Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Scenic Painters

One of the perks in being a set designer is that sometimes you get to work with wonderfully talented painters.

It's not uncommon for "fine" or gallery artists to moonlight doing large scale work like murals or, occasionally, scenic painting.  (One painter I know does it as a sort of charitable help-theater! donation because, of course, the pay is terrible compared to rich folks' decorating fees.)

Since I've recently been asked to recommend artists who would feel comfortable working at a large scale (yo! theater!), this morning I've been going through old contact lists looking for emails etc.

I found one painter's very cool website: CatheyMiller.com

Painting by Cathey Miller - copyrighted! (also sold)

I was lucky enough to have her paint a couple wonderful circus-sideshow-like banners for my show Slasher a few years back.  Made the set.

Slasher, Kitchen Dog Theater

PS  When the show was struck, one company member took the painted blonde home - I understand she now startles guests who turn the corner of the hall, looking for the bathroom!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Trend in Photography

Remember my little musing on the future of photography?  (HERE)  Well, this morning I read on BoingBoing:  "...the Chicago Times has fired their photographers, issuing iPhones to their journalists: a move which is either very prescient or very foolish, but which shows which way things are going. "  ???!

The newspaper fired all their full-time photographers including a Pulitzer Prize-winner.  At Forbes, there are doubts about this move working out and a mention of the importance of a photographer's "eye."  (Having an "eye" myself - though not for photography - I second that objection.)  Talk about creatives not feeling valued at work!  

Public domain image

And here's an early result of this decision: compare front page photos HERE.

Lost, Looooooossst!

For a few days there I lost my sketchbook!

No, no.  Look more devastated.  This was serious - I lost my sketchbook!

The thing goes everywhere with me.  I buy purses specifically to fit my sketchbook IN.

What's so special?  This particular one is perfect for my uses - the 5.5" x 8.5" Strathmore Sketch with a spiral binding and 100 crisp white sheets of fine-tooth surface paper (preferably recycled).  It's small enough for purses but with a big-enough page and it's fat enough to last - usually 3 months - yet not too heavy.

I live with and in my sketchbook.

It holds a lot more than sketches.  I make notes and tuck things into its pages... whatever needs recording in my design-life, overlapping into life-life.  My sketchbook's been known to carry exact measurements for those new drapes, though I draw the line at wasting it on grocery lists.

This lost sketchbook is reaching the end of its three-month-ish life span so it holds... well, three months of my life.  For the four days it was lost I only needed to consult it five times.

Inside this papery Rememberall there are: design notes and sketches for three shows; notes from a playwriting seminar; notes on writing projects; a Rilke poem; a museum show flyer and those notes and sketches; ALL my notes from the NYC Scenic Masterclass; scribbles from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including the name John Haviland, an 1800s American architect who embezzled his clients' funds and whose portrait is especially self-important); notes from a LEED/Accessibility architectural continuing ed. seminar; more play notes; more seminar notes, this time on "Through-Wall Flashing" (lunch was good)...  You get the idea.

Losing all this - even for four days - was a real wrench in the works here!

But my sketchbook is safe back home now, thank goodness.

Where was it?  Locked in a car at the airport.  I guessed it was there... but finding the car...?

Believed public domain photo messed with.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Turning Down Work

It's a sad fact that you can't actually design everything.

(In our hearts most designers really want to design everything though.  World domination through Design!  Wahahahaha!)

Image found HERE

But the world being the ill-organized place that it is, sometimes the offered show is just at a bad time and can't be shoe-horned into your schedule.  That's the usual reason to have to turn down a design job.  More rarely the show might be one you've already designed and don't want to repeat; or one you dislike; or one you see doomed to failure due to some circumstance you alone  can foresee; or the theater company or director may be one you prefer not to work with; or you know you're wrong for this show; or something else in your life demands your full attention for a while and you have to turn down every offer; or, you know, you've planned a vacation.

And any show you have to miss instantly feels like The Coolest Show Ever!

Turning down work...

Don't you just hate it?

(See more of the brilliant Pinky and the Brain cartoons HERE.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Film Festive - Despicable Me II

Needed cheering up so went to see Despicable Me II.

The correct prescription!  The credits are a the funniest thing I've seen on film in ages.  Okay, the story isn't quite as good as the first film's, but there's plenty to entertain and Gru, his daughters, and the Minions are in great form.  (And those credits!)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Pritzker Prize and Fairness

The Pritzker Prize is presently THE big award in the field of Architecture.

