Monday, February 28, 2011

Poetry Break

Try this animated mini-movie poem (crossing enough genres here?) and start your day right.

John Siddique's "Rowan Moon"

Classics Gone Vegan

A friend sent me a very funny 8 minute reworking of OEdipus... portrayed by a potato (with the voice of Billy Dee Williams), a piece of broccoli, and a tomato.  (I particularly like the sheep.)  See it HERE.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


The latest sample from the "Design Methods" chapter of my NOW IN PRINT set design book, Alice Through the Proscenium:

Minimalism -  “Less is More.”  That famous design dictum by architect Mies van der Rohe is good advice.  Distill your design.  Minimalism is powerful.  Most of us ought to design using more eraser than pencil, but remember that there is another opinion, put forward by Mies’s protégé, Philip Johnson:  “Less is a Bore.”

Reduction -  Sometimes the problem just seems too big, too complicated.  You’re overwhelmed with choices…  Simplify.  Solve only the one biggest issue.  Reduce the problem to its basic ingredients: instead of boiling a whole gumbo, simmer a nice plain clear fish broth.  You can always throw in crawdads later.

Can’t beat it?  Join it – Sometimes a problem fights so hard it wins.  Maybe there’s an area that, do what you will, insists on being all circulation, all crossing paths to other places.  So let it.  But don’t give in grudgingly, embrace it, give in BIG!  You may end up with the wonderful hall of Grand Central Station.  Celebrate your problem.

Contrarywise -  Or rebel against the evil oppressor!  Reject everything.  If something is normally round, make it square.  Usually tall?  Make it short.  Test every bourgeois assumption The Man makes with your heroic (idiotic) knee-jerk rebellion.  Power to the revolutionary!

(Design methodology can boil down to the intellectual equivalent of: if the door doesn’t open when you push it, then you pull.  Just get the #%$ door open!)

You too can own a copy of Alice... just visit and use this 15% off sale code: IDES305

Friday, February 25, 2011

Two Views: One Kitchen

Checking out BRW Creative (the architecture office's in-house blog) led me to these fascinating photos which perfectly illustrate the way architects versus non-architects can view the same space...  The architects tend to like it more austere; the civilians not so much.
This is the same room - all that has changed is the addition of a few (still pretty austere) bits of set dressing - a few blooming branches, a loaf of bread on a wood board, and a toaster - and that the second photo has more flattering side lighting, while the camera's view includes the warm wood floor and table.   

Imagine this room if those shelves were stacked with colorful Fiestaware plates and bowls and if the tables held colored vegetables? RED tomatoes?  GREEN peppers?  YELLOW squash?  As it is, the delicate pink of the blossoms has never seemed so powerful.

Set dressing.  (And color.)  Very important things.

I just noticed: the magazine also edited out a big air vent in that duct...  Cheat-y Photoshop-y.  Photos borrowed from Habitually Chic, originally from Domino magazine

Too Many !!!!s

It's that kind of week: a show opens, my Alice book launches (and has an intro-sale).  Exclamitory times.  But a favorite author, Terry Pratchett, writes that 4 exclamation points is a sure sign of madness - in which

Show Opens!

Boeing Boeing opens Saturday night at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth!

Surprise Sale!

At least it surprised me... - the publisher of the paperback version of my set design book Alice Through the Proscenium
is offering an introductory sale of

15% off

Please use promotion code IDES305  -  Offer good until 3/15/11

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Alice Through the Proscenium LAUNCH!


Film Fest-y

A couple films watched over the last few days:

The Brothers Bloom - An odd movie and one that felt somehow not quite successful... yet I really liked it.  I think part of the problem was the heiress who was very much in the screwball tradition; the actress Rachael Weiss did a charming job with the character, but it's a type of character and a souffle-light tone our prosaic age has trouble pulling off.  (Making last week's Arsenic and Old Lace even more of a miracle).  Still, I'll watch it again.

