I've never been a big fan of rodeos. It's not that I have anything against them. They have just never really interested me. However, I saw an honest to goodness rodeo cowboy speak at a corporate industrial a few months ago, and I think I've found my new hero.
The industrial was based around a smokeless tobacco product, and the topic at hand addressed wives' complaints about their husbands' tobacco habits. This cowboy sauntered out onto the stage in full regalia: ten-gallon black hat, starched Levis, spurred boots, and all. He even had a very fancy button-down shirt with lovely embroidery sewn into it. He squinted, slowly scanned the audience and proceeded to lay down some of the most profound wisdom I've ever heard. With a bona fide western drawl rarely heard outside of a John Wayne movie he said, “If yer wife's c'mplainin' ‘bout yer smokin’, maybe ya shouldn't worry so much ‘bout stoppin’ the smokin', and start worryin' ‘bout bein’ sucha candy-ass!”
Right on, brother! “Candy-ass!” No truer word has ever been spoken, and this leads me directly to this month's topic: the convergence of the roles of set designer, lighting designer, and projection designer. Now I know that you're thinking, “What could this possibly have to do with designer role convergence?” Absolutely nothing! I just happen to love the phrase “candy-ass,” and there was no other legitimate way to squeeze it into the printing of a trade magazine. So now that I've finished washing the dishes and taken my wife's stiletto out of my hind end, I'll continue pontificating about this increasingly popular situation in the production world.
More and more, we're seeing various design responsibilities taken over by a single professional. Some would say that this phenomenon is nothing new. This style of designer can arguably be called the “art director” or “production designer.” However, it's not always that simple.
Art directors and production designers have historically been given a greater range of responsibilities than what we're seeing lately. They are usually brought into the creative planning process before lighting, set, and projection designers to deal with artistic elements beyond the stage. They will sometimes take care of minute details right down to designing the access laminates that the crewmembers are issued. The change we're seeing now is somewhat of a hybrid that's difficult to define by a single title, and I'd go as far to say that this paradigm shift is being driven by technology.
It's no accident that the recent introduction of digital video control via lighting consoles has pushed designers into newer roles with added responsibilities. Designers are integrating sophisticated projections and video wall technology into designs, and the overall looks of today's shows are becoming more interesting.
I've worked on set and projection designs here and there for several years, but I had always traditionally kept my focus on lighting design. However, the moonlighting days are over, and the responsibility of keeping up with changing times and technology is a more pressing issue these days. More and more, clients are requesting a turnkey design solution. It seems that this technological merging has pushed the bean counters into new ways of thinking as well. Having one person design more can be potentially less expensive than contracting several people to do individual tasks. Enter the dominos.
There's a domino effect that has begun happening when a creative team is put together. The lighting department is integrating video, which can be such a massive aspect of the show that it warrants having that same department integrate their ideas into the set design, which, in turn, can be easily controlled with a minimal amount of fuss by one person — the lighting designer. And why the lighting designer? Because given the massive technical hassle that is already “lighting design,” it is difficult to find a full-time set or projection designer that has dabbled in lighting design enough to meet the expectations of today's producers. (Did I say that with enough political correctness?)
The other factor is that set and projection designers tend to mind their own technical business. It's really only the lighting world that has been nosy enough to start invading other areas of the production with their filthy media playback devices. By the time the last domino has fallen, the lighting designer may have taken on the added responsibility of the projection and set design as well.
There's a very strong argument against all of this consolidation. Because this concept is somewhat in its infancy, it is notably hard to find designers who can handle the workload AND deliver a quality product. In addition, many producers are willing to continue to pay for separation of design responsibilities because there is no totalitarian rule on the visual design of the production. This apprehension is legitimate, and I'm sure that it will take some time before we see this phenomenon becoming the standard, rather than the exception to the rule.
The lines of responsibility are continuously being blurred, not just for designers but also for the members of their technical team. Moving light technicians are finding themselves dealing with digital video devices such as LED walls, DLP and LCD projectors and what's sure to be the next wave of instruments: video projecting automated fixtures.
Lighting console programmers are probably bearing the biggest load of digital grunt work in this mess…er; I mean new era. Programmers have been extremely busy these past few years. First, they had to overcome being network administrators in dealing with the Ethernet integration of multiple consoles and remote network interfaces. Now, programmers are being forced into the digital editing realm that was once only inhabited by video professionals. Being proficient in programs such as Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and After Effects is only the tip of the iceberg for these folks. Most, if not all, need to be well versed in multiple computer operating systems in order to move from one device to another.
Manufacturers are creating systems on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux operating systems and, as a programmer, you had better know how to get yourself in and out of jams on whatever system you happen to be driving when the chips are down. Some are even called upon to know the technicalities of camera work and chroma-key processes to assist in the creation of projection content. This is a lot of new work to consider, and it definitely warrants a new title.
I've found that the adopted title of “Visualist” is what best describes this role in production. A Visualist has the ability to design with any media, whether for lighting, video, film projection, special effects, wood and metal construction, Internet content, etc. If nothing else, when the credits roll, seeing your name as ‘Visualist’ always looks better than “First Unit Candy-Ass.”
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.