There are many sentences in our industry that no one wants to hear. “Someone’s been hurt,” for example, sends a chill down my spine. “The client is unhappy,” though much less serious, also summons a bad feeling in the stomach. One sentence, “We’ll figure it out on site,” is often tossed around and seems innocuous. However, every time I hear it, my trepidation grows, and I consider raising my fees. What the client or vendor is actually saying is, “I don’t know and will not attempt to figure it out until the load-in has commenced.” In other words, we all agree to improvise. In the right context, improvisation, like jazz music or programming moving lights, can be a creative tool. However, in the context of loading in, “We’ll figure it out on site,” means trouble.
Often I see former designers in production management roles throwing this sentence around in their new positions. This approach, applied to rigging or heavy construction, can cause accidents, injury, or death. The correct tools or gear may or may not be ordered. No one can say if company A’s elements will interface with company B’s hardware until the moment the two are pieced together. Suddenly deadlines are imminent, and clients begin getting antsy. You may then hear another troubling sentence, “Make it work,” which really means, “Improvise harder!”
Our buccaneer natures rise to the surface as short cuts are taken and safety practices ignored in the pursuit of “making it work.” Crewmembers stand on the rails of a Genie, bypass circuit breakers, or rig with gear that “should work,” all because everyone agreed to “figure it out on site.” It’s the beginning of a slippery slope. Will someone end up hurt? Probably—well, hopefully—not, but no one wants to gamble with the possibility of bodily harm.
We all have kits or workboxes. I see them lined up in the New York shops ready to do battle. However, no kit possesses everything or includes all the items that are needed but nobody else has. Our kits see us through many tight spots, but they do not give us permission, in the face of complex events, to delay or ignore thorough preproduction, and they might provide false comfort.
I always understand, “We’ll figure it out on site,” to assume a certain degree of work-shopping, which can make a lot of sense when implementing new technology or untried techniques. Work-shopping is perhaps imperative, but it’s often not built into the production schedule because nobody really wants to pay for it. Trouble starts as labor and venue costs rise, negating previous estimates and budgets. In my experience, the shops are amenable to dry runs to counter going in blind, but gathering show elements from individual entities also comes at a price. Ultimately, someone will pay for the work-shopping. “We’ll figure it out on site,” just shuffles the responsibility for those costs somewhere else temporarily.
Trouble shows up in other areas, as well. For example, this improvisation limits great design. Designers depend on large infrastructures to fully execute their visions. A great LD can do nothing until lighting positions are set or power is installed and working. A great set designer needs the underlying structure to function before his skills are showcased. Programmers can’t program without a trouble-free lighting rig. Projection designers cannot display imagery until projectors, screens, and switchers are wired and troubleshot. Without these fundamental elements, great design is impossible. Unless care is taken, “We’ll figure it out on site” will erode the available time for nuanced design to occur by stalling completion of the basics. All that’s left is an expensive, half-realized concept, which may be good enough but will never be great.
Ultimately, this trouble leads to disappointing the client. All of us are in the business of managing our clients’ expectations first and our specific discipline second. We cannot properly manage our clients’ expectations when we intend to “figure it out on site.” There are too many variables. This habit leads to what I like to call the scapegoat method of production, where finding someone else to blame becomes habit. It’s just spin, and I am amazed how many clients buy it.
“We’ll figure it out on site,” leads to a lot of things: delays, injuries, unmet promises, and poorly-realized design. It contributes to difficult working conditions. It promotes scapegoating. It destroys client relationships. The only thing I want to figure out on site is lunch.
Lance Darcy is head of the design department for Tinc Design & Productions based in New York City.