Since the last education issue in October 2007, a lot has happened within the field of projection design. We've been added to the designers' union, United Scenic Artists. A projection designer and his associates were nominated for a Tony Award for Scenic Design. Huge strides forward have been made in all stages of projection technology, from the applications and methods used to create content, to exciting new display technologies. It's safe to say that the idea of “convergence” — the brand where all lighting and scenic designers become projection designer hybrids — has passed us by and been replaced by an era of tighter, faster collaboration.
At this point, the major challenge that remains is to ensure the ongoing development of the field. That means thinking about the education and career development of future designers. What does a curriculum for a projection design degree look like? Projection designers are crossbreeds, born of synthesis: the history of the art is still being written, but the technology is barely around ten minutes old before it's obsolete. How can we best formalize these conditions into a coherent curriculum?
To explore this, we've employed two methods. First, we'll look at the structure and content of two existing programs: the departments at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University and the Herberger College School of Theatre and Film at Arizona State University. Each possesses enough similarities and differences to be instructive examples. Second, we sent out a questionnaire asking the advice of working projection designers, including Bob and Colleen Bonniol, creative consultants for the LDI Projection Master Classes (see sidebar, p 30).
ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY JAKE PINHOLSTER
In the Herberger College School of Theatre and Film at Arizona State University, I teach the core of the media design programs — our name for projection/video design — at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. These two levels are designed as very different programs.
At the undergraduate level, media design is built into the larger concentration in design and production, which is a subsection of the larger BA in Theatre. Being part of a BA program actually is advantageous to the media design program, as it creates the necessary range of flexibility to cover all the projection design bases. Students enjoy a wide range of courses in theory and practice and can change directions easily. Since most people come to this esoteric career through a circuitous route, this level of variety lets me cast a wide net. On the production side, the undergraduate experience is run on the regional/commercial theatre model, which helps students learn good professional practices before emerging into the field.
On the graduate level, there are two routes students can take in projection design. The Interdisciplinary Digital Media (IDM) degree is a joint collaboration with the Arts, Media, and Engineering program. IDM graduate students gain experience not only in design, collaboration, and the making of art, but also in programming and interactivity, which, as Bob Bonniol of Mode Studios puts it, “is the future of what we are doing.”
The graduate degree in performance design focuses on devised works and experimental forms. Students focusing on performance design (including projections) spend the bulk of their time studying collaboration and conceptualization in incredible depth, coupled with a push to embed an awareness of the diversity and rich history of both theatre and art. In their production work, designers engage in longer collaborative processes in the creation of new work.
I think these three separate tracks mirror the needs of the industry. Undergraduates leave ASU prepared to enter the production model of projection design as it already exists within regional and commercial theatre. The IDM students are bridge-builders and technologists, the creators and architects that will help to create new tools and new methods of working. Finally, the performance designers are working to create the new forms and works to best utilize those technologies.
GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY KIRBY MALONE AND GAIL SCOTT WHITE
The Multimedia Performance Studio (MPS) is a “research and producing/presenting unit” of the Department of Art and Visual Technology (AVT) in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. We founded MPS in 1999, and in 2001, MPS received a $125,000 NEA “Resources for Change” grant for our “New Stage Technology Project.” This grant provided seed money for research that contributed to the creation and publication of the book, Live Movies: A Field Guide to New Media for the Performing Arts (www.avt.gmu.edu/mps).
As an educational structure, MPS is based in research and production, although it draws on courses we teach in animation, digital image-making and filmmaking, performance studio, critical theory, cyberpunk, and cyber-cultural studies. The focus within MPS is on collective creation, on learning by doing. The Studio is engaged in research into new technologies for the performing arts, including intensive explorations of video projection, show control, sound samplers, wireless microphones, kinetic scenery, 2D and 3D animation, digital filmmaking, and their integration into live performance.
MPS creates original productions and projection and multimedia designs for theatre, opera, musical theatre, dance, performance art, and installations. Some productions are created by students — graduate and undergraduate — with faculty guidance; others are created by teams of guest artists working in collaboration with faculty and students in a multimedia performance, research, and design ensemble. These students and faculty come from more than a dozen Mason departments and programs, including AVT, Theatre, Music, Dance, Art History, Computer Science, and Cultural Studies.
