Entertainment Design Turns 35, Part III: Futurama


This is Part III of ED's 35th Anniversary Special Report. To go back to Part II, "More Influential Designs," click here.

The future's not what it used to be.

Back in 1980, Theatre Crafts asked a wide range of designers, technicians, and manufacturers to provide a glimpse of the decade ahead. The majority of the answers leaned toward the vaguely obvious (computers will be important!) to the quite specific (quick-setting, reusable, non-flammable mold-making and casting materials!)

For the 35th anniversary of Theatre Crafts/Entertainment Design, we decided to go back to the future by asking the industry to gaze once again into their crystal balls; this time, the results were much more mixed. Though, as expected, many of you weighed in on matters technical (from virtual consoles to something called electronic polymer technology), others provided cautionary tales of technology run amok and the death of the small production. Perhaps we as an industry are having second thoughts about a technologically driven future; or maybe we just want to be sure there is a future that embraces both the head and the heart. In either case, the answers offer a provocative view of where we might be headed in the years to come.

The use of high-speed, high-intensity, three-primary-color "scanning" light fixtures mounted in typical hanging positions will be integrated with advanced controls so that a stage can be lit by multidirectional scanning, similar to the way a TV image is produced. Perhaps these could be integrated with position sensors so that a performer can move through constantly modified lit space (i.e., same cue "look," but with moving emphasis).

There will be total integration of all technical control systems and planning software using plain English, so that all elements of a show (lights, sound, rigging, effects, etc.) can literally be "written" on one device without the need to know several arcane programming languages.
lighting designer, Francis Krahe & Associates

Ah, the future of entertainment and design — what an exhilarating thought! You enjoy movies, right? Ice cream, caviar, teeter-totters, flowers, motorcycles, and the sweet sound of music? That's entertainment. We will continue to amaze the senses and create experiences never done before, combining all our favorite aspects of life. The future is cooking up some tantalizing concoctions and combinations, which bring together the best in all fields.
event producer, Kay Dalton Events

Digital consoles for theatrical use will finally "grow up" and evolve into a smaller and smaller (yet ergonomic) control surface that can operate separately from its interface electronics. Look for multiple control surfaces for a single console, la the lighting consoles. Perhaps even smaller "designer surfaces" encompassing a single channel strip, allowing a designer to wirelessly access the actual channel EQ of a lav mic on the console, edit it, store it, let the new setting propagate to other cues, all while the operator is mixing the show, without interrupting the audio.
sound designer

Make no mistake: the future is here and now. I can't believe how often I speak with other designers who are ill-informed about current technology. We'll get into a discussion about finding solutions to problems with answers that are just a web click away, and they never knew it. Perhaps I'm just a geek at heart, but the technology surrounding our industry is pretty incredible and is utilized a fraction of the time that it should be. Don't get me wrong: software's no replacement for soft goods. But there's a fine line between being a purist and being lax.

So what's next? Personally, I'm excitedly awaiting further developments in EPT (electronic polymer technology). Pretty soon we'll be able to design set pieces out of an iMac-looking polymer that allows you to texture it any way you'd like with video imagery. Make the entire set melt right from your lighting console. Very cool stuff indeed.
lighting designer

Gaming technology, which is already affecting our industry, particularly in the visualization field, will start to play more and more of a role. All-encompassing virtual environments will affect all entertainment mediums and create a kind of synergy where the traditional, clearly defined mediums will start to overlap to the point of losing their distinct identities. Hardware-wise, I can't believe it will be long before one of the major game console manufactures brings out a truly elegant set of gloves for controlling their console instead of the traditional game pad. Clunky versions are already available, but once you have something that is indistinguishable from using a physical controller, all sorts of possibilities start to come about. Virtual consoles, anyone?
AC Lighting

No matter what the medium, WYSIWYG or drafting paper, the ability to listen, contribute to a discussion, and articulate your ideas in a creative fashion will always set you apart from the next person, now or 35 years from now. It's not the medium, it's the idea, and it always will be that way.
lighting designer

Who knows? And that's what's so cool about it? No digital technology is going to make the St. James Theatre any deeper than 27'-9" — but a lot of jackhammers and dynamite will! (Sorry, Hotel Carter.) What I believe to be the most compelling aspect of live theatre is that it is created within a finite space, and with real, living people.

