Now that you've made the choice to go digital, let's go all the way and implement the web. No doubt, throughout the process you've been communicating with your director about the design. Often you find yourself miles away from each other, and sharing visual data would lead to email boxes too full to accept the large chunky digital photos of your model and lost time, resulting in many moments of frustration. And there's the process of getting pictures from your camera into your computer. I'd like to suggest an alternative: send your director an email with no attachment but a web URL instead. The director, upon clicking said URL, is taken to a web page which allows him/her to flip through images of your model, view a ground plan, if necessary, and even view a streaming video that flies through the house or walks through various looks and/or scene shifts. Now that was easy, wasn't it? Revisions to the model and drafting can be uploaded to a web server moments after documents are created. Information is available as it's developed and shared effortlessly.

Plates can be downloaded from a website in multiple formats and viewed by anyone as a PDF. Printing houses can download and print PDFs at any scale because they're vector-based and won't lose resolution. Not only that, but fonts, symbols, and drawing appearance are preserved in the file itself, regardless of the printer's hardware. Other designers, shops, and crew heads can all go online when convenient and download the latest versions of drawings as they're revised — nothing like not having to wait for that pesky FedEx delivery.

Digital Execution

So now the director has approved the design, and the shops have bid on the drawings. What to do? This is the part that still fascinates me. You run a virtual tech. This is where it gets a little geeky. Bear with me.

The nuts and bolts are as follows. You can export a model from 3D Studio MAX™ or any other modeling program in a variety of formats. You can also export a light plot with industry-built symbols that ship with the Spotlight version of VectorWorks. Some smaller independent software companies have developed software (WYSIWYG and ESP Vision) that will import both formats into one environment and allow you to focus and cue the show. Moving lights and conventionals can be manipulated, and the data exports the cues in show format to a Wholehog console or any industry standard light board. You can walk into first tech with a disk of rough cues with an amazing degree of precision. Moving scenery animated with programs such as 3D Studio MAX or Maya® can export data with values of distance over time. Acceleration and braking values can be calculated virtually and transferred to automation systems to virtually create scene shifts. Post a QuickTime or Flash movie to the web, have your sound designer send you some transition cues, and welcome to day one of tech.

Obviously, this is a massive simplification of the process, and there is a lot of work to get to that point. But it's the work of a couple of designers and assistants communicating ideas in studios, instead of teams of crews waiting for decisions to be made in a rented theatre. Of course issues will arise, and some of the software is so new that it's still being written. But it's there, and it works. I've seen it happen.

Digital Experience

I recently did a production of Kimberly Akimbo with the Hudson Stage Company. It presented itself to me as the perfect opportunity to go digital. It had two key factors: little time and little money. After a discussion or two with the director, I quickly got on to a model and had a few renderings to show in a couple of hours. Very little money and not a lot of scenery. Renderings in hand, I threw together a Flash (interactive multimedia software) web page, which would allow the director and producers to flip through the renderings and view a PDF of the ground plan. After a round of revisions, I finished up the drawings and was able to post them in PDF (for stage management to view and print) and VectorWorks formats (for the lighting designer to download). I would love to say the shop would download as well, but no shop. Remember: very little money. The design was to hinge rather heavily on projections. I have the gear, so that wasn't a cost issue, and it's a tool I knew I could use. With the 3D model, I was able to focus and view the projection content in real time and create a streamable video which flew back through the house and settled to view some projection sequences. I didn't have to rely on a vocabulary, sometimes unfamiliar to a director, to try to express my ideas. I could literally show him a movie of the concepts on the web. With 3D Studio MAX, I created a digital map in the model, which I could use in a program like Flash to create the actual projection sequences. [A note on Flash's web functionality: Flash is made to design dynamic web content which means it keeps file size small and produces its own web pages.]

You can post interactive animations/sequences to the web for further collaboration and exchange of ideas. In this particular production, an actor had to interact with a pre-taped video sequence. I posted the video to a web page, sent him a link, and the actor could run lines at his leisure. Flash also publishes functioning standalone files. No software is needed to run the show; any computer will do. It's a big money saver. When all was said and done, a show created almost entirely in a computer transferred amazingly well to the stage — well enough to tech the projections in a day.

Digital Future?

Hey who knows? It's out there now and being put to good use in smaller venues and a few forward-thinking studios. Technology's a young face which bears a myriad of possibilities. I think it has a viable home in the theatre. Of course, there is a learning curve to its implementation and a slight investment up front. But the savings in time, money, and sanity makes it a tool well worth exploring and one to help us further our expression, impression, and interaction. It is a tool that can turn those long grueling hours spent in the studio into hours spent agonizing over the right artistic choice instead of how to get it all done; a tool that can create a network of ideas allowing designers to better function as a team, interacting and sharing concepts and solutions with the click of a mouse at their own convenience. The time has come to plug and play.