We talk a lot about convergence in the pages of this magazine, quoting from top designers, manufacturers, distributors, technicians, and other industry luminaries about their views on the subject, not to mention getting on our own soapbox about it. But what does the average entertainment technology professional think about this much hyped, probably overused term? What does it mean to the tech director of the small theatre in the Midwest, the video guy in the Texas church, the president of a small rental and staging shop? Will this brave new world happen for them? Will it affect their jobs, their world? If so, how much?
When the research department of Primedia Business told us they wanted to do a 2005 state of the industry survey for this market, we took it as an opportunity to get feedback from the core constituency not only of Entertainment Design but also of sister publications Lighting Dimensions and Staging and Rental Operations. The main goal was to examine trends in equipment, technologies, and applications among subscribers of the three books, explore how changes in technology will impact their jobs, and gauge readers' perceptions on the industry's health. But we also included key questions about convergence. Out of a total of over 16,000 mailings, we heard back from over 500, for an effective response rate off about 4.4% (the ED/LD response rate was about 7.8%).
First, a word about the respondents: because this was a joint effort on the part of ED, LD, and SRO, the demographic breakdown covered a relatively wide path, with strong representation from the theatre/performing arts, concerts/touring, and A/V/corporate segments. However, many respondents also indicated that they worked in the trade show, houses of worship, sporting event, and theme park markets. There was a fairly even distribution of job functions among the various respondents, with president/owner, designer, production/direction, and technical/engineering making up the vast majority of titles. Interestingly, though, regardless of discipline, job function, or magazine subscription, the responses to the questions tended to break down along similar lines.
That included the topic of convergence. According to the survey, nearly one third of all respondents are currently experiencing a “dramatic” convergence of technology (31% of ED and LD readers and 33% of SRO readers). Just as significant, over 60% are currently experiencing a “moderate” convergence (74% of ED, 67% of LD, and 62% of SRO). In the past year, over 40% of all respondents said they had worked with video and projections, or had been involved in a production that incorporated these technologies, seven times or more.
In addition, approximately one-fourth of respondents say the coming changes in technology will dramatically affect their jobs in the next three years (23% for ED and LD, 28% for SRO); approximately 70% say their jobs will change somewhat. And nearly 80% of all respondents said that these coming changes due to convergence were either very or somewhat positive for the industry.
We also received a lot of write-in answers in response to the question of how the changes in technology will affect people's jobs. A good portion of them had positive things to say about this occurrence. “Digital lighting technology will change my job the same way that intelligent lighting technology has changed it in the last 15 years,” said one subscriber. “As true multimedia finds its way into the lighting business, we will all have to have a better understanding of both the technical and aesthetic implications of employing this technology,” said another.
And a third said: “I think our jobs will stay the same, but the way we go about achieving the end results will continue to evolve with technology. More will be expected of us, the designers, because of the advances in technology. We will be forced to keep up, or we will become dinosaurs. As a lighting designer, I think of the tools of my trade and how they have changed; I have to learn how to use all these powerful tools, but at the end of the day, I am still a lighting designer!”
Some weren't so sure about that. “With the advent of media servers and projection, my job as an LD/scenic designer will morph into that of a creative director,” said one. “It is essential that I become more knowledgeable of video in order to continue the upward steps of a creative director.”
Said another: “I see lighting and video converging everywhere we go. I see the role of the lighting designer not so much specializing in just lighting, but growing with the changes in technology and becoming more of a production designer or, at the very least, digital technologies designer, with a more encompassing responsibility for the look of the show.”
Costs came up a lot in these responses, but some of them were surprising. “There are so many great new products coming out that will allow even smaller productions to include cutting-edge technology into the mix of what you can offer your clients,” said one.
“I'm being asked more and more to basically replace scenery with projections (while working with the set designer),” says another. “Though I haven't done the math, I'm sure, in the long run, projections are cheaper, even if the projector rental seems steep. It replaces a lot of expensive building products that would just be thrown away at the end of the production's run.”
Others were a little more pragmatic. “As a live event sound, lighting, and video company, we have to be aware of where the cutting edge is moving. We have to determine which new system and/or format will take hold, flash and burn, or quickly be surpassed. Our clients require us to ride the tip of the technology spear. But at the same time, we can't dump a ton of capital into something without legs. The line between them can be very narrow.”
And still others worried about the loss of jobs as a result of these changes. “Convergence will eliminate some jobs but will give greater flexibility to those who learn to adapt,” said one. “Convergence can lead to new creative opportunities and make new technological things possible,” said another. “But it can also have the potential to eliminate positions or make it easier for producers to have one person design what would have been two prior.”
Of course, a few were very optimistic on that front. “Ideally, the increasingly intricate technology will not only allow for improved artistic capabilities but will provide more jobs in the industry for specialists and allow the artists to be artists. (Of course, someone will have to pay for this.…)”
What would convergence mean to the art of collaboration? This issue was brought up several times. “The convergence of the various technologies is stunning; however, I worry about the human factor and the possible lessening of collaboration among designers and techs. Hopefully, we won't converge to the point of having one person push one button to run all the elements of a show.”
“I believe entertainment design and technology is a collaborative art,” said another. “I think two heads are better than one. Lighting and projection should be separate areas. In the theatre world, the so-called scenographer was supposed to take over all design aspects of a production. I have been in the business 22 years and have not met a scenographer. There is more than enough work on both sides of a major production to hire two professionals that bring specific knowledge of their respective fields.”
The age-old discussion of design vs. technology came up quite often as well. “There is a difference between the art and the ability to run the technology,” said one participant. “Some believe that the ability to run the technology is the same as the art. These are the same people who believed that learning Microsoft Word made them a novelist.”
And so did the fear of an all-video planet. “I find the merging of lighting and video interesting and fun to play with, but I think we're going in the wrong direction,” said a subscriber. “People spend far too much time watching TVs and their computer monitors. I think video has a place in shows, but we're putting focus on screens rather than on the performers.”
A number of those who responded positively to the idea of convergence also felt the entire issue was overblown. “It could change but isn't likely. I am more valued for my thought process and ability to conceptualize than specific technologies,” said one confident subscriber. Said another: “The technologies we are talking about are tools, the means to an end. The convergence allows for a more unified design execution. These are neutral-neither positive nor negative. How we, as an industry, respond and use these technologies will be what has the effect. This remains to be seen. The tools are like a handgun; in and of itself, it is neither positive nor negative. It is the users of the tools that determine the outcome.”
“Convergence is just the latest catch phrase for continuing changes in technology,” said another skeptic. “There will always be new technologies and the latest tricks — call it what you will. Large-format imaging has not replaced the scenic artist; computer-based lighting consoles have not changed the fundamental principles of lighting; and digital audio consoles have not changed the need for someone with ears. Having lighting and video share some common control is not revolutionary — merely evolutionary. You still need people to create the content, set up, and maintain the gear, etc. It might have a short-term impact on the perception of the client, which may be positive, but eventually (shortly, I imagine), it will just be the way that is done, just another tool, like pre-rigged truss, digital audio consoles, and moving lights.”
Overall, however, the respondents to this survey had a positive view of new technology in general and convergence in particular — as long as it was in service of the production. “My role is to create experiences using whatever medium is appropriate-lights, scenery, audio, special effects, video,” said one typical respondent. “New technologies are possible that offer many opportunities for me to create captivating or exceptionally subtle visual stimuli for my clients and their audiences. At the end of the day, it is all about the experience that gets taken home. When that experience is constantly new and refreshing, I am exceeding the expectations of the audience. Everybody wins.”