Inception - It started out so promisingly and, for me at least, fizzled out.  I loved the setup and that moment in the Paris street when gravity is up-ended.  But by the oddly Bond-esque snow action-scene and the final, strangely ugly, we-spent-50-years-building-it dream city... it'd lost me.  The film abruptly changed its own rules 3/4 of the way in: die in a dream = wake up, changed to = lost in limbo, simply to raise the stakes.  Cheat.  And trying to cheat added a great huge indigestible lump of explanation smack in the middle of things... a pit in the cherry pie.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Yet another excerpt from the "Design Methods" chapter of Alice Through the Proscenium.  (I just got the sample  paperback to proof-read so Official Publication will be soon.):

Color – Sometimes a coloring book approach helps.  Copy line drawings, then play with crayons or paint.  Color is emotional, so practice your sensitivity.  Try thinking of color as mood.  Think of the set as built of areas of color.  Color can delineate differences: for instance, if a wall intersects a cube, you can paint different surfaces different colors to emphasize different qualities – like planes versus volumes.
Or use color as an organizer to clarify your thoughts.  Superimpose the action of the first act (red) with the second (blue) to see what areas of the stage are overused, which underused.  Or color-code fixed and movable elements.  Or distinguish version #1 from #47.  Computer drawings do the same thing when they segregate different elements to different drawing “levels.”   It’s useful.  And can be as simple as colored pencils. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Approaching Opening

Some (okay, most) shows seem to enter some Twilight Zone time loop as Opening gets closer: you keep painting, dressing, even building, yet the set never seems to get closer to finished.  This is an illusion, but a common and painful one.  The first audience is Thursday - today is Tuesday.

The Boeing Boeing set is finally, finally about finished building and painting.  Mind you, a week of Snowpocalypse didn't speed things any, but the end is, I think, now approaching.  Tomorrow needs to be Set Dressing Day.  (Whether walls are dry or not.)

As an experienced designer, you find yourself getting more stream-lined and efficient as the deadline nears so that, for instance, painting a tabletop as faux travertine (that streaky bacon-fat looking beige marble), which a few years ago would have taken me half a day of worry and work, took exactly the 20 minutes I had left for it.  Redesign the bench (again) ten minutes.  By Thursday morning I could probably knit an entirely new set in three.

Recently found an old British World War II slogan that ought to be a theater motto:
image borrowed from ribbonandrope blog

Monday, February 21, 2011

As You Like It

I don't usually design first in model.  Because it takes longer, mainly, and I usually have a good grasp of the space, so I don't need the model so much for myself as to explain my idea to directors and builders.  But this is a new theater for me and I'm less comfortable with prosceniums.  Hence the model.  ModelS.

# 1 the straightforward what-we-were-talking-about version:
And # 2 the more 3D version:
The director picked my favorite, # 2.

Imaginative Quests and Monsters

Just finished reading John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things - a fairy tale quest labeled as "for adults," though I think older kids would get it.  Good.  I enjoyed it.  One of the monsters could almost have escaped from Dune, but otherwise it stayed close to classic fairy tale territory.  (With a very funny riff on Snow White.)

This book reminded me of another favorite kid-on-a-quest: Summerland by Michael Chabon.  More eccentric in its mythologies.  Or Neverwhere, a sort of underground/urban version of a magical quest.  The monsters in Lost Things were scary, especially the Crooked Man, but I think the trickster Coyote in Summerland is more interesting and, frankly, I vote for the evil duo Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neverwhere as Most Likely to Show Up in My Nightmares.

Something about the oily, antiquated politeness of their speech (well, Mr. Croup's speach, Mr. Vandemar doesn't say so much, too busy biting the heads of pigeons) just reverberates in memory.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Report

Mentor: a memoir by Tom Grimes
A teacher/pupil relationship between writers that became a friendship and a father/son affection.  Touching.  Sometimes sad.  But what interested me was the insight into a writer's life... including, maybe, aspects the author might not have thought striking...  

Like the competitiveness and snobbery of the "literary" writing world: the pecking order of prestigious publishers, the best seller lists, and the snob-value of various reviewers and publications.  Similar snobbery in higher education and/or states (Texas doesn't get many snob points).  The purely writing sections tend to remind me why I don't read more "literary" fiction - discussion about choice language and sensory description, descriptions of sad sad childhoods, character development... but little story (or for that matter reader enjoyment).  

Overall, there is an Iowa Writers' Workshop sort of detachment that may be the real reason I don't find lit-fic engaging.  Early on (pages 11-12) the author gives a description of The Phone Call - the one that brings the starving artist his first fame and fortune - self-consciously given cool detachment.  It's a style thing.  Contrast this with an almost identical description in Stephen King's On Writing:  the reader's heart pounds, knowing how important this moment is.  There is blood and feeling in King's moment that must have existed in Grimes's too... but it was flattened out.  Why?  