Sure there's the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.  But that, as the label says, is purely American (well, U.S.A.), while the Pritzker is world-wide.  Founded in 1979, this award is notably more inclusive in the nationality/religion/skin-color departments and has even, in 2004, started awarding awards to women.  Zaha Hadid was the first female to win, followed by Kazuyo Sejima (who shared that year's prize with Ryue Nishizawa).

The AIA, I'm sorry to say, has never awarded a single gold medal to a single woman.  Ever.  Not in 106 years of existence.

So obviously there have been no women in the practice of architecture in the U.S.

No?  Well, obviously no women who were any good.  Okay, well not until just lately, far too recently to have won medals.   Though...  Julia Morgan?  Early 1900s.  Designed 700 buildings  in California, including Hearst Castle.  Or, jumping to today's crop of wrong-gender American architects, how about Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang? Won a MacArthur "genius" grant.  (Earlier post HERE.)  Or how about that eminent and widely influential architect and theorist Denise Scott Brown?  No gold necklace?

But misogyny is tomorrow's topic.  Today's controversy is another injustice:

In 1991 architect Robert Venturi won the Pritzker Prize.  His architectural partner (of 22 years then, 44 now)  was Denise Scott Brown.  She was co-author with Venturi and Steven Izenour of the seminal book Learning from Las Vegas which put them all on the architectural map.  "Denise Scott Brown is my inspiring and equal partner,"  Venturi writes in the public petition asking the Pritzker Committee to acknowledge her contribution to the work Venturi alone is credited with.

Photo of Denise Scott Brown and Las Vegas  from the petition page HERE.

Architecture is a collaborative design field.  Just as theater or film is.  It's obviously unfair to single out one member of a partnership and ignore the other.  Co-authors are self-acknowledged equals.  But even when creative contributions are less comparable, credit is due where credit is due.  In film a director gets prominent billing, but gaffers get credits.  Theater programs credit a wide range of contribution and ought - and sometimes do - credit the carpenters.

Scott Brown herself asks, "Let's salute the notion of joint creativity."

Please consider signing the petition asking the Pritzker Prize committee to remedy their omission of two decades ago, giving credit now where it's due.  Read the petition HERE.

I am grateful to Metropolis magazine for bringing this to my attention.  Read the article "Architecture's Lean In Moment" by Alexandra Lange HERE.  (BTW, Metropolis is one of the few architecture rags worth reading.)

ADDENDUM:  The Pritzker last year stiffed another female collaborator, when they failed to recognize Lu Wenyu when honoring her husband Wang Shu.  (He signed the petition.)  Two other partnerships have been recognized however.  At best it's... inconsistent.  Architectural Record article HERE.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Magically Confusing the Audience

Yesterday I had a great time chatting with set design colleagues.  One of them mentioned seeing the show Flashdance when it came through town.  When set changes happened, he said, up to twelve different set pieces would move at once!  (Maybe more, he lost count at twelve.)  This reminded us of my earlier post on The Rule of Three (HERE), about the inability of the human eye and brain to track more than two things at once when you want to confuse the audience.  Fifteen?  Overkill!  Flashdance also had a downstage piece or two - fabric or a couple scenic panels - cross the stage to deliberately catch the audience's eyes, guaranteeing that no one would notice whatever they were hiding.

This is a different  way of covering scene changes than that used, for instance, in La Boheme at the Met, designed by Franco Zeffirelli.  He just dropped the curtain.  This, I must say, interrupted the drive of the story and led to extended stare-at-the-curtain breaks for the audience that were enlivened only by a few mysterious bulges and quiverings of the heavy velvet.  Well and, each time, another curtain call... a series of ovations that began to get more and more amusing; just how much applause can an opera singer stand to listen to anyway?

La Boheme is absolutely gorgeous! with dramatic set changes well worth a little wait... but it was designed in 1981 and, with its curtain drops and highly romantic scenery, it feels a little old-fashioned.  (No artist ever starved in a lovelier Parisian garret.)

This modern trend to never to close a stage curtain, however, relies on sleight-of-hand.


By one of those funny coincidences, as I was driving away from this meeting and thinking about the magic of manipulating the audience's attention, a talk show on my car radio was interviewing the author of the book Fooling Houdini.  This talks about magic and, in part, about the glitches in human perception which make magic work.  I'd read the book!  Unfortunately, it didn't have a chapter titled "These are Things a Set Designer Needs to Know."  When reading the amusing travails of the author, I suppose I should have taken notes.  I enjoyed the book; it turns out, we're all very easy to fool.

Optical illusion - believed public domain, found HERE.

Speaking  of the quirks of human perception...  Seen this video of a classic example of the (embarrassing) gaps in human perception?  Have fun with "The Selective Attention Test":  HERE.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Alice on Sale

A summertime sale on books at my printers!  Here's your chance to stock up on my theater set design how-to Alice Through the Proscenium.

