Resolution Design designed and created the projected imagery used as set backdropsResolution-die-tote-stadt7-rose-grade
for a German opera, ‘Die Töte Stadt’, directed by  Bruce Beresford, that played in July
at the Sydney Opera House.

The Resolution Design team worked with Bruce Beresford and the designer John Stoddart on the production of the opera, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Their projected backdrops ran throughout each performance to give it the dramatic atmosphere the director was looking for.  

Stage Projections

The story is a visual and musical representation of a series of the lead character’s dreams, which take place in the historic city of Bruges, Belgium. The idea of using projections on stage arose from Bruce’s feeling that static photography and sets would not be able to give the production the mood and feeling he wanted, and would not meet the expectations of modern audiences.

However, because this opera is considered among the most difficult to perform live, and the production had chosen one of the few tenors in the world able to handle the lead role, he also wanted to ensure that the digital production would not overpower the performances.

In all, the Resolution Design team, led by Creative Director Tim Dyroff, produced one hour and twenty minutes of video and still images, which was looped and projected to run throughout the three-hour opera. The production’s projection artist Chris Twyman used a Pandora’s Box Server system which works as a real-time projection server onto different shapes and surfaces.

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In this case, the imagery was projected onto very large format, translucent scrims at different positions on the stage. The team worked with the projectionist in advance, to make sure their imagery wouldn’t stretch the limitations of the system, and during each performance as well. Images for the back of the stage were projected at 1100 x 1050 resolution, and those closer to the front at 1920 x 1080. A major part of the project was taking all of the footage, clips and images to the Opera House and running through the entire production to ensure the timing, resolution and the operation of the projector was manageable and matched both the performance and the director’s vision.

From Daylight to Dreamtime
One of the two stage sets was of a room in the character’s house with a large window at the back revealing different images. Another set showed an exterior street scene, with the imagery appearing between the buildings at the back.

The character’s dreams unfold in the city at night, revealing the streets devoid of people and almost without colour. Street views were derived from high resolution base plates that Bruce shot in Bruges on a Canon 5D. These were all daytime stills, and part of Resolution’s treatment was to change them to night. They were then given further enhancement to blur the edges and create a wispy, glowing, ethereal effect, in keeping with a dreamscape.

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Resolution’s design team achieved this look in After Effects, first applying a grade to change the time of day to night, and using AE’s Glow effect, the RE:vision plug-in RE:Flex, and displacement mapping. They also masked and rotoscoped certain elements and applied different looks to them before compositing them back into the images. These techniques also allowed them to create a transition sequence between several of the city shots at the opening of the opera.

Apart from the stills he had captured of Bruges, back in Sydney Bruce also had video shot of water for one of the scenes, and organised a studio shoot with the 5D to capture footage of nuns and monks walking past camera for another scene. At this shoot, where Bruce’s daughter Cordelia Beresford was the Cinematographer, Resolution’s team supervised to ensure they would be able to give the images the look they were planning to create in post production. They brought a computer workstation on set for both the director and the post team to check the footage on after each take.

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The processions of monks and nuns were shot against a dark background in low-angled lighting. To give the figures the effect of moving through a long period of time, the team first slowed the footage in post with another RE:Vision plug-in, Twixtor. They then used the After Effects plug-in CC Wide Time which produces a blending effect, so that at any moment the viewer sees the image captured in each frame plus the imagery of the 126 preceding frames, revealed as a blended extension trailing behind. Finally, a blue-toned grade was applied to the images.

Controlling Interactivity
Data management during the performances was critical to keep the projected material fully controllable at any moment. The projectionist’s priority was coordinating the images with the live performance, after all, not the other way around. Some interestingwork-aroundsresulted. For example, the night-time cloudscape was required to run throughout one of the acts thatbeginsas the clouds drift slowly past. In the middle, the moon rises and remains through till the end.

The Resolution team had originally intended to create a single video of drifting clouds for the entire act, but the size of the file was far too large for the Pandora’s Box Server to handle. Instead, the team created three separate 3-minute clips, the start and end points of which would seamlessly cut together. Chris Twyman played the first clip, a sequence of drifting clouds alone, as a loop until a critical point in the performance was reached when he would switch to a clip of the moon rising, which he played only once. Then he would switch over to a third clip of the clouds with the moon, also played as a loop until the end of the act.

An especially effective projection was of images of roses composited into a continuous shower appearing on a scrim extending across the front of the stage while the singers performed behind the falling flowers. The team started by searching for an image of a rose, shot against black with the light at the appropriate angle, that would match the singers’ prop roses well enough to tie in with the performance.

Then they slightly distorted and animated the stem and leaves in After Effects to look as though the rose was falling and affected by drag from the air. The flower was then reproduced in different positions across the frame and allowed to move past camera as if falling. All that remained was testing speed of the fall on stage. When projectedontoa 50ft scrim, a speed that looked appropriate moving down a studio-sized computer screen looked extremely fast. The overall effect had to be adjusted on site so it had just the right speed on location.


In all, the project spanned six weeks in the lead up to the opening night. Bruce Beresford remarked that he felt the production would not have been nearly as effective without the expertise and commitment of the Resolution Design team. “I always knew that the imagery would be complicated and was wary of involving anyone other than people at the very top of their field, people who could do more than just handle the technical complications - but who had a refined sense of design,” he said.