June 21, 2023
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LEDs and Projections to Level Up Your Events

Shaudi Bianca Vahdat
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As an event producer, you have countless tools in your arsenal for creating unforgettable shows. Video projections and LEDs are two tools that are becoming increasingly popular in the live events space. As the technology continues to become both more sophisticated and more accessible, this will only grow.

If you’re thinking about incorporating these elements into your next live project, or just curious about how they work, this article is for you. 

Wrapbook recently sat down with visual designer Tristan Roberson to get an expert’s perspective. We spoke with Tristan about the state of projection and LED technology for live events and how producers can best work with visual designers.

Meet Tristan Roberson 

Tristan is a Senior Producer at Opus Agency, a globally recognized event marketing, brand management, and production organization. He is also a visual designer, specializing in projection and lighting design. 

He has designed and/or produced corporate events for clients like Google, Dell, and Salesforce, as well as live theater and concerts. 

Here’s a glimpse of his lighting and scenic design for the play Teh Internet Is Serious Business, produced by Washington Ensemble Theatre in 2017.

Tristan graduated from Cornish College of the Arts with a BFA in Performance Production. He’s spent the last decade ‌designing and producing events in both his local Seattle and around the world. 

What’s the difference between a projection and an LED? 

Let’s start by defining projections, projection mapping, and LEDs. While they can accomplish similar goals, they do so in very different ways. ‌Accordingly, they also have different capabilities and requirements.

Traditional projections

With traditional projection, an image is being projected onto a screen, typically a fabric canvas. 

“You are not doing anything to manipulate the image. You’re not scaling it, you’re not skewing it.” 

In the below video, for example, the Broadway musical Wicked projects video and animation onto flat surfaces.

Projection mapping

Projection mapping, on the other hand, is when content is projected onto a surface that is not flat. 

With projection mapping, the designer is- 

“Taking whatever that content it, and then manipulating it and scaling it to serve a different geometric function, or adapt it to whatever that final display is.” 

The GRAMMY Awards team made use of this technology when they projected lyric-themed images onto Carrie Underwood’s dress during her 2013 GRAMMY performance.

LEDs

Finally, with LEDs, there is no projector. An LED screen is made up of many LEDs, or light emitting diodes, that show an image, much like a TV or computer monitor. 

“The image is being generated right there on the spot instead of it being a fabric canvas that we’re projecting onto.” 

When Disney’s Frozen The Musical came to The West End’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 2021, for example, LEDs were an integral part of the scenic design and special effects.

In this video, you can see the Frozen team installing the various LED elements of the set, including a giant LED wall upstage.

In the show’s trailer below, you can see some of the effects these many LED products bring to life onstage.

“[Increasingly] - the term projection as a whole is sort of becoming a little antiquated… generally speaking less and less projection more and more LED products.” 

But for now, both projection and LED products have a role to play in live events. We’ll get into the relative merits of each type of tech later in the article.  

Immerse the audience 

Now that we understand projections and LEDs on a technical level, let’s explore why they’re so‌ powerful. 

It’s all about bringing the audience further into the world of the stage. Projections and LEDs can transform the immediate environment deeply and completely. Because of this, they are one of the best ways to make the audience feel like they’re part of the show.

“The immersion factor is the big difference between watching something at home on a screen and experiencing something within a venue,” says Tristan. 

People have access to more at-home entertainment than ever before. When audiences decide to physically attend a live event, they expect to feel that connection they can’t get at home. 

“With concerts being what they are, being a very cathartic and emotionally charged medium, I think it's only natural that production designers and design teams in general would continue to ask and try and find ways to… continue to immerse people even more and more into that world.” 

Used appropriately, LEDs and projections can help elevate a show from a passive audience experience to an active, more memorable one. 

How to use LEDs and projections in your events 

To achieve the jaw-dropping results this technology can bring, you’ll need both technical know-how and artistic vision. 

Luckily, experienced visual designers like Tristan are there to help support the story of your event with LEDs and projections. 

Engage the right design team 

Ultimately, video projection and LED technology needs to be in skilled, creative hands to achieve its full potential. 

Here are some tips from Tristan on hiring the right people and working with them as efficiently as possible. 

Bring designers in early 

Tristan’s number one tip for working with designers is to involve them as early in the process as possible. That will give them time to ask questions and understand your vision.

“What is the story that we’re telling? What is the vision that we’re creating?... The more opportunities [the designers] have to spend time to think about the ways that their different mediums can support the music that’s being shared, the better.” 

Taking the time to build this high-level vision of the show with your team before it’s time to execute on the details will set your event up for success.

How LEDs and Projections Can Level Up Your Live Events - Wrapbook - Sails
2022 projection mapping on the sails of the Sydney Opera House (art by By The Martu Artists And Curiious), a centerpiece of the annual “Vivid Sydney” festival. SOURCE
"I have lost count of the number of times I have been brought into a project at the last minute...there is always a limitation to what you can do when you are given next to no time to pick up the pieces and make something happen..." 

Delivering solutions and working within budget will all be easier if the entire team goes into the project with a clear shared vision. 

Be venue-flexible 

If you’re producing a touring show, hiring your team early might mean you have your projections designer onboard before you’ve nailed down every venue

That’s completely okay, says Tristan. To do their best work, however, projection designers need to know the general size and type of venue (proscenium, open air, three-quarter thrust, a mix?) as early as possible. 

Designers won’t be able to precisely custom-design to the idiosyncrasies of each venue on your tour. A strong team, however, should be able to deliver a venue-flexible design that can be easily adapted to each stop. 

Tristan describes this as designing with primary and secondary design elements. 

Primary elements include things that the show can’t do without, like the lighting and speaker location. 