I'm happy to say that I recently got more fan mail on Alice.  This time it's from this area.  (In the past one thrilling email actually came from Kuala Lumpur.  No kiddin'.)  I've redacted the "where" from the comment until I get permission to identify the writer:

"It's a really fantastic guide to scenic design, simple, thought-out and funny. As the Assistant Technical Director at [hum, hum hum], I am going to suggest our set design professor read and think about including it as a text book in the Spring Semester when she teaches design. I remember the books I read in undergrad were full of information but often confusing, focusing on the minutia of carrying out the technical aspects and wasn't really written for someone looking to design. I hope everyone is reading your book." 

There you have it - a satisfied customer!

Anyway, HERE's that sale.  Use the secret code Socius to save at checkout.

Green Theater on Squidoo

My blog post the other day on going green in the theater (HERE) gave me the idea to create a Squidoo page on the topic.  And it just won an award - pretty cool!

Check it out: HERE 

Title pic for the Squidoo page "Go Green Onstage"

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Not a Review: Fly!

I recently watched one of the previews for the Dallas Theater Center's new musical, Fly!, a retelling of the Peter Pan story.

Peter Pan and Wendy book cover - public domain image

I liked it.  I found the first meet-Peter scene a little hard to follow (who are all these dancers with drums?), but after I got used to the show's conventions, I began to get into it.  The conventions?  Things like, this story is American not English, present-day not Edwardian, and we're flying with this great big harness so get over it! and the constant presence of who are these dancers with drums?  You just hafta go with it.

The drums, the dancing, clever and well-presented songs and dialogue, all enjoyable.  I absolutely loved the set!  But it was when the pirates and their ship very cleverly appeared that I was (you should pardon the pun) Hooked.

Hook himself was great - as were all the kid actors, most notably Wendy and Peter.  (I was glad to see a friend among the adult pirates, who was terrific.)

The set, by Anna Louizos, is a veritable thicket of bamboo: clever, flexible wagons made of bamboo and concealed steel, that are admirably responsive to action and to light, and just a gee-wiz! fun kids' tree house sort of environment.  Perfect.

The show, I think, needs a bit of polish here and there.  For one thing: why do the pirates leave? For another, the Peter/poison situation just sorta (pun alert) peters out.  But the set is ready for Broadway right now.  Some parts of the show need no tweaking at all - Hook's story about the crocodile is a clever reference to the classic version of the story, the use of modern slang is often amusing and apt, and the swamp woman's scene and especially her disappearance is spectacular!  All in all, Fly! is worth watching.

Speaking of Anna Louizos, she was another speaker at the Broadway Masterclass; I promise I'll write a post on her talk soon.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

No Matter How Well You Think You Understand...

You can think through your design all you like beforehand, think you completely understand every detail, even have sketched it at a small scale, yet when you sit down and start drawing the construction drawings you always find yourself thinking, "Hmmm... How does that actually work?"

Design never stops.

This time the "Hmmm..." moment came in detailing NYC skyline cut-outs for [Title of Show].

The Empire State Building - photo by Bobby Mikul, publicdomainpictures.net

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer Films

Well, half way through the summer almost and I'm burned out on Blockbusters already.

The Lone Ranger this weekend was, for me, the final proof that Hollywood has no idea.  Yet another tent-pole film that starts out okay, with interesting characters and situations etc. but then buries these under a crushing weight of pointless explosions, car (or train) chases, and general smash-'em-up that, frankly, no one can possibly care about.  I mean, that final train chase?  Except for the funny ladder bit, dumb.  And Superman: the Man of Steel disintegrated under a similar load of smashed buildings.  (Earlier post HERE.)  I'm struggling to even remember what the other couple flicks were... I dimly remember more smash-ups, but can't call to mind what the excuse, pardon me, the title of these films were.

Not exactly memorable cinema.

Oh yeah, one was Star Trek: Into Darkness.  This was a better movie, but again good characters were ultimately wasted on a smash-'em star-ship-chase conclusion that managed to completely contradict the pacifist point of the Star Trek universe.  Sigh.  And Iron Man III, which was okay.  (HERE.)

The other trend I've noticed lately comes from the coincidence of seeing in the theater Tom Cruise's Oblivion (a beautiful sci-fi world with silly plot holes HERE) and seeing his Jack Reacher soon after on Netflix.  The Star Vehicle.  Both films had their essential natures warped - sometimes fatally - by the pressures of being driven by The Star.  Another sort of car wreck.  Why did Jack Reacher, about a detective who doesn't even own a car, have a car chase in it?  Naturally Cruise drives like a pro.  Just as his sheer masculinity makes the utterly professional female attorney leave the trailer just to cool down after seeing him shirtless.  Poor girl.  (Whatever they paid the actress she earned every penny just for not giggling.)

