Friday January 2
The studio is positively humming today. On Monday we begin a one-month residence at On the Boards Theatre (OTB). OTB is a fantastic space, a nice wide open stage, and an intimate house. They have a long history of fostering great experimental theatre and dance. Artists like Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray, and Diamonda Galas have all enjoyed development at OTB.
We'll be spending the month of January technically exploring the world premiere of Pat Graney Company's The Vivian Girls. The Vivian Girls are characters depicted in the work of 20th-century outsider artist, Henry Darger. In the course of an indigent existence, and a virtually solitary inner life, Darger managed to churn out almost 40,000 pages of an epic struggle between vying nations caught in the grip of child slave rebellions. The first volume, entitled The Adventures of the Vivian Girls — In the Realms of the Unknown, detailed an amazingly complex tale of child slave uprisings, theological struggle, and terrible warfare. The stories always featured the triumphs and tragedies of seven young girls known as the Vivian Girls.
The Vivian Girls were Catholic super-heroes with amazing powers of warfare and escape. They also enjoyed the company of a menagerie of amazing creatures. One of these, a creature known as a Blengin, took on many shapes. The Blengin could appear as large predatory birds with a wing span of several hundred feet, and tails of up to 10,000 miles, or sometimes as a kitten with a 500-mile tail and bat-like wings. They also sometimes appeared as cherubic, girlish, humanoids; sometimes with butterfly wings, sometimes with the curled horns of a ram. Darger had also created hundreds of watercolor paintings that depicted this land and its characters.
Darger's method for creating these paintings was unusual and opportunistic given his resources and talents. Darger couldn't draw figures very well, so he would carefully clip out illustrations in newspaper stories, advertisements, and catalogs. He would then trace these characters on carbon paper, and use the carbon paper to place them on his paintings. Thus the characters have an amazing, happy glow to them that almost belies the freakishness of their surroundings. The paintings were usually done on standard-sized note paper that Darger would then glue and tape together to form extremely wide panoramas, sometimes dozens of feet wide.
None of this rich artistic life came to public attention until Darger's death. The landlords of his small second-floor walkup room began cleaning out the floor-to-ceiling piles of paper that Henry had collected over his life. They soon came across the written volumes, and then the paintings, revealing the prolific side of an otherwise silent wanderer of the Chicago streets.
Pat Graney had seen the paintings and decided to base a modern dance piece around them. Pat's process is such that she likes to begin years before an actual performance. The dancers cast in the piece spent this time contemplating the many paintings, writing essays, and creating collages based on them, as well as working through suites of movements that they derive from the pictures. Pat also sought out musician's Amy Denio and Martin Hayes to compose the music for the piece. We became involved about a year before The Vivian Girls premiere. Pat generally elects not to consciously create a narrative or structure for her dance works, but instead to allow the piece to find itself through the creative contributions of all the participants. Thus, it was with very little foreknowledge of where we hoped to end up that we began this technical process.
In the year prior to this technical process we had scanned and photographed many of the Darger paintings, as well as numerous examples of the original labels and catalogs that the figures had been derived from. In what we regarded as high-level irony, we set about clipping Darger's characters back out of his paintings, as well as many of the more scenic elements. We did this in order to have the ability to quickly recompose, animate, or otherwise affect specific elements in the course of tech. This deconstruction, carefully accomplished in Adobe Photoshop, left us with much raw material to work with.
One dominating parameter of this work was its lack of budget. In light of the present political climate, support for the arts is at an all time low from the government. Pat was fortunate to enjoy financial support from several endowments and corporate foundations, but this money had long been allocated for giving the dancers a living wage throughout the extended production cycle and to the logistics of traveling the piece after its conception. Thus we were left to operate with what we had at hand. In the realm of hardware, we own several 2500 lumen LCD projectors. These projectors, bought in 1999 to facilitate our tour of Godspell, had long since left the prime of their lives. Nevertheless, we pressed them into service — once more into the breach, dear friends !
On the production software side we elected to use Microsoft Powerpoint. We had a rather limiting process trying to utilize Powerpoint while collaborating with scenic designer James Noone on the new musical Wedding Banquet. This time we were determined to drill down into Powerpoint and find its strengths, wherever they may be. We had been amazed at what former Talking Head David Byrne had achieved in a year of experimenting with Powerpoint to create a multimedia piece. We knew that we might be able to upgrade our experience, if only we could decipher the complex user guide, as well as the Byzantine Microsoft Knowledge Base online. With these tools and materials in hand, we would load in on Monday the 5th.
