A number of years ago, I was consulting with Tony Award-winning lighting designer Brian MacDevitt on the Broadway revival of Into the Woods. I started to give Brian my usual video lecture about where the projectors must be in relation to the screen or projection surface, how he could not put them where he wanted, and how they would not converge on multiple planes. I thought I sounded pretty smart. Brian looked at me and said, “Peter, you just don't get it. I'm going to use the video projector as a light.” That was my “duh” moment. Brian put the projector in the house right balcony corner and used it as the sun streaming through the woods and a giant's shadow cast across the woods. This was no longer video as I knew it; at this instant I knew something very cool was on the horizon.Video projection had become bright enough to be used as a light. Now, add moving heads, mirrors, and LEDs, and you truly have a convergence of video, lighting, and scenic elements.
There is no argument that the technology is converging. The bigger question is: how do we deal with that from an artistic and business perspective? What does it mean for video, lighting, scenic, and control-systems people?
It means we must all understand more than we did yesterday. We must become multidisciplinary. We will not serve our clients well unless we fully understand a much broader language than we have in the past. Otherwise, we will end up giving our clients one-sided recommendations.
One example of successful convergence can be seen in the successful Broadway musical Wicked. I would guess if you ask people as they leave the theatre how they liked the video, most will reply, “what video?” Yet there are two video projectors running during most of the show. Projection designer Elaine McCarthy (who also worked with MacDevitt on Into The Woods) had to understand the needs of the production and work very closely with lighting designer Ken Posner to come up with projections that fully integrated with the lighting. It worked, and the video can be seen as an extension of the show's lighting.
Another example of the way things are converging was the Broadway msucial Lennon. In this case, set designer John Arnone was also the projection designer because the projections were such an integral part of the set that they were the set. The same is true for 700 Sundays with Billy Crystal, where projection designer Michael Clark (who also worked with Arnone on Lennon) made projections literally part of the set.
We are living in a fascinating and changing time. The emergence of LED lighting and LED video has created a whole new language. When you create lighting and video effects with many of the new products on the market, such as those from Barco, G-LEC and Color Kinetics, people ask, “Is this video, lighting, or scenic?” The answer, of course, is that it is all three.
Therein lies both the problem and the opportunity for artists, technicians, and businesses that have traditionally been in only one of these areas. Who will “own” this new technology? Will the video people embrace lighting and scenic technologies? Will the lighting people who know how to create with light and control with lighting boards embrace video? Will the scenic people embrace lighting and video effects that are now integral to the environment?
Recently, a set designer brought us in on a project to integrate LED technology into a television set. We used pixel-mapping technology to program the LEDs, so the designer could use video as a programming tool. By embracing this new technology, he was able to create a set that was easily reprogrammed and could even be remotely updated over the Internet. This allowed him great creative freedom and even a new way to conduct business and generate revenue.
The way people approach video in a live environment runs the gamut. As I speak with lighting designers, they seem to see video as a textural medium and have no problem walking into a show with an Apple iPod filled with stock video and JPEG files, giving them an enormous library to integrate into their designs. When I talk to traditional video people, they want to create content specific to a show. These two approaches are also converging as lighting people are learning, with great enthusiasm, about how video is shot, edited, and encoded (though, I must say that traditional video people are perhaps not embracing the world of media servers and LEDs with the same enthusiasm).
Traditionally, video in the event world consists of projecting on a flat 4'×3' screen; the image quality is most important, and anything that is less than stellar is not considered professional video. Early media servers were not professional by these video standards, but they have always had a flexibility that traditional video does not. It may be analogous to the post house of the early 90s that rejected Mac-based video editing as not professional. Now Mac-based video editing has become standard and post houses that did not evolve with the technology are no longer in business.
What do we call people that design in this environment? Perhaps the job title that embraces convergence best is that of projection designer. But that title is something of a misnomer because the projection designer is also creating content for LEDs.
So what do we call them? People have suggested using the term “visualist.” Isn't a lighting designer a visualist? Isn't a set designer a visualist? Perhaps the operative word here is “designer.” Is it not simply design, and isn't it really just about designing with all the tools at your disposal? With the technology converging, we must recognize and supply all the tools these designers need to realize their visions.
This means that companies in the rental and staging business will have to own a broader range of equipment. Most importantly, it means we will need to educate our staff. Video people need to understand lighting, and lighting people need to understand video. This is a huge challenge but one that is rich with financial and personal rewards. (As I write this, our video post-production facility is immersed in learning about lighting, DMX, and media servers.) It's a bit of a new world, but one that is challenging and invigorating.
The successful artist, technician, and business of tomorrow will embrace all disciplines. This is a great time to be involved in our industry. I love nothing more than seeing the results put to creative use by forward thinking designers. I also look forward to reading about such forward thinkers in the upcoming issues of Live Design.
Peter Scharff is partner of Scharff Weisberg, Inc., a 25-plus-year-old New York-based company that specializes in audio, video, lighting, and post-production technology for the corporate, social, arts, and theatre communities.