Q&A: William Cusick, Video Artist & Filmmaker

Newyorkland. Photo by William Cusick.

Multi-disciplinary artist William Cusick shares his video and projection design talents with the worlds of theatre, film, television, and music. His work has been seen on Broadway in Sharr White’s The Other Place in 2013 and in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast Of Utopia—a three-part production that broke the record for number of Tony Awards given to a play—for which he won the 2007 Henry Hewes Design Award For Projection Design. Cusick has directed quite a few short films and music videos, including the feature film Welcome To Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road), which was an Official Selection at the 2012 Lower East Side Film Festival in NYC and won the 2013 Founder’s Choice Award at the Queens World Film Festival. Cusick teaches directing, creative technology, and design at The New School For Drama, and will be speaking at the New York Master Classes for Lighting and Projection, June 2-4 at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and The Gallatin School. Live Design caught up with Cusick during the post-production stage for his original feature film, Pop Meets The Void.

1.What projects are you currently working on?

I’m wrapping up post-production on Pop Meets The Void, a comedy feature film that I directed and produced with my production company, Mechanical Reproductions. The film follows a musician through multiple parallel narratives, unstuck in time, place, and identity, as he tries to navigate the pitfalls and perils of wanting and trying to make popular music. It’s been several years of work on the project at this point. We did a Kickstarter to raise funding for the film in 2013, we shot during the winter of 2014, and we’ve been in post for over a year now. The film has 100+ visual effects shots and a complex sound design. I’m looking forward to sharing the film soon.

2.Is there a difference in how you collaborate with other members of the creative team in theatre versus film?

There are differences inherent to the mediums that allow for different methods of collaboration. In general, I think the same rules apply: preparation, flexibility, and communication. For a theatre artist crossing over into film production, it’s essential to understand the cinema framework and production process. The same goes for filmmakers working in theatre for the first time. With cinema, the film is the final product and all the audience sees, as opposed to theatre wherein the video content becomes part of a larger production apparatus and narrative.

Salome's Envisage. Photo by Matthew Melllinger.

The camera is different than a live audience. It’s simultaneously more forgiving because it gives you another try, over and over, take after take, but it’s also much more ruthless and punishing in its demand for detail. An essential difference between theatre and film is that, in theatre, the only limitation is the audience’s imagination, whereas in film, the only limitation is the filmmaker’s imagination. Most films don’t use our imaginations as audience members the way theatre productions do. Most films put us into a trance. In theatre or live performance, we can imply more, ask audiences for huge leaps of faith or suspension of disbelief, and manage huge tonal shifts without disrupting the audience’s involvement. It’s less so with film, perhaps largely due to the amount of television and film media our specific culture has consumed and been attuned to for the past 50 years or so. Even when the rules of the film are set from the beginning, it’s not a medium that asks for engagement the way that theatre does.

In cinema, it’s essential to put the highest priority on what the camera sees and not necessarily what’s happening in the space around the camera. On stage, we watch performers or the action. If we’re bored, we watch the scenery or lighting. It’s up to us. On a film set, there is only one perspective that counts: what the camera sees. And we have to train our eyes back to this little monitor that frames everything, and we have to ask ourselves if we buy it. Simply put, it’s either in the frame, or it’s out of the frame with cinema, and on stage, it’s a different relationship in scale and narrative framework.

Theatre Versus Film

Salome's Envisage. Photo by Matthew Melllinger.

3.What is a particular challenge that you’ve had to overcome during a project?

Time—there is never enough time. Regardless of the budget or scale of a project, having more pre-production time, having more production time, more render time, more tech rehearsal time, etcetera. The only way I’ve found to address this problem is to get started as quickly as possible once I know what the deadlines are for the project. It’s a problem that I believe every artist, designer, director, writer, and producer can relate to. In my experience, there is no solution to the lack of time. The only way to address it is to accept it, set to work on the project, do your work, and hope to live it down.

4. Do your tools differ when designing for theatre versus film?

Photoshop is the most ubiquitous software in my workflow no matter what medium I’m working in. It’s just the ultimate multi-tool. With video editing, I’ve switched over to working in Adobe Premiere Pro, from Final Cut, for the fairly seamless integration with Adobe After Effects. In terms of cameras, lights, projectors, programming software, it’s always a case-by-case basis, depending upon the needs of the project. Final output resolution is often a key factor in determining the proper tools.

Newyorkland. Photo by William Cusick.

5. What inspires your designs for video content?

I’ll start with the script, and from there, it’s about research and discovery. The process of finding ideas, art, imagery, and concepts that I haven’t encountered before is an important step in getting excited about the design concepts for any individual project. Generally, I don’t limit my research to any one medium. For several past projects, research included paintings, sculpture, video art, and music, but also novels, philosophy, and poetry. And of course, I look at what other designers are doing in theatre, music, and performance to see how they are innovating. During the research and development process, one inspiration leads to another. In my experience, this process can go on for a very long time because it is so rewarding on personal and artistic levels. For live performances that don’t have scripts, it’s a different set of conversations that need to happen between collaborators and the inspiration springs from those interactions. Every project is different, and my process varies with each production.

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