Projection Mapping: The Future of Performance

Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show
Katy Perry Super Bowl halftime show. Via /

Projection mapping is relatively a new art form, at least in America. A lot of people may not know they have seen it, but if you watched a very popular sporting event in the U.S. recently, you most certainly have. Of all people, it took Katy Perry’s halftime show at the Super Bowl to give projection mapping some widespread attention — and audiences were treated to a beautiful example of what you can do with it. Projection mapping will call a lot of aspects of the performing arts of the future into question, and I believe it will turn out to be for the best.

Projection mapping actually did get its start here in America. The first recorded example of it for large audiences was in the 1960s, at the happiest place on earth — Disneyland. I remember as a kid the first time I saw the Singing Busts at the Haunted Mansion and I was awestruck. Look at how far we have come from such a small projection to massive, multi-projector projects that have almost unlimited possibilities.

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The Singing Busts
Singing Busts at the Haunted Mansion

Projection mapping first found mass popularity with images projected onto buildings — mainly, in other words, the art was still using basic imagery. In time, however, and as artists always do, they thought of out the box, animating projections onto other massive objects that they could completely transform. Thousands of people would pour into the streets to witness these magnificent shows.

Just recently, the dance world has begun to work with projection mapping — mostly contemporary companies. Here, the art form had to evolve, so the idea of virtual projection mapping was born — this is projecting mapping that is not preprogrammed in its entirety, but instead interacts with the movement of the dancers. As you can imagine, this has opened up possibilities that dancers — any performing artists — never had before. No longer are performances to be limited to tactile sets, tactile costumes. Now we can do in live performance what has been done for a long time in film: take you anywhere you want to go. The limits of live theater, in other words, have been lifted. You can watch a wonderful example of this in a piece called Pixel.

Right now the technology is still emerging and growing, but in the end I predict that the days of painted sets will be over. While this may be sad news for scenic designers everywhere, it is important that they — and we — position ourselves on the front end of technology.

Imagine, if you will, going to see the ballet Peter Pan with projection mapping. Imagine when they are flying to Neverland and the entire audience can experience soaring through the clouds. Imagine fairy dust that actually glows, and Tinkerbell as an animated, interactive character instead of some being with a flashlight. No longer will we worry about suspension of disbelief — at least not quite in the same way.

Love Story
Projection mapping and dance

Part of the reason projection mapping has not yet become mainstream in ballet (or performance generally) is cost. It takes a huge initial investment for all the technology to make it possible. Slowly, though, people are starting to see that once they have the hardware, it becomes incredibly easier to create brand new ballets without investing in sets and costumes. The investment will now just be in terms of digital design, which in the long run means it will be much less expensive. On top of this, technical crews for these productions will be far smaller. In only a few seasons of use, I believe companies will recoup the majority of their investment and make money from the technology thereafter.

It will take very affluent and very foresighted donors who understand the possibilities of this technology to make it happen. If you know of any such people, please send them my way.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.