CMC Spotlight: Bob Bonniol Q&A

Projection designer Bob Bonniol brings his acute visual sensibility to the Concert Master Classes, December 11 & 12 in Los Angeles. In a discussion with Butch Allen, the designers will talk about how video design fits into the overall production, and what their process was like on shows like Nickelback, Creed, AR Rahman, and America's Got Talent. Live Design chats with Bonniol about his life in the biz:

1) How did you get into the projection side of the business?

This is a five-cocktail conversation... And that only gets us to how I got to the beginning of this! My wife Colleen and I have been long time partners in the business. That relationship has varied from collaborating as designers to her being a producer and me being the hired help. The consistent thing is she's always been in charge. So it's her fault. In 1987 I wandered into Trinity Rep in Providence RI, and got a job as a spot operator on a Tom Lehrer show, Tomfoolery... I knew nothing of theater, but I figured how hard could it be? The head elec who hired me was Colleen! That same summer I started working with a band Max Creek doing lighting... SO the concert side and theater side happened side by side for me. Colleen had already toured with Jeff on Springsteen, and done U2, and The Hooters... Fast forward to 1997, Colleen and I have collectively worked as electricians, moving light techs, best boys, and touring personnel in the interim and we wanted to get out of live production. So we enrolled in a 14-week intensive training in Softimage, which at the time was THE app for Hollywood 3D effects. When we got done with training we decided to start our own thing, developing and producing children's animated television shows. In the midst of that, Rick Belzer called me from Texas and said "Hey Bob, we have this big tribute tour for Selena, it's got a whole bunch of video gear that nobody knows what to do with... I hear you are doing video now, can you come?" And that was how it started. From there we designed video elements for a bunch of musicals, operas, concerts, and on...

2) How has technology changed your design process in the past few years, or since the advent of media servers more specifically?

The important thing is what the gear did to the process. Four very important things changed profoundly... The control and playback side allowed us to make changes dynamically and be way more flexible in the technical process of a show. When the artists could express a thought about change, and we could more or less instantly respond, that was a great thing. The second thing is that video technologies became way more robust, and well engineered for touring. Things got brighter, lighter, quieter, and tougher with all the parts of the chain... projectors, LED screens, etc... The third thing that really impacted us was a cultural shift in audience expectations. In the assessment of most producers or presenters, the modern audience requires multimedia elements. While I don't agree with that, one has only to see how it seems that EVERY show, across all categories of entertainment, uses video. The last, and most important factor is budget. The entry price of the technology to put some substantial video elements in has fallen remarkably. At some levels it's almost free. Some of the best video work is coming from practitioners using DIY tools...

3) What is the most compelling visual concert work you have done and why?

What an impossible question to answer. For which I am grateful that so much has worked out so well. Rather than picking one show, I'd say it's an amalgamation of moments: In Sinatra at the Palladium when we did a wonderful homage to Warhol with Lady Is A Tramp on eight screens simultaneously, moving, a Technicolor image 'machine' of Sinatra's considerable assignations; The big mosaic pieces I built for Nickelback's tune Photograph, the way they travelled around zooming up and panning, so tightly with the music (thank you Sean), The huge evolving ornate scarab that constructed itself while Neil Schon ripped into Wheel in the Sky... I'm trying to have a visual conversation, and those moments seemed to be ones where I expressed well.

4) How do you collaborate with the LD and scenic designers in your role as visualist?

So I'm a visualist? I actually like that one better than many others. Am I a projection designer? What if I don't have projectors? I think the TV convention of saying "Screens Producers" is weird and doesn't fit right... Clearly it's decor, and the other practitioners (set, lighting, costumes) get design credit. So it's some kind of designer. But visualist is so snappy, so very... Hmm, have I wandered off topic? Collaboration is critical. I collaborate most importantly by properly expressing my thoughts and ideas. Communication, communication, communication... I've found that storyboarding, and previsualizing these elements creates comfort in the process, and an opportunity for your co-creators to respond, revise, and suggest. Every show has a different dynamic for which designer is the ultima thule... But creatively, I work tightly with everybody on color palette, the tempo of design elements, and the collective plan for telling a combined story. We're all just a part, and we serve a greater whole.

5) What do you impart to your students at CalArts? Do you teach them how to combine art and technology?

If I can get ANYTHING across to them it's these things: Make decisions, do stuff on purpose, be organized, really organized, stay clear and calm, dream unfettered, don't take no for an answer, and PLEASE know exactly what story you are telling.

6) What is it about the concert world that gets your creative juices flowing?

I LOVE MUSIC. Love it. I enjoy literal ecstatic states while being in the presence of live music. And the form of concerts allows us to be very expressive with design. We can abstract more. We can be really daring. We're trying to induce synesthesia, that's where people experience the phenomena of tasting colors, or smelling sounds... We're trying to make the musical experience a complete sensory event. I love the other forms too, but there's a freedom in concert work that doesn't exist in a lot of other places...

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