Djbouti by Elmore Leonard
Somali pirates, al Qaeda terrorists, and documentary filmakers with style and verve.  Great dialogue.  A finale!  Lit-fic writers should read more Elmore Leonard.  Going to re-watch Get Shorty.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

NOT a Theater Review - Macbeth

For one thing, I like people in the cast and am a member of the company, so I can't be impartial, for another, I'm no critic.  This report on Kitchen Dog Theater's production of The Scottish Play is simply the reaction of a set designer to a production she didn't design, but is rootin' for.  Right?

So...  I liked the set. (Of course I start there.  First thing the audience sees!)  Minimal, industrial, steel and wood stairs* and a large platform at upstage center with wide steps down.  The black concrete block walls of the theater were untouched except for stenciled grafitti... the only thing I slightly disagreed with.  Grafitti?  Fine idea.  It's placement/composition was satisfying, but though it was at three sizes, there was only one design: all white, a chess piece - a king - with, under it, the letters ME, all in a rectangular cartouche.  Now, if scattered among other grafitti designs, it would have been witty, but plastered all over as the only decoration...  "King ME"  Really?  Wit needs to look tossed-off-casually. But the wagon movement that created the banquet table for Banquo's big scene was a great idea.  Clever and effective.  The spareness of the set was perfect for this production.

Still in tech mode: the space was a bit too sound-reflective, making upstage dialogue hard to catch.  Perhaps sound panels were needed on that wall or hung above?  Lighting looked good and responded nicely to changes in the dialogue - especially at the "Tomorrow" speech - and Banquo's Ghost light was creepy.  Costumes were black-ish and military-ish which seemed right.  Loathed Lady MacDuff's dress, sorry.  But the red drapes for the Macbeths at their royal apex were lovely, in fact, the orchestration of black and red throughout the play was wonderful..

The whole production?  Really enjoyed it.  I liked the stripped feeling of set, costumes, and cast.  The fluidity of actors changing roles!  And the minimal costume changes to accomplish that was beautiful - especially the over-the-head-rags of the witches, those roles bounced like balls between many actors.  I loved that the theater catwalks were used.  Stage fighting is fake-y (if you've seen a heated competitive fencing bout, you see the difference), but this fighting had energy and, in opening moments of the show, was cleverly used to foreshadow the tragedy.

The performances?  Really good.  Mr. and Mrs. MacB were (as they should be) fascinating.  Compared to other productions they had more reality... more earthiness maybe?  One critic praised the "Is this a dagger?" speech as actually seeming as if the actor could see a dagger.  That sums it up for me - this production and every actor in it seemed, for once, to be really seeing.  Really there.  Because they were convinced, we were:  MacDuff was heartbroken, Lady Macbeth would dash an infant's brains out, Macbeth would dare... anything.  Banquo's ghost was real.

Unbiased opinion?  Worth seeing.  Go buy a ticket if you can - it's selling out.

Sidenote: it's odd, as a designer, to see people you know acting.  I know it's acting, but you do sometimes wonder where the gentle person you know off stage finds the violence and anger displayed on-stage... and you quietly promise yourself not to get them mad next time you work together.

Footnote* One of the stairs was borrowed - I know because I designed it myself for summer Shakespeare a few seasons ago.  Another friend on stage.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Book Lover's House

Now this is a house with bookshelves! (Make magazine is pretty cool too if you haven't seen it.)

Why Strip-Mine the Classics?

This is a thinking-point, a question that's been niggling at me...  When did it become matter-of-course to use iconic past art as the basis for new work?  
Warhol gets out-Warhol-ed
image borrowed from

I'm not talking about inspiration or about transformation - for instance, taking the Romeo and Juliet story and turning it into West Side Story or turning Hamlet into The Lion King.  Nor of outright theft, like the "novelist" who found a fine but forgotten novel, replaced the original author's locations with India and the original writer's name with her own... and won a honking big literary prize! (Until caught by a librarian - perfect.).  The motive there seems obvious.  No, I'm talking about mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the poor Mona Lisa wearing silly hats on coffee mugs etc.  (Mind you, I've made Botticelli's Venus look silly a few times myself.)

Co-opted masterpieces can be very clever, as ...Zombies is.  I enjoyed that.  The icon can be brilliantly commented upon by their new context, which is fair game, and vice versa.  (There's a fascinating discussion near the end of Exit Through the Gift Shop talking about what Warhol did to the icons and what the main character/subject of the film did to Warhol and really did to the icons.)

