By the time this article's published, I will be well into my second month as a professor of media design in the Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University. As far as I can tell, this is the first tenure-track professorship of its kind in the country, part of a program well-poised to very soon offer degrees in theatre with a concentration in media (a.k.a. projection) design.
Over the past months, there has been a lot of attention paid to the emerging field of media design. (I'm advocating the use of “media” rather than “projection” in this context, as more frequently our domain is going to include emissive sources in addition to projectors.) The attention has been positive and negative, ranging from breathless ovations from manufacturers regarding emerging technologies to a crucifixion I happened to witness at the BLMC where a panel of well-respected scenic designers basically said projections should be avoided whenever possible because they never achieved anything beneficial (a paraphrase, of course). More than a little of this “controversy” stems from (and sometimes actively engenders) misunderstandings about the roles and functions of media designers.
As an educator, this is quite a stage to step onto, yet it is precisely because this time is so filled with confusion about purpose and definition, that the birth of a program dedicated to researching and teaching this subject is so important and exciting. There is an awful lot that I want to say on this subject, so let me start where I myself started.
Several years ago when I finished my undergraduate degree in scenic design, I had decided — as a result of some innovative student productions and a little research on performance media — that what I really wanted to be when I grew up was a media designer. However, at that time, there was nowhere I could get everything I wanted out of a masters degree education. I could get animation and editing from a film-oriented program, but no performance applications. I could do research on performance technology, but not with the amount of applied work that I wanted. In the end, I decided to remain in a theatre department and take a number of classes outside of it in animation, film, photography, etc.
Most of the people I know who currently work in professional media design have had similar experiences. Most started off as film/video/photography people who moved into theatre when a strange and interesting job opportunity occurred. Some started in lighting or scenery but gravitated to the technology of media design and were the people who didn't say “no” when a show with projections came up. Not many intentionally ended up doing this esoteric job.
I would like to give future generations of media designers a more direct route to their goal. However, I think there is something valuable about the grab-bag of experience that most media designers have when they arrive at this vocation. If theatre, above all other arts and sciences, is the closest thing to a true microcosm of human experience — everything is to be found in here in some small way — then media design is in some ways the most elegant and concentrated aspect of that world: ephemeral, dynamic, portraying anything, involving surfaces and light, delicately balanced against the performer. It is good that they should have experiences outside the theatre to bring into it (this applies to all of the design disciplines). This idea informs the goals and structure of the curriculum I am working to create at ASU. Some basic tenets:
BRING DIVERSE EXPERIENCES TO THE CLASSROOM
The ideal media design curriculum would involve few theatre and studio classes. A good structure will include classes in film, photography, art history, broadcast media, physics of light and color, architecture…this list goes on.
TEACH THE TECHNOLOGY ALONGSIDE THE ART
Another controversial subject. A number of respected media designers of my acquaintance maintain that a media designer's art should be uninformed by the technology, therefore, that a good designer will be fairly hands-off when it comes to hardware/software. I feel that a good designer should create art independent of the technology not because she has remained separate from it, but because she knows it so well she doesn't have to think about it, as a good actor learns his technique and then forgets it when he mounts the stage. It breathes from him. The Renaissance masters guided studios full of talented apprentices to complete their great works, but who do you think was the best with the brush in the end? Also, I will be educating students who may go on to be assistants and content creators; they will need these skills as a stepping stone to their design careers.
EDUCATE FOR JOBS OUTSIDE OF TRADITIONAL THEATRE
This works alongside the previous idea. I want to make sure that students leaving ASU will be ready for careers in media outside of black boxes. Beyond the much talked about integration of lighting and media there is a much greater blending going on in the world off the stage. Film, TV, web content, themed architecture — in many ways the tools are the same for each, and more and more corporations and events are going to want or need more unified presentation. A good media designer might be able to design a one-off, displays for a corporate lobby, and the look for a web site so that all of them are united by design.
EDUCATE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE CREATIVE TEAM
One of my favorite goals for a media design education is to offer classes for other designers, playwrights, producer types, and directors (playwrights and directors especially). Wendall Harrington spoke at the Entertainment Design Master Classes about “making the world safe for projection design.” How much of what she fights against is because those responsible for the decision to bring a media designer to the table (and when to do so) don't know what's possible or advisable?
BRING THE CULTURE OF IMAGE TO THE THEATRE
Our lives are saturated with dynamic, powerful images. Media designers of the future need to understand that culture and how members of that culture will receive the images we present. This is not a negative development necessarily; it's actually possible to use abstract imagery to make people more deeply involved with humanity as well as alienate them. This is a large topic that deserves more treatment elsewhere.
These are a few of the goals and ideas I hope to incorporate into the media design curriculum at Arizona State. ASU happens to be an ideal place for the birthplace for such an endeavor: it is a large department that incorporates film and a respected playwriting program, and it partners closely with the Arts and Media Engineering Department, which is well equipped to handle the technology development side of the equation. But I'm sure soon we will see other unique programs popping up across the country and the world. I look forward to it.