design

What’s in a Name? (Projections, Media, and Storytelling)

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Projections for Dominique Morriseau’s Skeleton Crew at the Detroit Public Theatre, 2017. Media Design and Photo: Jeromy Hopgood

For years, I had a collection of stock answers prepared for people asking “what do you do?” I am a professor. “What do you teach?” I teach scenery and lighting for the theatre. That would typically lead to an array of questions that most of us in the arts are used to fielding (yes, people make money doing that). These days, my work has led me more into the field of Media Design. To be honest, I tend not to throw that word around a lot when asked what I do, because the Q & A can become a bit more convoluted. Why is that? Well, to be honest, I don’t think we have really arrived at a catch-all description for what Media Design is and how it fits into the production process.

If you’re new to this discussion, let me recap a bit for you. What is Media Design? In general terms, when people are talking about Media Design (particularly for theatre, opera, and dance) they mean the use of original video content, live video feed, and motion graphics displayed in some way as a visual component of the performance (projectors, video walls, displays, etc). Sound suitably vague? The designer who receives credit for this work is not only responsible for content creation, but often also designs the system that displays the content. In this way, the designer has a hand on the content and delivery of the media for a live performance.

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The Threepenny Opera at Eastern Michigan University, 2017. Media Design and photo: Jeromy Hopgood. 

While I used the term Media Design for the field, we often find the artists themselves referred to by other titles, such as the Projection Designer, or Video Designer. In fact, The United Scenic Artists Local USA829 represents their designers under the category called Projection Design.  This can become a little confusing, though, if we’re talking about a show that has lots of video and graphic content displayed across video walls. Is it still projection design if there are no projectors involved?

While we are talking about organizations that speak for a wide range of members, this year marks the the creation of the new Digital Media Commission through The United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). The Mission Statement for the Digital Media Commission provides some insight into how USITT views the field:

The Digital Media Commission provides dialog and the exchange of information about innovation and trends in the field of Projection Design and its related technologies and artistic expressions including, but not limited to, video design, digital media, interactive media, and new media as it relates to theatre and the live entertainment industry…

So, here we have the union that represents our designers referring to the field as one thing, the oldest theatre design and technology organization in the U.S. calling it something else, and a number of producers using completely different terminology. Should we, then, be surprised to find that reviewers often don’t know how to talk about the work of a Media Designer (don’t even get me started on the question of the Tony’s).

Through all of this, you might be wondering how much does a name matter? It brings to mind the old adage “you can call me anything you want, so long as you don’t call me late for dinner.” While it is certainly true that the check will still clear whether the memo line reads Video Designer, Projections Designer, or Media Designer, at the end of the day, we all know that names have power.

Is there a perceived difference between Projection Design and Media Design? I would argue that the term Media Design might be perceived as a bit more inclusive of various technologies and methods than Projection Design. For good or ill, the word projection leads to thoughts of that ubiquitous rectangle of light on a projection screen, created by Keynote or PowerPoint. This oversimplification of the job can lead directors and producers to unrealistic expectations for Media Designers, perpetuating the idea of the Media Designer as a “one man band.” While Scenic, Lighting, and Costume Designers most often have support personnel in the form of Technical Directors, Carpenters, Riggers, Stitchers, Electricians, and Scenic Artists, the Media Designer is often expected to run a small video production company, create original graphic content, generate animations, spec out gear and design the display system, integrate a network system…

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One Man, Two Guvnors at Eastern Michigan University, 2016. Media Design and Photo: Jeromy Hopgood. Content creation: Christine Franzen.

Some people may like the autonomy of this setup. It does, however, lead to the question what is a design fee paying for? Is the designer expected to create all of the content (with all of the expenses connected with that), licensing fees, program the media server, design and install the system, and everything else that comes up along the way? In all likelihood, it depends on your market and how good you are at educating your employers.

All of this revolves around the point that we are a young industry. Even though projections have been around for more than a century in some form or another, we are only now reaching a point of proliferation where Media Design is not an oddity around the production table. Even so, the mystique that surrounds or field remains commonplace. We have only recently hit the ten-year anniversary of projection design being added as a USA829 category, and we’re still a few years out from that benchmark with the first MFA in Projection Design at Yale School of Drama. That places the impetus on the designers and technicians of the field to engage in these important discussions with our peers and colleagues in the industry. We are our own best advocates. Even though these conversations may, at times, prove frustrating and circuitous, this is a wonderful time to be a Media Designer. I am so excited to be working with this next generation of artists just now making their way into the field and look forward to where we arrive, as a group.

Feel free to share your own thoughts and observations related to this post. I’m always interested in a good conversation.

 

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Drafty Interview – part 2

Welcome back to the second installation of my interview with Lucas Krech, one of the creators of Drafty, a new online CAD application. If you haven’t read Part One, you can do so by clicking here.


 

4. I notice that the program is delivered as a web app through your web browser. Why did you take that route?

Ease of deployment.

