Category Archives: production

House of Escher | Media Design

In December of 2012 I was approached at an ASU School of Theatre and Film party and asked if I would be interested in working on a project that would begin the following semester, and premiere a new work in the Fall of 2013. As this is exactly the kind of opportunity that I came to ASU to peruse, I eagerly agreed to be a part of the project. 

Some Background

ASU’s School of Theatre and Film (soon to also include Dance) has a very interesting graduate school program for performers and designers. Operating on a cohort based system, the school admits a group of performers, directors, and designers (Scenic, Costume, and Lighting) every three years. One of the other graduate programs at the school, the one in which I’m enrolled, can enroll students each year. My program, Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance (IDM), straddles both the school of Arts, Media, and Engineering as well as the School of Theatre and Film. Students in my program have pursued a variety of paths, and one skill that’s often included in those various paths is media and projection design for stage productions. Just today as I was watching the live web-cast of the XboxOne announcement, I was thinking to myself, “some designer planned, created, and programmed the media for this event… huh, I could be doing something like that someday.”

The latest cohort of actors, designers, and directors started in the Fall of 2011, which means that the group is due to graduate in the Spring of 2013. In both the second and third year of the cohort’s program they work to create a newly devised piece that’s performed in one of the theatre’s on campus as ASU. Occasionally, this group also needs a media designer, and it’s their new show for 2014 that I was asked to be a part of. 

The Fall of the House of Escher

Our devising process started with some source material that we used as the preliminary research to start our discussion about what show we wanted to make. Our source materials were Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, M.C Escher, and Quantum Mechanics. With these three pillars as our starting point we dove into questions of how to tackle these issues, tell an interesting story, and work to meet creative needs of the group. 

One of our first decisions focused on the structure of show that we wanted to create. After a significant amount of discussion we finally settled on tackling a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) kind of structure. This partially arose as a means of exploring how to more fully integrate the audience experience with the live performance. While it also brought significant design limitations and challenges, it ultimately was the methodology the group decided to tackle. 

Shortly after this we also settled on a story as a framework for our production. Much of our exploratory conversation revolved around the original Poe work, and it was soon clear that the arc of the Fall of the House of Usher would be central to the story we set out to tell. The wrinkle in this simple idea came as our conversations time and again came back to how Poe and Quantum Mechanics connect with one another. As we talked about parallel universes, and the problems of uncertainty, we decided to take those very conversations as a cue for what direction to head with the production. While one version of the CYOA model takes patrons on the traditional track of Poe’s gothic story, audience members are also free to send our narrator down different dark paths to explore what else might be lurking in the Usher’s uncanny home. Looking at the photo below you can see where the audience has an opportunity to choose a new direction, and how that impacts the rest of the show. 

While this was a fine starting point, we also realized that it only giving the audience an opportunity to explore one avenue of possibility in the house felt a little flat. To address that point we discussed a repeated journey through the house in a Ground Hog Day-esque repeated style. Each run of the show will send the audience through the CYOA section three times, allowing them the opportunity to see the other dark corners of the house, and learn more about the strange inhabitants of the home. I did a little bit of map-making and mapped out all of the possible paths for our production; that is, what are all of the possible permutations of the three legged journey through the house. The resulting map means that there are twelve different possible variations for the production. A challenge, to be sure. 

Media and the House

So what’s media’s role in this production? The house is characterized by it’s Escher patterned qualities. Impossible architecture and tricks of lighting and perspective create a place that is uncanny, patterned, but also somehow strangely captivating. Just when it seems like the house has shared all of it’s secrets there are little quantum blips and pulses that help us remember that things are somehow not right until ultimately the house collapses. 

Our host (who spends his/her time slipping between the slices of the various paths the audience tumbles through) is caught as a destabilized field of particles only sometimes coalesced. The culminating scene is set in a place beyond the normal, a world of quantum weirdness – small as the inside of an atom, and vast as the universe itself. it’s a world of particles and waves, a tumbling peak inside of the macro and micro realities of our world that are either too big or too small for us to understand on a daily basis. 

