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What Happened To Screens

What Happened To Screens
  • The Latest Advancements Make Screens More Viable than Ever years ago, when I was teaching computer graphics and video projection systems, nothing made me cringe like great projectors and switchers connected by lousy cables. If a chain is only as good as its weakest link, it always seemed to me like throwing away a perfectly good signal. Today, most of us have learned the value of maintaining electronic signal integrity. However, I often have the same issue with a component that is equally important, and often equally misunderstood: the screen.
  • When I first started doing this, we were fanatical about the screens and their care. We had to be, using projectors with (at their very best) 700-800 lumens output, low depth of field, and very fast optics. There was one type of screen acceptable for front projection shows using data, and it was matte white. We cleaned and repaired screens with a great deal of care, knowing as we had been taught that the screen was half of the projection system. When the first “video gain” screens came along, we evaluated them carefully and used them only in the most appropriate situations. We actually studied screens, reading both books and Da-Lite’s excellent “Angles of View” series (thank you and RIP Kim Milliken).
  • Then, along came the LCD projector, and a number of “new to the market” manufacturers. For years, my clients had been asking for “projectors we can use in a fully lit room,” and we had patiently explained that even if the projectors were bright enough, using them in lit rooms would rob you of contrast and color fidelity. But, when the portable LCD projector manufacturers broke into the market, they actually advertised their projectors in use in sunlit atriums (never actually advising it — just cunningly showing them in use that way).
  • So, rather than fight the massive amount of advertising the manufacturers were throwing our client’s way, we just gave in. I’ve seen many, many LCD projectors installed in brightly lit rooms. Most of us just stopped making the argument with clients who didn’t want to hear technicalities.That started the slide.
  • Then, the really, really bright staging machines hit the market. We began slowly doing things with them for theatrical effect, like projecting on water, fog,

Styrofoam, scrims, Legos — whatever.

But, somehow, we slid too far. Today, I actually have a competitor in my area that doesn’t believe in screens — they do every show they do with a collection of pieces of white spandex.

It seems like lots of us have completely forgotten that there are still serious differences in quality between the materials and lighting conditions we use for theatrical effect — and real screens, sized, and set properly.

And that’s a shame, because the advances in screens have been huge: better surfaces, easier to maintain and clean, and a huge raft of new materials geared at giving optimized images in a huge variety of situations. On top of that, the major manufacturers have produced an amazing variety of new frames and screen types geared especially for staging applications. In particular, I’m impressed with what the folding DT type frames have become — sturdier, easier to use, and less likely to bite the hands that set them up.

The surfaces have done just as well if not better — there’s still my favorite, matte white, but it is now accompanied in the market by a wide variety of “enhanced matte” surfaces for video, a host of “video gray” screens, brighter, more translucent rear fabrics, and even now a host of screen materials designed especially for 3D projection.

And did I mention the enormous variety of aspect ratios — 4:3, 16:9, 16:10, and a huge variety of superwide ratios for image blending. Plus great accessories like moveable skirts and variable-aspect-ratio frames.

The enormous variety of great product available actually increases the difficulty for rental companies. Which ones do you stock, and why? My answer to that was simple — for front projection, I’ve stuck with the traditional, hard-to-go-wrong with matte white, and a basic RP fabric for rear, stocked in a variety of sizes with newstyle frames that give us aspect ratio flexibility. Then, we added to that some of the video-gray screens for situations (and producers) that called for them.

Oh — and some spandex, too.