PRESENTATION : The Evolution of Video Design

Published 31|01|10

Dick originally gave this presentation at PLASA North in 2009, about current trends and approaches to theatre video design. The article was also published in Sightline, the journal of theatre technology and design, in the Winter 2009 edition.

‘There is only one right way to design a play, by respecting the text, and not using it as a peg on which to advertise your skills, whatever they may be, nor to work out your psychological hang-ups with some fashionable gimmick’ … Jocelyn Herbert

    Recent Past – Digital Image in theatre

Projected imagery in theatre is not new, as a brief glance at various forms and devices would reveal. Adapted lanterns, projectors, gobos, slides, Pepper’s ghost, silhouette animation and many variations have brought imagery onto the stage over many centuries.

But the use of digital media in the last few years has become much more extensive at all levels of theatre practice. It’s brought theatre into an interaction with all the other areas of image production that have become almost exclusively digital. It is now a discipline taught on theatre courses and a familiar issue for producers to fund and directors to consider when staging both past and new work. This is partly because the technology involved has now become varied and relatively well known – the capabilities and language have been established beyond the level of the mysterious dark art that it was not so many years ago.

In these recent years of the ‘new’ digital medium, the push for video has tended to be led by productions looking for either a spectacular ‘wow’ factor – a means of engaging and tempting new audiences into the theatre, or for experimenting with new means of creating scenic backdrops. However, in many ways these reasonings are flawed because of the fundamental necessity for a performance to rely on the strength of its writing and the interpretation of this. As practitioners we are increasingly discussing the use of video design with directors who had been previously reticent and nervous of how and why they might use video in their productions, and maybe still are, having seen particularly gratuitous examples over the last few years.

Video can have a seductive quality, due to its filmic associations and the unique ability to display the reality of imagined spaces and environments beyond the immediate stage. The problem with the temptation to use video is that theatre has a different language to the filmic or televisual origins of video – except in it’s simplest forms. A theatrical production rarely needs to make use of the nuances of film ‘editing’ theory, conventional framing of shots, or production house grading – everything is bespoke to the particular theatrical production. This can be further complicated when we consider that theatre is an art form with much closer links to other visual and performance mediums such as performance art, dance and opera, rather than film and TV. However, the visual references, aspirations and benchmarks asked of us are often still generated from within the filmic medium –  which means a special set of skills is needed to resolve the two. These skills are not new as demonstrated by the work of Robert LePage and Laurie Anderson amongst others in work prior to the age of the media server systems.

    Current trends – Technology Neutral

The turn of the century coincided nicely with the advent of technology for displaying and producing digital media within the realm of the stage. Since this point a recurrent issue in realising video has been a reliance on the technical nature of the means of delivery and the lack of transparency in this potentially complex process. Video delivery systems were not essentially designed for theatrical ends in the same way that many early sound systems were not invented for the theatre. For a number of years the resulting situation was sometimes an expensive and indulgent setup that caused some gratuitous designing in order to justify the process. The introduction of the technology and the complex playback systems that resulted often meant a large amount of time had to spent on the essentially non visual process of the constructing and plotting of the content through a software interface. In the limits of a  technical rehearsal this can be critical time taken away from creative discussion with the director and other designers.

There have also been attempts to replace traditional scenery with digital substitutes and use projected virtual scenery. The success in creating a believable reality using this method has been limited by technology that in a theatre environment is under developed but is inevitably compared to movie and gaming parallels where the scale, language, creative resources and final product are very different to a performance situation. This approach will undoubtably continue in theatre and become more sophisticated and integrated but there is a fundamental aesthetic difficulty in presenting real actors within virtual environments. Unless the virtual world is an essential part of the script the point at which the real and the ‘modeled’ meet continues to be a difficult juncture. Compared to integrating pre-recorded or live cameras into a performance the virtual creations of scenery (and potentially of acting avatars) present a point where visual continuity is rarely coherent.

Over the last few years, the development of both media servers and of a theatrical language and framework within which to use them has now taken us towards a more technologically neutral position. By this we mean that the wider choice of technical systems and the ability of most to deliver an equal variety of outcomes has made the specific brand less important. Our experience with them has also increased so that the various technical challenges are no longer such a diversion from the designing process. Moreover the dependency of these products on a rare breed of programmers and bespoke set ups has become less necessary and so the design process is becoming less tied to a restrictive technical solution.

Designing, for a time, was hostage to the technical process which in turn was the only means of delivering the design – a paradox not in the best interests of anything other than a visually interesting but conceptually threadbare result !