But too often the icon is slapped onto a new context as a kid slaps a sticker randomly on a bus stop bench.  The impulse is everywhere!  Perhaps at the Millenium (more or less) it's reasonable to evaluate what we've accomplished as a culture and to reuse the icons.  Are we rescuing them from dusty museum-hood?  Or kidnapping and exploiting them?  ...Zombies and some street art are well done, but overall this trend seems to be getting lazier and... well, trivializing or even degrading to the original work.  Cynically, I wonder if using an icon doesn't just ensure public attention along the lines of, "Hey! I know that face!" which I suspect adds to sales.

As artists of this period in history, are we reevaluating tradition?  Are we lazy?  Are we just disrespectful?  Why don't we create NEW icons?  Are we?  Please point me to 'em...

image borrowed from

From an actual coffee mug:
Image borrowed from Cafe Press
image borrowed from

Some days poor Mona Lisa... well, I worry about her.
Is she sleeping under a bridge now?


One of the guilty pleasures of the set designer/set dresser job is that you get to go shopping (with other people's money!) for stuff to go on your set.

Yesterday was a big shopping day.  I hit at least, um, eight stores plus the printing place.  It would have been more, but my favorite antique place was locked up with a note on the gate... while through the chain-link I could see - but not touch - exactly the right table base.  Tempted to climb the fence.  Hey, I'd have left a note!

On the Boeing Boeing set there's a bench that's become the main thing the audience stares at -  it needs to be cool.  It also needs to be sturdy since this is a farce.  Finding this bench is proving tough.  The best choice available may be a concrete bench... which has a good "look" but is a bit more expensive than I'd like (the thrill of spending other folk's money is dissipated when you realize you ought not to squander it, sigh), and is a LOT heavier than I want to tote.  So, more research today.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


The latest from the "Design Methods" chapter of Alice Through the Proscenium.  Warnings to designers of very grave danger...

Crutches – Architect Philip Johnson named it “The Crutch of Pretty Drawing.” A dangerous, wobbly thing to lean on is the idea that, because it’s a pretty drawing, it’s also good design.  Don’t fall for your own sleight of hand.  (Try not to fall in love with your work at all.)  But also beware the crippling habit Modern Art has fallen into: because it’s not pretty, because it’s ugly or vile or obscure or obscene, that doesn’t make it Art either. 4.15

Beware models too.  The dollhouse factor makes them sooo cute; you can turn them to get a different view, but audiences sit still; and your eyes aren't in scale.  All these factors make the modeled design look more dynamic than in fact it is.  So hold the model still, close one eye, and squint dubiously, eh?

Another tempting crutch is intellectualism.  You clever thing! with your six levels of symbolism and social satire embedded in your design.  Make sure it works at a straight-forward, literal level too.  That red will remind more people of a bordello than of the fall of Pompeii – even if it is “Pompeian Red” – so make sure sex, decadence, and catastrophe all suit your intentions.  One rap star explained that his guys on stage with machine guns represented… well, it was a five-minute metaphor of the West’s assault upon African culture.  He seemed puzzled when asked if the audience might just see tough looking guys + guns = thugs.

4.15 On the other hand, pretty drawings can get you hired.  Applying for my first set –  utterly inexperienced in theater, I mean, not even a high school play 4.16 –  I sketched two Shakespeare’s and two Waiting for Godots.  My brave soon-to-be boss thought them… pretty.
4.16 Okay, in middle school I played the fairy godmother in Cinderella.  In a pink tutu.  But I’ll never admit it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book (progress) Report

Alice Through the Proscenium is slowly inching through the publication process.  I've now made corrections suggested by readers, made all the I-can't-believe-I-hadn't-realized-this-was-missing additions, caught last minute typos you can't see on a monitor but that GLARE at you from a printout, (all the usual authorial waffling), and have now sent off for an officially printed and bound copy... so I can see what I-can't-believe-I-never-caught-that! errors have still slipped past.  Releasing the e-version waits on print (as it should).  So...  Maybe a week away?
Fingers crossed.

A very cool side effect of all this publication jazz is that I now have a publishing co. - with ISBN numbers and everything, all official.  Picture a red velvet drape being pulled away with great drama and dignity:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Film Field Trip

A movie At a Theater!  A hotdog, a soda, and The King's Speech...  
A terrific film.  The acting really is as good as rumor has it, but the best part was that I quickly forgot I was watching Great Acting and simply fell into the story.  By the big speech I found myself on the edge of my chair, hands clenched, probably sweating, leaning forward, willing the king to get the words out.

Oscars all round! I say.