Media’s role is to help make these worlds, and to help tell a story grounded in Poe’s original, but transformed by a madcap group of graduate students fighting their way out of a their own quantum entanglement. 

Phase 2 | Halfway House

Media design is an interesting beast in the theatre. Designers are called upon to create digital scenery, interactive installations, abstract imagery, immersive environments, ghost like apparitions, and a whole litany of other illusions or optical candy. The media designer is part system engineer, part installation specialist, and part content creator. This kind of design straddles a very unique part of the theatrical experience as it sits somewhere between the concrete and the ephemeral. We’re often asked to create site specific work that relates to the geometry and architecture of the play, and at the same time challenged to explore what can be expressed through sound and light. 

One of the compelling components of ASU’s School of Theatre and Film (SoTF) is its commitment to staging new works. In addition to producing works that are tried and true, ASU also encourages its students to create works for the stage. As a part of this commitment  the department has developed a three phase program to serve the process of developing a work for full main-stage production. 
  • Phase 1 – Phase one is between a staged reading and a work-shop production of a play. This phase allows the team to focus on sorting out the nuts and bots of the piece – what is the play / work really addressing  and what are the obstacles that need to be addressed before it moves onto the next stage of production. 
  • Phase 2 – Phase two is a workshop production environment  With a small budget and a design team the production team creates a staged version of the work that operates within strict design constraints. Here the lighting plot is fixed, scenic elements are limited, and media has access to two fixed projectors focused on two fixed screens.  This phase is less about the technical aspects of the production, and more focused on getting the work up in front of an audience so that the writer and director have a chance to get some sense of what direction to move next.
  • Phase 3 – Phase 3 is a full main-stage production of a work. Here there production has a full design team, larger budget, and far fewer constraints on the implementation of the production. 
While productions can skip one of the stages, ideally they are produced in at least one phase (either one or two) before before being put up as a phase three show. 
This semester I was selected to be the media designer on call for the two original works slotted in as Phase 2 productions: Los Santos, and The Halfway House. These two new works are both written by current ASU playwrights, who are invested in receiving some critical and informative feedback bout their work. The beginning part of this process begins with production meetings where directors pitch their visions of the production and start the brainstorming / creating process with the designers. Ultimately,  Los Santos decided against using any media for their production. Halfway House, however, did decide that it wanted some media driven moments in their production. 
My role in this process was to work with the director to find the moments where media could be utilized in the production, film and edit the content, and program the playback system for the short run of the production. After reading through the play a few times I met with Laurelann Porter, the director, to talk about how media could be used for this show. Important to the design process was understanding the limitations of the production. In the case of the Phase 2 productions, the projectors and screens are fixed. This limitation is in part a function of reducing the amount of tech-time, as well as limiting the complications imposed a set and lighting when doing complex projection. Looking at the script I thought the best use of media would be to enhance some of the transition moments in the production. Several of the transitions in the show involve moments where there is action taking place “elsewhere” (this is the language used by the playwright). These moments seemed perfect for media to help illustrate. In meeting with the director we identified the major moments that would benefit from some media presence, and started brainstorming from there.
A large part of the production process is planning and organization. In the case of lighting, sound, and media designers are tasked with identifying the moments when their mediums will be used, and creating a cue sheet. Cue sheets are essentially a set of discretely identified moments that allow a stage manager to give directions about how the show runs. Media, lights, and sound all have their own board operators (actual humans), and the stage manager gives them directions about when to start or stop a given cue. Creating a cue sheet with this fact in mind helps to ensure that a designer has working understanding of how to plan the moments that are being created. My process of reading the script looked like this:
  • 1st time through – for the story and arc of the action
  • 2nd time through – identify possible moments for media
  • 3rd time through – refine the moments start to create a working cue sheet
  • 4th time through – further refinement, label cues, look for problematic moments
After talking with the director and identifying what moments were going to be mediated material, it was time to create a shooting list, and plan for how to use a single afternoon with the actors to record all of the necessary footage for the show. We had one afternoon with the actors to film the transition moments. I worked with the director to determine a shooting order (to make sure that we efficiently used the actors’ time), and to identify locations and moments that needed to be captured. From here it was a matter of showing up, setting up, and recording. This transitioned smoothly to the editing process that was a matter of cutting and touching up the footage for the desired look.

