The Modern Theatre, Boston; Theater Interior

Busy week.  Wrapped up yet another sketch  for a University project Monday/Tuesday, did three images today for a project at Boston College, and I’m headed to Martha’s Vineyard tomorrow to scout a property for a large format formal watercolor.  Before I leave, thought I’d update the blog with a project from about a year ago.  There are three images in this series, but I think for now it’ll do to just deal with the interior.

Proposed Theater Interior for The Modern Theater, Boston - CBT Architects

Proposed Theater Interior for The Modern Theater, Boston - CBT Architects

The Modern Theatre opened in 1914, and was the first theater in the country with a dedicated sound system for projecting talkies.  It’s also the home of the “Double Feature”.  After years of lying empty and unused, it’s now being renovated by Suffolk University, which owns the building.  A tower is being constructed on site to house 200 students of the university, and the original exterior is being restored.  Over the years, the interior has suffered many indignities, and there is nothing remaining that is salvageable.  In the gutted volume,  a new 185 seat theater is being built, and the lobby will double as a gallery for local artists.

Since the interior was to be all new, there were no photographs to work from. Essentially the only information was a conceptual plan provided by the architect (a preliminary study), and a couple paragraphs describing the lighting system.  It’s a fairly common scenario:  do a concept rendering of a space before it is finished, so that if it isn’t feasible, the client won’t have spent a lot of money developing the idea.  Only problem is there’s not much to work from in order to do the rendering itself.

Here’s a plan (at bottom) and a longitudinal section (top).  Martin Vinik was the theater planner.  The architect for the entire project was CBT Childs Bertman Tseckares Inc, of Boston.

Section (at top) and the Conceptual Plan

Section (at top) and the Conceptual Plan

I made a quick model using the plan as a texture on the floor, so that I could build the elements to scale without much fuss or thought.  No need to build anything that won’t be seen from the stage (which is where I wanted to take the view from), and no need at all to build the rest of the building.  Nothing but the volume of the theater and the balconies, stage, light rigs and catwalks.

The Model roughed out in Cinema 4D

The Model roughed out in Cinema 4D

My gut feeling in this case was to try to avoid the idea that a theater view must always show the point of view as if it is taken from the house.  You’ll often see a rendering of a new theater taken from the farthest seat in the house, with a very wide angle lens, in an effort to show the entire house.  This tends to distort the space and lay it wide open, splayed and out of normal perspective. The near seats look mammoth and the stage looks distant and minuscule.  Not good.

Rather than play that game, I went straight for the stage.  I had the idea that I’d show the house and seats from the performer’s perspective.  Since the performer is visible from every seat, it goes without saying that the performer will be able to see the entire space.  If I showed the crowd filing in prior to the performance, I could even turn up the house lights and manage to show the space in its entirety.  One or two tries with the camera, and I settled on the view to be developed (below).

The Model, viewed from the Proposed Camera Location

The Model, viewed from the Proposed Camera Location

I sprinkled in some lights and jacked them up to provide the requisite glare.  Part of the challenge was to yet again show something without showing anything too specific.  Standard marching order.  Glare helped a bit to camouflage some areas and hide them from direct view, because we didn’t quite know what many of the details would be.  Here’s a test render, done with an eye to create some interesting lighting and shadows

A quick Rendering Test of the Model

I sketched out a quick composition test to run by the architect.  This was painted directly onto the test rendering, and anything in this image that isn’t in the one above is simply paint. Well, digital paint, anyway.

Rough Thmubnail Study of the Proposed View

Rough Thumbnail Study of the Proposed View

I worked with Adrian LeBuffe as the project architect for CBT, and though I got the thumbs-up to proceed,  he also provided some additional information about a need for acoustic panels, and clarified some points about lighting.  He also gave me leeway to develop the image in a way that was a little more visually interesting than typical digital renderings.

From the composition study, I realized that rather than a vague pair of chairs, the image needed to feel more concretely associated with the unseen performer.  I swapped out the ambiguous pair of chairs for a solo stool and microphone, sitting center stage on simple carpet.  That little tweak made the image, to me, more visceral and a little more believable.



Looking at the composition study, you can see that it almost feels as though the stage is in one world, and the house is in another.  The frame of the proscenium and curtains making it feel like we looking through into a television.  I needed a way to bring the two spaces together, making them feel more intimately intertwined.  The visible lighting was a device that accomplished this for me, and allowed me to better organize the composition around competing diagonals.  As for color, the palette is basically all blue/orange.

There is an “ground” or a base texture of varied random strokes, which help break down edges and detail, and help to present the image as more sketchy and less finished.  The texture isn’t there to replicate brush strokes of paint, but is more intended to act like the textured coats of gesso did on raw canvas prior to receiving paint, it provides an interesting surface to work on.

I wanted to continue a motif that I’d started with the two exterior images.  In all three images there are couples who are engaged in their own personal dramas.  In the image below, we have the self-styled urban hipsters headed toward the front row.  In the middle-left is a couple at odds.  He’s checking his watch, and she’s leaning away, feigning interest in something that isn’t even there.

Detail, Entourage

Detail, Entourage

Some other similar minor moves are sprinkled around the image, but all are far enough away to not take away from the stool at foreground left, which was my supporting player in the composition.  The star is the theater space itself.

The Modern Theater, Interior; Final Version

The Modern Theater, Interior; Final Version



Filed under Commissioned Work

8 responses to “The Modern Theatre, Boston; Theater Interior

  1. Rob

    Nice but still a cracker box shadow of what once was a magnificent and historical theater which was also a great acoustic space. Suffolk should have come to the rescue sooner and perhaps the original house could have been saved. Check it out at

    • I hearya…
      There are many who are lamenting the fact that the theater interior was not returned to its former glory. But the building sat unused and abandoned since about 1985, falling down around itself. In that span of time, no one was interested enough to save it, restore it, and occupy it. Suffolk would have been within their right to tear the whole thing down, but they didn’t. I’m not privy to the budgets involved, but no mere coat of paint would have revived the interior, and the structure would not have been capable of carrying the new loads of the student residences above. Those residences are what make the project viable for the University, and therein lies the problem.

      Without the ability to capitalize on the site, the restoration would have been prohibitively expensive.

      Again, I was not a part of the process other than producing the renderings, but I do understand that an extensive amount of effort went into saving as much as was possible, and that the idea of saving it all and fully restoring it would have been seriously considered.

  2. 3d architectural renderings

    pretty nice work. im going to add your blog to my rss aggregator so I can stay updated 🙂

  3. Kelly

    What rendering program was used for the interior perspectives? Please email. Thanks!!

  4. Hi Colin.
    Thanks for the kind words. I sent you a private email, feel free to send something along and I’ll see what I can do to help. -Jeff

  5. colin

    really impressive thanks for the tips. I look forward to employing it in my own work, if you email me back i would appreciate some possible feed back on images that will be ready next month. Cheers Colin

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