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Set and Media Design, Part 1

This blog series offers a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve the best practices for collaboration in the creative and production process of incorporating digital media into live performance.

If you’ve been reading this blog series, you know by now that I spend a great deal of time harping on meaning making. A set designer makes choices that have rippling affects in the media department’s workflow, ability to execute a design, and the meaning making of the mediated content. Thus, it is incumbent upon the set designer to consider media design and to engage the media designer well in advance of the final due date of your scenic designs. In fact, it is best for the set designer to consult a media designer before roughs. Why? Because often a director will get hooked on your wonderful design that does not truly consider media and then the director won’t let go of your initial idea, even though it may not be right for media, and thus, not right for show.

The set designer has to ask what role media is playing in the production. Is it purely scenic? If so, then I suggest it be part of your job to actually think about the design of the content. You would if you were using painted backdrops. So, if you have strong opinions on the style of content and the type of content, maybe you should design the media of the show yourself or oversee the media department and hire artists and programmers as need be, instead of hiring a dedicated media designer.

Why is a large part of any media design controlled by the scenic department? It is often the scenic designer, with or without consultation from the media designer, who decides the following questions: What is the projection surface? What does it look like? How is it built? What materials will be used? What shapes are created? Will the content be displayed via self-emitting equipment such as LED curtains or LED panels? It is not intuitive for the scenic designer to know that he must consider the type of media content that will be used for the show and the intention of the content. But it is imperative that the set designer does so.

Architecture, design, shapes, and color are symbols that convey meaning. Audiences understand these different design elements to mean different things unto themselves. So, before there is a single frame of content on the physical object that will reflect the projections or display the content, there is meaning, there is symbolism. The scenic designer must consider this and she should include the media designer in this portion of the design process.

A media designer can create content that shifts and shapes the architectural world of the play. We can make a wall come to life and it will mean something different, then the same images projected onto a screen.

Framing Meaning
It matters to the media designer what shape, size, aspect ratio, surface, etc. the physical “screens” are. The style or aesthetic of one type of content comes across with a different meaning if it is projected on a 42’ x 30’ screen, vs. three 14’ x 15’ free standing screens vs. a brick wall.

But it also matters because it is a different workflow for content creation and playback between multiple screens or one large screen. This decision may also require additional or different types of hardware or software to be used. With multiple screens, is there supposed to be one image spread across them or is there different content on each screen? If there is different content, then for the same amount of stage time, the amount of content that needs to be designed, executed and programmed for playback are multiplied by the number of screens.

The way the media designer thinks about the meaning of her content, how to create, how to export it and how to play it back are all factors that she must consider. And for the most part, she isn’t included early enough in the design process to have a true, meaningful say in these choices that directly impact not only her workflow, budget, and schedule, but also the framing of meaning that her content conveys to an audience.

A media designer can create content that shifts and shapes the architectural world of the play. We can make a wall come to life and it will mean something different, then the same images projected onto a screen. Why? The audience already has a relationship with screens and understands what they represent. The semiotics of screens vs. architecture is different.

three actors on a set on stage
The Death and Life of Sherlock Holmes at Arizona State University. Media design and photo by Alex Oliszweski.

Giant White Screens
There are also additional practical considerations. For example, as scenic designer you decide to have a giant white screen upstage and you want to use rear projection. Then a media designer comes onboard after your design has been approved. The shop is thinking about building, while the director is thinking about staging. You learn from the media designer that there is no physical way within their budget that the lumen count of the projectors the theatre owns, the throw distance, and the theatre’s lenses that rear projection will create a raster the size of the screen you designed.

I recently designed a show where this very issue became a big deal in the design process, precisely because scenic decisions were made that affected my department without my initial input. The only way I could rear project an image as big as the set designer wanted was to:

a. Knock out a few holes in the back of the theatre,

b. Rent short throw lenses,

c. Put the projectors at crazy odd angles,

d. Or bounce off mirrors.

None of these were options. The first one is obvious because no one in the administration wanted to blast holes in the back wall. There was also no budget to rent short throw lenses. There was no way I was going to put the projectors at crazy, off angles that were not at a perpendicular angle to the screen. Why not? What’s the big deal? I was asked.

  1. The pixels would smear and become irregular sizes;

  2. This would make blending multiple projectors vastly more complicated and nearly impossible and;

  3. I didn’t have the time or head space to deal with this, as the theatre didn’t have the proper media system to deal with this issue or a video technician to take responsibility for this.

Lastly, bouncing off mirrors means you lose lumens, or in layman’s terms, the image is not as bright. Losing lumens is never ideal. My budget would not allow the purchase of the proper type of mirrors and their installation. Reasons number two and three from option C above also apply here. As a designer, I didn’t have the time to add additional technical problems to my tasks of designing and programming a production with over two hours of media cues.

I have never designed a show where there was only one or two media cues or just a few moments of projections. Once media is in a show, it is usually all media almost all the time, especially if there is a giant white screen upstage. So, this generally means that in a two-hour show, the media designer is making two hours worth of content, which is longer than most Hollywood feature films without the budget and the support. Is this the dramaturgically correct way to approach the production? Does it allow the director and the design team ample time to experiment with the media and fully incorporate it into the stage picture? The answer varies based on why the production has included media in the first place. Media can take over. Most audiences will tend to watch a screen of any size rather than a live performer, especially media on a giant white screen. So, as a set designer you need to carefully consider how and why the production is using media in your scenic decision-making.

Up Next: Set and Media Design, Part 2

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Thoughts from the curator

This blog series offers a multi-disciplinary approach to achieve the best practices for collaboration in the creative and production process of incorporating digital media into live performance.

Media Design in Performance by Daniel Fine


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What concerns me is you have left out the role of the director in all this and this seems to jump pronouns!
The set designer AND DIRECTOR has to ask what role media is playing in the production. Is it purely scenic?invaluableCheck paragraph 7 - "factors that she must consider"
Consider using "factors the MEDIA DESIGNER must consider.."

Sorry to be picky, but I wanted to enjoy the article more than I did when I came across the articulation of this invaluable subject.

Hi Jonathan,

This post is part of a larger blog series where I discuss how media affects specific areas of theatre production. So, to that end I have been trying to break down each post per area. If you are interested, I discuss media and the director here; http://howlround.com/media-....

I purposefully have changed the pronouns from he to she and back again to try to and be inclusive. Sorry it bothered you.

Thanks for reading.


Hi Dan - Thank you so much for the clarification, I am delighted you pointed me to the directors article, good read! I am a very strong proponent for media design / projections and the recognition of it and let’s not forget sound design! The changing of pronouns, I have to say, was a bit confusing.

Yes thank you for this! #TheLifeAndDeathOfTheGiantWhiteScreen

A white screen signals it's time to watch a movie. And sometimes you want to pause your production and watch a movie... but generally I recommend integrating it into your design concept. Be smart about it! Just like you would with all your other design elements.