The School of Theatre and Film currently have two show control systems at our disposal. Dataton’s Watchout4 and Troikatronix’s Isadora. Given the timing of the phase 2 productions, I knew that the Isadora machine was going to be available to me for show control. Like MaxMSP, Isadora a is a node-based visual programming environment. Importantly, Isadora is truly designed with performance in mind, and has a few features that therefore make it easier to use in a theatrical production environment. 

Typically a theatrical production requires a additional steps for media that are similar to the lighting process – lensing, and plotting for example. For the Phase two productions  the the shows use a standard lighting and media plot that doesn’t change. This means that there’s little additional work in terms of projector placement, focusing, masking, and the like that I have to do as a designer. For a larger production I would need to create a system diagram that outlines the placement of computers, projectors, cable, and other system requirements. Additionally, I would need to do the geometry to figure out where to place the projectors to ensure that I had a wide enough throw with my image to cover my desired surfaces, and I would need to work with the lighting designer to determine where on the lighting plot there was room for this equipment. This element of drafting, planning, and system design can easily be taken for granted by new designers but it’s easily one of the most important steps in the process as has an effect on how the show looks and runs. With all of the physical components in place, and the media assets created the designer is now looks at programming the playback system. In the case of Isadora this also means designing an interface for the operator.
One of the pressing realities of designing media for a theatrical installation is the need to create playback system knowing that someone unfamiliar with the programming environment will be operating the computer driving the media. ASU’s operators are typically undergraduate students that may or may not be technical theatre majors. In some cases an operator may be very familiar with a given programming interface, while others may not have ever run media for a show. Theatre in educational institutions are a wonderful place for students to have an opportunity to learn lots of new tools, and get their feet wet with a number of different technologies. In this respect I think it’s incumbent upon the designer to create a patch that has an interface that’s as accesible as possible for a new operator. In my case, each moment in the show where there is media playing (a cue) has  corresponding button that triggers the start, playback, and stop for the given video. 

Media is notoriously finicky in live performance. It can be difficult to program, washed out by stage lights, perform poorly if it’s not encoded properly, or any host of other possible problems. In the case of Half Way House, the process went very smoothly. The largest problem had more to do with an equipment failure that pushed back equipment installation than with the editing or programming process. While this is a simple execution of using media in a production, it was valuable for a number for the individuals involved in the process – the director, lighting designer, sound designer, and stage manager to name only a few. There are large questions in the theatre world about the role of media in production – is it just fancy set dressing? how is it actively contributing to telling the story of the show? is it worth the cost? does it have a place in an idiom largely built around the concept of live bodies? And the list goes on. I don’t think that this implementation serves to address any of those questions, but for the production team it did start the process of demystifying the work of including media in a production, and that’s not nothing.

Tools Used
Programming and Playback- Isadora | TrokaTronix
Projector – InFocus HD projector
Video Editing – Adobe After Effects , Adobe Premiere
Image Editing – Adobe Photoshop
Filming / Documentation – iPhone 4S, Canon 7D, Zoom H4n
Editing Documentation – Adobe PremiereAdobe After Effects

Sparrow Song | Drawing with Light

One of the effects that I’ve used in two productions now is where lines appear to draw-in over time in a video. This effect is fairly easy to generate in After Effects, and I wanted to take a quick moment to detail how it actually works. 

