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Projection Basics: Unlocking the Power of Scenic Projections

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Projection Basics


Introduction to Scenic Projections


Who Am I


•       DIANE M. SMITH has been involved in professional, semi-professional, community, and high school theatre for the past 45 years.  She has directed, designed, constructed, and/or worked crew on more than 250 theatrical productions. Diane was one of the co-founders of ‘The Young People’s Players’ a student theatre organization founded in 2001, which has now evolved into and operates as the Award Winning – ‘Children’s Playhouse of Maryland’ and is in residence at CCBC Essex. Diane proudly serves as the Artistic Director for this organization. Diane has a passion for working with students involved in the Arts and has dedicated her life to making that happen. In 2008 Diane received the Most Distinguished Alumni Award from CCBC for her contributions to the Baltimore Theatre Community and her work with young people in the Arts. By day, Diane is the Theatre Instructor, Artistic Director, and Department Chair for the Award Winning Theatre Arts Program at Beth Tfiloh High School in Owings Mills, where she was awarded “Teacher of the Year” honors for 2011. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband.


What are Scenic Projections ?


•       Digital images or videos projected onto stage elements, such as screens, set pieces, or the entire stage, to create dynamic and versatile scenic environments.


What Scenic Projections Offer


•       Scenic projections offer creative possibilities for theatrical productions, providing an infinite canvas for your storytelling. They not only unlock endless visual potential by giving you the ability to create immersive and dynamic settings, but also yield significant cost savings by reducing the need for using several traditional painted backdrops.


Brief History of the Emergence of Digital Scenery.


•       The transition from traditional painted backdrops to digital scenic projections in the theatrical industry represents a significant evolution in stage design and production technology. This shift has been driven by advancements in technology and a desire for more dynamic and immersive theatrical experiences.


Traditional Painted Backdrops (Ancient Times - 19th Century)


•       Throughout history, theatrical productions relied on painted backdrops and scenery to set the stage and create the illusion of different locations.

•       These backdrops were typically large, hand-painted canvases that depicted various scenes, landscapes, and architectural details.

•       The use of painted backdrops allowed for limited flexibility in staging, as each set change required physically swapping out backdrops.


The Advent of Scenic Projections (Late 19th - Early 20th Century)


•       The transition to scenic projections began with the invention of the magic lantern, a primitive form of a projector, in the 17th century. However, it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that projections started to be used in theatre.

•       Early scenic projections often featured static images or simple animations, projected onto screens or scrims behind the actors.

•       This technology allowed for more versatile scene changes and the creation of special effects like simulated fire, rain, and other atmospheric elements.


Advancements in Projection Technology (Mid-20th Century)


•       As technology improved, theatrical projections became more sophisticated, incorporating film projectors and brighter lighting.

•       Projections started to be used for more complex storytelling elements, including moving backgrounds and dynamic imagery.

•       The integration of projections into live performances became more seamless with the development of rear-projection techniques, where the projector was positioned behind the stage.


Transition to Digital Scenic Projections (Late 20th Century - Present)


•       The theatrical industry underwent a significant shift with the advent of digital technology.

•       The use of digital projectors, computers, and software allowed for highly detailed and dynamic scenic projections.

•       Digital scenic projections offer numerous advantages, such as the ability to rapidly change scenes, create immersive 3D environments, and integrate live action with projected visuals.

•       Modern productions now rely heavily on digital projections for everything from creating realistic settings to enhancing storytelling through visuals and animations.


Benefits and Advantages


•       Using scenic projections instead of traditional painted backdrops in theatrical productions offers several benefits and advantages, both creatively and economically.

•       Here are some key advantages of using scenic projections:




•       Scenic projections can be more cost-effective in the long run compared to purchasing or renting multiple painted backdrops. The initial investment in projection equipment and digital content creation may be offset by savings in backdrop rental costs over time.




Scenic projections offer unparalleled versatility. With digital projections, you can create a wide range of scenes and settings with just one projector and a digital library of images and animations. This eliminates the need to purchase or store numerous physical backdrops for different productions.


Rapid Scene Changes


•       Switching between scenes and locations is much faster and more seamless with scenic projections. This can significantly reduce downtime during performances, allowing for smoother transitions between acts or scenes.


Dynamic Visuals


•       Scenic projections can display dynamic and animated visuals, enhancing storytelling and creating immersive environments. Moving elements, such as flowing water, moving clouds, or changing weather conditions, can be easily achieved with projections.


