Projection 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.