Monday, January 5
Once per decade, the metropolitan area of Seattle receives a paralyzing snow storm. The weather gods had chosen to play their hands early in this new decade, and we awoke on Monday to find up to two feet of snow in and around the city. Being a fairly temperate area, the City of Seattle has never seen fit to actually buy snow plows. The inevitable result is that the city shuts down, and the streets quickly become a festival of frolicking caffeine addicts. Ben Geffen, the lighting designer and production manager for the piece called us early to warn that the theatre was inaccessible, and that load-in was cancelled. We started tech by losing the first day.
Thursday, January 8
After loading in on Tuesday, we managed to get into the swing of things. Our Proxima projectors looked pretty dismal when used singly, but by aligning two, we achieved some semblance of necessary brightness. We had also designed a set for the piece consisting of large (very large) ragged piles of Darger books. The piles of books gave Pat and the dancer's different levels to ponder. When we fired up the projectors, and swapped to .8 lenses, we also found that they made excellent alternative projection surfaces. In a case of artistic whimsy, Pat had been directing the dancers to move through the projections, creating a startling sense of the paintings coming alive. We vowed to explore this element further.
Monday, January 12
We had been having some productive days, but we continued to be stymied by Powerpoint. Our number one problem with it had always been the lack of ability to give manual timing to a crossfade between slides. The dialogue box helpfully offered Fast, Medium, and Slow, but even in the slow mode crossfades happened on a 1 to 2 count. Not exactly what we had in mind for languid, lasting crossfades from image to image. We were able to import animations created in Adobe After Effects into slides, and they played back reasonably well, but the prospect of having to precompose all of these still-image crossfades in After Effects was daunting at best. We felt like there had to be a way to give a manual time to Powerpoint crossfades, but all searches in the documentation led to the maligned Fast, Medium, Slow option. It didn't seem right, and as we discovered it wasn't, but we were going to have to unlock a semantic puzzle first.
Friday, January 16
This morning Pat had the idea of wanting an element of the painting (a sailing ship) to appear with the painting, then at a predetermined moment traverse the painting. Another problem we ran into with our Powerpoint experience was an inability for it to crossfade in any way between a slide containing animation and a still slide. Thus precomposing the painting appearing, and then the ship moving at an as-yet-undetermined point was proving very difficult.
We knew that Powerpoint had some rudimentary animation properties of its own, so we decided that if we could bring in the sailing ship as a separate image within the slide, and then animate it, we might accomplish this. It would be predicated on Powerpoint dealing successfully with an image containing an alpha channel (that is to say an invisible layer surrounding the sailing ship). This would allow us to animate the ship-shaped object across the painting.
We discovered that Powerpoint could digest images with alpha channels in the form of TIFF files. We composed our slide with the underlying painting, placed the ship image at its starting place in the slide, and went looking for the animation controls. We found them under the heading Custom Animations. We located a left to right preset, and applied it. Lo and behold the ship went chugging across, albeit in a very steppy fashion. We were pleased to discover that we could choose to accelerate and decelerate the animation from start and going into stop. But there was something that began to intrigue us in these custom animation controls.
Above the preset motions we had utilized, we saw custom animations called “Entrance” and “Exit”. Surely this referred to the way an element might appear or disappear ? Further investigation revealed that indeed there was a fade option under both, and that that option could be given a manually entered time in the dialogue box that opened. Ah-HA!
The day came to a close before we could test much further, but now we really looked forward to Monday.
Monday, January 19
Over the course of the weekend, we had continued to work on this intuition at the studio. We discovered that our problem was in thinking of Powerpoint Slides as holding only one element, and that we would then naturally crossfade or go to another slide containing another element. What we realized is that each slide could contain many, many elements. When dealing with these many elements all within a single slide we were given a great deal more control over them in a timing sense. We discovered that by using the Custom Animation ‘Entrance’ and ‘Exit’ fading, we could make images come and go with pleasing, extended, user-specified timings. We also discovered that we could cause these fades to trigger on a click: “After Pre-vious” which was a sort of auto-follow, and “With Previous.” When we applied a fade out exit of the first clip, and a fade up entrance of a second clip, and specified this fade up to happen “With Previous” it caused the images to cross fade. Hallelujah! One problem we still had was that these fades appeared ever so slightly “steppy,” like our ship move. We still had some mysteries to unlock apparently.
