A New Image For Design Education

In the two years since I took the position of assistant professor of media design at the Herberger College School of Theatre and Film at Arizona State University, I am proud of what we have accomplished in this fairly short time. As I go to conferences and shows, I encounter more people in both the academic and professional realms who think video/projection is the next big trend in production training. Without pretending to offer up our program as a prescriptive model, I am anxious for industry and educational feedback.

With this in mind, there are only two effective standards for judging a program such as this: the productions and the students. Where production work is concerned, we have done five productions during the past two years that have had substantial media elements and three shows that I would like to hold up as examples of growth.

Haroun And The Sea Of Stories

This adaptation of Salman Rushdie's novel written while in hiding is equal parts fable, political allegory, and love song to Kashmir. To create this world, the director, Erma Duricko, and I agreed that all of the media content should be in a style that was reminiscent of both children's book illustrations and Kashmiri woven textiles, a traditional craft of the region that has been imperiled by conflict. This decision also solved a practical problem. We wanted to be able to activate the entire space, and doing this with our 7,700-lumen LCD projector required that the content maintain high levels of contrast.

I first scanned a number of fabric samples and images of textile patterns and then adapted them for color, effect, and transparency. To create mountains, clouds, and lakes, I used handmade papers (another Kashmiri craft), tearing and crumpling them into dimensional shapes and then scanning them in the dark with the lid of the scanner up. Where more fantastic creatures and constructions were needed, I drew them by hand using white ink on black paper and then colorized and animated them in Adobe Photoshop. Using these techniques helped me reinforce to my students two of the central tenets I profess: Each show requires its own set of solutions, and every image you create should strive for authenticity right down to its texture and grain.

Haroun also was our first large-scale application of Dataton Watchout's full range of abilities, using multiple displays and its facility with transparent layers to create richly textured compositions. The scenery, designed by graduate student Siau Yee Ho, was comprised almost entirely of long trains of light fabric that were woven across the stage to create new configurations for different scenes. By hooking my laptop directly into the main projector, I was able to draw custom masks into a full-screen Photoshop image to keep stage compositions from becoming muddy.


Suzan-Lori Parks' play about an African woman transplanted into a sideshow because of the size of her posterior was media-designed by graduate student Mike Matthews. The piece is beautifully eccentric in its intellect and style, and the design, in general, and the projections, in particular, reflect this. Matthews' source materials included autopsy photos, circus flyers, and animations generated from scratch. The show also exhibited a refined use of live camera feeds to accent the show-within-a-show scenes. By using the onstage cameras to give a “privileged view,” Matthews could emphasize their presentational nature.

Venus was selected for inclusion in the 2007 Prague Quadrennial (PQ), along with its designs for costumes (Connie Furr, associate professor) and lighting (Linda Essig, director of the school). They participated in the category for Production: Multiple Designers. The PQ joins The Tonys on the list of organizations that should consider including projection/video as a full participant.

Iphigenia Crash Land Falls…

A work by Caridad Svich, Iphigenia Crash Land Falls on the Neon Shell That Was Once Her Heart [a rave fable] is a mouthful of a title and a plateful of theatre. Part of the show takes place at a rave, so director Lance Gharavi (assistant professor of theatre) and I set the entire production in a rave/club nightmare. By converting the enormous stage house of a proscenium theatre into a “warehouse,” closing off the archway with a giant rear-projection screen, and seating the audience on stage, we created an environmental theatre atmosphere and huge opportunities for media.

The script called for media on its own, prescribing that some scenes take place on video and certain fantastical sequences occur in certain parts, but Gharavi and I took things many steps further: VJ loops, music videos, television news anchors, weird talking baby dolls, YouTube video blogs by the main character (à la screen name LonelyGirl15), family portraits, and crime scene photos. Although in the process of doing this, we violated an important rule of media design I try to instill in students — “do not distract from the live performers” — that tension was critical to the concept, as it centered around the “thinness of reality” that some celebrities experience as their images are endlessly reproduced.

For this production, my students and I shot enough HD footage for a short feature film, including long shoots using the Reflecmedia keying system. The rest of the content was animated using Motion, AfterEffects, and 3D Studio Max, among others. For production, we had a number of interlocking playback and processing systems, including MotionDive VJ software, Watchout, Korg's Kaoss Pad video effects processor, and “camera-balls” that we created out of “bullet” security cameras inside Plexiglas® spheres that were selected by a vertical interval matrix switcher.

Next year, our season includes three productions with critical media elements, all designed by students. With so many opportunities for design, and undergraduate and graduate degree tracks that offer concentrations in media, this season promises to be a big step toward our goal of creating a curriculum that bridges that world of academic research in digital performance and professional media design for entertainment. With electronic imagery ever more present in our lives and work, we hope to prepare our students with greater facility in this technology and the processes of creating it.

Jake Pinholster is professor of Media Design in the Herberger College School of Theatre & Film at Arizona State University (theatrefilm.asu.edu). If you have comments, questions, or are interested in pursuing a degree program in media design please contact Jake at [email protected].

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