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Fabrics in entertainment

February 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Markets

Specialty fabrics play an important supporting role in live entertainment applications.

The world of textiles used in theater applications can seem foreign, even to companies that produce and work with specialty fabrics. Part of what makes it daunting is the jargon: It’s easy to feel like an outsider when you don’t know a “cyc” from a “skydrop.” But this niche market can be worth paying attention to. For one thing, entertainment tends to do well even when the economy is poor, says Jon Weingarten, president of Dazian LLC, a South Hackensack, N.J., company that specializes in fabrics for the entertainment industry.

“Typically, in every recession—this one included—entertainment has actually done very well,” he says. “The only thing that cheers [people] up is entertainment—watching movies, going to concerts. It’s escapism, something to help them forget about all their troubles.”

Maybe that’s why theatrical production values are no longer confined to show business. Weingarten says that, in addition to award shows, performances and social events, his company’s theatrical fabrics are beginning to grace corporate events, trade show exhibits, meetings and even architectural interiors. “Everything now has an entertainment flair to it,” he says. “They’re starting to use a lot more fabric and a lot more glitz. It just builds excitement.”

Set builders, stage designers, and costumers are lending their skills to the corporate world. The companies that design trade show booths are often the same companies that make Stevie Nicks look windblown and ethereal on stage. Both types of clients want the “wow” factor.

Ken Hollands of Scene Ideas Inc., a Richmond, B.C., Canada, production company that fabricates custom scenic elements, says his company produces a lot of large-format printed pieces—not because theatrical clients want them (they tend to prefer hand-painted backdrops), but because corporate clients ask for them. The company serves both markets.

Debra Roth, director of design and creative events at Pink Powered by Moss, New York, N.Y., has noticed a similar trend. A few years ago, she sold her creative tension fabric structure business, Pink Inc., to Moss Inc., a company that specializes in tension fabric and large-format graphics for exhibits, events and retail stores. The move shifted her customer base slightly, but she had always mixed entertainment with commerce.

“I have a different ratio of markets that I work in now,” she says. “I’m more focused now on the events industry. But the events industry was always our biggest industry. We deal with a lot of event producers, event planners, meeting professionals and event designers.”

A high percentage of special events have some kind of live entertainment today, notes Spencer Etzel, owner of The SEC Group, Wilsonville, Ore. “Whether it’s a band, or a bunch of speakers, or demonstrations or whatever, it kind of gets into that category. If entertainment is everything to do with special events and parties, then probably 60 or 70 percent of our work falls into that category. At least 30 to 40 percent of it requires a stage.”

Especially pertinent to specialty fabric companies is the fact that this new, broader entertainment industry is seeking out textiles more often. Roth explains that fabric has several advantages in this economy: It can be crafted into almost any shape; it’s lighter and cheaper to transport than wood-and-drywall set pieces; and it can be re-used and repurposed, making it more economical.

“Some of our bigger projects, we’re basically winning [the jobs] because other materials are so expensive,” she says. “It may be a big project for us, but it doesn’t look expensive to the buyer, compared to the other options.”

Not just a pretty face

One characteristic Roth often seeks out in fabric is wide width. Like many scenic elements used in live entertainment, her tension fabric shapes are often quite large. If they will be backlit at any time, the seams will show, so minimizing them is critical.

“The other thing that’s really important, probably in most industrial fabric applications, but certainly in ours, is flame retardance,” she adds. “My ideal fabric would be an inherent flame-retardant poly/spandex that’s got a good stretch and a high [denier] with some color offerings. And wide-width—say, 10 foot wide.”

Entertainment fabric specialists such as Dazian take wide width to the extreme. Weingarten says increasingly his company’s fabrics are 3 meters (or 10 feet) wide, and many are much wider. Scrims (a semi-transparent, loosely woven fabric drop used with special lighting effects) are seamless and can go up to about 35 feet wide; seamless scenery muslin goes up to 40 feet wide. “It’s only made in Europe, [using] a certain type of loom and old finishing techniques,” he says. “Everything past 10 feet wide is done in Europe.”

Even the tent industry has fabrics that are specifically made for live entertainment. Etzel says that for projects like Bard on the Beach, a Shakespeare festival that lasts four months each year, his company uses Ferrari 702 Chapiteaux, a durable, flame-retardant tent fabric with two different colored sides. The outside surface is available in a variety of colors, but the inside is always midnight blue.

“That dark blue is almost like what old circuses used to use,” he says. “When you’re in the structure and you look up, it basically disappears. You really don’t ever concentrate on it, unlike a white building, where you see the ceiling. That’s a theater trick.”

