Mike Tutaj: Crazy-good projections designer for 'Sweeney Todd'

August 31, 2011

“Rachel [Rockwell] really wanted to have the blood special effects happening during the murders. And red as a color doesn’t really pop very well in video, unless you have this crazy-good projector—but we didn’t have that one.”

Before I talked with projections designer Mike Tutaj about his work on Drury Lane’s Sweeney Todd, I took the digital backdrops more or less for granted. I just thought, “Cool! I don’t have to see pretend blood coming out of people, but there’s still a sufficiently disgusting stage effect that gets the point across.” When Sweeney’s arch-nemesis, the judge, bought the farm, it was extra-disgusting.

“[Director] Rachel made a specific request for it to be a little more gory,” says Tutaj. “I had about two seconds to introduce something before it would be competing with stage light. So, instead of sluicing down, it was ‘burst, burst, burst.’”

Don’t worry: it’s not all gross. This brilliant staging of Sondheim’s classic has other, less upsetting projections to look at, such as Tutaj’s abstracted, subtly hazy takes on Victorian wallpaper.  

A polymath, Tutaj, 34, likes to make verbal side trips into such subjects as how the Jesuits influenced street layout in Minneapolis. A Barrel of Monkey keyboardist, he taught himself to do projection design after training in sound production.

“With my background in sound, I know that sound and video elements really need to go together,” he says. “In some [smaller] shows, everything is synched through one computer that fires lights, video, and sound. It’s like: After 1 second, fire this. After 1.5 seconds, fire this. With the design for theater, versus a movie, you have the variable of actors’ timing. They’re going to read the audience, react to the space, and react to the moment each night. Everything has to be cued on their gesture, and you have to make that believable and reliable so you get the same experience and intent, even if it happens ten seconds later in the show.”

Tutaj’s role changes drastically from one gig to the next. “Sometimes it’s special effects, sometimes it’s storytelling, sometimes it’s playing a role with character, sometimes it’s digital scenery.” He recently designed the Walk in the Woods projections for Timeline (where he’s an associate artist). “That was a first for me,” he says. “I was a full-time scenic element, plus the storytelling of changing the seasons through details like the leaves falling or changing or snow falling. It’s like a little palate cleanser between the scenes—a little ginger between the sushi.”

Timeline’s In Darfur, Tutaj says, was a real challenge. “I had to shoot a car chase! Because the playwright wrote a car chase into it! It had to look like the desert in Darfur, and we had to produce it in January in the Midwest. I went up north with the actors and the director, where we found a farm road and angled the camera from the point of view of a character in the backseat. So, looking up, we saw sun and heat.” He colored that footage and added stock footage of a vehicle running through the desert: “A little bit of hopefully clever trickery.”

One upcoming project—he’s got several—is The Tempest for Chicago Shakes and Redmoon. Opening in January, it combines live performance and live puppetry with Tutaj’s videography of shadow puppets. You get to see the shipwreck.

Projection design is “undoubtedly” being used more often, Tutaj says. “The technology is getting cheaper—it’s easier to do, and it costs less. Part of it too is audience expectation. If you think of what a Broadway show is, it will have elements of the rock concert. What was once high-tech was, like, a helicopter for Miss Saigon. Now it’s like: ‘Oh, you need a video wall.’ I just saw U2, and they had a million video screens. Directors who are new to the scene understand what the technology can do: ‘Wow, this isn’t something to be afraid of.’ Or they grew up seeing shows with technology. They understand the power of what it can do.”