Secondary elements are more flexible and can be adjusted depending on the specifications of each venue. 

Identifying these elements early on will go a long way to helping you match your designs and your venues.

Balance your budget and your vision 

A good projection designer should be familiar with all the available technology options so they can find solutions to work for your vision and budget. 

Hopefully, you’ve done the work of bringing your designers onboard with a clear vision for the event. If you have, your design team should be able propose different ways to bring the vision to life within your budget constraints. 

 “[There are] different ways of abstracting the ideas to still make the idea work without having to spend a lot of time on the road putting those elements in and out… [For example]... Maybe instead of it being a full projections backdrop… maybe those same colors and visual imagery can be achieved through other more hybrid mediums.” 

Your projection designer or team should also be able to account for every part of their proposed design cost. This includes purchasing the physical equipment in pre-production, but also things like installation and take down time and cost to transport between venues. 

Most of all, says Tristan,

“It is well worth your while to find people who are driven to find creative solutions that support the overall story, the overall vision… [People who] come to the table with constructive ideas and, most importantly, are able to take feedback and run with it, and return with even better ideas.” 

Trust your designers to help you curate and edit

Once you’ve got the right team in place, trust them. Don't push for design elements that are going to distract from the main artistic vision for the concert. The content and format of the event should dictate the way you use projections and LED elements.

How LEDs and Projections Can Level Up Your Live Events - Wrapbook - Pavilion
Tristan produced the Dell/EMC World 2017 Future Ready Pavilion at the Sands Expo Center, Las Vegas in May 2017. SOURCE
“Don’t do things because you can, do things because you need to… Make sure that every single thing that's being done is creatively justifiable and supports the story, the music, the emotion… in a way that meshes well with everything else.”

Earlier in this article, we talked about the immersive power of LED and projections technology. That power can be a double-edged sword, however. If not used in a way that supports the story of the event, these elements can create more distance for the audience rather than bringing them in. 

“[Don’t put] an LED wall in the back if you’re not going to use it in a way that supports the music, emotion and story… The last thing you want is for some element that you’ve designed to upstage the original purpose of the event itself. You don’t want to put an element onstage that takes the audience out of the experience. Make sure that you’re making very deliberate choices and calculated choices that support the baseline material…” 

A strong designer will help make sure this happens. 

Know the trends 

Video projection and LED technology moves fast. A lot has changed in the past decade. 

Your projection designer should be aware of the state of the industry and where it's going. They’ll be your guide, but it’s also helpful to be aware of the basic trends yourself.

LEDs vs projection 

Tristan shared that the vast majority of large-scale events he’s seen and worked on lately use LEDs rather than projections onstage.

“Projections just can’t cut it in terms of light output to the brightness of all the other things that are making light onstage.”

This means that LED images are typically going to appear brighter and less washed out to the audience. 

For offstage visuals, like an enlarged video feed of the person performing, Tristan says he’s currently seeing about a fifty-fifty split between LEDs and projections. 

LEDs also perform better in terms of image crispness. Budget-wise, LED products are becoming more and more accessible. 

The exception is non-rectangular surfaces. Custom-shaped LED screens are possible, but Tristan says they can often be cost-prohibitive. Projections could make more sense as a solution in that specific case.

For touring shows, it’s worth noting that most LED set-ups are going to be physically heavier, take up more space in trucks, and take more time to install and remove than traditional projections. 

The difference in image quality, however, is strong enough that it justifies these additional LED touring costs for many event producers. 

Real-time tracking 

A popular emerging trend in video projection and LED work is responsive visuals, or visuals that track and respond to people onstage or other inputs. 

Tristan gives the example of having an LED floor onstage that changes visually as the performers walk on it. Below is an interactive installation by Designlab Experience that features a play on this idea.

Designers are also experimenting with music-responsive visuals that react to audio. In this example, software company Heavy M uses projection mapping to create a music-responsive visual piece.

This trend has many implications for live events. 

“You can really make these beautiful immersive boxes or environments for the band or whoever it is to… live within… And when it’s done right it looks absolutely spectacular.” 

Tristan thinks we’ll be seeing more video projections that are...

“Trying to get video less and less concentrated in the stage box and immerse the audience more and more.” 

The touring team for Coldplay was an early adopter of this idea. 

For Coldplay’s 2012 Mylo Xyloto tour, each audience member was given an LED wristband remotely controlled by a crew member. The wristbands would then be lit up to create giant light shows to complement the music, making the audience an integral part of the event and heightening their connection to the songs. 

This same general idea has been used in later Coldplay tours as well.

Remember, it’s all about inviting the audience to become completely part of the world.

What’s next? 

If responsive design is the bleeding edge of projections mapping and LED for live events, augmented reality is just beyond that edge. 

Right now, Tristan says we’re mostly seeing this technology in the world of film. The most innovative example is Disney’s The Mandalorian. The team behind the popular Star Wars show used an augmented reality studio with an LED screen behind the subject (combined with a dizzying suite of other tech) to create film-worthy shots on a TV show budget. 

Tristan clarifies that this type of tech is currently hard to implement in live events because of the infinite viewing angles, versus the single angle that a camera offers. But it’s a trend worth keeping an eye on. 

Wrapping up

Thank you to Tristan Roberson for sharing his insights with us! 

If you’re ready to bring in projection designers to take your audience immersion to the next level, the right payroll solution can help organize your growing production team effectively. Wrapbook is here to help you manage the administrative details so you can focus on creating amazing events!

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Shaudi Bianca Vahdat

Shaudi is a Seattle-based musician, theatre artist, writer and social media marketing specialist. She holds degrees from Berklee College of Music and the University of Washington School of Drama.

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