Backstage at San Francisco Opera > October 2013 > Greg Emetaz—The Art of Projection Design
Greg Emetaz—The Art of Projection Design
Projection designer Greg Emetaz is a filmmaker based in New York City, making his San Francisco Opera debut with his designs for Dolores Claiborne. We were excited to hear about his projection design process for this provocative world premiere opera. As an added bonus, Greg shared some of his gorgeous designs with us below. How did he bring the Maine landscape to the Opera House? What does he hope audiences will take away from the experience? Read on to find out!

What led you to become a projection designer?

I trained as an architect and lighting designer, then decided to pursue filmmaking, but was still in design school for lighting at the time. My thesis was on the opera Salome and it became more of a video design thesis than a lighting thesis. The last thing the head of my department said at the critique was, "forget the video, Greg." After that I interned at a post-production house and started making my own movies. I fell into a career making promotional documentaries for opera and also doing video design, having background in both film and opera. I guess it was a good thing I didn't forget the video!

Do you have a particular design process or does it vary from project to project? What was your inspiration for the look and feel the projections? Can you share how you’ll bring the Maine landscape to the Opera House?

We had a wonderful opportunity to hear the score at Tobias Picker's studio and I took notes of images that came into my head. Those eventually turned into roughly animated storyboards and I ultimately took a trip up to Maine to film the landscape suggested by the story. Christopher Akerlind, the lighting designer, just happens to live in Portland, Maine and directed me toward the landscapes I was looking for.

The director, James Robinson, was inspired by the later films of Alfred Hitchcock and other 50s thrillers, like The Night of the Hunter. It was a natural fit since those films created vast exterior landscapes on sound stages using rear projection. I love the way the skies are always more bold than reality, more like painted scenery. Allen Moyer's set also moves in a very cinematic way, tracking on and off, irising open on scenes, but the mechanics are very theatrical. The whole approach harkens back to the time when cinema was heavily influenced by stage technology.

I also like to film performers on the actual set to make the projections feel fully integrated into the production. For the opening fall down the stairs, we did a film style shoot with the amazing backstage crew and projections team here to achieve what we hope is a Hitchcockian event to throw us into the opera. It also allowed us to use a stunt person who was able to do things you'd never want a singer to do for every performance!
What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

My hope is always that the video design heightens the human drama on the stage, just as the music does. The eclipse certainly attempts that in this opera. That scene would certainly be dramatic on its own, but when you add the sun and the moon (which appear to be colliding) coupled with this poetic idea in the libretto that it's God turning a blind eye to an otherwise sinful act, it's as if that moment is determining the fate of the entire universe—which is how it probably feels from Dolores' point of view. 

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I'm always amazed when the pieces fall together and surprise me and move me. I try to keep working on something until I am thrilled, or laugh, or get goose bumps in hopes of passing those feelings on to the audience. It's amazing to work in a field that's basically about emotional exercise.

The staircase fall shoot, seen from overhead. This camera position was also used for the final Vera death spiral, where a camera was brought in on a scenery batten to just-above Elizabeth Futral's face, and then lifted out to this position far above the stage floor.

A bank in Portland, Maine. You can see lighting designer Chris Akerlind in the upper left corner who I asked to walk around the upper level to give more life to the otherwise static image.

A lighthouse near Rockland, Maine seen from the Vinalhaven Ferry. Fog was added digitally to underscore Selena's ominous return to the island—it was actually a beautiful, clear day.

A wide video panorama stitched together from three different shots from Orrs-Baily Island to pan with the set's lateral movement.

The Rockland Harbor Lighthouse which is seen in the ferry scene. I loved the beautiful quality of this building—seemingly at the end of the world.

Joe and Dolores' confrontation during the eclipse. The sequence was a composite of a Portland, Maine sunrise colliding with its inverse, and actual eclipse footage.

Posted: 10/3/2013 10:31:10 AM by San Francisco Opera
Filed under: 2013-14Season, DoloresClaiborne


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