Have you ever met a Video Designer? The Who’s Tommy, at ZACH Theatre, is a prime example of wonderfully clever video projection used to aid a story on stage. Here, Video Designer Stephanie Busing tells us about her process and inspiration:
1. How does the role of a projection designer work with the set and lighting designers? (moving projections change the ambiance of the set, or have meaning in some way etc., or fill the gaps where you can’t express something with a prop or lights, things like that)
Projections can serve many roles in theatre: as scenery, lighting, or as performer (in the instances where an actor is featured in the projections or the projections are describing narrative with text or imagery). The projections in Tommy served as all three:
As lighting at the top of Act 2 when Tommy and ensemble members were silhouetted by the light of video behind them.
As scenery and prop, when Tommy plays pinball for the first time and video of the inside of the pinball machine towers above him, a big pinball zipping around inside the machine.
As character, when a troupe of silhouettes distort Young Tommy’s reality as he falls deeper into the rabbit hole of deaf, dumb, and blindness.
Integrating the projections into The Who’s Tommy involved being part of the design process from the very beginning and being in communication with the director, Dave Steakley, about what was to be received by an audience in each scene on stage. I collaborated with the other designers of the show in order to integrate the video into the full design aesthetic. I took photos of various props in order to extend their presence on stage into the projections.
An example of this was four flower umbrellas that are spun by dancers on stage while images of the flowers spin behind them on the projection screen. I am not sure which happened first: my animating the flowers to spin or choreographer Robin Lewis having the dancers spin the umbrellas in unison with the animated imagery. Such overlapping in process, in my experience, is quite common in theatre and is indicative of good collaboration.
2. What inspired you for this show and what is your favorite element?
The correlation of the two stories, The Who’s Tommy and Alice in Wonderland, was the most inspiring part of this production for me. While initially it seemed a hearty challenge to link the two, Dave Steakley’s vision was very clear and helped guide the team to portray a solid correlation between these two very big stories. Setting Tommy’s fantasy world squarely in Wonderland narrowed the concept down and necessitated bold, whimsical, and succinct design choices.
I especially enjoyed filming roses being painted red for the Acid Queen turned Red Queen scene in Act 1. I carefully transported ten white roses from a florist to my studio/living room, set-up a green-screen back-drop, and filmed the roses for a few hours as I dripped and brushed red paint over their petals.
3. How does someone become a projection designer?
My background is in scenic painting and scene design. I love the immediacy of paint and how forgiving it is and I decided to study scene design during my undergraduate studies because it allowed for control over the color and textures being reproduced by scenic artists on stage. I grew to love the power of storytelling and what design could add to narrative. And in time, I developed an interest in how projection design could be used in conjunction with scenery to extend physical space and to add movement and flexibility to backdrops. That wonderful flexibility and forgiveness of paint I also found in projections. Once a piece of scenery is built it is difficult to change its form, but if you have a moon in a starry sky projection and you want that moon to move two feet to the right, it is relatively easy to do that.
I think every projection designer has their own origin tale, rooted in prior interest or some interesting story about being brought on to a project to design lighting, sound, or scenery and being fatefully asked to design projections, too. And the skills that projection designers accrue typically have to do with what interested them in projections in the first place. I, for example, am particularly interested in animating digital paintings and collages.
While there are several skills and computer programs that are important to learn in order to build and program content, the most important part of being a projection designer, in my opinion, is understanding how projections can serve a production. Can they describe space? Can they show passage of time? Can they help support a character, giving context for their actions on stage? In a time where the horizontal screen can distract us from most of what we experience in reality, it is important to determine what information is most pertinent and deserving of that screen when it is incorporated into a live performance.