Our first paid customer was the Technical Design program at Bath-Spa University in the UK. We were still in Beta and had a ton of bugs. Being web-based we could see errors appear on our server logs and analyze the problem in real time. Fix the problem in real time. Deploy a software patch to our servers that the browser picks up automatically in real time. And then watch the errors disappear from the logs as each work station grabbed the new code. All in real time. 20 plus users every Tuesday working hard with Drafty for like two hours. It was amazing.

There are also a ton of ancillary benefits. Imagine your fancy computer crashes the day before you are about to go on tour with a ballet company (happened to me once). Or worse you are on tour and have no time to get to a store. Currently you are out at least a $1000 on hardware and better hope your software works with the current OS or you may be out thousands there too. With Drafty you just grab any old laptop, open an Incognito window in Chrome to keep all your info private, and keep drafting. Also, because it leverages the web you don’t need to pay for those top end graphics cards to support the 3D engine you are never going to use anyhow. So Drafty works as well on a $400 laptop from Best Buy as it does on a fully tricked out MacPro Tower. Just another way we can save our users a few dollars.

Also cloud sharing. All the Google Drive file sharing tools work for Drafty. Make a pre-plot and share with your assistant to finish off the data entry. Share the plot with your electricians and let them enter all the dimming and circuit information. No more “Passing the football.” You just work.

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5. Is there a mobile app for Drafty?

It is on our development list but currently you need a laptop or desktop. That computer can work on or off-line and Drafty syncs to the cloud as soon as it has an internet connection again.

6. I know that the program is still quite new. Do you have any ”big names” using it yet?

Richard Pilbrow. I met him at USITT this year. He’s a real advocate for new technology which is wonderful to have in a field so reliant on technological advancements. When we met, he seemed almost more excited to meet me than I was to meet him. “You’re Lucas who made Drafty? Brilliant!” His enthusiasm is so infectious I forgot to be nervous.

He really put us to the test. The largest file I had tested with Drafty before he got on board was in the 400-450 unit range. He was putting out a plot well over 600 units. We added a bunch of symbols for him too. The Robert Juliat 700 Series? You can thank Richard for wanting those.
7. How does the program deal with generating paperwork? I know it creates lighting paperwork, but are there other applications for sound or video?

Our Signal Flow tool is getting a fair bit of attention. Simple drag and drop interface for doing all your signal routing diagrams. We have a rack builder on deck but it may be a couple months yet to really get it right.

We just partnered with Sam Kusnetz of Team Sound NYC, makers of Go Box for QLab, to deliver high-quality real-world accurate speaker symbols available as an in-app purchase in Drafty. Those ought to go live very soon.

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A few examples of the Team Sound-generated speaker symbols

We will be deploying a Screen tool for Projector calculations with our next revision at the end of May. Again, simple drag and drop to resize your screen and move the screen and Projector independently with a real time readout of the minimum lens necessary.

We have a one-click Hook-Up generator for lighting that outputs a pre-formatted Channel Hookup and Instrument Schedule. On our development list is a similar set of paperwork for Audio. I hope to see it live some time this summer. We have a long list and a small team.

The application is in very active development. We are on a monthly revision cycle and try to provide a solid combination of performance enhancements and feature additions with each release. Sound and video design paperwork tools in general are not as sophisticated as what lighting designers have available to them. We are actively closing that gap.

8. What is process like to transfer work from another CAD program?
You can import PDF currently. Most CAD programs have some kind of ‘viewer’ tool that will let you format the native file into a proper PDF to draft a plot.
DXF I/O is on the list. But honestly redrawing a plot is probably your best bet because it really is that fast. Chances are you would spend more time on cleanup of an old file than just drafting it new. There’s a learning curve as with any piece of software but it’s a shorter curve with Drafty than most other graphics programs, and once you get the swing of it, making a lightplot is at least 3-6 times as fast as other CAD programs.

Yes, no, maybe…

Many people have heard of the guiding principle of improvisational acting called “yes, and…” This philosophy goes something like this – when in an improv situation, never say no, negate, or disagree with your partner. Instead, listen to what they offer and then add to it to keep the action moving along.

There has also been a lot of conversation in recent years about the “power of no,” particularly regarding the prevalence of creative people and their tendency to say no with a high frequency. The argument is that highly creative and successful people are, by their very nature, busy folks. As a direct correlation to this, they often are so busy that they have to say no in order to maintain that busy schedule their creativity has generated in their lives. Much of my professional design work is in collaboration with actors, directors, choreographers, and fellow designers who all fall in the the creative and busy camp. In the performing arts, however, it seems like many of us have still not taken the note that it is ok to say no (sometimes necessary, even).

In my design work, I always try to be someone who listens before I speak. I want to hear what the director has to say about the script or the choreographer’s vision for the dance piece. Designers function as therapists of sort for productions. We listen to the director’s ideas –  their hopes and dreams, their fears – and synthesize all of that into an approach to the production. Like a good therapist, a designer often sees patterns or nuances to the director’s ideas that aren’t necessarily articulated in any concept statement. The successful designer learns to connect the dots and find ways to bring the production to life in a way that complements the director’s vision.