Funny Skills

Theater people need funny skills.  Today I'm off to Fort Worth to:

Finish painting views of Paris
Age and weather faux-lead mansard roofs
Help fake a parquet floor
and probably pad and upholster a sofa

Nothin' unusual - but nothing they me taught in architecture school.  Or anywhere else...

Theater folk, I've discovered, have to be real self-starters, self-educated in all sorts of funny skills.  Carpenters are always solving weird problems - like how to have a hotel room open up like a drawbridge (wall becoming floor) and prop people routinely build the impossible.  I once watched a prop designer build a giant boar's head, hair by hair.  It looked real... except for the 2x life size thing.


Monday, February 14, 2011


The next little sample from the "Design Methods" chapter of my up-coming design book, Alice Through the Proscenium:

Ask Questions -  “What if…?”  “If only…?”  “I wonder…” and “Wouldn’t it be interesting if…?” 4.14

Diary – Carry a sketchbook and scribble as ideas occur.  Tape in fabric swatches and paint chips.  Note research and questions.  Alternatives.  It becomes a day-book recording your process.  Your sketchbook may become an ever-growing pile of sketchbooks, years of compiled research and thought, a very personal encyclopedia.  Leonardo published his.

 "Alice looked on with great interest as the King took an enormous memorandum-book out of his pocket, and began writing."
Drawing – Draw every day.  Draw your coffee mug, the blue jay on the fence, a single leaf.  Like the sisters in the Dormouse’s story, draw anything:

  “- they were learning to draw, you know –“
   “What did they draw?” said Alice.
    “Treacle …  and they drew all manner of things – everything that begins with an M –
     “Why with an M?” said Alice.
    “Why not?…  such as mousetraps, and the moon, and memory, and muchness –“

Constant drawing helps in two ways: by making you really look at the world, and by exercising your hand.  (If a coffee cup is tough, maybe practice would help before drawing the frustration of Hamlet?)  Like any skill, drawing gets easier, better, faster with practice.  You begin to think with your pencil.  Different tools – pencil, pen, marker, lipstick – give different results.  Try a computer, but also try paint and pen-and-ink and markers.  Keep practicing.

Other advantages to practicing your quick-draw is that it can be used right there in the meeting.  It helps sell your ideas: an excited, “You got it!” aided by a bold, fast, effective scribble on the director’s cocktail napkin is almost irresistible.

4.14 Author Neil Gaiman gives these and other insights on the Idea Question at his website - look under “Neil’s Essays” and “Where do you get your ideas?”

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Theater Set, um, SHOW Review

Dallas Theater Center's Arsenic and Old Lace.  Lots of fun - exceedingly well done screwball comedy.

For a production advertised as a duo-diva show, it was amazingly ensemble - talented actors throughout giving very good characterizations.  Equally surprising was the fresh funniness of the material.  One critic pointed out that a character who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and shouts "Charge!" each time he mounts the stairs has no right to be funny anymore...  but he was.  Particular standouts were Tovah Feldshuh as the dottier of the old-maid sisters, who was charming and fey, and Lee Trull as the saner nephew, who handled his dialogue (alternating between Manhattan sophisticate and gob-smacked relative) with panache.  And the physical comedy!

The other star of the show was the set.  At the top of the show the audience saw a huge Victorian house set in a cemetery with, in front, a model of itself.  That model made clear the doll house quality of the set - that this was all a extra quaint, extra charming, rather-less-than-literal reality.  (Plus a funny bit I won't reveal.)  Perfect for the show.  As the action started, the set turned to reveal its interior... just like a doll house.  Perfect.

As an architect, I did have a few little shudders of, "that detail, that detail's not quite..." purely involuntary architectural twitches and I'm taking pills for it.  (Pills and injections.)  No.  The occasional exaggerations of the set's architecture added to the cock-eyed, screwball feel of the show.  Colors and patterns - mostly reds and roses - were sensitively chosen... and when the rose floral dinner plates came out I sighed in pure satisfaction.  I will make the slightest possible quibble about set dressing of upstage bookcases, which (okay I grant the butterfly specimens: Roosevelt = naturalist, yup) still suggested the random decoration of a Friday's restaurant, but that's microscopic against the overall wonderfulness, the wonderosity! of the set.  Loved it.

Loved the whole show.  Left humming the scenery.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Callooh! Callay!'

Just found the latest and last comic in the steampunk series "The Organist."  Science, music, monkeys, and mayhem.  2D Goggles.