So, what do we do with that scarce square footage? One of the things I love about new technology is that it makes what was formerly a financial obstacle a bit more feasible within the budget of today. And by making those ideas a bit more do-able, it forces us to think up ideas that will bust the budget next time. (But the tech gods will save us from ourselves once again, I hope!)
set designer

Undoubtedly the future for lighting is digital imagery. "He would say that, wouldn't he, in view of his involvement with the development of Catalyst." Well, yes, but I wouldn't have done it at all if I hadn't believed that one fundamental proposition. We have run out of road for glass and metal combinations in a tin box. The future's soft, the future's video.
Wynne Willson Gottelier

As the lights become projectors, the lighting designer and programmer will be joined by the production graphic artist and the production video editor — people who've proved themselves on video for rock and roll and find putting images into moving lights an easy way of earning money. As every department expands in this way, we eventually reach the situation where no theatre is big enough to house all of the production desks that even a moderate-sized show needs. Shortly after that, truly high-speed Internet connections solve the problem by allowing nearly everyone to work from home. Often on several shows at the same time! Which just leaves the audience in the theatre, each wearing their own headset to hear the actors over the noise of all of that high-tech equipment.
lighting designer/programmer

I have to remind us all of one important adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same. I believe that as we become increasingly technologically advanced, advantaged and addicted, we will want — need — things that at least appear to be less technical. Look at all the retro/nostalgia crazes. Look at Main Street, USA at the Disney parks. Hell, look at the downloadable "retro" Atari games we can play on our laptops. Everyone is nostalgic at some point.
principal, Thinkwell Designs

  1. There will be a Tony for sound design, and some people who work in theatre will still ask, "What's a sound designer?"

  2. Theatrical sound will continue to become more and more computerized, and automation will grow in complexity, and ease of use, and there will still be people who swear analog is still better than digital.
    sound designer

The future of sound in the theatre must continue to grow and expand with the eventual goal of becoming totally transparent, both aurally and physically. Sound is a most valuable creative force and will be universally accepted as such.
sound designer

I think that the mid-size theatre event is dying — that is to say, regional theatre. We are moving toward a time, I think, when there will either be mega-events or underground work, with little in the middle. Even the plays that get attention now require the involvement of a television or film star. It will only get worse. So see your Chekhov while you can!

I think virtual programming will become huge, where now it is still somewhat in its infancy. Whole productions, not just the lighting, but the movement of scenery, projections, etc., will be programmed virtually via WYSIWYG. The mega-event described above just takes too much programming time from scratch onsite to be affordable.

Thank God that in the near future every light will be able to refocus and change color. Can't happen a minute too soon. It has been a source of tremendous frustration that regional theatres simply haven't had the resources or the visibility to either afford the equipment or put pressure on the industry to make the equipment more affordable. But since the regional theatre is moving the way of the dinosaur, that won't matter much anymore, and those lighting designers left standing will have tremendous resources to do the big shows.
lighting designer

Research in LED, electro-fluorescence, and plasma technologies will result in paper-thin, color-changing films with full video capabilities. Rear projections will cease to exist as the size of this film becomes limitless. There will be ongoing research in vacuforming the material to make any 3D shape imaginable. Projection designers will come from film and technology industries as this becomes the new cutting-edge specialty.
lighting designer

I have no idea, but I do believe that as long as a group of people can collect in a space and watch the work of other people, hear their voices, see those lights, watch their dreams, they will.
costume designer

The biggest advance I see in the future is the cue process being done not in the theatre with actors and scenery onstage, but in my studio with virtual reality computing. Directors, choreographers, designers, and producers will be able to see their productions fully teched with the exact staging and scenic transitions on a computer screen before setting foot in the theatre. Of course, changes will be made in an abbreviated technical rehearsal process in the theatre. The economics of producing a show will be the driving force behind this dramatic change in how we mount theatrical productions.
lighting designer

LEDs will replace current incandescent light sources in many fixtures. This will do away with the need for all that copper we always have to haul around and run everywhere. Eventually external lighting sources will become superfluous and LDs will start saying things like: "Actor #2, take your face up two points."
production manager, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota, FL

As living expenses continue to escalate, and fees for designers (especially costume designers) stagnate, or simply do not keep up, there will be less and less drawing, especially of costume designs. There simply won't be the time vis a vis the money paid. Any costumes designed for the 20th century (and forward) will be done "movie-style," by tearing images out of magazines, or culling them from research with the help of a handy Xerox machine, then racking up some alternatives close in look to those images, and letting the major players involved pick.

