I thought Al Gore invented the Internet to make our lives easier. Have we missed the boat or just not found the dock yet? The many ways in which technology is helping theatre set design and other areas of live design are not difficult to see. Automated decks, fly rails, projection gear, and a whole host of moving lights are everywhere. Hand drafting is quickly becoming a dinosaur, and sooner than you think. The model will be on the endangered species list as well. It's true: technology has turned its favors to the artistic end of the spectrum, and it's not only saving time and money. If implemented correctly, it can allow directors and designers to explore artistic ideas further and more efficiently and ease the process of collaboration. The technology is there and is quite affordable, and those who are willing to take the chance are finding big rewards.
The ability to render high-quality, accurate, computer-generated models and share visual data via the web is changing the way we do business, not only in the development of scenic ideas and solutions, but across all disciplines of design. Let's face it, scenic designers have long been on the short end of the stick, as far as toys go. Lighting designers have had moving lights and have been drafting in CAD long before we cracked open a laptop; and sound designers have Apple iTunes, digital music editors, and access to a slew of libraries at the click of a mouse online. Set designers have had T-squares, parallel rulers, and big drawing boards that are a bear to move. It's time to take a giant leap forward. We'll be breaking this discussion down into two parts. This month, we'll discuss creating the design on the computer; next month, we'll discuss sharing that information online.
Scenic designers are usually the first on board in any particular project. Most of our greatest responsibilities deal with things long before we step foot in the theatre. As the lead dominos, we now have a chance to steer things in a new direction which could, quite realistically, lead to less tech time, at least tech in the sense of cue to cue. If that first step in the process goes digital, subsequent steps for all parties involved can go farther faster. Many of you may think that going digital opens up just another set of issues, but thanks to the web and the ease of its manipulation, going digital is just as easy as getting online. And really now, who can't get online?
With the use of software such as AutoCAD, VectorWorks, and 3D Studio Max, any level of computer-generated modeling is achievable. Who's to say you can't build a white model in the computer? If that's your process, let it be done. Now go from a white model to a painted model with moving parts in real time, and have the preliminary drawings done. How long would it take you? How many assistants would you need? How about two days and one assistant? This statement does rely on one huge assumption, upon which the rest of this article will operate under: that you have an intimate knowledge of the software.
First thing to do is get that napkin sketch into the computer. Starting with a CAD plan is key; it's the first step to getting the model accurate and, if all is set up properly, will allow you to instantaneously ratify drawings and models in just a few clicks. From there, you can go vertical with the model, which will turn into your section and elevations. A change to the model changes the drafting. Surely enough — thanks to the web — molding companies, furniture designers, and a slew of other 3D artists take care of execution of detail. Websites like Turbo Squid (turbosquid.com) and 3D Cafe (www.3dcafe.com) can prop a show for you digitally at half the price and a quarter of the time.
Here's a myth buster: working this way, I never really see the time-saving factor. I still put long hours in and spend many a late night at my laptop. What does often blow my mind is how much more is accomplished in that time — and I'm speaking artistically. When I flip through the show files on my hard drives, I can literally look through images of dozens of versions of a show. Working digitally can extend the time you have to explore artistic ideas, because the practical aspect to it all is being dealt with simultaneously on the back end. Instead of crunching numbers and erasing and redrawing, you can look at color choices, furniture arrangements, and even choreograph scene changes.
Sad note: as of now, you still have to build model boxes. Yes, they can be digital, but nonetheless, you've still got to build the space. Hopefully, theatre managers/companies will embrace the digital wave and create a catalog of online resources, including CAD drawings of venues and a 3D model of the space, but for the time being, the responsibility is ours. Once you do, take a seat, anywhere in the house. You can sit anywhere you like and take a look at sightlines, set your in and out trims, and congratulate yourself.
That's step one. Granted, some of you are already well aware of all this. But step two — digital collaboration — is where things really get interesting. And we'll discuss that next month.