Research is an investment, not a luxury

Over the past thirty-odd years in theatre, I’ve heard the same lament any number of times in non-professional companies: We wanted to do some research, but just didn’t have the time.

So here’s a pitch for making the time.  🙂

Many professionals in creative fields find research to be just as much a part of their work as actually creating something. Architects study other architects, graphic designers study other graphic designers, musicians study other musicians, dancers study other dancers, painters… you get the idea. Not just people in their own fields, but often in other areas too. Theatrical designers and art directors in the film and TV industry are no different: we study other designers, historical periods, art history, industrial design, and many other fields. It not only provides inspiration, but also helps us avoid re-inventing the wheel.

There have been a number of books written on how the designs for specific films (and a few musicals) were developed, and these can be wonderful sources of creative energy in addition to showing us how designers think. One series of books I particularly enjoyed was on the art of Star Wars, which showed how some of the characters, vehicles, costumes, and locations were developed. Those guys did their homework.

Fiction writers do their homework too. Writers of science fiction, detective stories, medical thrillers, spy stories, historical fiction, and other subjects often spend weeks or months researching their subject to make sure things “sound right” even if they’re not used literally. It often gives them ideas or inspiration, and makes a huge difference in how readers respond to the books.

But what exactly is research? What do you spend your time looking for, and how do you use it? Here are some thoughts based on my own experience and on conversations I’ve had with other designers.

The historical period

Say you’re doing the set for Hamlet, and the director wants to stage it in an 11th century castle. A search for castles will reveal how they developed, how different they were from period to period, and how they varied from country to country. It will also reveal how different real castles are from what we usually imagine as “a castle.” We don’t have to (and generally don’t want to) copy what we see exactly, but having a good idea of what the real things looked like (and why) can give us a good idea of where to start.

The same goes for The Odd Couple and many other plays that take place in an apartment. Photos and floor plans of real apartments from the period (and the location) will help create a set that evokes an apartment instead of just looking like a collection of flats. It makes a huge difference in the audience’s experience.

The cultural and economic reality of the times

Looking at The Odd Couple again, some research into real living spaces in New York City will give us an idea of what Oscar’s apartment might have looked like. The director can help define Oscar’s finances (so to speak), and there’s a huge difference in staging the play in a tenement, in a controlled-rent development, in The Dakota or a similar structure, in a drab building from the 60s, or in a modern luxury high-rise on Park Avenue. It can tell us a lot about Oscar, both before his wife left and afterwards, even before the play begins.

The visual style

This is where spending some quality time looking through art history materials really pays off. In two different ways.

First, if the director says, for instance, “I want to set it in 15th-century France,” a close look at 15th-century French art can give us not only an idea of what things (buildings, furniture, accessories, people) looked like, but also of how they were perceived and represented by the artists as a reflection of their times. We can infer colors, textures, materials, fabrics, interior design, lighting, and many other details from paintings and sculpture. We can also see how colors and palettes were used and get some inspiration from them.

Second, and this is something we often do, is refer to a specific painting or artist to illustrate how we imagine the set, or part of it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was explaining how I saw parts of the set for Tony Kushner’s The Illusion to the director and lighting designer by referring to how subjects in Rembrandt’s paintings are often “carved out of the shadows.” In initial discussions for a previous show, we referred to art and architecture from the Works Progress Administration, and it put us all on the same page as to the style and the institutional feel we wanted.

With the internet, and tablets being widely available, it’s really simple to call up something during a meeting and show it around. What I do is collect it all before the meeting to save time: I just cut and paste images into a folder and then open them as needed. Back in the old days we would carry armfuls of books and photocopies to the meetings, but (even though I still use the public library a lot) modern technology helps reduce that.

The reality

Say you’re designing a steam locomotive for a children’s show, and say you and the director have agreed that it’s not going to be a literal locomotive. The best way to start here is to look at lots of photos and paintings of real locomotives and understand why the elements are where they are and what they do. Then you can go on to look at non-literal depictions of locomotives (i.e., cartoons, trains in children’s playgrounds, and such) and see how these machines were imagined by other designers. Then you can start creating your own locomotive. It sure beats working in a vacuum.

Now… how much time to allow for research? For me — for most of us — it’s not a chore that needs to be tightly scheduled: it’s an ongoing process that starts at the beginning of the design phase and ends after the shop drawings are completed. I often do research on architectural details all during the shop drawing phase to make sure I’m keeping true to the style of the show. I don’t necessarily copy the details, but I want to know what the real things looked like so I can decide whether to use them as is or to stylize them.

I’ve written about how I use research in several posts here, including A set design from start to finish, Inspiration, or how do we get there from here?, and Problem solving: painting faux brick. For most of us in creative fields, research is not only an investment in the current project, but is also part of our continuing education towards the mastery of our craft.