Now, as video designers the ease of use of this new, developed technology allows us valuable time to consider better our filmic, photographic, graphic and conceptual design elements – having worked through these technological issues, the design part of the process is now in a position to regain its necessary primacy.

As practitioners working throughout this period and exploring all these disciplines Mesmer are aware of a new phase marked by a more mature attitude in the use of video. Many precedents now exist to illustrate the successes, failures and near misses in the use of video and the varying approaches and choices that creative teams have at their disposal to utilise the medium. This more mature phase is allowing freedom to focus on the fundamental nature of integrating a visual narrative into the essentially textual and performed narrative at the core of the production.

One outcome of this is that we have been struck by the possibilities of a more simplified approach and are more confident in proposing less onerous technical solutions whilst concentrating more on content production and how this works on stage. This in turn has tended to allow more time to refine, and paradoxically, often cut content down to the most essential requirements for the production.

Mesmer have always straddled the intersections between design and technology, content creation and delivery, theatre and the influence of other creative mediums. Within Mesmer, Dick Straker and Ian William Galloway have recently explored the use of very simple set ups in order to focus more on the essential requirements of the imagery. Finn Ross and Sven Ortel have continued working with larger systems but explored how they can be used with a refined subtlety and aid the speed of experimentation and delivery, particularly in devised productions .

Contemporary dance piece ‘Just Add Water’ was marked by the process of devising the choreography, partially through a visual dialogue that is a feature of Shobana Jeyasingh’s work. As the movement becomes more secure the visual element has served part of its purpose and much can be cut to leave only the essential parts that remain as integral references to the performance. This may mean using only ten percent of the content produced during the development process. The gratuitous, unnecessary and  inappropriate is cut. In creating the animations, Dick Straker also designed the screens which were the only set elements for the production and equally utilised by the lighting design.

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Just Add Water. Linbury Theatre.

‘All My Sons’ used constant scenic projection in which the mood of the play was reflected by the modulation of the tonal and colour range within the projected skies. This was cue-able and able to provide an essentially simple solution but with a powerful emotional effect. For the inherent subtlety to be convincing control was also needed not only of the content but also of the blending method of the imagery. Dealing with very specific details Finn Ross actually required a sophisticated system being applied to a very singular task.

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All My Sons. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Broadway, New York.

‘Interiors’ also had similar need for complex control for a simple effect whereby a pool of water transformed into a cluster of stars in response to dramatic events of the production.  Only with evolved control could such a design have been created in a devised production – a production where all major decisions are made once inside the theatre space.

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Interiors. Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and touring.

Sven Ortel’s video design for The Mariinsky Theatre’s production of Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’ places the textural imagery of microscopic organisms and cellular layers into an abstract realm that blends seamlessly into the lighting of the stage set. The ambiguity of this visual blend between video and lighting and the use of moving projectors to place imagery anywhere on the stage is a more complex example of an essentially simple principal. However the coherence of the effect owes much to the disciplined use of the technology which is often only achieved after exhaustive experimentation and subsequent discarding of many of the available options.

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Der Ring Des Nibelungen, Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg.

The recent productions of ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ and ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (at the Arcola and Gate theatres respectively) allowed designer Ian William Galloway to pare down the inclusion of video to what was really required by the production. In The Spanish Tragedy, a complex eight minute video sequence was created for the climactic final scene of the play. By compressing all the video to this point, we play with the audiences expectations, allowing us to expose a traditionally symbolic area of the text where it is critically needed.

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The Spanish Tragedy. Arcola Theatre.

Likewise, in the Kreutzer Sonata, the video elements are restricted to later in the play to give more sense of arrangement to an eighty minute monologue. In this, the video is designed to complement the ‘real’ tableaux seen through the same gauze video screen – to blur the difference between ‘real’ staging and pre-recorded footage, and to combine with sound and lighting to create a dreamlike quality to the final scenes.

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The Kreutzer Sonata. The Gate Theatre.

In ‘The Mountaintop’ the very sparse use of video during the play was punctuated after the end of the acting by an explosive counterpoint to all that had preceded it. Designed by Dick Straker, a forty second compressed vision of Martin Luther King’s legacy ended the play in a blur of subliminal image and sound. The impact depended on having used very little video in a play that needed no additional support.

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The Mountaintop. Theatre 503 and Trafalgar Studios.

In conclusion , the use of video in theatre now needs to be considered with the multiplicity of options that are available and in light of a more evolved visual language. This has developed during a time where the use of video has increased exponentially and is no longer an exotic addition to a production. It is also the case that a new subset of visual language has now been created by video design practitioners whose use of video has evolved some unique design and technical considerations. How the technology adapts and how this is best put to the service of theatre remains to be seen.