Before You Ruin It

BYRIIn the Spring of 2012 I was asked by the director of the School of Film, Dance, and Theatre to consider designing the media for a new work being staged at ASU called Before You Ruin It. The show is built around the history of Infocom, a software company best known for its best selling interactive fiction games – Zork, Zork II, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (just to name a few). The play takes the convention of being played as though it were an interactive fiction game. Our lead character, “Player” starts by sitting at a computer terminal where he types commands and interacts with the “Game” (another character sitting stage right). As the play takes off we soon find that a time jumping watch has been added to our inventory. This remarkable piece of technology periodically bounces us forward in time to the Infocom’s crisis moments where the Player must decide how to best proceed. In the end the Player comes to the  realization that Infocom’s star should burn brightly for a short period of time rather than to not burn at all. The future, ugly as it may be, is sometimes written for us – for better or for worse. Here the challenge was how do you design the media for a play largely built around interactive fiction games that are entirely (well nearly) text based? The play also carries the necessity of media describing informing the audience for large shifts in location, and our travel through time.

Initially, the media design process looked straight forward and fairly small in scope. As the play developed it quickly became apparent that I had a wild ride in front of me. Another exciting part of this production was the inclusion of the writer in our process. From casting through production the writer was constantly in the process of re-writing based on what she was hearing from the actors and the director. When we finally settled on a production script media was looking at having 147 cues.

The complexity of this was amplified by the design focus that came out of several discussions with the director, Hal Brooks. Hal and I both wanted to avoid upstaging the action of the play with big flashy media presentations. Many of our discussions revolved around the importance of the media supporting the action, but not distracting the audience. Media, in this case, needed to always drive the story and avoid situations where it was media for media’s sake. Given this imperative, we settled on the convention of the media’s presence being one that was informative but fleeting – a force that appeared and faded away to make room for the performers. That’s no small task for a play 97 pages long with 147 media cues.

screen-with-text-refreshIn thinking about what this production might look like I started by scouring the web for the kind of visual textures and elements that felt right both in terms of the tone of the play and in terms of the time period. While it’s always tempting to bring the flashy fun media to every party, one of the lessons I’ve learned here at ASU is the importance of making choices about visual elements that are aware of their diegesis. Some aesthetic moments live in the world of the play, in the time period and in the texture and color spectrum of the scenic elements, and other moments live in conflict with that time and space. It may seem like a trivial matter, but how one best represents the world of the work changes how the audience relates to the play. Because of this it was important for me to start by looking back to the look and feel of computer and display technology of the 1980s. The 8-bit feel of early years of personal computing felt like a solid place to start, as well as the convention of monochrome that was connected to early displays. I also liked the feeling of early display fonts and the command line conventions for test input. You can see some of my collected visual research here.

Screen-Refresh_OrangeOne of the conventions I’ve used in previous projects was to separate out pieces of a given design to allow for a more modular approach of making. I especially liked the idea of using multiple textures to represent monochromatic displays so that I had the flexibility of finding the right look and feel for a given moment in the play. This meant that I could use only black and white assets and luma key in the color I wanted for a given moment in the play.

The result of this composite gives an otherwise still image some sense of movement and life. This approach was used for throughout the play to give the suggestion of the media coming through a cathode ray tube display. In the end, this small suggestion of life created headaches when it came to smooth playback, but felt well worth it when it was finally working.

Time and again in the design I kept coming back to the importance of locating the aesthetic in the feeling and time of this specific period in the history of technology. While the details have felt important to me in the past, for this show especially it felt like the presentation truly lived and died in the details of its presentation.

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