For me, that means that sometimes it is my job to say no, even though it goes against what the director might be asking for. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case: budget, access to resources, timeline, or just a philosophical difference of opinions on what works for the design. All of these and many more are justifiable reasons for saying no during the production process. Hopefully, you’re working in a production team that respects one another to the point that this is a given. Yes is good. It enables us to pursue our dreams. No is good, too. It keeps us grounded in the reality of what we can achieve. If you approach collaboration in the right way, you will find that no leads you to a wonderful third option (my personal favorite) called maybe. Maybe is the root of our creative collaboration. Once we reach maybe, it allows us to explore new ground that is often a by-product of more than one person’s ideas. That’s where the magic happens! A little of your thoughts, sprinkled with a spark of an idea from me, and feedback from the group is a recipe for success.

So, whether you’re a student, a professional designer, the director, or an intern, next time you find yourself in a collaborative project take a little time to listen and don’t be afraid to respond with a yes, no, or maybe. Empowering, isn’t it?

 

Why a Design Degree isn’t the Career Death Sentence your Parents Suspected

This is back to school week for me. It’s always exciting to meet a new crop of students. Every year I get to see parents send their kids off into the wild on their own. Frequently, I am posed with questions from these parents to ease their fears about their child pursuing a degree in the arts.

I get it. Really, I do. I am hoping that my own 3-year-old sticks with her game plan of becoming a doctor (I’m not exactly as comfortable with her plan of her Mom being the nurse and myself serving as the receptionist, though she assures me that the medical school she attends will have classes for the two of us, as well).

The fact is, a life in the arts has never been a golden ticket to wealth and leisure. It is, in fact, a career filled with hard work, long hours, and (at times) less than glamorous work conditions. The entertainment industry is particularly challenging in that your job happens when other people want to relax. Nights, weekends, and holidays are your work week. Monday is your weekend. If you freelance, there is the added pressure of working to secure the next job (or jobs) while working on another. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of my pitch to those parents mentioned above. It’s the follow-up that’s so important.

If your son or daughter is committed to learning, works hard and proves to be a good collaborator, they are going to get a job after graduation. How can I make such a claim? It’s pretty simple, really…

Supply and Demand

Statistics say that those in our field looking for work stand a much better chance than most other fields. In this economy, we all know jobs have been hard to come by. People have gone back to school in record numbers to learn new skills and the market is now flooded with graduates. At the undergraduate level, recent polls show the greatest majority of undergraduates majored in business (358,000 majors). On the other hand, all of the Visual and Performing Arts combined together numbered less than 100,000 majors. In short, while other professions are being flooded with graduates, the arts have less people competing for the jobs.

What about the jobs, though? Are there enough of them? Well, that is where we see some other good news. It seems that when times are hard, people still want to be entertained. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Arts, Entertainment and Recreation industry is predicted to grow 15% by 2015. This is second only to the Healthcare and Social Assistance industry! In other words, not only are there jobs available, but there are jobs being created.

Versatility

The other reason for future job security with design and technology graduates is the versatility of their training. Designers are not trained to only do one thing – they are trained to solve problems within given constraints of time, budget, and resources. This is why we see major business schools increasingly creating partnerships with design programs so that tomorrows CEOs can be trained to think like a designer. Designers are problem-solvers, and problem-solvers are always in demand.

That’s why I feel good about what I do. Let’s be honest, a college education isn’t the the panacea it was made out to be for so many years, but if you can can find a program that gives life skills and helps prepare students for the realistic demands of today’s world, then it is still worth it. Just remember, though, even the best education is only worth what you put into it.

 

A Short Film About Design in Britain Since 1959

Design is one of the most powerful of human inclinations as it gracefully combines together two concepts: teamwork, and serving others. No designer ever truly works alone, and the purpose of design is to serve a function for the end-user. Whether designing a product, an image, or an idea, the designer’s role is problem solving through creativity. By its very nature, design transforms creativity into a tangible outcome – linking thought with action. This video covers a wide array of British designers who shaped the world through their designs and received the Prince Philip Designer’s Prize for their work. Enjoy!

Beginnings

Welcome to the first installment of my new blog on topics related to Entertainment Design & Technology. My name is Jeromy Hopgood, a theatrical designer and university professor. For me, the times that we live in are exciting ones. Technology is rapidly evolving to create new opportunities for designers to be better storytellers and, as such, we are constantly challenged to adapt or find ourselves behind the curve.

One of the things I like the most about working in the entertainment industry is the collaborative nature of the job. We all better ourselves by working in groups and interacting with other designers / technicians / directors / actors / managers, etc. My motivation for writing this blog is to extend that collaboration from small groups and out into larger circles of this increasingly interconnected digital world. I like to share my experiences and interests with other folks and assume you will do the same. I hope to get just as much out of this experience (or more) than what I put into it.  My goal is to update on a regular basis about topics related to the entertainment design & technology industry, most often in the areas of scenery, lighting, sound, and integrated media  / projections. I will try to vary the content as much as possible featuring techniques, new products, and as much media as I can manage (since everyone likes pretty pictures).

I hope you enjoy what you find here and, if you do, pass it along to someone else who might be interested. I’m always looking for someone new to bounce ideas off of (and hopefully get some new ones in return).