Oh it's sooo tired — convergence! Except that now, after all the talking, all of the marching out of products (some of which are now gone), all of the shizzle and pizzazz, it's finally happening. Modest-sized AV houses are turning on to the use of digital lights. Small opera companies are wrapping up media, lighting, and performance interactivity with tools like Isadora, Jitter, and media servers. On Broadway, more and more productions are using media and projection to fill, overlay, and complement lighting. And after tentatively sticking a toe in the water, many lighting designers are jumping right in with managing and creating their own projection assets. On the gear side, after what could best be described as industry wide beta, digital lights, media servers, LED light fixtures, and show control systems are becoming stable, proven, and ubiquitous.
What are the trends ahead? New, more robust control protocols are going to have to be developed and deployed. I bet that a lot of the big console makers will attempt — if they haven't already — to create their own media serving functionalities directly into the board. I will go out on a little limb here and say that they will fail miserably. Just because I have a great car, doesn't mean I want to attach a mast and go sailing in it. Media servers share much more kinship to intelligent light fixtures. The companies that are, and will, be putting servers in digital lights, and making them console-agnostic will do much better. More designers will be taking on multiple design disciplines. And pioneers like Bob Crowley and Julie Taymor illustrate the model of a director who exerts considerable design control and influence. Watch as this impresario approach becomes more common.
The rate of change on technology, and what it is capable of achieving, is accelerating very rapidly. Today's fantastic solution for displays, or servers, is tomorrow's candidate for the trash. So designers have to spend a good deal more time in continuing education. Being so deeply wrapped in learning these technologies gives them greater insight and ability to do extraordinary things with it. Technology is becoming an artistic toolset that designers can bend in more innovative and personal ways. I'm seeing more and more young designers programming their own consoles, inventing pieces of code to enable performance interactivity, and working directly with the media to achieve new methods and new results. Perhaps the role of the programmer is being subsumed in this new generation. In the more “normal” video production world, a shift has been going on simultaneously, where, due to the same trend of gear flexibility and simplification, one person is able to conceive, produce, shoot, mix, edit, and present finished projects. They're referred to as “preditors.” This model is happening in entertainment. You can see it robustly presented in the concert, corporate, dance, and experimental theatre realms. Only Broadway, with it's near-religious adversity to new models of production has resisted, but it, too, will fall.
For my wife Colleen and I, new technology represents new answers to questions. When a print artist works his way from charcoal to watercolor to oils, new answers and new opportunities become available. For us, display technologies, serving technologies, control technologies, and content creation technologies are constantly refreshing our toolset and the opportunities to do new things — to do things other people aren't.
The current push for certification in professional venues is also going to change the nature of crews to some extent. Also, we are seeing crews that are hungry to understand and wield these new technologies, just as the line between programmer and designer drifts to a grayer and grayer point. At a certain point, the entry into the strata of designer is dictated by what you can do, and if it's mad hot, it's not going to matter if you learned it at a third tier experimental theatre while you worked props, or if you went to Yale and spent three years getting your professors coffee after graduating. Producers understand one main thing: money. And if they can get amazing production values from some super-talented kids who have steeped themselves in the arcane knowledge of these new, ever changing systems, then so be it.
I don't think things will be drastically different next year, but in five? Oh yeah. Look where we were five years ago: media servers barely existing, and nobody understanding them, many less console options. Hell, if we go back 10 years, the ETC Source Four was rocking the industry that had been in the grip of Century, Kliegl, Strand, and Altman for the previous 40. The rate of change is increasing, and the means and methods are caught in that. In 10 years, people will be running enormously complex, multi-channel path media presentations off their laptops, alongside audio, lighting control, and maybe even holographic or tele-present audience or performers.
Bob Bonniol is a partner/creative director for Mode Studios, a Seattle-based production design studio (www.modestudios.com).