wanted to at least try to emulate what I thought a Scenic Artist or Muralist typically encounters on the job. Images that reflected real world situations that would be subject to the same products applied using the same techniques.
Muslin has been around since the 9th Century. A plain cotton weave, Muslin comes in a wide range of weights and widths and takes paint, dye and other theatrical treatments perfectly. For theatrical backdrops, murals, scenery flats and Cycloramas Muslin has been the go-to scenic material for centuries,
Entire lines of theatrical paints, pigments, binders and primers have been invented and perfected to adhere to this material. In other words, it’s essential.
Since Muslin is the most used textile in the Scene Shop, I wanted to print something every Scenic Artist sees many times throughout their career; a cityscape. And not just any old cityscape. Nope! I gave them the cityscape of ALL cityscapes, New York City. Is there anyone who can’t conjure that one up?
To add another twist, I decided to provide a highly photo-realistic image without color. I thought that the black and white aspect could approximate highly detailed “Cartooning” needed, a step that takes time and floor space.
Okay, so this one was done strictly for selfish reasons. Translight isn’t a material, it’s a printing process only Big Image Systems can do. It’s printed on the same muslin as the cityscape, but it’s printed on two-sides, with a hidden image that appears when rear lit. I provided this additional sample to Angelique for a specific reason …
Over the years I have been asked about printing with UV light reactive inks and here’s the answer; no. Tt contaminates the print heads. I’ve been asked about it from the start. So I wanted to see how UV reactive highlights might behave.
Scrim is a loose weave cotton effects material. When lit from the front Scrim appears opaque. When lit from behind, it becomes translucent, revealing actors and elements hidden behind. It’s a magical live stage effect. It’s also kind of a pain to work with in the shop. It stretches out easily. It naturally hourglasses. It’s hard to square to a flat. It’s an extremely fragile fabric in a world filled with sharp edges. It takes paints beautifully, but getting that paint onto a Scrim takes skill and several extra steps.
For the image I went back and borrowed the artwork we had printed for Brigitte at ATC, The realistic Franco poster. Scrim is an effects fabric. As a Scenic Artist you have to be looking at both sides of the drop at the same time. Change on one side usually means change on the other. I didn’t think that any Scenic would be too upset to get a Scrim that was printed. For me, with the scrim it was more about how the existing printed image could be augmented to heighten Scrim effects.
FILLED SCRIM (LENO)
Filled Scrim is just what it says it is; scrim with the holes filled in. While it doesn’t produce the same effect as Scrim, what it does do is handle light beautifully. The texture of the Scrim threads and the soft aspect of the cotton filling can bounce and diffuse light like nothing else on a stage. It paints okay, but Leno takes paint like toilet paper takes a sharpie. It Holiday’s easily, making the work painstakingly slow.
Leno isn’t a popular shop fabric. Not never, but rare. To be fair in 20 years I haven’t printed on much of it either. But as a former soft goods guy I’ve sold and handled a lot of it. Leno always comes through the loading dock as a light Cyc and only a light Cyc.
I chose a brightly colored postcard like image with a lot of fine detail for this material. Something that would be lit up. I didn’t have a clue what could be done with it, but I know Leno likes light.
I sent the samples to Arizona and Minneapolis/St. Paul. I kept in touch with each Scenic during the process, but I took care not to share what was going on, I didn’t want one being influenced by the other. Out of respect for their jobs and production schedules, I didn’t want to push either of them to finish the work but rather let them do their own thing on their own time.
The testing took around three months to complete. Then it was off to record the results.
which pretty much brings us to right now …
THE RESULTS …
Well, of course we’re not gonna spill the beans right here and now, you’ll need to stay tuned. Over the Summer B.I.T.N. will be rolling out the results across our B.I.T.N. network including;
B.I.T.N. – The Big Image Theatre Network We’ll be publishing articles to our blog, each focusing on one sample and how each Scenic worked to transform them. The articles focus on products, techniques and ideas behind each test. These articles will be filled with info on products and techniques used to achieve the effects.
You Tube When we publish the results, we’re also going to upload videos to our You Tube Channel to let you hear Brigitte and Angelique and the others in their own words with your own ears. Spend time in their shops and see the results for yourselves at the same time I did.
Comments on this are welcome. You can comment through anywhere these days. Pro or con on this issue all are welcome, just don’t get weird. And if you’re a T.D., a Designer or a Scenic Artist and want a closer look contact me for samples and I’ll totally hook you up.
Okay, that part’s over. On to the next. I hope you check it out.
NEXT UP – MUSLIN TEST RESULTS (AND TRANSLIGHT TOO!)
WHILE YOU’RE WAITING
You can click on the links below to learn more about each lead Scenic Artist involved in this experiment.