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Music Theater Special Effects

Theatrical special effects make the experience of viewing a musical unforgettable. Theatrical scrims are one of many techniques to achieve the impossible.

As you watch a musical unfold on stage you see an entire wall vanish before your eyes. Ever wonder how some of these amazing special effects are produced on stage?

When a music lover attends a concert, musical, or other fine arts performance often they leave the auditorium asking themselves, how did they do that? Musical theater has a long list of tricks that they can call on to produce special effects that confuse and amaze the viewer. From flying a person around the theater to making walls that seem to disappear before your very eyes, special effects in musical theater have come into a bright new age of innovation. In this article you will learn everything you wanted to know about how to make a wall disappear before your very eyes!

On a music theater stage a common piece of scenery is the semi-transparent scrim. Simply put a scrim is little more than a piece of thin cloth, usually mounted to a long metal pipe suspending the scrim at the top and with another long pipe sewn into the bottom to keep the material pulled tight and wrinkle free. When lighted correctly during a musical production this scrim can be used to produce many different special effects. When lighted from the front the scrim appears solid and flat like a wall. When the light is shifted to behind the scrim the tiny shark-tooth holes in the scrim allow you to see through the scrim to the scene that has been created behind it.

The lighting has to be perfect for this trick to work. Any leaking light (known in the theater as “spill) can ruin the effect. The lighting technicians in the theater will often employ special kinds of theatrical lighting products such as ellipsoidal spotlights or broad cycs (short for cyclorama) to wash the scene with light without spilling onto the scrim itself. Ellipsoidal spotlights and broad cycs produce focused beams of light with hard edges, much like the traditional moving follow spots that you see in front of the music theater stage.

Scrims can be painted or they can be left in their natural state. In a recent production of The Wizard of Oz the director painted the wizards chamber scene onto the outside edges of a full stage width scrim. In the unpainted center of this scrim was a rear projection of the wizard’s face as he spoke to Dorothy and her companions. The scrim allows for rear projection as well as for fire extinguisher or dry ice fog to be blown through the scrim as the scene is taking place. All in all a very exciting and intriguing theatrical special effect made possible by a simple piece of fabric called a scrim.

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