In the beginning, there was the production designer. And it was good. Then, a day came when the production designer looked upon his design and spoke, saying, “The lighting has become complex, it needs someone to look after it,” and so the production designer said, “Let there be lighting designers” and there were. And it was good.
Then a day came when the production designer looked upon a major musical and said, “There are many costumes, in addition to my giant set. These costumes need someone to look after them,” and so the production designer said, “Let there be costume designers,” and there were. And it was good.
Later, a day came when the production designer looked upon the vast venue and spoke, “The audience cannot hear well, there needs to be sound reinforcement and someone to look after it.” So the production designer said, “Let there be sound designers,” and there were. And it was good….
All right, enough with the genesis parallel. We're here to discuss “convergence,” a phenomena that seems to fascinate many these days. Let's see what the dictionary has to say:
The act, condition, quality, or fact of converging.
Mathematics. The property or manner of approaching a limit, such as a point, line, function, or value.
The point of converging; a meeting place: a town at the convergence of two rivers.
Physiology. The coordinated turning of the eyes inward to focus on an object at close range.
Biology. The adaptive evolution of superficially similar structures, such as the wings of birds and insects, in unrelated species subjected to similar environments. Also called convergent evolution.
We're likely to find our conversation covers almost all those definitions…perhaps not biology.
But the point in our mythically flavored opening missive is that, first, there was fragmentation. Back in the days before Jean Rosenthal, there was only the designer, who did it all. These days, the true production designer who handles all design elements is a rarity. Why is this? What happened?
Our thought on this is that technologies and options became populous enough that a need for individual practitioners developed. When lighting went beyond basic spotlights and fill lights — when it became an element that used a couple of hundred fixtures instead of a couple of dozen — it became something that was difficult for one person to provide guidance for, when this one person was already responsible for scenery and, often, costumes. A technological advance necessitated a fragmentation of individual control.
The same happened as audio became more complex.
The same also happened with projected elements.
But what happens when technology advances to the point where even large systems become simple and intuitive to control? When the means for creating and cuing disparate elements becomes accessible and commonplace? Convergence. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say re-convergence.
These pages have played host to a spirited debate on this topic. The communication advantages of one person in the design role have been pressed. The counter argument of the benefits of collaboration has been stated passionately. But the bottom line is that technologies have advanced to the point where one person can now control both lighting and projection with a degree of sanity. So some people are. Technology has also advanced to the point where one individual can design a backdrop in his computer, send the file via email, and have a 50' wide rendition “printed out.” Intuitive programs, like Sound Forge, Acid, Soundtrack, Garage Band, and others, have made sound design tools available to a lot of individuals at a lowest common denominator level. Add in the proliferation of sound effects, loops, and underscoring collections and the audio design element (at least in the pre-production sense) becomes simpler for the uninitiated. Convergence isn't just for projection, after all.
Science fiction has always been a touchstone for seeing future possibilities. Recently, a fabulous book by author Neal Stephenson made its way through the personnel at our studio, called The Diamond Age. One element in the book was a description of a theatrical troupe in Shanghai, circa 2100 or so. The director of the troupe would pre-design the lighting, scenic, and audio elements of his show in his computer, and upon arrival at the theatre, the automated lighting, and projection, scenic and sound systems would enact this programming without intervention or further design by others. The control systems, the tools necessary to produce a full show, had become powerful and intuitive enough for one individual to (in this case the director) to conceive their entire design and then play it back.
The thing about science fiction is that (for now) it is fiction. But one has only to look around at the immense proliferation of previsualizing systems for lighting, projection, scenery, and audio to see that advances in production technologies are pushing convergence of control. Once in production, new advanced lighting control systems are demystifying the use of moving lights. Media servers are making projection design process accessible and timely. Automated scenic controllers make massive scenic moves happen at the touch of a button. Computer controlled sound consoles are able to perform complex mixes, again and again, without intervention. Industry sectors, such as themed environments and cruise ships, have quickly availed themselves of these technologies to simplify the manpower needs of running shows. But what of designing them?
It's important to note the phrase “convergence of control.” Notice that we specify control. Control doesn't necessarily indicate design. Just because one person can control many elements doesn't make it the best situation in all cases.
Designing all these elements is not as easy as you might imagine. Let's break it down, focusing just logistically on process. We'll start with projection, since that's the nom de plume. When you begin with any aspect of design, it starts at the script. Reading, analysis, abstraction, breakdown. A lot of thought. A lot of writing. Then comes a heap of documentation, shot lists, production schedules, timelines, element lists, digital prop lists, live shoot crew lists, A to K budget breakdowns, effects shot planning, production gear testing and selection, actual digital creation, animation, compositing, non-linear editing, digital illustrating, rounds of revision meetings with clients or co-conspirators, repeating the above, delivering to production playback formats, encoding, cue placement, planning and programming, load in supervision, tech process, open, revise, fall down and die.
Okay, now add lighting. You get to do all that same script analysis and breakdown, this time with the needs of illumination in mind, you get to create instrument schedules, channel lists, patches, draft plots, meet and instruct production personnel, electricians, programming, probably do some previsualization and pre-programming, the same round of meetings with others, followed by the same inevitable changes to the physical and metaphysical designs, supervising load-in, tech process, open, revise…
Need we really heap on the scenic process?
So how big is your staff anyway? How far removed from the actual artistic process do you want to be? It takes a lot of help to do all that as best as it can be done. And in less than 6 months. That means a lot more supervising than actual creating. Looking past the eminent advantages and delights of collaboration, isn't that just a suicidal amount of work? Are you really able to give your full attention to each element? Are you making each creative decision with the freedom to be as thoughtful as you can be?
Certainly there are aesthetic and technical geniuses among us who might be able to handle a total design convergence. They are few and far between. We only know several who do it well and consistently.
In the mean time there are plenty of us who prefer the creative dynamic of working with others to generate ideas and execute them. We also prefer a process that let's us examine all elements with due conscious and imagination. We like to meet new design collaborators who lead us to places in our own imaginations that we had no idea existed. People with whom the sum total of the design mind leads to magic onstage, and profound satisfaction personally.
We won't write ourselves into a corner here however. There are certainly shows we've done and are doing currently, where we are responsible for several elements. It's something that needs to be done with due consideration to the actual task at hand though. We try never to do it on big shows with not enough time, for instance. And in some of the smaller productions it can be a great deal of fun. We're blessed with a great team of assistants and associates though. We can't imagine doing it without them.
The moral of our story is this: Convergence is nothing new. But as always it takes a remarkable amount of personal work, initiative and force of personality to bring it off. It takes preparation and planning. And if you choose to ignore this axiom you will fail. Alone.
All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.