Museum Field Trip

The Dallas Museum of Art had a free preview today of its Stickley furniture exhibit.  Beautiful furniture in the Craftsman style - the American response to England's William Morris and his followers.

Stickley's furniture has a solid, honest-wood feel to it, expressing the nature of the oak planks or crafted metal used to build it, and the designs - like those of closely related Mission style - suggest the medieval but also Art Nouveau.  Sometimes, for my taste, it can all get a little too plank-ish and heavy, especially a room full of the style.  I loved the sideboards and serving tables, but my favorite piece was a stair's newel post with a built in electric light.  Here's the sketch:
Next door was an interesting display of drawings showing Frank Lloyd Wright architectural designs of about the same period.

Pretty completely unrelated, but equally interesting, is an exhibit of African masks.  Some wonderful things.  My visit was enriched by happening across a performance in the north hall - African dancers wearing masks and terrific "clackers" - 6" high ankle bracelets made of polished wood... that looked like clustered mussel shells made out of polished mahogany and they made a lovely wooden, musical, percussive sound.

On the way out of the building I waved to the FLW windows at far south end of the museum, which now light the restaurant.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dappled Things

Something reminded me of this poem today - maybe the bare-tree striped sunshine after cloudy, icy days?
By Gerard Manley Hopkins...

                     Pied Beauty
   Glory be to God for dappled things-
   For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
   For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
   Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plow;
   And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

   All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
   With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
   He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
   Praise him.

 photo from


An appropriate clip from Alice Through the Proscenium:

Model – Theater is a three dimensional art.  Make a study model.  Just for you.  Build it out of dirty cardboard and used tape.  The messier and more ripped it gets, the more useful.  Later you’ll build the clean white (or colored) model to be used by the director in blocking and by the TD, carpenters, and painters as a guide to construction.  Do be sure that if a window, for instance, will be seen through, that you build it see-through to check sight lines.
Practical pointers.  Measure twice - cut once.  Use a metal straightedge to cut against.  If it lacks non-skid backing, add masking tape underneath.  (Never cut along drafting tools as lines drawn later show every notch you cut!)  Use sharp new blades.  Remember Alice’s caution: “if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds.”  Wash hands.  Wipe off excess glue. 

Model Building

Some shows can only be designed in model...

So I have very sticky fingers today!

Time to run and gather furniture: IKEA (love it), antique/junks stores, and theater warehouses.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Film Fest

The latest viewing: The American with George Cloony... who just gets more and more impressive as an actor, I think.

A subtle, slow-moving film, especially for a thriller.  But that's not "slow" in a bad way...  The body count is lower than in a Hollywood assassin film - this is the anti-Hollywood assassin film.  Much less happens too, but the deaths have actual weight.  Especially one of the early kills, which changes the rules and makes Cloony's character and the rest of the film more dangerous, more troubling.  There's a deep, sinister drum soundtrack too foreboding for my nerves and a knack of photographing an empty room or street to give this audience, at least, the jumps.  Gorgeous photography.  Beautiful Swedish snow then, later, stony Italian hill towns.  Sad empty cafes with the loneliness of a Hopper painting.

Bleak.  Alienated. Paranoid.  Heart-breakingly beautiful.  Sad.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

La Vie en Rose

Very successful painting of views of Paris yesterday.  I love the weird jobs the set designer gets...  This time it was to create mini murals of the Paris skyline (as seen from a rooftop apartment, sorry, appartement) done with a stylish 1960s illustrated look, rather Pink Panther cartoon-ish style.  Easy-peasy!  (Secret doubts, actually.)

But they turned out well.  Big relief.

(Pics someday when I actually have a camera.)  And Thanks! to my faithful assistant.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Latest from the more-and-more up-coming Alice Through the Proscenium, "Design Methods" chapter:

Bubble Diagrams – This helps work out the practical lay-out.  Balloon shapes represent functional areas (Drawing Room and Conservatory, maybe, or Stage and Scene Shop).  Between bubbles you draw arrows representing desired movement or interaction.  A variation on this is to cut out paper rectangles for areas (in scaled sizes like tiny Broom Closet and huge Ballroom). Push paper “rooms” around like furniture until their relationship makes sense.

 Analysis – Related to Bubble Diagrams, this sketch is a sort of thinking-out-loud scribble of everything that affects the design: locations of shop, wings, and entries; traffic flow arrows; bubble diagrams; subdivisions of the stage; sightlines; notes; thumbnail sketches; doodles… anything that crosses your mind as you read the script and study the stage. 