Finding the vanity moments has gotten to be a game.  I may check out a few more from Cruise's late oeuvre  - throwing popcorn at the screen and hooting with laughter is fun!

Actual good movies this summer?

Much Ado About Nothing - Shakespeare (and Whedon) - review HERE

So far my favorites are Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing and The Kings of Summer.

Compared to big summer-smash movies these are quiet little low budget films in which not much happens.  I loved them both.

Much Ado About Nothing is a black and white modern-day version of Shakespeare's comedy set at a summer house party and filmed with many favorite actors from Whedon's television work.  Very nicely done.  I think I like it equally - though differently - as Kenneth Branagh's  gorgeous 1993 version.  The compare-and-contrast between the two films is fascinating.

The Kings of Summer is about three teenaged boys who build a secret hideout in the woods.  Lovely.  Worth seeing.  It captures a lot of truth about growing up and about summer...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Fourth...

The Fourth Amendment doesn't just apply on the Fourth of July.

Lately (you've read the papers) evidence has come to light that the United States government - our government has been spying on us, the People.


Secret courts to "approve" this?  Unconscionable!

The Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Please let your political representatives know that you don't want secret courts, secret surveillance of citizens, and  illegal searches and seizures of your phone calls, emails, on-line purchases, on-line searches or visits, cell phone locations... or even that you're reading this blog at this minute.

Shed light on government spying and secret courts.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Greening the Stage

Among the kind sponsors of the Live Design Scenic Masterclass (thanks Rose Brand!) was the Broadway Green Alliance.

They have a worthy goal - to make theater less ecologically wasteful.  Green the Stage!

Charm at Kitchen Dog Theater - I couldn't resist using this "green" stage.

Here are some suggestions they made to us as set designers:

1) Run a greener studio: use recycled paper, print on both sides, use inks with less packing materials, and, when possible, view information on a screen and not print it at all.  When building models, up-cycle packing cardboard, choose cardboard instead of foam-core board or pulp-board instead of illustration board.  Use plain ol' white glue instead of fancy sprays and other chemical compounds.  Recycle used paper and cardboard - even old models when you can.

ADDENDUM:  I'd add in general good-green-housekeeping stuff: use LED or fluorescent lighting instead of incandescent; keep your thermostat setting sane; cut back on chemical cleaners and insect sprays etc.; recycle plastic and metal trash too; waste less water; all the good stuff, right?

2) Design green: plan using recycled and upcycled materials in your sets.  Design around material sizes (like 4' x 8' plywood) so there's less cutting and waste.  Research materials - what's the greenest choice?  Many factors come into "greenness", like shipping distance and sustainable sourcing etc., so pace yourself; research as you have time rather than pushing to reform your practice overnight.  Check places like Craig's List for what you need.  

(If you happen to be in the NYC area, they suggest shopping at Build-It-Green, Film Biz Recycling, or Materials-For-The Arts. Around the DFW area, Habitat for Humanity Restores sell "excess" building products.  And building salvage places, of course.)

3) Build green:  use stock pieces and save things from this set for the next one.  Use that recycled and upcycled material!  (As much as possible, I suggest encouraging sustainable paints and building methods.)

4)  Green-cycle old sets!  Don't just trash it - give it away or give the broken-down materials away. Poorer theaters would be glad of a lot of your stuff.  Recycle what can be recycled.  

5)  Talk green.  Reach out to others about sustainable theater.  Let's make "green" the new standard practice!  Join Broadway Green Alliance.

Much of this we (in those poorer theaters) are already doing for reasons of, um, poverty, but it's a good idea to think through your usual practices.  (My studio needs to recycle more paper.)  See where you can be a better global-green steward... right, citizen?

Public domain image

Well, that's today's news.  Last thought...

"We do not get the news from poetry
yet people die everyday for lack of what is found there."
William Carlos Williams

(Thanks to poet John Siddique for this quote.)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Scenic Masterclass Speaker: Donald Holder

It was interesting to hear lighting designer Donald Holder (The Lion King) talk about collaboration (or not) between set designer and lighting designer.  I absolutely loved the title of his talk: "When Did We Add the Mirrored Floor?"

Says it all.

Mirror! - image from HERE

Communication =  Important.