This process can start many ways. For Sparrow song it started by connecting a laptop directly to the projectors being used, and using photoshop to map light directly onto the set. You can see in the photo to the right that each surface that’s intended to be a building has some kind of drawn on look. In photoshop each of these buildings exists as an independent layer. This makes it easy to isolate effects or changes to individual buildings in the animation process.

Here’s a quick tutorial about how I animated the layers to create the desired effect:


Now that I’ve done this several times it finally feels like a fairly straightforward process – even if it can be a rather time consuming one.

Here’s an example of what the rendered video looks like to the playback system.

Here’s an album of documentation photos from the closing show.


Tools Used
Digital Drawing Input – Wacom intuos4
Mapping and Artwork – Adobe Photoshop
Animation and Color – Adobe After Effects
Photos – Cannon EOS 7D
Photo Processing – Adobe LightRoom 4

What is a Media Designer

It’s difficult to describe what exactly one does as a Media Designer. Prior to this first semester of graduate work I would have likely explained that the work of a media designer is centered around creating artwork that in some way represents and supports the world of the play. I also may well have said that a Media Designer is a person who works to erase the boundaries between the set and projection. A designer who works with light that isn’t light in the strictest theatrical sense, a scenic designer who doesn’t work with sets in the strictest theatrical sense. 

Now, after assisting on a production at Arizona State University, I might be more hesitant to describe a Media Designer the same way. In many ways the work is so much larger than I could have imagined. In hindsight I’d say that my vision was limited by a full understanding of the challenges, obstacles, and options. These things are difficult to understand abstractly, and only truly become obvious when they are manifest around a particular issue that needs to be solved. 

What is a Media Designer

It is interesting that I would have imagined that the primary work of the designer would be in the creation of the artwork itself. This is a beautiful and romantic idea, but in reality the work of creating content is only a small part of this particular role. Instead, central to the successful implementation of a mediated space, the designer is challenged to resolve issues of how to cover surfaces with projection (read as: using angular geometry to calculate the position of projectors), designing an interconnected system of computers and projectors to realize an artistic vision,consistent playback (read as: determining the most advantageous use of playback systems in regards to questions of stability and ease of use for an operator), programming said media systems, mapping the geometry of surfaces for projection, blending and masking the edges of projection, and of course creating the artwork that fills the surfaces.

What is a Media DesignerThis is complicated, of course, by the fact that it’s difficult to see these as independent variables. Instead many of these exist as dependent variables – each problem and solution nested or connected to countless others. Each solution or problem with consequences that are difficult to anticipate your first time around.

What is a Media DesignerAll of that to say that this particular work is more than meets the eye, which stands as a rather ironic statement given how much actually does meet one’s eye. It’s not unusual for the invisible challenges of a particular role to be larger than one expects, but the challenges I continually find myself facing are ever more surprising in their dependency on mathematics and computation for solution. I suppose that it some come as no surprise that mathematics would be a useful tool in regards to operating a computer, but it has surprised me that understanding the computational problems of these challenges provides for the best insight about their solutions.

This has truly been a whirlwind of an experience. I think I’ve learned more in working on this production than I could have learned in any class on the subject. Educationally that makes for a compelling case in favor of project based learning. That said, in terms of assessment it’s difficult to capture and measure what precisely I’ve learned. Further, it’s difficult to determine outright if these problem-solving skills with transfer to other domains or even other similar projects. I suppose in that sense I’ll be my own longitudinal study.

Though, in truth that’s really what education is for any individual. That’s what education is trying so desperately to unpack, to standardize, to measure, and to reproduce. Does solving problems in real-world scenarios with high stakes make for the best learning? Sometimes. Does abstract conceptual exploration and investigation work to make creative thinkers? Sometimes. At least in this case I got to make some art out of it.

Almost Open

Almost Open¡Bocón! is almost open… it’s now so close that you can taste it in the coffee we drink all night while we’re working, so close that you can smell it in the hazer fluid that’s filling the air. In many ways the transition from the initial days of tech and the final dress seem like an impossible transformation. 

