Willie Williams designs and directs multimedia events. His work has included tours with REM, U2, George Michael, Laurie Anderson, and The Rolling Stones; performance pieces with Kronos Quartet; stage musicals Barbarella and We Will Rock You; and installations at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum and Canterbury Cathedral, UK. We caught up with Williams to see what he thinks of our future.
LD: What's the biggest thing you see changing in production design right now?
WW: Clearly, the biggest change is the acceleration of the technological revolution with the entertainment design industry, most visibly the LED invasion that is merging the previously distinct disciplines of lighting, video, and set design. This has been a very exciting journey, but it is very much a Faustian pact. Domestic technology introduces a tremendous freedom to produce work in isolation, of a quality that used to require entire design studios. With this, though, comes a more subtle influence, a creeping homogenization in the way shows look, given that we are all drawing from the same well.
At worst, such easy technology actually begins to stifle original creative thought, the role of the “designer” being to select equipment from an existing inventory and make programming choices from a given list of options. A technician I have worked with for years commented recently, “Nobody builds a chase anymore; they just select a setting from the effects engine.” From this perspective, designing a show has become more akin to assembling Lincoln Logs than to painting an original picture on a blank canvas.
It doesn't have to be this way…It's important to bear in mind that technology is endowed with a highly promiscuous nature. All of the wonderful things that it will do for you, it will quite happily do for anyone else who knows how to push its buttons.
LD: Would any developments in technology change the way you design shows?
WW: I try to maintain a healthy balance between technology-driven ideas and completely low-tech, handmade designs. Much as I strive to be very disciplined in the principle of putting concept and design ahead of technology, I'd be a terrible liar if I said that the technology itself had never been an inspiration. However, it's certainly true that the manufacturers rely on the designers to tell them what to do, every bit as much as we rely on them to make the gear that we need. I am in the fortunate position to occasionally be able to have new pieces of technology designed to fulfill a design specification, and there is undeniably a great pleasure in being first out of the gate with a new gizmo.
LD: Will crews be different? Will they do more/know more?
WW: For several years, I have been pioneering the idea of merging crews, certainly as far as touring goes. It seems highly inefficient to have separate teams of people dealing with equipment that either team could handle, especially inventory that is held by both video and lighting suppliers. Frankly, for a bright person, working with a greater range of gear can only make the job more interesting. The main obstacle I have come up against so far is from vendors and tour production not being able to figure out who should employ a technician who spans several departments. The exciting issues of liability and insurance seem to be problematic, but it'll come in time.
LD: Are the people in production changing? One designer notes,”It's not a place where you can quit school, run away from home, and find a place any longer.”
WW: Speaking as one who actually did leave school, run away from home, learn a trade (of sorts), and become somewhat successful, I'm hardly in a position to disagree. There's been an enormous growth in the number of educational establishments offering to teach production design. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it can certainly foster the notion of there being a pre-approved goal, a sense of aesthetic “rules,” or that there is a “correct” way that shows should be designed.
Also, the corporatization and litigiousness of the industry has spawned a sense of “establishment” within entertainment design. I would be the first to decry a Big World Tour, which spends more on lawyers than on lighting, but I confess to having a love/hate relationship with the Clear Channels of this world who have turned rock and roll into expensive entertainment. It wounds me deep in my punk rock soul that concert tickets can cost $500, but at the same time, I can be sufficiently objective to acknowledge that this has been a major part of the revenue stream which has funded the most spectacular touring productions. Without the corporate takeover, rock touring would certainly be a great deal more fun, but whether it would have reached the same heights of spectacle is open to debate.
LD: You've talked about keeping a balance in your trade, looking outside the industry for inspiration, looking at how things are created rather than with what. Is there something outside the industry you'd do if you ever left?
WW: I'm very happy with the wide variety of projects I manage to take on at present, and keeping that balance has gone a long way to prevent me from becoming bored or disillusioned with “the industry.” The smaller performing arts work I do is deeply inspiring, and the relationship to the project is very different than with a big rock extravaganza. Similarly, the precision and discipline of theatre work comes as a very refreshing contrast if I haven't been immersed in that world for a while.
However, if I were banished from the commercial world forever, I'd certainly continue the gallery-based work that I've been doing. After a decade of video experiments, I've rediscovered a love of light, pure and simple, and have been making eccentric little machines that generate light shows from household objects. It's staggeringly non-lucrative but irrationally satisfying.
LD: Any other thoughts about the future of our industry?
The future will be a relentless tsunami of LED encrusted mediocrity and no one will care. However, being ever the optimist, I will be looking for the hidden gems of creativity. They'll be in there somewhere!