In order to stage an extravagant new production, the Royal Court Theatre on board the Queen Mary 2 needed to undergo an upgrade to HD. Reliability and ease of use proved important factors when choosing projection equipment, finds Tom Bradbury
When the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner was built at Saint-Nazaire in France back in 2003, Cunard Line was determined to incorporate a broad and luxurious standard of facilities.
From the sumptuous Royal Court Theatre to the Illuminations Planetarium and Queens Room Ballroom, projection was handled by a combination of Christie's 3-chip DLP Roadie S12, Roadie X10 and Roadster X6. Specified by system integrator Nautilus Entertainment Design, when the ship embarked on its maiden voyage in April 2004 it already had the most technically advanced infrastructure afloat.
But fast forward five years, and technology has moved on a generation. When Cunard decided to incorporate the technically challenging Belinda King-produced Crazy In Love show into the Queen Mary 2 entertainment repertoire at the end of March, the company turned to Andy Pygott, who runs Yorkshire-based Innovation Productions, to push the envelope further in the brave new world of high definition. As a result, he specified a pair of Christie's powerful HD18K projectors with AutoStack set-up for use in the 1,100-capacity balconied Royal Court Theatre.
Martin Lilly, director of entertainment, Cunard Line, had set down an exacting requirement. "We knew we wanted to incorporate animated projection onto moving scenic elements and tasked Andy with achieving this.
"The projection needed to be very bright and not get lost in the intensity of the stage lighting. Equally, as the projection plays an important role in the show we needed to have a back-up in case of equipment failure."
"Innovation Productions determined that the Christie projectors were the best choice for the project, with simple operation for the on-board production staff being another key issue," continues Lilly. He also knew that by installing two projectors and overlaying the images, Cunard would not only obtain the brightness they required but in the event of failure they could still run the show on one projector.
Because of the complexity of the theatrical backdrop, the projectors needed to be kept automatically focused and aligned - counteracting the motion and vibration out on the open seas, with no manual skill required. Pygott also sensed that by custom-bracketing the projectors high into the gantry above the main lighting control booth, their diagonal throw would cast minimal shadowing off the matt routed-texture projection flats, which merge jigsaw-style to fill the 10m x 5m proscenium opening.
"When the liner was built, wherever there was a projection requirement it was fulfilled by Christie," he says. But while the theatre's centrally positioned Roadie S12 is fine for projecting data onto the drop-down fast-fold screen, a more versatile and powerful beam solution was required to do justice to the video drop-ins... particularly in view of the large automated lighting provision.
"We had tried to incorporate blending and stacking on other ships, which always proved difficult. But Christie's AutoStack provides the only system with camera-controlled alignment tied in, while we could handle the soft-edge blend within the projectors. There was no other out-of-the box solution and I knew we would pretty much be pioneering this system. Now, when we calibrate the projectors, the camera automatically recognises the grid system and aligns them - in minutes, where it would previously have taken hours."
It is AutoStack that really gives the installation its edge. The software-driven camera-based system utilises screen points for quick geometric calibration, while the HD18Ks have also been fitted with the Christie Twist modules that allow images to be blended and morphed to fit virtually any dimension or shape display. This is due to the user-definable warping and blending grids that are set for the two projectors.
"AutoStack processes the camera image, works out the warping grid and feeds the data required to align the images to the Christie Twist cards in the two stacked projectors," says Pygott. "We then feed two identical sources to the different projectors from PCs running Dataton Watchout. When projecting at the aligned position this works fine, but to cope with other set pieces being flown in further upstage, with clever use of an offset to the images on one projector, Watchout brings the physical projection back into alignment."
Pygott adds that the calibrated starting point given by the AutoStack system makes the mathematics possible. "And with the use of up to 30 video layers per projector, Watchout has allowed us to present multiple images and video in both upstage and downstage locations simultaneously."
No light leakage
The HD content created by Innovation is time-coded, and feeds the stacked HD18Ks from three PCs, running Watchout software. The show also includes some animations created in Apple Motion and custom footage shot by Innovation Productions.
"We can resize, fade in and fade out in real time off the Dataton while we also take advantage of the Christie network protocol, which means we can use our own communication. This lets us tie up the command strings and send shutter cues to the projector so there is no light leakage when we go to blackout state - though this is rarely used due to the good black output of the projectors."
The equipment was installed by specialist electrical contractor Fagan Electrical during part of the Queen Mary 2 World Cruise. They boarded the vessel in Los Angeles in January and by the time the liner arrived in Honolulu five days later the equipment was installed, tested and ready for programming of the show content.
To accomplish this, a new power cabling infrastructure has also been created; a fibre optic link has been chosen in view of the distances involved, and this converts to DVI at the control booth.
Jorge Rodriguez, Queen Mary 2's senior production manager, was delighted with the efficiency of the system. "These new Christies are beautiful and having them run this show has been a great advantage - with a cast of 16 performing in front of the backdrop I am amazed that the shadowing is so minimal."
Lilly agrees: "The equipment has performed very well and the installation has succeeded in minimising vibration."
With more venues than any other ship, the Royal Court Theatre boasts the level of facilities most land-based theatres would envy. And Innovation Productions can be satisfied that they have continued to match the stage end of the Royal Court Theatre - with its motorised flying system, revolving stage and five lift platforms - at the control output end.
"We have been running LX66s and LX120s in our hire stock since becoming a Christie dealer - but this is the first time we have worked at the very top of their range," says Pygott.