It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees sometimes, and this experience has been no exception. It seems like there have been countless nights when I’ve wondered if we’d actually be able to put together the media for this show. My role in this production has been as the assistant to the very talented and driven Dan Fine – a second year MFA student in the Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance program at ASU. It’s strange to think that we actually started this process back in August when he first asked if I’d be interested in working with him on this project. Our initial meetings, that now seem so long ago, were centered around codifying the ideas and aesthetic that we were hoping to create in designing the media for this show. 

Almost Open

In thinking back to those initial meetings they provided an invaluable scaffolding for the work that would come as we started to install projectors and create content for the show. Those first meetings helped to unify both our vision and conviction for the show and the ultimate look of what we were looking to create. Central to our conversations was the idea that the visual expression of the show was somewhere between a storybook and abstract art. Dan wanted artwork that supported the story visually, helped to create the world of the play, but didn’t distract the audience from the actors in the space. The difficult balance of mediating a production like this is to avoid the impulse to fill the space with so much content that it overpowers the actors on stage. It’s been an interesting balancing act to support the action of the space without becoming a distraction to the audience.

Almost Open

This process of media design has also left me with more questions than answers about how one might meaningfully examine this work. After several long nights in the theatre and working at home I’m left wondering when my most productive and meaningful work happened: was it productive to be in the theatre until nearly 3:00AM? Was I actually designing quality work after midnight as I fought with After Effects night after night? Did our system of versioning our work facilitate better organization or impede our efforts to implement changes from run to run of the show?

Almost Open
The part of me that obsessively tracked the mileage of a Prius as Lauen Breunig and I drove across the country is left wondering how, and what, I might track in the next show that I design or assist in designing. What would help me be a better practitioner, a better artist, a better scholar? What’s the appropriate balance of quantitative and qualitative data to be pulled from my process that might tell a compelling or interesting story? Better yet, what method of data collection is going to be unobtrusive enough to warrant implementing – this process is about as resource intensive as it can be already, what kind of investigative instrument is going to yield useful data without providing biased results?
Almost Open
Looking at the opening of the first ASU show where I’ve made a significant contribution I can’t help but wonder what the next semesters and years hold, what my work will look like, and what I’ll do after I leave the desert. 

Bocon Tech

¡Bocón!

After four days of going to bed between 3:00 and 4:00 AM it finally feels like we’re making progress. This challenge is something between the most amazing opportunity and the most terrifying challenge. Here I am, not even a semester into Graduate School and I’m working on a project with three panoramic screens and floor projection: nine projectors, five computers, two media play back systems, two operating systems, two frazzled graduate student media designers, and one children’s show.

Below is a moment from the show as the main character runs through a forest in an attempt to escape an oppressive military force. As the lights change, the floor is painted with a vine-like mandala as the three panoramic screens are slowly fade up revealing a forest of vines, and masks.

Bocon Tech

The time and the place of the play read as an abstracted South America – something that straddles an aesthetic that’s a strange marriage of expressionism and realism. It’s one thing to think about that in terms of production meetings, and another to see it finally materialize. In this way it’s interesting to finally see a fuller representation of the production.

Bocon Tech

Strange to me has been the experience of getting tossed headlong into this whole process. The learning curve on this process has felt like more like a straight line than a curve. As this show has developed it’s felt as though there are new techniques, software, and concepts to learn at every turn. For every new method I’ve started to digest, there are another 10 to add to the list to learn later. More than ever the idea of life-long learning is something that I keep coming back to… it’s just a matter of continuing to learn and apply techniques and process. I came to grad school to learn lots of tools and techniques, and already I’m quickly finding that I’ve actually come to grad school to learn how much more there is to learn.

Tools Used:

Media Control for Panoramic Displays – Watchout
Media Control for Floor Projection – Isadora
Media Generation – After Effects, Photoshop