 

 

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Don’t open the door

I’m continually amazed at how often I find the solution to a problem, or the answer to a question, in a totally unexpected place. Just like inspiration, which can come from anywhere, different perspectives on a given idea can be found in lots of places if we’re open to seeing them. In this post I’m going to relate an experience I had a couple of days ago.

I’ve been a horror movie fan since I was a kid, but I’m very picky about them: they need to have a real story, believable characters, and a mostly supernatural element. Ghosts and vampires are okay, but I’ll pass on zombies and werewolves, and most certainly on slasher movies. Actually, an item on my bucket list (along with writing this blog) is to produce a horror movie, and I’m already working on a couple of scripts.

Anyway, so a couple of weeks ago I bought a copy of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which I had read maybe twenty years ago. The book is an overview of the horror genre, focusing mostly on movies and stories in the twentieth century, and one of the chapters is on radio and how effective it was in the 30’s and 40’s. And right there, in that chapter, out of the blue, I found a great message for set designers: Don’t open the door.

King’s point was that radio, along with novels and short stories, were more effective at scaring us than movies, because we had to use our imagination. And, as he says often, what we can imagine, due to our own fears, is probably going to be far more scary than what movie art directors can come up with. When somebody (or something) starts pounding on that door, and we have no idea what’s behind it, we get far more scared than if we open it and find out that it’s not that bad. So one of the tricks is to “not open the door” —  don’t show us the monster, but let our own fears and imaginations create it.

If you ever saw Alien, you’ll remember we didn’t see the grown-up critter until the very end: we knew it was killing the crew, but we had no idea what we were dealing with. In the case of The Haunting (both movie versions), we never saw what was bulging the door in Eleanor’s room. A classic example, from the radio days, was Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast in 1939, which scared millions who never even saw the aliens. But so many movies do show us the monster right up front, and it’s often disappointing. It’s not as bad as we imagined, or — worse — we immediately go “gee, is that real or CGI?”

But I said this was a message for set designers, not creature designers.

A stage set can work the same way: it can suggest a location (and a feeling) without being literal, without showing us everything. It’s very difficult to do a “realistic” set on stage: elements and colors need to be exaggerated so they’re visible from the house, and there’s always those annoying sight lines that force angles that you would never see in real architecture. And, of course, the “fourth wall” that we’re supposed to accept and see right through. I’ve done realistic sets, and I try to avoid them as much as possible.

Realistic sets are fine as long as the story itself really wants a literal visual due to the subject matter. Two examples that come to mind are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Odd Couple, in both of which we almost expect to see a “real” location. Even so, both plays have been done non-literally — with varying degrees of success.

But lots of plays — and especially musicals — don’t need literal sets. They need a suggestion of time, place, atmosphere, and mood, and that can so often be far more effective. For instance, here’s a concept sketch for The Diary of Anne Frank, which I suggested to a high school in 2015:

anne-frank-3

I wanted to create a sense of isolation and vulnerability, so I omitted the walls (those ubiquitous flats) and showed mostly the structure of the attic. Everything else was just an empty stage draped in blacks. The window at the back, which was the characters’ only connection to the world, was to be a backlit box which could show us a clear sky, a dark stormy sky, or a night sky depending on the scene. There was no need to show the flats… er… the walls: the audience could fill those in according to their own experiences and create the attic in their own imaginations.

anne-frank-3

By keeping the four spaces small and crowded, bringing the set right down to (and beyond) the apron, and raking the whole thing, it was possible to create that sense of isolation and vulnerability. The effect was almost like the characters were in a fishbowl — an effect of course enhanced by not having any actual walls.

Something like this — showing us just enough and letting us fill in the rest — can be very effective in a wide variety of stories. It can also enhance the theatricality of the piece, create a more interesting visual, and, as a side benefit, greatly simplify construction.

Lighting design: the process

Last week I asked Elizabeth Rand, who is a lighting designer, theatre manager, and author of several books on lighting and high school technical theatre, if she’d like to do a guest post here. I was delighted when she agreed, and here it is.

Lighting design: the process

Following is roughly the process you would go through as a lighting designer. It’s not always in this order, and it may include other steps, but the process is fairly universal. So, here we go…

Obtain a copy of the script

  • Perform a script analysis: Read the script. Note possible cues, black outs, etc. that dialog and stage directions in the script call for. The script “tells” you how and what to design. For instance, stage directions might indicate that a character turns a light on or off, where the scene is set (a living room, a forest, an office interior, etc), when the scene is set (day time, night time, sunrise, etc), and the mood of the scene (dark and scary, joyous and bright, sad and gloomy, etc).

Meet with the director and the rest of the design team         

  • Meet with the Director to discuss his/her concepts and visions for the play.  Meet with the design team to find out what the set and costumes will look like, and what colors are being used.  The set will also “tell” you what to design, and the set and costume colors will “tell” you what color palette to use.

