For years, TDs and scenic fabricators have used computer technology for drafting designs and laying out light plots - but few creative professionals have embraced it as a starting point in the design process. And while several designers have created self-promotional webpages, few understand what the web can do for client development and communication. Even though I live and work out of Calgary, Alberta, I currently have projects in the works for production companies in New York, California, Alabama, Pennsylvania, and parts of Europe. All of these are being conducted via the web and email, and all have been highly successful. In a nutshell, technology works.
There's no question that turning whole-heartedly to technology like this is not for the meek. You'll find yourself approaching your projects and your clients in new ways, but the effort can be worth it. Once you become adept at this form of presentation, you'll find it can save you time and energy, especially once the design is approved and carried into working drawings.
There are several off-the-shelf modeling programs available, some of which can even be acquired for free. The learning curves on each varies, but you'll quickly find that the essentials are common to all in terms of creating your "virtual set." I work with as many as six programs within the same project, as each has its particular strengths and weaknesses, depending on what I need to model. My final compositing program is an inexpensive one called Bryce, published by Corel. Originally meant for creating landscapes, many computer artists have found it's also remarkably adept at architectural studies. Its lighting controls in particular can be breathtaking, once you master the subtle interface. Beyond Bryce, there are other programs such as Strata 3D (a fully functional free version has been available on computer magazine CDs for almost a year), Amapi (which is excellent for creating organic shapes, once you get past the somewhat quirky interface), and FormZ, which is a little more complex but can be mastered relatively quickly for basic studies. All of these programs are available for either Macintosh or Windows, and files generated in one platform can be read by the other. There are larger, more exhaustive programs, such as 3D Studio Max, which will permit you to create literally anything, but they come with a heftier price tag and a steeper learning curve.
Let me emphasize: these are not CAD programs. The difference is crucial: a CAD program can render a 3D model, but with usually severe stylistic limitations - it will look like a drafted model. A modeling program, on the other hand, allows for more of a polished, near-photographic representation. The information in the models can be easily extracted for drafting purposes, but in the main these are presentation programs, designed to show your client what the finished set will look like in 3D space. Modeling programs also allow you to create more finished animation work, which is time-consuming to create but invaluable if you want to demonstrate an especially spectacular scenic and lighting change as part of your presentation. The rendered images themselves can be exported in PICT or JPG format, which can be read on any computer with a decent photo viewer or painting program, while animations are usually built in MOV format, once reserved strictly for Mac but now easily accessible on PCs as well.
Beyond presentation, the relatively new technology of the web has also allowed us to expand our client base: web-based search engines such as Yahoo or Lycos will give you access to literally thousands of performing-arts companies around the world within seconds. The web also has pages devoted strictly to jobs for the theatre; it was through one such page that I found Florida Repertory Theatre, and it was through my webpage that they contracted me to design Inspecting Carol. What follows is a case study of what happens when you're working long distance. There were a few surprises and one major hurdle, but one that wasn't a result of the technology used. Despite that, Carol demonstrated that, with proper preparation on both ends, a set designed in western Canada can be built in southern Florida without onsite inspection.
Our initial contact was a "Thanks but no thanks" response: the production manager, Rebecca Tomlinson, had already filled the season's requirements, but she made a point of saying she definitely would be in touch for the following year. I had recently designed I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change for Stage West, and, as this was on FRT's schedule for this spring, she printed the webpage I prepared for it and gave it to the theatre's artistic director, Robert Capiccio, as a sample of my work.
Shortly afterwards, they lost their designer for Inspecting Carol and needed something in short order. Even though I was working on two other projects at the time, I agreed to take a look at the script, mostly because (1) the play itself is great fun for a set designer and (2) Rebecca asked so nicely, something we rarely see in this profession. She air-couriered the script and a ground plan of the stage, with notes about the proscenium height and, as is the case with most small community theatres, the lack of wing and fly space. FRT's stage is a model of 1960s theatre architecture: originally a turn-of-the-century vaudeville house, renovations have made it very wide and very low (approximately 40' wide by 15' high at the center of the curved proscenium arch). It was a challenging opportunity, so I said yes.
The play centers on a small theatre company called the Soapbox, which is mounting its annual production of A Christmas Carol. It's a production cursed with many mishaps and foibles, including a Scrooge who once performed his role in Spanish, a Marley whose chains get fouled up in the lights, and a Tiny Tim whose performance is more appropriate for Richard II. It is much like designing two plays at the same time, because you have the Soapbox theatre space and a relatively full production of A Christmas Carol.
