Suppose a music critic understood the symphonic form, but just couldn’t hear the difference between a trumpet and a sax, and regularly credited the saxophonist for marvelous trumpet work. Suppose none of the judges of the Academy Awards knew exactly what a cinematographer did and omitted the award for cinematography.
Welcome to the world of the projection designer. Be sure to read more in Part One.
What Isn't Projection Design?
Are there things video can’t do, or shouldn’t? Luke Halls says some producers try to save money by using video instead of building expensive sets. “That shouldn’t be the role of projection,” he says, even though “some of it can be absolutely beautiful. Video is very good at communicating the psychology of a character, and projection design is not just set dressing there.”
“While projection design can set location, in its best version of itself, that’s not what it’s doing at all,” says Peter Nigrini. “It’s providing insight into characters or functioning as a character itself. When we began developing the design for Dear Evan Hansen, one of the very early realizations we had in the workshop was that a traditional ensemble was not right for the production. In the workshop, the ensemble’s primary function was to represent that multitude of young people Evan interacts with on a daily basis. We realized that projection was the best way to represent these people onstage. While the design does perform some scenic function, that is its third or fourth contribution.”
“Great video design,” Andrezej Goulding says, “sits within the collaborative nature of a live performance and isn’t there as a calling card for what animation/effects you might be able to do. Too many video designs go down that route, and they look tacky and lazy.”
Goulding was trained in set design and was an associate set designer on Matilda, Ghost, Carmen at the Met, and more. “I had training on how to read and evaluate a script and what design elements are important for the story,” he says. He thinks too few projection designers have this kind of training. “A lot of designers come from technical and animation backgrounds, which means that while they are technically adept, the story side of why they choose to put video onstage is not there. As a result, voters and reviewers only respond to the obvious video-y elements of a show and miss out on the more subtle, and usually better designed, shows.”
Jeff Sugg thinks it’s useful to put projection in the context of scenic and lighting design. “From a novice’s point of view, one could argue that we use light to create images,” states Sugg. “There are some of us who are heading more toward replacing scenic drops. We can use projected images as lighting effects, working hand in hand with the lighting department to augment their effects or to use lighting to augment our effects.”
Wendall K. Harrington says she sees a lot of heavy-handed work. “The toys are new, and it’s a lot of fun to play with them. I’m a theatre maker, trying to deliver the soul of a play into the souls of people in the seats. There’s no technical equivalent to that. There was a time when design was much more collaborative. Tony Walton sat between me and the LD, choices were discussed. Now you come together in tech and hope it works. Part of that has to do with the advancement of technology. Everybody’s behind a screen now. Theatre making should be dangerous. We should be challenging and asking how far we can go before we fall off the edge. Now, a lot of design is about the dazzle on Broadway.”
Aaron Rhyne notes that when projection began to be integrated into theatre, it was seen as something separate, but times have changed. “We’re a video-based culture now. We’re more accustomed to it and are comfortable seeing it in a theatrical context,” he says. In musicals, for instance, projection is almost a given. “Shows like Dear Evan Hanson (Nigrini) and Anastasia (Rhyne) wouldn’t have worked without it. In Anastasia, everyone could very clearly see there was a lot of video and how video transported characters from place to place.”
When video and lighting come together, it may be hard to distinguish individual contributions. “I don’t normally do much ‘obvious’ video in shows as it generally is wrong for the show and for the design,” says Goulding. “I am very careful with my design so as not to pull focus to the video unless specifically needed.” The problem is, it’s the obvious video that gets noticed.
Although projection designers agree that awards aren’t the goal, and their work should be integrated into a whole, it’s frustrating to be ignored at the Tonys. “The Drama Desk and Outer Critics do give awards for projection. It’s really important to embrace all design crafts and pay homage to all of them,” says Tal Yarden, who notes that reviewers don’t give much attention to other design elements either. He felt as strongly about sound design when it was eliminated as he does about the plight of projections.