Watch a run-through rehearsal

  • Make notes in the script (in pencil!) of possible cues and blackouts.
  • While you are watching the run-through, think about:
    • Location: inside, outside, in a living room, in a circus tent, in the forest, on the street?
    • Time(s) of day (what color is the light, from what angle does it come).
    • Do you need specials: where do the actors move, does one or more actors or a part of the set need to be isolated, is there a dream sequence or other motivation for non-realistic lighting? The blocking also “tells” you how to design the show.
    • When do the cues happen, how fast should they happen; a slow fade or a bump.
    • What is the motivation for each cue.
    • How bright should each individual area, special and/or cue be.
    • Where (from what angle) should the light come from; what is the motivating factor?
    • What color should the light be and why: what color is the light in a forest, in a living room, in an office. (Start to notice these things in your daily life.)

Draft the plot

  • Make several copies of your light plot (always keep an original).
  • Think about all the instruments you will need to achieve the above objectives.
  • Make adjustments and compensations for dimmer and circuit capacity and instrument inventory.
  • Make at least two copies of your plot for hang and focus, keep your original elsewhere.

Write up the patch and dimmer schedule

  • Transfer the information on your light plot to your patch schedule and dimmer schedule; area or special, dimmer number, circuit number, number of instruments, gel color, etc.
  • Make at least two copies of your schedules for hang and focus and for your script binder, keep your original elsewhere.

Hang and focus

  • Hang the lights as per your plot, and call the focus.

First tech rehearsal

  • Design each cue as the actors run through the play.
  • This rehearsal is for you, not for the actors, so feel free to stop them at any time in order to get a cue designed and recorded.
  • If it’s done right the first time, it will speed up subsequent techs.
  • The Board Operator records what each cue is on his/her cue sheets or on the computer, and the Stage Manager records when each cue happens on his/her script.
  • Allow about two times the expected length of the play for this first tech rehearsal (sometimes more!).
  • Each cue should be numbered in sequence.

Re-draft and re-hang

  • Sometimes it is necessary to move, add, or delete some instruments.
  • Re-draft your plot, re-write your schedules, re-hang and/or re-focus.

Tech and dress rehearsals

  • Make adjustments to your cues (the look and the timing) as you see fit.
  • The Stage Manager should add Standbys (and Warnings as needed) in his/her script.
  • Have the Stage Manager and crew follow the Pre- and Post-Show checklist for all techs and performances.

Attend opening night

  • Attend the opening night as an audience member to make sure everything is running smoothly.

You can read more about Elizabeth and her work on her website, at www.presett.org, and you can find several of her books right here in my amazon store.

Problem solving: chrome on a budget

Many years ago, in Summer stock, I designed a set for Lanford Wilson’s The Hot l Baltimore, which takes place in the lobby of an old run-down hotel. We wanted to give the hotel an Art Deco feel, so I created a stylized, bas-relief train engine design that would become the main decorative piece in the lobby. But, because the show was being done in the round — inside a huge tent — we could not place it behind the counter; it had to go on the front of the counter.

Here’s a cell-phone photo of the model for the bas-relief:

train-desk-1

That little stripe that looks white, near the top of the photo, was actually going to be chrome. When I presented the design at a production meeting, the technical director took one look at it, swallowed hard, mentioned the budget, and said he wasn’t sure if we could afford chrome trim. At which point I gave him my best dead-pan look and said, “Well, I don’t know where you guys get your chrome trim, but I get mine at the supermarket. It comes in a long skinny box that says Aluminum Foil.”

The resulting laugh was as much “relief” as it was “just laughing at a joke,” but my point was made: sometimes a simple solution can do wonders.

So, when we built the counter, we left a 3/4″ channel near the top, which was then filled with aluminum foil, carefully cut into strips, and applied with rubber cement. I wanted to use the “shiny” side of the foil in this case, but the other side — the “brushed chrome” side — can also be used, and it creates a different effect.

Here’s a terrible photo of the counter, the only one I can find from that long-ago Summer in South Hadley, Massachusetts. That little strip of chrome made a huge difference to the counter: it really made it pop.

train-desk-2

The front of the counter was sponged to create a wood burl look, and the top was also sponged to simulate old leather. They were both then spattered with several shades of brown and rubbed with wet newspapers to give them some age and grit, especially around the edges and corners.

Aluminum foil can be a wonderful fill-in for chrome, but you want to be careful and use it in small amounts to avoid having it call attention to itself.

 

Same blog, new look!

This blog has been doing so well over the past few months (followers as well as visits from all over the world) that I decided to make it a little more interesting-looking and user friendly. You’ll also notice the new Book Store and Resources links in the menu above.

The photos in the header image are from my web site, at http://www.georgefledo.net.

Enjoy!