Anyone see the Academy Awards? The Super Bowl Halftime Show? Seen any modern dance lately? How about a rock concert or a high school musical? Been to church lately?
Projections are everywhere. How did this happen and seemingly so quickly? Several factors can begin to explain this growth, factors both cultural and technical. Culturally, many may point a finger at the creators of MTV who single-handedly turned generations of music listeners into music video watchers. It also created a visually sophisticated and image-hungry cohort that demanded, along with its MTV, a constant flow of complex visual imagery intended to tickle its cortex into absorbing the multiple layers of emotion in each and every pop song.
Let's not give all the credit to MTV. How about pictograms? The minute we began replacing the words “ladies” and “gentlemen” with silhouettes on the bathroom door, we were encouraging future generations to become more dependent on images than words. This is a worthy goal for an increasingly global market, where communication by image transcends the need for translation and levels the playing field.
Technology's role in all of this is fascinating. One would be tempted to say it has grown in leaps and bounds, were it not for the fact that the real story here is in miniaturization. The amount of power and intelligence one can fit in a projector the size and weight of a briefcase now dwarfs the firepower I had to create the projections for The Photographer, a Philip Glass opera that was the opening salvo of the BAM Next Wave Festival 20 years ago. Those projections, once viewed as a watershed, would now seem downright amateurish, not to mention dim.
Our creative resources have also grown exponentially. For that same production, we used as source material the work of Edward Muybridge. The available resource was a poorly printed book of reproductions, so we found an original folio at the New York Public Library and got permission to painstakingly re-photograph, then print the scores of images we needed in order to start with a fine grain image. In the world before Photoshop, we reprinted photos (darker, lighter), we made copies, and colored them by hand. Don't like it? Make another print and try another color. Labor-intensive and costly methods like this can squash artistic enterprise. After a long night of hand coloring you learn to love the color you have, even if, when you see it onstage, you wish you had the means to change it further.
Tools like Adobe® Photoshop® make quick work of this kind of process; and you don't have to print it to preview it. Computer literacy and access is widespread; projection artists no longer need film readers and typesetters. What's more, the depth and detail in programs like Photoshop and Adobe After Effects® allow for amazing creative expression by people who neither draw nor take photos. They have, for all intents and purposes, recreated creativity.
So what does all this mean? Well the good news is, this growth is not going to stop anytime soon. The audience demands it, and it keeps getting more practical to satisfy that demand. Every garage band can already put on a show nearly as gaudy as Madonna's, and they will. Modern dance, formerly the most abstract of all the performing arts, has embraced video projection with a passion that is astonishing. It was just 10 years ago that two projection dependent designs (The Who's Tommy and Kiss of the Spiderwoman) faced off for the design Tony. What seemed miraculous and impossible then is now common currency. Lighting gobos made digitally from photographs and moving video in lighting instruments have changed the way we make theatre forever. Even architecture is looking favorably at the potential of moving images. You can talk about strange bedfellows, but a brief visit to the Prada store in New York is an inspiring exhibit of what happens when genius explores the potential of projection technology. (Be sure to see the dressing rooms).
In case you haven't heard, I'm the faculty chair for the inaugural Projection Master Classes, being held June 22-24 at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York City, as part of the Entertainment Design Master Classes. I can't think of a better time for these projection classes to occur. I am so looking forward to the opportunity to gather and exchange ideas about technology, creativity, and how to take advantage of this image-hungry climate. The chance to be in a room filled with people who consider this a legitimate profession, after years of “trying to make the world safe for projections,” makes me giddy with anticipation. There is much to share and explore. Even the word “projections,” I think, is up for consideration. It made sense almost 30 years ago when we were, in essence, throwing image at a surface, but is it the best description for the kind of work we are creating today?
This projection seminar will give us the opportunity to share some of the shortcuts and bargains we've all figured out. You all know that Watchout is great, but did you how much of that great stuff you can do with Keynote for a fraction of the cost? We'll get a chance to look over some new products and question some reps. We'll discuss the convergence of scenic design, lighting, projection, and sound that is creating an entire new field of creative generalists. We'll get inside information from programming and research experts — like Mary Recine and Paul Vershbow — and a chance to hear from Peter Scharff on how to get the most from your equipment and the equipment vendor.
The biggest thing for me though, is that we'll get together. There is no craft union to embrace us, this legion of image makers who have been making and breaking rules as we go. We may not need Eugene V. Debs to organize us, or even an organization at all, but I can't help thinking of the potential of a room full of people who care about the same things, who have faced similar obstacles, and found the same exhilaration in solving the impossible puzzles we have so often confronted. There is no end to what we can achieve together. Projection professionals of America, I hope to meet you all in June.