The first step in the communications process was to prepare a webpage specific to this production and then make sure that everyone on the creative team knew where to find it for feedback and comments. I've noticed a few other designers use this "cyber-conference" approach, but rarely with sufficient information to explain what's going on. I prefer to explain as much as possible, especially since Carol is a complex show, and because I wanted the director to be able to study the approach at his leisure. When working long distance like this, I choose to use the director's time (as well as my own) as efficiently as possible, and setting up a page like this allows us to "converse" without the ordeal of missed phone calls and last-minute tele-meeting cancellations.
In Carol, I worked through Rebecca: only once did I speak directly to the director. This is apparently standard operating procedure at FRT, and, as such, it became even more imperative to put as much information on the webpage as possible, to ensure nothing was lost in translation. I felt I was working a little blind in terms of not knowing the director's intended blocking, but as it was agreed we were going to follow the essentials of the published acting edition's ground plan; any additions I might include would be worked around. Conceptually, we decided the Soapbox should be a 70s-style "black-box" thrust stage. Further, the Carol scenery probably looked incredible when new 15 years ago, but now it's tattered around the edges and looking slightly the worse for wear.
I had also received a list of requirements for the set, including several scenic "gags" that would turn this design for Inspecting Carol into something more akin to Noises Off (one of the director's favorite plays). Those were purely mechanical problems, but the one that caused the most design issues was the director's request for a turntable. The Christmas Carol scene ends with the entire stage platform coming loose and sliding into the audience - with a turntable mounted on ours, that was more of an engineering problem than anyone wanted to address. As such, we looked to a Mousetrap-type ending, in which pieces of the set suddenly fall apart in sequence, sending the players scattering for safety.
The initial model took approximately a day and a half to build and another half day to render. Using close to 40 "virtual spotlights," the computerized lighting was implemented to give a sense of how it could look in performance, and many of these lighting designs were used in the final production. I advised Rebecca when the images went up on the webpage; she in turn passed back the director's comments a few days later. Throughout these exchanges, I was remodeling the set and updating the webpage - since the bulk of the model remained intact, the revisions were easily accomplished. Further, to get everyone into the spirit of the design, I executed a series of renderings to show everyone what the Carol sets would look like were one watching from the Soapbox auditorium.
Extracting the information for the working drawings was relatively simple, as the models were built to scale. These were then air-couriered to Eric Haak, FRT's master carpenter and technical director. A conference call between Eric, Rebecca, and myself resolved the construction issues relatively painlessly. Because I had designed this to give her as much freedom as possible, subsequent emails from the scenic painter, Alyce Avenell, were easily addressed; most were left to her considerably good judgment and unquestioned talent.
If anything was cause for concern, it was a lack of direct feedback from the director. He is not, by his own admission, computer-literate. As far as I know, he only once read the webpage notes and instead delegated that responsibility to Rebecca. Coupled with his self-acknowledged inability to read ground plans and a schedule that didn't allow him time for telephone discussions, he was surprised when the set actually loaded into the Arcade Theatre. It was much deeper than he planned (Eric mentioned it was the deepest they had ever gone at FRT), and an error in the original blueprints I received put the set even further back from the apron. Ultimately, this additional depth worked to the production's advantage, but it made for a difficult transition from rehearsal hall to stage.
By the time I arrived in Florida for tech week, I discovered additional changes had been made to the design: there had been requests for changes to the styling of the doors to the Soapbox lobby and a last-minute repositioning of the Inspector in the Soapbox auditorium that required some of the theatre seats be re-angled, as well as an almost-daily note from the director to the TD for more gags to be built into the set. These were relatively minor, but the biggest change was the color of the Soapbox's theatre walls, from the grayish-beige I had originally designed to a near-black - a change mandated by the director, not the scenic painter. Despite that small shock, it was still amazing to see what had been a computer model realized almost fully intact on the FRT stage.
Tech week itself was typical, I'm sure, of most in small theatre companies. As the cast made the slightly bumpy transition to the stage, the director moved away from many of the original design concepts to the safety of the acting edition. Most frustratingly, a key moment for the turntable during the Carol finale was dropped just before opening night, reducing its usefulness to a single sight gag in Act One. It was during situations like this that I discovered one of the largest drawbacks in working from afar, but given the chain of communication at FRT, I'm not sure it could have been addressed any earlier, even had I been onsite. In many respects, it was a case of life mirroring the art within the play: struggling actors, last-minute changes, and technical surprises, even to the point where, during opening night, a malfunctioning light board integrated itself into the havoc of the Christmas Carol presentation. [Editor's note: Go to Sean Martin's webpage: http://hometown.aol.com/atthisstage/home.html.]