At night, Hogwarts Castle is suddenly dusted with snow in steamy Florida. Itís not really snow, but light causing this trick of the eye. Projectors and sophisticated software then send ghosts across the castle towers. A turret spins and turns into a towering Christmas tree before melting into golden bolts of light.
Universal Orlandoís new holiday show is just the latest in a string of jaw-dropping special effects called video projection mapping showing up in all forms of entertainment, advertising and home decorating. Something as old-school as a film projector meets software that can make Christmas lights dance across the house, transform Cinderellaís Castle and send audiences into outer space while watching a stage show.
Just few years ago, the technology also known as spatial augmented reality was a niche artform. Recent innovations have made it easier to use features and curves of any object ó even faces ó to target animated images onto an uneven surface.
Walt Disney World put that wizardry on display earlier this year when it opened a new show on Cinderellaís Castle called Happily Ever After. At one point, the castle transforms into the stained glass cathedral from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At another, the entire castle appears to bop in time to the music.
"Itís not paper, itís not a cell," Disney art director Ryan Kravetz said. "The physical structure of this castle as our starting point is a really powerful medium to be using."
High-speed projectors run at 1,000 frames per second to make the animation smoothly move across any surface. The 3D mapping technology measures depth, and if the object is moving, two-dimensional tracking picks up on it in less than ten milliseconds.
Just such a trick was used during Lady Gagaís David Bowie tribute at the 2016 Grammys, when Bowieís various personas were animated and projected on her face, moving with her smoothly as she sang.
It has opened up the world of design for productions big and small. Homeowners can wow the neighbors with a projected Christmas light display, with a device costing $20 to $200 at any retail store. And wedding planners have used it to project images on wedding cakes.
Prices are coming down. More sophisticated programs for stage show software can be found for less than $1,000. Youíll also need a powerful computer to run it. The projectors come in a range of prices but on the pro level, they start at $2,500. Set designers said the investment is hard to compare to old-school decorations and painted backdrops because the technology doesnít limit them to one particular shape or surface.
At the 182-seat performance space at American Stage Theater Company in St. Petersburg, production manager Jerid Fox has four projectors and QLab software. He can virtually set an envelope on fire or create a landscape with a rolling river.
But Fox tries not to overdo it, he said, even though it can be tempting to play with his toys.
"Every time you use projection it needs to have its place in the story," said Fox, who has managed shows at American Stage for eight seasons. American Stageís production of Itís a Wonderful Life will have a small effect when it opens on Saturday. Snow will digitally fall outside of a window.
"Itís just a very subtle touch of movement behind them, so itís a simple way to add life to the stage," Fox said.
Foxís most ambitious projection was Informed Consent at American Stage, a one-act play about the historical tension between science and religion that projected images of the Grand Canyon and used animation to explain DNA sequencing.
The tech can have its pitfalls. During a preview performance, his heart stopped when a blue screen of lost data appeared on the stage. A cable had fallen out from the computer.
"My stage manager was scrambling to plug it back it. And then it came back to life, so it was just a little bloop."
Just as hand-drawn cartoons were pushed out of Disney when Pixar and computer animation came along, scenic painters have been getting edged out as productions use LED screens. Fox knows some purists lament the invasion of video into live theater, and he sees their concern, to a point.
"Theater is its own medium because it is live and unique we donít want to turn it into something you can see on your smart phone," Fox said. "But as long as the story supports it, and itís really enhancing the story then Iím all for it."
Eric Davis, artistic director of St. Petersburgís Freefall Theatre, has made use of projections in a theater that seats just 98. Most notably, Julyís Marie Antoinette used video to set the historical backdrop and add modern rock show elements.
"There was a sequence with some beautiful animated butterfly wings in Marie Antoinette that appeared to magically spring from Marieís back," Davis said. "It often quite literally took the audienceís breath away, getting gasps of surprise more often than not. Those are the genuine moments of reaction that we live for."
When Marvel Universe Live arrives at Tampaís Amalie Arena Jan. 5-7, it will take workers six hours to set up 19 projectors. There are 26,000 lumens for each projector (an average school classroom projector uses about 2,000). With advances, you can get a good view of the show from anywhere in the arena, said Chris Nobels, senior director of production for Marvel Universe Live.
Marvel show creators were able to place the performers on a ship run by Yondu, the ruthless blue space pirate from Guardians of the Galaxy. They also move from Antarctica to the mountains of China as Marvel heroes meet up with Iron Fist.
When Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment created the last Marvel Universe Live show in 2014, projection mapping enhanced backgrounds, Nobels said. But in this yearís reinvention, the animation tools are an extension of storytelling, like when Groot comes into Yonduís ship and crushes the door as he is opening it. Thatís all done with projection mapping.
"Instead of painting backdrops, you paint it with pixels," Nobels said. "And you are able to go to so many more locations. Instead of looking at a static image you are able to really bring that image to life."
At American Stage, there are still many shows where the projector is untouched.
"Like anything else it can be abused, and everyone can just start putting up screens and calling it scenery," Fox said. "I donít think (screens) will ever transport people the way theatrical scenery can. Itís just another tool in the tool belt to keep theater exciting and live."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.