But designers who use fabric in live-entertainment applications do not limit themselves to industry-specific textiles. They always seem to be on the lookout for new suppliers. “We buy direct from the more specialized theatrical fabric companies like Rose Brand,” says Hollands. “But we also use fabrics that come out of other industries that you can buy at your average large wholesale fabric store.”

Walt Disney Entertainment, Orlando, Fla., is constantly on the hunt for new, inspiring textiles. Each of its three costuming departments—at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and the company’s California character manufacturing plant—has a giant wall display of fabric swatches, and the organization maintains a library of notions, fabric samples, and vendor information for its costumers to use—and that’s just for costumes. Disney’s theme parks use volumes of fabrics for uniforms, the fabric components of stage sets and many other applications.

“The inspiration for what we’re going to do from a sourcing standpoint comes from the design itself,” says Vinny Pagliuca, director of creative costuming and cosmetology for Walt Disney Entertainment. “If the garments are pretty straightforward, or something more like a uniform, obviously we have a lot of vendors that can do that. But as you get towards specialized looks or specialized needs, we start steering towards possibly vendors that we haven’t utilized before. We continually do research, do sourcing trips, go to trade shows all around the world, to try to find new vendors and new ideas for fabrics.”

Sometimes, too, vendors come to visit the costumers and show directors, says Darlene Kennedy, Walt Disney World’s manager of costuming and cosmetology. “They will bring things to us that they think we might have an interest in, based on prior contact that we’ve had with them.”

But these are no ordinary garments. Besides the quest for a unique look, fabric products for the entertainment giant must be unusually durable. Many of its entertainment ventures run several times a day, 365 days a year, outdoors in the semitropical climate. Fabrics must pass rigorous fade tests and laundry tests to be considered for use.

Pagliuca says Disney buys many fabrics in finished form, but it also buys greige goods for use in its own dye sublimation facility. Dye-subbed fabrics can be made to match each other exactly, and the company doesn’t need to keep as many different types of fabric in the warehouse. Another benefit of the sublimation process is that the colors don’t fade under the powerful California and Florida sun, extending the life of the products much longer.

The stars come out

Of course, most live entertainment takes place in the dark, brightly illuminated by artificial lighting. That has led to one of the most important recent shifts in the entertainment fabric market.

“LEDs started out in the theater industry as the safety lights at the front of the stage,” recalls Hollands, “but now they’re used everywhere. They’re used in small set elements to light them from inside. They’re used in props as well.”

Backlighting has always been possible, Roth says, but thanks to the coolness and safety of LEDs, smaller fabric structures can now be lit from within. And because the lights are low-voltage, they can be powered by battery packs and remote-controlled from the lighting console.

These advantages have affected designers’ fabric choices. “In the last five to 10 years, there’s just been a total change in the way fabrics are being used in the entertainment industry,” says Weingarten. “It was really driven by the use of LED lighting in both theatrical lighting and in effect lighting. LED lighting is inexpensive, it’s not hot, it’s easy to install, and it travels well, so fabrics that work well with lighting are popular—different types of sheer fabrics, fabrics with metallic or shiny finishes, fabrics with patterns and textures. We do some applique sheer fabrics that if you light from the back and light from the front, the patterns tend to float because the ground dissolves. Interesting effects that, if you just looked at the fabric itself, you never would have thought.”

In many cases, LEDs and fiber-optic elements are being embedded in theatrical fabrics, either by the manufacturer or after purchase. For example, Hollands says he has seen velour curtains sparkling with tiny pinpoints of LED light. Dazian has taken this one step farther, Weingarten says, with its Dynamic Graphics product, in which LED and fiber-optic lighting are added to a printed image on a wide-width fabric panel.

Kennedy says Disney has begun using LEDs in the costumes for the Main Street Electrical Light Parade at the Magic Kingdom. Lighting harnesses are constructed between the liner and the outer fabric of the costume, and the LEDs protrude through grommets.

“We try to find fabrics that are durable, but that also have a reflective quality so that the lights look brighter,” she says.

The changes brought about by the LED revolution are only one example of the ways technology has changed the fabric demands of the entertainment industry. When new products come on the market, no matter what segment of the textile industry they come from, theater designers look to them for inspiration.

“The biggest thing for us is the comfort and safety of the cast, so we’re doing more and more research into meshes, lightweight fabrics, and breathable, wicking fabrics,” says Pagliuca. “A lot of that research is being targeted towards sports garments, but we are interested in using it, too.”

“We’ve also looked at swatches of fabrics that absorb light so that they’re self-lit or retain light,” Kennedy adds. “We’re always looking for new fiber-optic type things. We work closely with our safety department to make sure they are things we can put on people. We haven’t had any home runs with that technology yet, but we keep looking.”

Jamie Swedberg is a freelance writer based in Georgia.

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