The goal of this interdisciplinary, cross-curricular collaboration is to synthesize the ideas, talents, and energies of each artist/scholar involved. MPS productions and projects serve as apprenticeship programs for students, whether their futures lie in theatre or opera companies; universities or art schools; animation houses; film, TV, or recording studios; or performance art ensembles.
Inspired by pioneering artistic/educational programs of the 20th century, such as the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, we work to create an environment in which learning, creation, and production coexist seamlessly, directed toward a shared vision of staging innovative, thought-provoking entertainment that is grounded in research — technical, historical, and cultural — and that explores social questions.
Because it is an interdisciplinary stepchild, projection design sometimes finds homes, or at least footholds, in many kinds of academic departments: theatre, film, visual arts, dance, new media, entertainment design, computer science, etc. It is, perhaps contradictorily, a nomadic field. As is evident from the responses to our questionnaire in the sidebar, the beginnings of a fluency in it might include: storytelling, storyboards, image composition, montage theory, image display and control devices, lighting plots, set plans, code-writing, score-reading, science fiction, optical physics, cultural studies, and art and theatre history.
As the program descriptions at Arizona State and George Mason demonstrate, there is a wide range of possible approaches and methods for teaching the basics, history, and practice of projection design. Like the designers in our survey, each student will find a different path into the industry. As educators, our job is to encourage their self-discovery.
Young audiences (and designers) today are much more attuned to cinema, popular music, and video games than to realistically staged plays, classical opera, and conventional musicals. This evolution of multimedia sensibilities leads to a new kind of work for the stage and a (relatively) new kind of artist to create it.
It is important to demystify so-called “new media,” with the realization that tools are simply tools and soon will be assimilated by theatre's production apparatus as were nautical rigging, electrical lighting, servo mechanisms, film and slide projection, and sound sampling and amplification. This demystification is necessary in order to place the emphasis of performance where it belongs: on content and meaning, story and narrative.
At the same time, just as sound design gradually has become an embraced element of basic theatrical production, so too will projection design over the next decade or two. Those of us who, from our diverse perspectives, find ways to construct and develop teaching methods for this practice are fortunate to be able to contribute to the education of a new generation of designers who will breathe life into that theatrical transformation.
Although based in a language of images, projections also are another kind of stage light, and the set and the costumes form the screens. This interdependence necessarily leads to a unified, dialectical approach to scenography, and to the fabled Gesamtkunstwerk, the total artwork, total theatre. We teach and learn this in the trial-and-error heat of research, production, and education.
WORKING PROJECTION DESIGNERS AND ARTISTS WEIGH IN
Did anything in your education affect your decision/impetus to become a projection/video designer/programmer? If not, how did you come to the field/practice?
PAUL VERSHBOW: Mine was a circuitous route: my “education” provided me with an internship, which introduced me to the world of AV — slides and slide programming — and one thing led to another. Projection design, however, even if I had been interested in it, was not offered at Northwestern University 1970-1974.
WENDALL K. HARRINGTON: I became a projection designer because I was a filmmaker out of work. I worked in advertising making slide shows, and those communication and media skills were valuable when the idea of a projection designer was invented, and I was there.
ZACHARY BOROVAY: I grew up in a musical theatre family. We saw Broadway shows a few times a month. We listened to cast albums. My father taught scenic design. So starting at a young age, I had what I'd call a traditional apprenticeship in theatrical design. I have always felt that in “learning by doing,” I really got a much broader overview of the craft of theatrical storytelling.
BOB BONNIOL: I was always a dual major in theatre and communications. So I was learning broadcast technology at the same time I was learning theatrical topics. Curiously, it would be well after college that I thought of linking them. But while I was in school, I was producing lots of music videos and experimental videos. I directed and designed a dance show called Saturation that was about the literal wallpaper of televised media our society faced daily — multiple 8mm tape decks, a video toaster, and as many old televisions as I could gather.
COLLEEN BONNIOL: There was no projection design when I was in school. I am older than dirt. I worked my way into projection design by combining my experiences in theatre with rock 'n' roll, film, and 3D. A great aspect of projection design is that you are first and foremost a storyteller; you must know how and when to communicate that story.
ROBERT GARDINER: I was influenced by Robert Dahlstrom's use of Pani projectors for backdrops in grand opera productions, replacing physical scenic painting with light.
