Martin Brinkerhoff is in the business of events, but really, as his company's website states, “We are in the business of ideas.” His Irvine, CA-based production company, Martin Brinkerhoff Associates (MBA), has provided turnkey solutions for everyone from Disney and Kodak to Yamaha and Sony. He is a guru of sorts in the auto show production realm, creating memorable experiences at booths and press events for Honda and Mitsubishi, to name a few. Marian Sandberg finds out how Brinkerhoff got where he is and where he sees it all going.
LD: What is your background, and how did you get to this point in your career?
MB: Luck and persistence. Back in the early 80s, while still a graduate student at UCSD in La Jolla, CA, I began making simple slide show briefings for real estate firms as a means of supporting my fledgling family. I was studying new music, film, and performance by day, and then writing scripts, shooting photography, and programming 1000Hz-beep-driven single projector shows on weekends. It was quite a contrast to sit in grad seminars with John Cage or Nam June Paik and then return to my married student-housing complex to create AV pitches for condo projects in Long Beach. Pretty quickly, though, things started to take off. I hired a couple of employees (still with me today), and our slide briefings got more elaborate,leading to international multi-image presentations in Singapore and a theme park 35mm film proposal to the King of Saudi Arabia within a couple of years.
By the mid-80s, we persuaded the ad agency for Mazda to give us a shot at doing national dealer meetings. This allowed us to create a series of (personal) landmark corporate shows and at a revolutionary time in the industry. Real-time digital image processing was exploding, and it was exciting to find user-friendly visual technology within reach. The Post Group in Hollywood became a hotbed of creativity, where we collaborated to produce a series of shows where all media was completely video. Even the speaker support for the executive speeches ran on video — with digital animation, 3D graphics, even virtual environments — before we knew what to call them. How was this done? After deciding that laser disc technology was still too sketchy, we decided to run whole shows on 1" Sony Video Decks in dynamic tracking mode, stopping and starting seamlessly for the 250+ cues throughout the show. Fortunately, it worked!
But the most exciting development for us was the sudden ability to marry the live performance elements together with the visual media more intricately than ever before. We started playing with lighting and experimental projection (anyone remember laser video projection?) on scenery, performers, smoke, anything.
And ever since, the technical integration of all show elements — live, media, lighting, effects, motion control — has gotten more and more sophisticated and elegant. And our early interest in pulling video out of the screen and onto the stage continues as a kind of driving passion, to coin a clichéd show theme.
But this integration is only half of the story. The other half is the show story itself. We always look for an umbrella concept for each event that drives the overall experience for the audience. Yes, these are corporate events where business information/goals are presented mostly by executives, not performers. But dramatizing the message in a way that inspires the audience is still the trick. These are still theatrical events, however commercial they may be. So the core show concept is critical, be it a story, metaphor, or simple thematic mantra. For us, the concept becomes the key that unlocks all the doors to the show's creative structure and drama.
LD: How do you like to work with designers (lighting, set, video)?
MB: Very hands on and very interactively. There is an intense visual process that we typically follow: lots of digital storyboarding, CGI modeling, video simulations, miniature modeling, testing. Of course, at any given time along the way, everyone is usually in a different part of the country or world. So phone conferences, Internet FTP downloading, and many drafts of drawings, storyboards, and video “puppet shows” are exchanged. This is now typical for the industry, but we are a little more intense about it.
LD: What sort of projects do you prefer to produce?
MB: Fully integrated, “high-concept” shows with all the bells and whistles. I prefer to work with a cast of live performers in concert with the full complement of show technology.
LD: What do you look for in a design?
MB: Dynamics, something with life, something that can move and evolve throughout the show.
LD: What's the most exciting development in entertainment technology you've seen in the past year? In the past ten years?
MB: LED and projection resolution. Certainly, the explosion of LED devices and control systems is very exciting. We have deconstructed digital imagery into individual pixels that are now physical objects. And we can now custom-weave them together in spatial configurations of our choosing: panels, nets, wires, ball, whatever.
The advent of high and ultra-high resolution projection is very exciting. Projection has steadily leap-frogged over itself for the past ten years, with stunning results. Where lighting always used to dominate video, now they are more and more equal and, as we know, blurred in application.
LD: Where do you see the corporate/industrial/event market going in the next year? In the next ten years?
MB: It has quietly evolved over the past decade, without too much notice, or so it seems. But corporate theatre, at its best, has driven and contributed to the theatrical arts over the past couple of decades, and I think this is likely to continue. The daily need for new ideas is there. The budgets to feed these ideas are there, though always tighter. I think we will see some incredible events created over the next ten years. I would imagine that the expansion of the on-site experience from individual theatrical venues to “networked” theatrical experiences might evolve.
LD: What inspires your creativity?
MB: Fear. I'm kidding, but only a little. It's been said that the best concepts are those that inspire a certain amount of fear of the unknown. And there are times when we feel that in a big way. But venturing into the unknown is really what it's all about, I think.