In the world of the theatre, you’ll hear the terms cyclorama, scrim and backdrop used for the same things, but this is actually untrue. Because of the confusion surrounding these terms, it can be hard to understand what each one really is, though. It is important that you know the difference between them, in order to ensure you are able to achieve the results that you want with your set design.
Scrim: A scrim differs significantly from either a backdrop or a cyclorama. Scrims are made from a very specific material – sharkstooth scrim. Scrims are usually seamless (you’ll rarely find them with seams at all), and they can be used almost anywhere on the stage, rather than being relegated to the rear. Scrims can also change appearance with different lighting techniques, including translucent or opaque.
Cyclorama: A cyclorama is located at the very back of the stage (farthest upstage), and is usually used to give the appearance of “sky”. Cycloramas are created with white or natural muslin (flat panels), and are front lit to help achieve the desired look. Unlike scrims, cycloramas are not usually located elsewhere on the stage.
Backdrops: A backdrop is actually a generic term used to refer to several different types of fabric that can be used on stage. Most frequently, backdrops are used at the back of the stage or scene, but they can be positioned almost anywhere there is a need for them. Technically, a backdrop can be almost anything, from a flat sheet to pleated material, or even a painted panel.
There are several different types of backdrops used in theatrical performances, and each is designed to provide specific results. For instance, a painter’s backdrop refers to a flat piece of muslin. It is either white or natural in colour and can be seamless or seamed. Scene painters usually paint the scene (or a portion of the scene) directly onto the material. In some cases, projection equipment can be used to project the scene onto the fabric. As such, these backdrops can be used almost anywhere on stage.
Another type of backdrop is the scenic painted backdrop. These are pretty similar to a painter’s backdrop, but they are always hand painted and are made to order, with custom designs/scenes. These pieces usually come with flame retardant already applied by the artist or manufacturer, and usually come with a certificate showing that the material is rated as being flame retardant.
Finally, a scenic digital backdrop is very similar to a scenic painted backdrop. However, rather than being painted by hand, these are created digitally using computer equipment. The material used can be almost anything, including fabric or vinyl, as well as mesh. Scenic digital backdrops can be seamed or seamless, and the image can be printed onto a single piece of material (seamless) or can be broken up and printed onto numerous pieces of material (seamed). Vinyl backdrops are inherently flame retardant, but fabric options will need to be protected with a chemical application.