PAUL KAISER: I was lucky enough to encounter underground experimental film while I was in high school, and by the time I was in college, had memorized many films by Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie, Robert Breer, and others. I then studied film very widely in college (from Hawks and Fuller to Bresson and Mizoguchi), at the same time teaching a class in American experimental film even as an undergraduate. By then, I'd started making Super-8 films of my own. Sometimes I think of our present work [in OpenEnded Group] as a way of making films by other means.
If you were designing a curriculum for theatrical designers specializing in projections/video, what would be three or four core subject areas of focus?
WH: Looking, seeing, making things, but most of all passion and humility.
ZB: I am currently designing a curriculum for my upcoming class at Long Island University. Because of my musical background — having studied music performance at Berklee College of Music — I tend to break things down in a musical way. So the three core concepts I plan to teach are melody, rhythm, and harmony. These are the foundations of all music, and I think they are the foundation of all theatrical design as well. Melody: the element that is the main focus; rhythm: how things move; and harmony: the relationship between the various elements.
BB: Technical considerations: display devices, playback methodologies, control, encoding, etc. Dramaturgical: What motivates image in narrative? What is the scenographic value? Can image act as character in addition to scenery? Why, why, why are we making those design choices? Content creation methodology: definitely heavily including the implementation of interactive systems and content, which is the future of what we are doing.
RG: Use of projected images as stage scenery, use of projected images as stage light, use of projected images as performers, and the interaction of projected light — however used — with storytelling and ideas.
If you had a semester to go back to school (and you actually wanted to), what courses would you want to take to enrich your skills and creativity as an artist/designer?
PV: Cinema, English, art history, and costume design.
WH: I would learn to read music, which is thinking in symbols and crucial to the development of any artist.
BB: Art history — and not sleep through it this time — figure drawing, world history, mythology, and screenwriting.
RG: Contemporary art installations (all kinds), animation for print, film, and digital media, history of lighting.
What influences or sources — from theatre history, popular culture, or elsewhere — would you steer students toward to enrich their scenographic and multimedia horizons?
PV: I'd make them travel.
WH: Every visual thing on Earth when looked at is enriching, but I'd make them watch a lot of old films and animation to learn visual storytelling.
ZB: Get an internship, find a designer you like, and ask if you can “hang out” while they work. Just try to be around people who are doing what you do.
BB: Robert Wilson, Robert Israel, Willie Williams, Trent Reznor, Madonna, Michael Cotten, Wendall Harrington, www.createdigitalmotion.com, www.motionographer.com, www.universaleverything.com, UnitedVisualArtists, Laurie Anderson, Chuck Close, Nam Jun Paik, and Colleen Bonniol.
RG: Contemporary art installations — all kinds, animation for print, film, and digital media, history of lighting.
PK: Very often students are only familiar with ideas at a far remove from their original sources. For example, they've seen rapid cutting and handheld camera in music videos and the like, where such techniques are deeply false, rather than in the films of Brakhage, Baillie, and Mekas, where they are deeply true. Similarly, students often swallow the simplified history of cinema (which paints a kind of evolutionary picture of progress) when in fact the earliest filmmakers (Lumiere and Melies) are as great or greater as any who followed. Of similar interest are the precursors of cinema — preeminently Marey, but also in the popular spectacles of the 19th century and earlier (especially in stage magic).
How important do you think it is for a potential projection designer to have experience in the other scenographic disciplines? How critical to their training is collaboration with the other disciplines?
PV: Very important and very important. You can't collaborate if you don't know what the other people are doing.
WH: It is useful to understand the language so you don't seem a fool, and you should know how to protect your images. If the LD plans no sidelight and you need it, you must know that. It's not learning to be an LD; it is self-defense of sorts — same as knowing how paint or surfaces will respond to your projection, which is not scenic design. Too much knowledge can make for competition, which is never useful. Otherwise, the most critical thing to learn is respect for each other's craft and collaboration; if they didn't learn it by fifth grade, I can't teach it. Only encourage them to bury their worst habits.
ZB: I think one must be aware of how other elements work, but I wouldn't say that every video designer should also know Lightwright or AutoCAD. It isn't going to hurt, but the most important thing is to have an idea about what you'd like to achieve with your design. The math can always get figured out later.
CB: Projection designers are crossbreeds. They are inherently also lighting designers, directors (storytellers), or scenic designers. It is the most important factor in any current projection design curriculum to teach these designers how to communicate with their peers.