“In film and television, any artistry is recognized,” Rhyne notes. “People understand it takes a huge village of artists to create a work. It would aid the entire theatre industry by recognizing makeup artists, wig designers, puppet artists, and others who do beautiful work on stage.”
How To Acknowledge A Village
Some think the fix is easy. Others think it’s impossible. Rhyne thinks critics and voters can learn from brief explanations in press packs and in pamphlets that shows provide to Tony voters. Goulding thinks presenting case studies to reviewers and voters over coffee is the way to go.
“Historically, projection design was thought of as a component of a scenic environment, and turning that perception around is a long process,” says Nigrini, noting that initially, when projection and scenic design were given awards together, it made sense. “As the discipline has evolved, it made less and less sense.” Because the discipline has been evolving, Nigrini thinks it’s a little unfair to fault those who don’t understand it. “It takes time for [what we do] to become apparent.”
“In the last seven or eight years, it’s been used in the majority of big musicals,” says Halls. Still, not every production uses projections. “I think it’s about the maturing of the industry. It’s important that you’re working with the set and lighting designers to create something very cohesive. To take apart who did what is difficult, and awards become quite tricky and arbitrary.”
Educating people about the limitations of what set and lighting can do might help. “It’s about understanding the rules of physics,” adds Halls, noting that lights can’t project images and sets can’t move them. “There is no magic paint. If you see a set that’s changing and you haven’t seen scenery move off, you’re seeing projections.”
Sugg would like to know just how categories are brought into the Tonys. “I know very little about how it actually works,” he says. “My hope is that we can move forward with this discussion. The more honest people are about what’s happening, the easier it is to learn and change, not stomp up and down making demands of each other. When there’s not a category for projection design, I do feel excluded, but that’s my problem,” he says, noting that stage managers and prop designers are among those who are excluded also.
Producers can and do ask for projection design to be considered in conjunction with the scenic design awards. “The problem is that it isn’t really a part of scenic design in productions like Dear Evan Hansen, Amélie, and A Doll’s House, Part 2,” notes Nigrini.
Zachary Borovay was nominated twice, both co-nominations with scenery. He wonders just how it can be determined that a particular video design can be deemed significant enough to be considered on its own. How big they are? How long? Is it up to the people marketing the show?
Designers are included in the Tony nominating committee, but Harrington notes that each person votes by secret ballot, and the vast majority of voters are not designers. “Since people don’t discuss their choices, the designers don’t get to illuminate other nominators,” she says. So change that and the problem is solved?
Not according to Harrington. “I can tell you plenty of designers who don’t understand or value projection,” she says.
But Harrington doesn’t feel discriminated against. She thinks all designers are misunderstood. “The one year Jules Fisher wasn’t nominated for a Tony, he did his most brilliant lighting design, for Angels In America. Most people didn’t understand what he’d done,” she says.
And she has no use for a prize that isn’t given by peers who can appreciate how well her work was integrated into the production. Not all shows have projections, after all, and she wouldn’t want to see producers adding projection to a show just to ratchet up the possible Tony nominations. “Producers like numbers. That’s understandable, but they don’t always understand what it is projection does and doesn’t do. If one show can only have eight nominations and the other can have nine, it’s an unlevel playing field, as numbers of nominations can equal tickets sold,” Harrington says.
“It’s pretty safe to assume that an award show in which one should hire a PR person to help your chances of winning is not one based entirely on aesthetics,” says Sugg, who nonetheless thinks it’s great to have awards. “People who are not theatre people watch the Tonys all over the country. Kids watch them and dream of being on them. It’s a great reminder that we’re not living in our own solipsistic world.”
“While projections might be hard to identify, if you took them away, it would be easy to see what was missing,” says Borovay. How can you nominate a show for best musical and ignore the projections? What if Tony voters came to a run-through—and they turned them off?
Halls has a kinder solution. “I would rather abolish all individual awards and give out an award for the best creative team,” he suggests. It’s an idea Harrington likes, too, “but as it is a numbers game, that will never happen,” she says.