                        “Of course the first thing to do was to make a grand survey of the country she was to travel through.” 

Generally you let this play out in your head or, if you do jot down anything, it’s incoherent. 4.12  So why turn this into a pretty sketch?  Well… the Analysis can be a useful reminder.  And it’s so useful in talking with a new director or a no-design-direction-till-I-give-thee-one sort of director that, well, ahem, it’s actually possible to create this sketch after you’ve come up with a scheme you want to sell. 4.13  

4.12 John Steinbeck said he only once tried to use a scribbled “idea” note for his writing; he found it rubber-banded to a ketchup bottle… but the ketchup made it unreadable.
4.13   Ideally you talk with the director before you even start thinking about designing the show.

Runnin' Around

The designer's life seems to go in tide-in, tide-out cycles.  Suddenly from (snowed in) quiet sketching I'm now in a nutsy runnin' around period.

Yesterday I saw the Boeing Boeing set in Fort Worth for the first time post-snow... construction has leaped forward - all the walls and doors are in place now.  It was Fun With Fabric Day... I got to look round the discount fabric warehouses for set-sofa upholstery (also found great '60s curtain fabric).  Today I pick up my apprentice and my paint chips and drive back to Fort Worth to start painting views of Paris on the walls.  Meanwhile, there's a Shakespeare crying out to be sketched and I think modeled.  (Some shows are drawing shows, some are model shows.)  And - after some very helpful notes from a reader - I need to make last adjustments to my Alice book...  so my on-going struggles with book formatting will go on on-going a little longer...

Busy, busy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Bowl as a Gig

The Super Bowl half-time show has got to be a very difficult show to invent.

The big problem is size: the "stage" is enormous and much of the audience is waaaay far away from the performers, so that even the biggest of rock stars is going to look like an ant.  It's necessary to do big stuff - stages, effects, and certainly to add dozens, scores, hundreds of backup dancers... Which usually looks like a herd.  Whatever the show is, it can't be subtle!

But yesterday's show by the Black Eyed Peas overcame all this.  The music was strong enough for the space and crowd.  The herds of dancers managed to look choreographed.  Cool Tron-like lighted costumes looked fantastic.  Pieces of set that came out during the show (which helped solve the hurry-up problem of getting all this started) really added interest - having them light up too and spell out giant words was clever.  Everything "read" even from high-up seats.  And there was a real sense of occasion.   (Plus I liked the confetti cannons.)

Not my favorite kind of show, but I've got to admire its slick success.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Lite Bricks

Just saw on FastCompany this interesting brick building...

Using honeycomb style bricks plus built-in (I think) fiber-optic lighting, the walls react to visitors by changing colors.  Sounds kind of fun.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Scenic design is happening in a subterranean way.

Sometimes ya gotta get out - of the routine, the rut, the house - so today was sketch-at-the-coffee-house day.

High-Light of Film Fest

Watch Exit Through the Gift Shop, an absolutely fascinating more-or-less-documentary about graffiti and street art and a videographer who gets caught up in that world.  The film is created (or salvaged?) by Banksy, the famous and very accomplished street artist.  The movie slows a bit in the middle (after the elephant!) but stick with it, because the end is one of the best parts.

It talks about... well, everything: what's art; who makes it; how; why; how money and art collide or connive or...
Watch and report back!  Lots to discuss.

Film Fest

In this here Film Fest there seems to be a strong revisiting-the-'80s thread.

Wall Street is 1980s to its core... yet still proves the enduring lure of greed.  I think I like it better than the latest riff, though mostly for the crazy joy of the period costumes.  And there was a great interior desecrator, um, decorator part where Daryl Hanna's character "decorates" ("designs" is sooo the wrong word here) the young greedy guy's condo.  (Condos - so '80s)  She has fake brick put over the real wall, then fake plaster fakely cracked over that, so there are just layers of faux all lovingly documented by the camera.  Perhaps that symbolism is a trifle heavy-handed?  But then, there was nothing subtle about the '80s either.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Film Fest Continues... SNOWED IN!

Through snow and hail and dark of night and... (I forget what all)... anyway, the mailman made it through Dallas' freak snowfall to bring the latest Film Fest Flick: the original Wall Street with Michael Douglas.

Recently saw the sequel - pretty good - so got curious to see the '80s original.

What better way to be shut in than with a movie and popcorn?

