As CEO/president of MODE Studios, Colleen Bonniol helped transform the company from a design firm into a hybrid experience agency, which now has a multi-talented roster of designers including Butch Allen, Zak Borovay, Caryl Glaab, Anne Militello, and Pablo Molina, plus architect Wyn Bielaska, in addition to chief creative officer/producer Bob Bonniol. Live Design shares the back story as well as the current state of affairs at MODE, in this informative interview with Colleen.
1. How and when did MODE Studios get started?
MODE started as a company called Monarch Designs, LLC in 1997. I had just finished taking a 12-week crash course in SoftImage, an animation program. It was my way of getting out of the ‘biz.’ I had come from years of touring, working in theatrical lighting, and moved my way into the film industry as an electrician, best boy, and gaffer. Being completely new at animation and knowing only one tool, the likelihood of being hired was slim at best. So, four of us in the class started Monarch Designs. One of those classmates you may know now as Bob Bonniol.
By the end of 1997, Bob and I were the only ones left of the original four. We changed focus from pitching television shows to designing projections for theatre productions. Our first production as projection designers was a tour called Selena Forever. After that, we worked on several productions where there was no initial video line item in the budget, and yet video turned out to be "the language of the piece." This seemed to be a common occurrence when we started out!
The best part about our early days was that we had no preconceived notions of what was expected; everything was experimental. There were no rules. I remember doing web searches on how to bend light so that we could put projectors on the first electric in a touring situation and still have the ability to read text that was projected across the stage on various surfaces. Sleeping (or rather not sleeping) next to the computers so that you could press a button to render the next file once you heard the "ding" of the last one completing was a common occurrence for us. In 2002, we were tired of receiving phone calls for butterfly releases at weddings, so we changed our name to MODE Studios, Inc. MODE came from the first two letters in “Mo”narch and “De”signs.
Our big break came in 2003, with a design for the Seattle Opera Company of Wagner's Parsifal. We designed projections, with Robert Israel as scenic designer. The rear projection screen was 50' high by 80' wide, and we had 17' from the rear wall of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall to place the projectors. It may be hard to understand now because projection has come a long way, but that was a near impossibility in 2003. Bob and I decided to hang the projectors in two rows of four, one above the other, and blend them to form one image.
There were a lot of very knowledgeable people telling us it couldn't be done; certainly, a lot of head shaking was going on. Bob and I decided that we could fix the concerns by adjusting the art, and set about doing a manual projection blend that had never been done before. We could not have done it without Peter Scharff and the rest of the amazing team at Scharff Weisberg (now WorldStage). It all went back to the “no rules” aspect of projection design in the late 1990s-2000s.
2. What is your role at the company?
I started out as a projection designer, and all four of the initial partners were "designers." Several years into it (and having a new baby in 2004), we realized that someone needed to lead the way and make sure that things were organized. I got lucky and started to learn about contracts and negotiating.
Today, I am the CEO/president. In the last few years, MODE has grown from a design company to a hybrid experience agency. My leadership role has transformed and grown as well. For me, leadership is about allowing our partners’ best creative selves to shine and giving them every opportunity to express them.
3. What is the current scope of MODE's work, and how has it morphed over the past five years?
MODE has certainly undergone a large shift in the last five years! I think it would be accurate to say that five years ago we were primarily a content company making digital scenery, largely for concerts, musicals, and operas. Over time, as video became the driving design element in many shows, MODE moved more to production design, and expanded into broadcast and experiential.
The most recent evolution is MODE adding to the talent roster, and moving decisively into primary creative, so directing, producing, and development. Our markets have shifted significantly, too, with much of our work being collaborations with major brands, and architects. We saw some years back that a trend was developing of bringing immersive production values to all kinds of spaces besides arenas and convention centers.
Today there is a cultural hunger for engagement, interaction, and entertainment in all kinds of spaces. The MODE team finds this fascinating, and we've carefully put together the right people and expertise to move in those directions. We have shifted our identity from being a design firm to a hybrid experience agency. It gives us the flexibility to serve many different kinds of clients, and to be involved directly with the stakeholders, from concept to conclusion.
4. How does the addition of top designers to the MODE roster expand your business model?
Creativity in the public space is best when it’s a collaborative art form. While major agencies are divided into competing offshoots, it was important for us to bring together a unified team that was first and foremost Creative. We collaborate amongst ourselves, and we collaborate with our clients. Each new partner brings its own secret sauce to the table. By combining forces, we are able to help our clients create new levels of engagement with their audiences, and with our broad range of experience, our abilities are amazingly powerful, and virtually unlimited.
5. Can you talk about design collaboration on a recent project?
Being a distributed team is interesting, and I think the robust new model for business. Collectively, we are in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, DC, and wherever else in the world the gig demands. It means we have shifted the model for process and collaboration. The backbone of how we work involves using Slack and Zoom. The MODE Slack channel is busy throughout the day. Everybody is constantly talking to everybody else, sometimes on specific project channels, sometimes one to one. It allows everybody to have instant access to everybody else. I am a big believer in semiotics, people 'seeing' each other when meetings happen. So we use Zoom to host video meetings frequently. In addition to the constant laughter that goes with looking at each other in a layout like the Brady Bunch titles, it also gives us a chance to connect not just with text, but with body language, voice, seeing…
When projects arrive at MODE, everybody participates in the initial creative development, then consensus forms quickly about which partners are best suited to lead and complete. Recently, we designed the VIP experience for Lindsey Stirling's new tour. During the development of the ideas, everybody pitched, sketched, and discussed. It allowed the creative DNA to draw from a wide pool, which led to ideas that wouldn't necessarily have occurred to just one or two of the partners. Once the creative had landed, it made sense for Butch and Bob to execute and deliver, as they have the most concert touring experience. I served as the project producer. The client, CID, was thrilled with the result, and loved the diversity of ideas. We're now heading into development on several cruise ship projects, some major architectural projects, and a couple of larger scale concert designs, and the benefit of the total team collaboration is absolutely apparent. The sum is greater than the parts, and we have some very extraordinary parts!