Basic Equipment Needed for Projections


•       1. Projector

•       2. Screen        

•       3. Computer

. 4. Display monitors (2)




  1. A blank wall

  2. Sewn-together sheets

  3. Sewn-together shower curtains (for rear-projection)

  4. A surface painted with Screen Goo (a special paint that makes any surface a projection surface)

  5. Your existing cyclorama

Fabrics like muslin to make your own cyc.




•       The most important thing with projectors is BRIGHTNESS. Buy, rent, or borrow the brightest projector you can. This will help the image show up in the presence of ambient and stage lighting. 

•       Projector brightness is measured in ‘lumens.’ If you’re in a small space, and you can control your lighting, you can get away with 4,000 – 5,000 lumens. For mid-sized to large spaces like a high school or auditorium, you’ll need a minimum of 5,000 lumens.

•       With projectors - The brighter the better.


Projector Types


  1. Standard Projectors: Ideal for most applications but require a longer distance between the screen and the projector.

  2. Short-Throw Projectors: Perfect for smaller venues where space is limited.

  3. Ultra-Short-Throw Projectors: Best for very tight spaces, these can be placed just a few feet from the screen.


Projector Specifications


  1. Resolution: Aim for at least Full HD (1920x1080) for clear images.

  2. Lumens: The higher the lumens, the brighter the projection. A minimum of 4000 lumens is recommended for most theatre applications.


Projectors are in front of the screen, usually at the back of the audience or hanging from the ceiling. Short throw projectors are typically used with front projection to avoid actor shadows.




Projectors are placed behind the screen. Ideal for venues where front-of-house space is limited. This method also completely eliminates actor shadows.




Work with your Stage Lighting


•       Your best bet is to keep ambient light and stage lighting from pointing directly at your screen.

  1. Focus Away from the Screen: Keep stage lights off the projection screen to prevent washing out the image.

  2. Use Side Lights: Utilize sidelights to illuminate actors without affecting the projection.

  3. Adjust Downstage Lights: If you use front lights, focus them as downstage as possible to avoid hitting the screen.


Keep actors’ shadows off the screen


•       Keep your projector up high and tilt it down toward the screen. The closer to the screen the better. You can mount your projector from a light bar, or house ceiling in some cases. You’ll need to use your projector’s ‘keystone’ setting to correct the image in this case.

•       Correct placement is crucial for maximizing the quality of your projections. Ensure that the projector lens is centered with the middle of the screen, both horizontally and vertically.




1. Create your own.

********Remember copyright restrictions********

2. Rent from a scenic projection source

SHOP AROUND – Prices vary.

QUALITY – Very important.


Every production is different. No two directors have the same artistic vision so you should be able to make the projections fit your show.



When You Have Your Images


•       Put your images into a slideshow software like Powerpoint, Keynote, VLC Media Player, or ShowOne on a laptop or computer.

•       There are  programs that cost – Qlab for example (Qlab only works on Mac computers.)

•       For fully animated 3D projections you will need a computer with a graphics card capable of playing a video game. (Mac’s do not come with this.)

•       Connect the computer to the projector. If you use a long cable, you can keep your computer up in the tech booth so that the person  running it can collaborate with the lighting and sound technicians. You may want to put black slides in between your images for blackouts or even use the software’s built-in fades for smooth transitions between scenes. Keep in mind if your hdmi cable (from projector to computer) is longer than 100' the signal might not be able to send. You can try a signal booster at one of the connections but you might need to move the projection computer closer to the projector.


Budget Considerations


•       While it might be tempting to go for the cheapest option, remember that a projector is an investment. Look for models that balance cost with brightness and reliability.


•       Once you have invested in the computer, projector, and cyc, this expense will not need to be repeated for years.


In Conclusion


•       The best way to discover how to make projections work for you is to get in there and try it. Be creative! Get your hands on the best projector, screen and laptop you can, set it up in your theater, and play.

•       Tweak projector settings, try different images, adjust your theater lighting. You can research online all day and take other directors’ advice, but there is no substitute for seeing projections in your own space and making adjustments based on what you see.

•       Don’t be afraid to delegate to a student, volunteer, or tech to try it out for you. You will keep learning and discovering ways to make it look better for the next show; but you have to start somewhere!


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