Thursday, February 3, 2011


And from the "Design Methods" chapter of the soon-to-be-published-if-formatting-it-doesn't-kill-me-first Alice Through the Proscenium:

Comparables -  A kind of go-by…  Look for solutions to parallel problems.  Say your solution must do two things at once; well, what other designs do that?  A toaster toasts two sides at once.  A pencil can draw and erase, it’s built-in.  Some unrelated design may hand you a clue to your problem.

Talk –  Kick ideas around with the director, other designers, or friends.  With the right company you find yourself designing (and laughing) until quite giddy.  Nothing is more fun than a design party!  Sadly it’s also rare, because finding someone with the required quick wit, joy de vivre, and lack of ego is tough.  You must respect your sparring partner (and vice versa).  Treasure those you find.

Otherwise, be cautious.  Directors may take your unconsidered comments or first ugly scrawls seriously.  Try not to frighten them; you artists are notoriously weird and dangerous people. 

Office Environment

Reading Seth Godin's blog (always an interesting take on business), today he talks about the importance of environment - of an inspiring space for creative meetings or your work.  Good point.

Take a look around your work area...

Comfortable?  Convenient?  Efficient?  What do you, personally, need?  Think through practical requirements: chair, work surface, lighting, tools, equipment, lay-out space, storage/filing, extra seating...  Are there meetings or public interactions here?  Does your area present your public business "face"?  Or is it purely private?

Your environment should help you do your best work by providing pragmatic and mental/emotional support.  What distracts you or helps you concentrate?  Beyond efficient and pleasant, make your workplace quiet or stimulating or... inspiring.

Corporate businesses will dictate a style (that lamp like a lady's leg in a fish-net stocking is OUT) and someone has to sit in the cubby under the stairs (H. Potter CPA), but there is always some improvement or claim-marker you can place.  At least you can have the classiest coffee mug at IBM and a great frame for your permitted 3x5-photo-of-appropriate-spouse.  Sometimes you can change more than you expect.  Most folks waste this opportunity on knic-knacs.  Get daring: hang real art, grow a real plant of some size and majesty, paint that wall!

But a home office can be as individual and satisfying as you choose to make it.  Even if it's the laundry room.  Why not?  Design a great office to share with Mr and Mrs Whirlpool from Facilities.  Not quiet cubical mates exactly, but they never steal pens.  The most inspiring "home office" I know was sculptor Alexander Calder's studio: in a rustic barn, he had dozens of mobiles flying overhead like birds and outside his windows was a field where, among his bronzes, sheep grazed.

(My own studio is an enclosed back porch: brick, wood siding, art junk, lots of books, and lots and lots of glass with a view of squirrels.  No bronzes... but I gotta Styrofoam TM carving of a sea god from an old show, does that count?)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


The internet sure makes it easier to find news of up-coming movies/books/etc. or to follow a favorite star or author.

With a mere click the movie fan can check progress of The Hobbit (endless pre-production - director sick) or the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean (Penelope Cruise as a pirate - perfect).  You can track the progress-to-DVDs of  TV shows like Dexter or True Blood (none, apparently).  Or watch for new books: a Charlaine Harris comes out May 3rd, latest in the series which inspired TV's True Blood.  Diane Gabaldon's 8th book (still untitled) is still... unpublished.  She takes a long time between books, but then, they're very long books.  Lois McMaster Bujold is adding to her Vorkosign series, starring Ivan (yes! finally).  And so on.

In the last century - no the one before that one - crowds used to wait on the docks for the latest chapter of Charles Dickens' serials...

No doubt but I'd have been there pacing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Film Fest

Watched the latest version of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde's spooky tale of the always-young man who hides a deal-with-the-devil-portrait in his attic.

Appropriately spooky... though maybe relishing all the debauchery a bit too much?  (The feeling Anne Rice's books give me too.  Interview With a Vampire was very effective, but read a few more and then a sort of spiritual indigestion starts to set in.)  I can see exactly why Colin Firth took the role of the older man who first seduces Dorian to the dark side.  A juicy role.  Playing depravity must be fun, especially as counterpoint to the stiff Mr. Darcy.  But like most stories about rakes, wastrels, and evil doers... well, none of that's really a spectator sport, is it?


Don't you love Netflix?

While I DO miss wandering the aisles of a video store looking for a film to fit tonight's mood,  after being abandoned by both Hollywood (my fav) and Blockbuster (unfav - remember them dumpstering all older titles?  for shame), I didn't have that option.  Now, instead, I get to haggle between rival picks and then about what order to order 'em in.  An embarrassment of riches.