Working In The Theatre: Projection Design with Jeff Sugg

[music] Projection designers are sort of, ah, mad scientists of sorts. Theatre is alchemy. It’s costumes, it’s scenic elements, it’s lighting, it’s performing. It’s make-up, it’s hair. it’s all these things put together and each of them individually cannot do the
same thing that they do as a group. [music] Projection design at its best is
augmenting that situation as opposed to projection design at its worst which is
window dressing. I went college to study biochemistry, pre-med and didn’t show up at my bio chemistry midterm. I had always been designing and directing theater and performing and theater that point, but I switch my major to theater and I came to New York and saw “Brace Up” a Wooster Group show, and that show changed my life. You know, I realized that theatre was potentially a much more complicated and aesthetically
driven art form and it really allowed me to sort of exploded my notion of what
theater was. [music] I started as a lighting designer and a
set designer mostly but had always been interested in sort of non-linear
narrative theater so I studied as a director in college and went on to do a
lot of work and experimental theater places like The Wooster Group and
Richard Foreman and with smaller companies like the Collapsible Giraffe
and Cynthia Hopkins and I sort of took any job that would come and you know
slowly by little by little it just kept coming in the now it’s twenty years
later I think the last time I made a five year plan was 1994 [music] In a lot of ways projection design is a young art. It wasn’t until very
recently, like the last three years maybe, that there were degrees in projection design
and so as a result historically we all kind of came from other fields. Some came
from filmmaking, some came from lighting, design, some came from scenic design, and
so we all sort of have these divergent skills. I think what I was very fortunate to have was
in my background of non-narrative theater was a sense of the story of
the image and the story of the picture in its own right so I create these, or I try to create narratives within the image alone separate from whatever sort
of linear narrative that might be existing in the script and so the image
that tells a story by itself. [music] The first change that happened in my work
was I stopped using slide projectors and we started using video projectors. [music] Going to a digital workflow was slow and tedious and there was a long time that
it was still faster to work in analog so a lot of the early work that I did we
were still shooting on tape and having some computer driven media but the
biggest issue with all of that was time you know you didn’t have the time to
render media digitally and you know it, edit it and then re-render. It was just
ridiculous. I would rather, you know the, use the f*ckin [sound effect]. That was much more fun and effective and I was better at it still. You know, like the little half-inch decks
with the wheels and the [sound effect]. You know, that was good. What I find now is
that people a lot younger than me who never really shot to tape or to film.
Their concept of a workflow is very different than mine. A lot of why I came
to projection, too, is my interest in optics and my interest in
nineteenth-century magic and how a lot of nineteenth-century illusion was
optical illusion. How you use mirrors and glass and things like that to transform
reality. So I kind of love lenses and I love making effects with lenses and I
love doing things in a very hands-on way and so if I can ever go out and shoot
something I’m gonna do that before I’m gonna fabricated it in After Effects. I know people now who were younger than me and they would much
rather create clouds, create water, create smoke in After Effects than than to
shoot it, and that’s just not how my brain works. [music] If you take “Fortress of Solitude” which is a show I am working on right now it’s handmade. And so all of that’s essentially silhouette cutouts and then it’s gonna be I just what you would call puppetry
animation, some stop, some moving animation, and some of that is then shot on a green
screen and treated looked like it was made an overhead projector or shadowplay
stuff and so the hope is that everything within the context of that piece sort of has
this consistent look to it. [music] Computer animation is, it is what it is,
you know. It’s useful for certain things. “Bring It On” there’s a lot of animation in
there that’s clearly computer-generated and in the context of that piece
there’s nothing wrong with that. Bad computer animation? Yeah, get it out of here. But unless you’re doing a show about Atari. [music] When we started working on the piece, a lot of the storyboards and the mock-ups that I was making were sort of naive. They had a sort of like, they were too child-like. Over the course of going through the different versions of things I remembered that when you are in high school, you don’t think you are a child. Once we kind of figured out that the aesthetic of that piece was not a naive and child-like aesthetic, the show started to make more sense, you know. In
commercial theater it’s in a lot of ways it’s the same as anything else.
We’re all, you know, we’re all in there making theatre so the notion that it is
only about making money that’s from my standpoint as a designer. It doesn’t
matter once you’re making the theatre. You’re making it the same way to make any other things. [music] Ah! Pin stickin’ into the table. Scratchin’ my grandma’s table, Simon! I was scratching, I brought the coaster. [laughter] I have a thing about coasters. I think the knowledge that one gains
from experience is used to shorten the gap between understanding what’s in your mind and what happens on the stage. In a lot of ways,
especially in projection, the image in your mind is very, very different than
how it exists on stage. In some senses, I find it really useful to use scale
models of the set to start trying things on so if you can build a model in half-inch,
you get a pretty good scale impression of the stage and you can
start working with images and seeing how they work. [music] Projection has changed experience. I think by and large, it is changed it to theaters detriment. My problem with projection designs are when it gets in the way, you know. Nine times out of ten projection design
does not need to be there and I feel like, it fails the theatrical experience when it becomes a sort of flashy bells and whistles, you know. There’s a term in rock-and-roll design, it’s
called flash and trash and it’s just like you just putting crap up there to
make it flashy. Ultimately our work has to stand next to a live person and
the way that a way that the audience sees projected image or image on LED walls or on TV’s in the context of a larger frame that has life people, you
know. The person will never win. The audience will always watching screen before they watch
a person. I find also that frequently that means that as a projection designer
you sort of have to shut up visually shut up while the play unfolds
before you. [music] I think what inspires me, I like people who take
objects or ideas that are very common or very familiar and managed to shift
the lens, shift in perspective from what you’re looking at them. In some ways
that’s what projection design at its best is. It’s the capacity to
slightly shift the perspective of a viewer just enough so that they can see
different angle on the story or different perspective on the world. [music]


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