He had a hilarious story about a shouting match in Tech after one very-eminent-set-designer (cough, cough) at the last minute, and without telling the lighting designer, moved scenery into fly space needed for lighting.   The equally-very-eminent director had to physically stand between the two designers before punches flew.

The lesson?  Talk first!

The take-away message was that the set designer needs to respect the lighting designer's needs.  For instance, to "pop" actors off the set with light, the lighting guys absolutely need space to fit lights between the actors and the scenery.  So don't, you know, fill that up.  (As that cough-cough designer did.)

"Give the lighting room!"

Mr.  Holder also suggested, when a set designer talks to a lighting designer, that we "focus on the positive."  (I suspect this translates as, no name calling, swearing, or finger-pointing.  I think it can get ugly.)  Talking to each other - civilly - is vital.

He spoke about his influences and inspirations, which turned out to be similar to what I've heard from lighting designer friends: the inspiration of nature and its lighting effects like sunrises and sets, clouds and shade, plus the great painters of light like Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hopper, or Sargeant.  Holder explained the importance of stage lighting as the "lens" through which the audience sees the show.  Perfectly true.  He reminded us of Joe Melzeiner's definition of a set as "a lightable object."  And he described lighting design in practice as a constant balance between a conceptual approach and the practicalities, between the "big gestures" and the nuts and bolts.

In this nuts-n-bolts spirit he recommended against curved cycs - "curved cycs tend to look wrinkled" - and especially against flying them.  Plain ol' straight, framed-in-black cycs work best.

He also discussed the present conversion of stage lighting from the standard of incandescent fixtures to LEDs.  The Lion King saved 30% on its energy bills when it switched to LED for its new UK tour, plus less maintenance.  That advantage is obvious.  The disadvantages of LEDs are more subtle.  For one thing, color mixing is not quite the full rainbow spectrum that the ads suggest - some colors are unavailable.  Skin tones tend to fade under LED light.  And the fading of those lights...  Where an incandescent source keeps its true color right up until that last moment, then gains a golden glow before dying, LED colors shift throughout the fade but miss that "warm" last moment.  He called it a subtle difference, but one with psychological importance after millenia of human association between light and flame.

Holder also talked about the recent trend (thanks largely to LEDs) of building more lighting into the sets themselves.  For Spiderman, with a set budget of (wallet spasm!) $ 8 million, $ 2.5 million of that was spent on in-set lights and electrics.  This kind of scenic installation makes collaboration between lighting and set designers even more important.

That mirror floor?  That was a set designer's surprise.

(No one had told him - but he coped.  A lot of actor-lighting was suddenly bounce light from below.)

Monday, July 1, 2013

They Blew Up One Too Many Things

I watch the new Superman - Man of Steel yesterday.

Superman - in the only public domain version, found HERE

Not completely successful.

It felt like two movies hammered together: a moody character-motivation origin story smashed into an explosive summer-blockbuster crash-fest.  Of those two, the thoughtful moody one was the better... but neither half really won me over.

There were some things I liked, but many more I'm unconvinced by.  For one thing, the film took huge liberties with the classic origin story of the comic books, made a HUGE shift in the Lois Lane / Clark Kent relationship, and an even huger change in Superman's relationship to Krypton.  I'm sure the purists are screaming.  I'm inclined to agree with them: a radical re-working of a myth (and Superman IS mythic) is fine, but only if it works.  I don't think this does.

But all that at least showed thought and willingness to experiment.

What was utterly banal and unthinking was the let's-smash-one-MORE-building boredom of the last half of the film.  Come on!  Smashing stuff is not, in itself, interesting.  This is Superman not the Hulk - smashing is not supposed to be the point.  It was repetitive, too long, and frankly boring.  As we were leaving I overheard a ten year old boy say, "It was kinda annoying."  He was right.  And when a film like this loses the ten year old boy vote, it's in trouble.

The only "smashing" that had any interest or importance was when Clark Kent's farmhouse was damaged.  That mattered.  But even then, his Mom, picking through the wreckage voiced my thought: "It's only stuff."

All that wrecking of Metropolis?  It's only stuff.

When, when, when will blockbuster makers learn that It's The Story That Matters?  The new ease of creating special effects has allowed - pushed even - filmmakers into too many, too facile smashups.  We need to ration these guys: "You can only break ten (10) things - so make 'em count!"

Instead of this flick, go watch the old Christopher Reeve Superman - for the real-deal mythology - or the latest Avengers - for beautifully choreographed smashings and the Hulk.  (Spoiler: Hulk versus Loki illustrates breaking things that matter... in this case, Loki.  Hilarious!)

(BTW - on the film's production design...  Cool - but I kinda think the alien artifact designers stared too long at June bugs.)