The creative and technical teams at Drury Design Dynamics and UVLD have worked together several times to build huge corporate productions. A group of us sat down to discuss the process of this integrated planning and design and the proliferation of media server-driven video in events. Participants in the roundtable included three from UVLD: lighting designer Greg Cohen, programmer/designer Paul Sharwell, and visual media developer Cameron Yeary. From Drury were president/chief creative officer Chris Drury and Ron Annas, director of production services. Amid the finely sharpened pencils, fresh notepads, and Atomic Fireballs in the Drury Design offices, the discussion ensued.
Marian Sandberg: Let’s start with talking about why we’re all together.
Greg Cohen: For us at UVLD, we see that Drury is able to produce strong shows, despite shrinking budgets, and there’s always been a lot more production than what you would expect on a normal sized show—so Chris is basically getting robbed by his clients—and we’re basically partnering with the end clients to steal Chris’ money [laughs]…but wherever you have so many elements in a show, the potential for a mess is high. I think Chris is successful in not having technologies just for each one’s sake and in doing storyboards for projects with a clear and appropriate plan we’re going to stick to.
MS: Is “using video just for video’s sake” driven by the client or by a creative director who says, “we have to” do that?
GC: I think it becomes a “me too” type of thing. We all remember seeing the SoftLED curtain by Main Light for the first time, and some people weren’t even making it look good, but suddenly everyone was putting it on every show…
Cameron Yeary: …because it was new and interesting.
GC: Right, but Chris, Drury, and I have more of a plan. We’ve used SoftLED, but it’s more of an overall plan and never just about a low-res product on its own as the design.
Chris Drury: I agree with Greg. I don’t really care what the technology is or what’s hot. I care about what vision we’re trying to communicate and then finding the best tools to communicate it. We sit down as a team, and that includes the graphic designer, graphic execution, video projection, video switching, media integration with lighting, and we all discuss what we’re trying to accomplish. The arena is a canvas, and the way in which to get our vision onto that canvas is almost always mixed. Lighting, layered with various forms of video, to me as a creative director is truly using it as a canvas. I think we look at multimedia the way you might look at art—the way a sculpture might combine copper and paint and fabric. And we look at it all early with the entire team, before spending any money, so we have a clear plan….
GC: …but also, we have to be flexible enough to change stuff onsite, as necessary, and less secure personalities as creative directors sometimes have trouble doing that.
CD: As time has gone by and technology has changed, trust levels have gone up, so it’s about telling you guys my vision and letting you do what you’re good at. The intra-team dialog about each moment on the storyboards helps us realize how to achieve that vision.
Paul Sharwell: That is the beauty of your storyboard method. We’re setup for maximum flexibility, but right off the bat, you’re communicating what you want, and there isn’t that sort of wandering in the dark for us…
CD: …waiting for that single guy to communicate the vision on every single frame.
PS: Right, not like we have a blank canvas, because the storyboards really work.
CD: And this goes back to the cost issue. We have 100 people with headsets onsite. We don’t have time to play around in these rooms. Everyone has to understand what we’re trying to achieve as quickly as possible, or we’d never get to the show.
Ron Annas: I worked with Drury for years as a freelancer, with no intention of ever taking a job on staff, but I took it just because we get the framework but also the freedom to convey to Greg what we need, and of course I’m responsible for money, so I can work with Greg in between the two, and we can arrive at this great middle ground where we achieve the creative that Chris wants through the flexibility of UVLD. This can all become either a financial or time-based disaster...
CD: …and we cannot afford to make mistakes at this level of production. With 7,000 attendees and the limited time we have, a single mistake can cost us $50,000.
GC: I wonder if part of what we learn with new media is letting go a little bit—knowing that we’re not going to look at every frame in advance because we have the flexibility to go back. It’s not like we’re rendering video for hours overnight. Creative directors like Chris are more flexible, and we’re not locked into doing anything that could really be a mistake if suddenly the client hates something onsite. Letting go gives us that freedom…
PS: …and the ability to take creative risks…
CD: …and the freedom to try things we couldn’t in the past. I had an experience exactly like that, where the client didn’t like one color we used. We had the guys at UVLD change it right there, and now he’s been a client for ten years, and he saw that flexibility aspect. Particularly on Cam’s end, who would think you could paint video like that—stretch it and turn it—in such a way that the lighting is truly integrated? For one client, we created the production with LEDs along the bottom, traditional projection at the top, and it’s supposed to blend, and it all does because of the flexibility of the technology.
Cameron Yeary:Yes, and with resolutions all in entirely different worlds but still a seamless presentation. And during that process, we realized the screens we originally planned were actually too heavy, so we had to go with a different technology that was a totally different resolution. In a traditional video sense, if we were producing and rendering, that would have been a complete disaster, as we would have had to re-render everything. Our limitations are very minor.
GC: It’s interesting. At UVLD, we’re really all trained lighting designers, but we’re working a lot with various media, and we’re having the time of our lives manipulating stuff even though our backgrounds are traditionally elsewhere. Is it the flexibility of the way lighting cueing works that makes us lean toward doing this type of work?
PS: It’s now such a strong element visually, and we’ve always been responsible for painting scenery, being out in front-of-house, and realizing the entire visual impact. Video has traditionally been a backstage department, so we’re out front, and we can integrate the whole picture. Also, we’re used to cueing lighting intensively, to music or presentation video, so this type of video needs to do the same.
CD: And lighting departments have always been creative, while video departments for corporate have traditionally been playback, so they’re more technical.
GC: And with cueing, in no video world would there be ten cues in one song, and no lighting person would put one cue in a song.
PS: Right, when we hear music change, that’s a cue in our heads.
CD: And traditional video departments want to just hit Go. Lighting tends to be more ADD [laughs]. We do, however, have to consider Cam as video now. Someone like him understands lighting, video, and engineering and resolution. That’s really a trifecta, and he’s taken it upon himself to learn all this stuff.
PS: Maybe even five years ago, Cam didn’t know that much about video at all. He’s become an innovator but also really an educator for us to learn all this stuff internally.
MS: Cam, do you want to defend yourself? [laughs]
CY: Well, as I stop blushing, I really started programming lighting and trying to find the most efficient ways to pull off what we do. With lighting, we were always charged with painting scenery and maybe trying to match side screens and not always being successful. Now, sometimes everything is video, so it’s about taking it all together and making it look like a full scenic-scape. The movement of lights is what made me want to be a lighting designer, but with moving light technology slowing down and more development happening in video, I started to have different areas I could take in to try out new things.
RA: It’s become a race between creativity and technology, where it used to be you needed technology to catch up with creativity, but now it’s the other way around.
CD: And how about actual instruments that integrate lighting and video themselves? As creative director, I have to know what all these things can do.