Projection: Designing Without A License


I've been struggling with the topic of how some shows with major projection/multimedia design elements seem to be popping up without designers dedicated to the practice of the craft. I've seen one recently, worked on another that started without designers, and have heard of yet more. Marian asked me to write about it. Gee thanks, Marian.

[Editor's note: You're welcome, Bob.]

I have a keen sense of career preservation. And so after spilling several thousand words that thoroughly compromised many relationships with fellow designers, directors, and producers, I decided I could only speak in the first person on it, discuss only my opinion. Suffice it to say, I have strong feelings that projection design is a discipline, a form within our art that is more than substantial enough to have its own practitioners — to need its own practitioners.

Projection design is not film. It is not cinema. It is not a hobby. It bears a much stronger resemblance to scenic design, with strong influences from its cousin, lighting. When planning major shows with integral projection as part of the scenery, it may be tempting to hire a filmmaker to create “content.” Then all you need is a programmer, right? Wrong. Projection design is an intricate, multifaceted art that only begins with content. Content is like paint, or gel, or gobos. In and of itself, content is valuable and beautiful, but it needs assembly, integration, and application that is consistent with the balancing of scenic vision, directorial vision, and narrative demands. I know of many shows in which the involvement of significant filmmaking talent is an enormous plus, but always with the guidance and work of a projection designer.

Content is, therefore, the wrapper, and rare indeed is the content creator who understands mapping content onto scenery. Watch the looks of puzzlement and anguish when the content needs to display coherently on a complex, compound curved piece of scenery. Or maybe the screen needs to move? This is one example of how projection design is not simple construction of content. Most fabulous post-production supervisors, animators, and compositors will have little knowledge of evaluating proper display and programming systems. What is the difference between LCD and DLP? How bright of a projector do I need? What is a media server? I can't tell you how many shows approach us with the thought, “We can run the show off a DVD player, right?” Well, that depends. Do you want it to change after you get to the theatre? What then? Oh, you want it to go on go? Maybe DVD isn't for you.

I am a fan of cross-form collaboration. I love working with VJs, special effects people, 3D animators, and incredible directors of photography. All these and more have their places in this process. But any design aspect with this many layers to integrate needs somebody focusing on it and on the big picture, somebody who understands the semantics of live production; both verbal and technical aspects become critical. When pre-production is done, production must occur.

This world in which we live redefines its toolset on at least a biannual basis. The hottest LED product from just two years ago is now renting for $80 a frame, and the newest look is requisite to avoid the inevitable revisit of somebody else's look. There's always a new way to use any tool. The point is that keeping up with this application of technical knowledge is a full-time job. It's the only way I can effectively create, because, for me, security in creation comes from expressing myself in new ways, perhaps in ways so new that they can lead to a certain insecurity. In that insecurity is often found a place of intense creativity.

This is the interlocution of some of my process as a projection designer. Does it match your expectations of what a filmmaker might know or do in approaching this kind of work? Or an LD without previous experience in this discipline? Or a really hot media server programmer with “some” content skills?

Art needs focus. That statement is the reason why I have a firm belief that, in designing music-based events, it's okay to program, but when working in a dramatic or theatrical piece, it is not. One's ability to successfully communicate with a director and other collaborators is compromised by having to maintain the dual focus of mashing keys and juggling math. On the other hand, when interacting musically, running cues first person can be very effective — it can have a tempo advantage — and the collaboration is in real time.

I've recently heard of meetings in which various management layers on Broadway productions are taking great joy in “projection designers who never leave the theatre and do all their own programming and content.” I do this too, sometimes. Is it right? I don't know. I really begin to think it's not and that a precedent like this affirms a misconception on the part of producers that “a little projection is simple.”

So, there. I got that off my chest and my desktop. And maybe it's all BS anyway. Here's what's most exciting: Our form is changing, developing, redeveloping. Technology is offering up new means. And right now, we are finding new ways. Maybe they're not my ways, but, hey, it's good to live in a time of change.

Bob Bonniol is a projection and multimedia designer and principal in MODE Studios. He and his wife, Colleen, are the creative consultants for the second annual Live Design Projection Master Classes held at LDI2007.

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