For shows requiring designs to be set before the 20th century, some enterprising design types who still enjoy drawing will form a consortium of artists who draw for hire. Designers may hire this group to sketch out their ideas by hand, and paint them by hand or in the computer. Because these groups will handle large volumes, they will be able to offer the designers using their services not only several different styles of drawing, but excellent prices for the service, well below what the going rate will be for assistants at that time.
costume designer

I predict people will gravitate more to live experiences due to overly digitized media options. Already we see repeated computer-generated gags in films that should be exciting but come across as easy and lazy. The more "digitized" we get, the more people will gravitate to real experience. Witnessing a live production in person, put on by a professional team of people, will continue to be the most exciting experience in entertainment.
set designer

The world of automated lighting has certainly opened an entirely new avenue of artistic creativity for lighting designers. Our canvas has been expanded so that we can paint so many new pictures. The digital imaging world allows us to previsualize many of our themed entertainment and architectural lighting projects. But where is it all going? If lighting becomes all digital, and if I have to stare at a computer screen to create my lighting designs, I will probably retire and head for the mountains, glaciers, and icebergs.

Why? Because I want to use my eyes to create light on live human people, on real three-dimensional buildings, and in spaces that people can experience, touch, and feel. My love for lighting matured before the digital world, and I don't like being trapped behind a two-dimensional fake world of a digital computer screen. I want to visualize in my mind (not on a computer screen), and I need something tangible and real to light, not pixels on a screen. If the world of lighting goes in that direction, then I will head in the other direction. Let me light real things, not computer screens, at least for the next 10 or 20 years. Who cares what happens 35 years from now — I'll be sitting on my glacier in Antarctica.
lighting designer

The really cool thing about this business is that it's based on imagination, not demographics. If we were selling toothpaste, we could calculate how many people would be alive in the year 2025 and determine how much toothpaste to make. But what really matters is that one person, somewhere on this planet, thinks up something cool and decides it would be fun to do onstage/onscreen/on tape somewhere. Something that no one has thought of. And when that person produces his/her idea, we all benefit from it. We all take something from it and move on in other directions.
Sapsis Rigging

I may come off as an idealist, but I truly believe the future holds room for us all. If we attempt to exorcise each other, or begin to do so accidentally, we won't even allow room for ourselves, and the computer alone cannot maintain its end of an artistic conversation. As technology continues its massive pace of development, it seems to me that the languages of our various forums of design are beginning to share more commonality, perhaps even to merge (although I'll probably never have a grasp on costume design, so please, costumers, don't go anywhere!) In a computer and commerce driven scheme, logic will finally dictate that it benefits the structure and language of technology to be more widely comprehensible, allowing us, as artists, to explore its dimensions and applications together, and to further the development of its practice through a collaborative use by a multi-disciplined and multi-visioned design team.
lighting designer

Theme parks, concert tours, sports events, and a host of other productions and venues around the world are all competing for entertainment dollars. Each is in the business of trying to lure people away from their televisions and computers — but how? We think that as we enter the digital age, the entertainment industry will have to come up with alternative experiences to simply watching an event — something more interactive, more involving. We think the future of special effects involves providing the audience with something they can't get at home in their techno-cocoons.
Artistry in Motion

In the last two decades, designers have been increasingly sharing resources. I expect upward change in that direction, especially the way designers do business. Many designers will form conglomerates or join corporate design facilities to reduce the fatigue caused by running an independent business, dealing with contract negotiation, and similar functions that take a great deal of a designers' time. With a full production design company, flat rates can be established and designers can tag-team on projects while handling major events and small projects simultaneously. A receptionist, office controller, and a business manager can deal with paperwork, negotiations, and overall organizational requirements allowing a large core team of designers the flexibility to work within or out of the office.
sound designer

To Read Part IV of ED's Special Report, "How We Got Here," Click here.