Notes from the Pit


AS THE DESIGN STAFF OF MODE Studios, we spend a great deal of time working elbow-to-elbow creating content for a variety of presentation mediums. Whether we are editing HD video for broadcast or creating custom content for the stage, each project holds unique challenges and solutions. As a team, we rely heavily on the knowledge of our fellow designers to overcome these challenges and find appropriate solutions. Positioned within an open circle of desks, we have convenient access to each other's feedback and (often unsolicited) advice. Ask someone for comments and you may get more than you bargained for.

Working in this environment leads to many spontaneous discussions. As we busily push pixels for Bob and Colleen Bonniol (principal designers and owners of MODE), we are typically engaged in conversation. While topics vary wildly, they often revolve around issues specific to content creation for projection. Along with the mundane technical details, we regularly discuss deeper conceptual topics, like design focus, artist/designer collaboration, and rights management. As these concerns seem to be universal for projection designers, we are happy to codify some of our discussion for the purpose of sharing them through this article.

Context is Everything

As a designer, your primary responsibility is to your audience. How will they view the projections and interpret the images? Their viewing angles, visual obstructions, and proximity must be considered. This is doubly important if the projections are critical for understanding and experiencing the performance, i.e. subtitles, supertitles, or Brechtian scene descriptions.

Also consider how you will deliver the performance to your audience. The equipment you choose to “serve” your media has a great impact on how you will prepare your media. Details like pixel aspect ratio and compression settings are much easier to address at the beginning of the creation process. Knowing your playback equipment up-front and preparing media specifically for those devices can save much time and heartache later.

Keep Focus

Or rather, don't pull focus from the performers. Unlike broadcast video, which is viewed without obstruction, content for projection is typically scenic. The scale, luminance and motion can easily overpower other elements of a production, including the performers. Be subtle and reserve some of your visual punch for dramatic punctuation. Use motion to direct audience attention away from or towards the performers. In literal terms, content can be blurred out of focus to create great softness and depth of field, visually expanding the apparent stage space.

Stay Flexible

Producing multiple variations of content can save much time during tech/programming sessions, while adding minimal overhead during the creation cycle. Like a photographer who uses only one of hundreds of shots captured, having a large pool of resources will improve your final product.

Creating content with alpha masks allows you to quickly build a library of individual components that can be easily combined and reconfigured into new compositions. And it is always prudent to save all revision to your work as copies, preserving your original components and giving you a historic archive if your design backtracks. If you are creating content in a 3D application, you have the added benefit of rendering multiple camera angles, textures and lighting while only marginally increasing your creation time.

When it's time to playback your content, media servers provide great on-demand flexibility to adjust timing, layering, color correction, and swapping out content. Additionally, expect your hard work to get cut. Even the most masterful work can fall to the floor in edit.

Think Like a Lighting Designer

With high-lumen output and the introduction of moving heads, modern projection equipment has blurred the boundaries between lighting and projection design. Be mindful of the emissive power of your projection and content, as video rigs often produce illumination equivalent to or greater than lighting rigs. Coordination with the LD is essential. Of course, media servers provide the most unifying force for the two disciplines, linking content playback directly to the lighting control system. This integration opens many new avenues for content use. Think of your media as video gels or animated gobos and the possibilities expand rapidly.

Keep It Simple

Subtlety often provides the most powerful statement. Avoid unnecessary clutter that may obscure your visual statement. Keeping palettes minimal or monochromatic allows easy hue shifting to match other elements of the production. Increasing image contrast can help preserve details hidden in the small luminance variations that are easily lost in projection. Consider each detail you add to your content and what contribution it makes to the overall design. If the contribution is not obvious, you are probably better off without it. Coordination with other members of the design/production team can reveal where detail is essential and where it secondary.

Know Your Rights

In today's ever-litigious society, it's vital to be conscious of the rights associated with media and its creation. Intellectual property (IP) laws mean that you have a right to your design (especially to any original content) just as the lighting or scenic designer owns the rights to their designs. Royalties and first rights of refusal should be included in your contracts.

However, IP laws works both ways and you have an obligation to compensate others when using their images. Royalty-free media collections offer an expansive design resource and a cost-effective alternative to custom creation. They also carry clearly defined terms of use, avoiding the legal risks associated with “borrowing” other people's work. This topic far exceeds the scope of this article, but knowing how intellectual property rights function is essential to the survival and prosperity of your design career.

Stay Organized

Media projects grow rapidly and generate an enormous amount of data. To maintain work efficiency, you need a system to keep track of it all. Creating a common file structure is particularly important when working in groups. Develop a storage directory that can be replicated for each project. Including client and project abbreviations in all file names will make files immediately identifiable and easily searchable.

When portability is essential, external hard drives provide a great way to segregate and archive your projects. Buy them sized to hold your entire project and retire the drive when the project is complete. Aside from simple directories, there are also many great asset management programs available to help catalog your digital assets and maintain version control over all revisions.

Time is also an essential asset to manage. Every project should have a production schedule detailing all deadlines, including critical checkpoints along the way. It is vital to know when things have slipped from their projected timeline to avoid catastrophic failures down the line. To document communication on a project, using email will give you a complete and searchable transcription of all conversations and agreements.

The above concepts represent just a few of the issues and solutions the Mode Studios design team has encountered in creating content for projection design. We hope that you find these notes helpful when creating you next projection masterpiece.

Compiled by Tommy Hague and Tony Furr of Mode Studios. Mode Studio design staff includes Marina Fish, Julia Strong, Brandon Oosterhof, and Russel Joyce.