Wednesday, January 21
With our principal mystery behind us, we engaged in a veritable orgy of crossfading. With this leap forward stylistically, we also seemingly inspired a new structure in the piece. Pat had decided to transition the action of the piece from the peaceful pastoral images, gradually and subtly building into the quite horrific war images, and then ultimately through to the almost psychedelic imagery of the Vivian Girls in the company of the Blengin. This lent a sort of narrative to the piece, and blocks began to tumble into place.
One element of this journey was a cue we called “The Travelogue” in which we used the animation capabilities of Powerpoint to slowly pan across an extremely wide painting of the Vivian Girls, in silhouette, moving through a vast cave. The animation had proved to be quite “steppy.” We became strongly motivated to solve this, as we really liked the cue — it was a dramatic and excellent way to end the first act. After poring over the documentation again, we found little to help us. But in the midst of setting up the playback controls for the presentation we noticed a sub-category for “utilizing Hardware Acceleration.” The laptops we use are really fast and powerful Windows XP hardware, and they contained Radeon 9000 graphics subsystems. These subsystems had proven quite robust in dealing with our animation, compositing, and editing applications in the past. Could they lend a hand here? With hope in our hearts, we clicked the button.
Tuesday, January 27
We moved the show today into the historic Moore Theatre in Seattle. The Moore is an old vaudeville house with ornate plaster, and a tall proscenium. Like most houses of its kind, it had done time as a rock concert venue, as well as a location for, um, adult entertainments. The Seattle Theatre Group (STG), who also ran the more opulent Paramount Theatre in Seattle revived the Moore, and is programming arts and alternative entertainment in the space aggressively. We were very happy to make our world premiere there.
Our happiness came not only from the history and purpose of the venue, but also because our trim heights now went up by some eight feet! Suddenly our giant stacks of books assumed a proper scale, the lighting looked beautiful and dramatic, and our projectable back drop had moved into a more welcome aspect ratio.
One thing that had us disappointed was the performance of the Proxima LCD projectors. In deciding that we wanted to project on the girls as well as on the set and backdrop, we found that the field of focus of the converged projectors made these images appear out of alignment and blurred, except when on the backdrop. We were very attached to the projections on the girls, and so reluctantly decided not to converge multiple projectors any longer. The bulbs currently in the projectors both had around 600 or 700 hours on them and had seen better days. A new lamp was going to cost around $500 dollars — an astronomical amount when you are operating in the world of modern dance. Pat began the process of seeking donations, and in the meantime we cast about for a different projector that might perhaps be donated for the run.
Oh by the way, did we mention that the hardware acceleration smoothed all that animation out? It did.
Wednesday, January 28
We had little luck in getting a projector donated. One well-known AV company in town had scoffed at the idea. Their primary mission was servicing giant meetings for a large software company, so much for giving something back to the arts. Another company, MediaTel, had offered us a 4,000 lumen DLP unit. They serviced Microsoft, in the form of handling the companies AV needs in house. Unfortunately, we just couldn't find a proper lens given the dimensions of the show. Sam Abousamra, president of MediaTel, had made an extensive effort, but to no avail. Finally we bit the proverbial bullet and bought a new lamp for one of the Proximas. The output improved remarkably, given the age and wear of the platform. With the astute and flexible lighting of Ben Geffen helping out, the show's luminance ended up well balanced.
Friday, January 30
The Vivian Girls opened to rave reviews and a capacity audience. It was extremely gratifying seeing a full theatre at a modern dance event. The next night's show was equally sold out, and presenters from dance programs and festivals from across the country had expressed high regard for the piece. The Vivian Girls will tour through 2006.
We discovered that Powerpoint can be used effectively and even subtly within the context of designing projections. We're going to continue to push the boundaries of this software in similar circumstances. We discovered that low-budget arts can be pulled off successfully through good will and persistant effort. We also discovered that companies that could help might elect not to despite their profitable balance sheets. And so now we make a call, a plea: In these times of no governmental support to the arts, it is up to the vendors, the designers, and the industry players to help. Every innovation that ultimately benefits some corporate meeting AV is most likely first discovered under the guise of artists pushing limits. It's up to all of us, as an industry, to help out and give back to these pioneers. There are some great industry players out there who do help push limits, MediaTel tried, and certainly Scharff Weisberg has helped us often throughout our adventures. We encourage the other vendors out there to also become good corporate citizens.