What is Media Design?

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.

medi design of grass and cityscape on stage
The English-language world premiere of the Frank Wildhorn-Jack Murphy musical The Count of Monte Cristo at Brigham Young University, 2015. Projection Design and photo by Daniel Fine. 

The presence of digital media and projection in live performance is on the rise. The use of projections in theatre dates back to the 1920s with Erwin Piscator, even earlier with the work of artists like Louie Fuller, the invention of the zoetrope, and still earlier with ancient shadow puppetry. Despite these facts, the field is still young and figuring out best practices to incorporate digital media into production.

Technologies emerge, evolve, replicate, die, and reemerge as something new at an extremely rapid pace. While other theatrical design fields have created standard playback systems and production schedules, media design is still in its infancy. We are still figuring out these standardizations as the technology we use to create and playback content advances every other second. Because things are changing so rapidly, and more productions and academic departments are newly incorporating digital media, it is vital for us to create best working methods.

So, what exactly is media design? It’s projections, right? Yes, I am talking about projection design. But digital media in live performance can also be much more. Media design is not only contained to a projector beaming digital images, but also combines visual, aural, technological, computer, theatrical, temporal, and architectural forms.

Media content can come from many different worlds such as cinema, television, video games, moving graphics, computer interfaces, sensors, and virtual reality. The display of content can range from projections on screens, the set, the performers, or other two and three-dimensional items to televisions screens, monitors, smart phones, speakers, and virtual reality glasses.

a woman in front of an art installation
Memory Room, a site-specific, store front performance installation about women, writing, and memory conceived and directed by Rachel Bowditch for Vessel, 2013. Media design and photo by Daniel Fine. 

From the early 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, there was a large surge in the use of analog media projections in theatre, dance, and performance art. Compared to film, video was relatively inexpensive. Its immediacy and ease-of-use led many artists to experiment with the inclusion of video into their performances. As sensor systems and circuit systems became more affordable, these elements also began to be integrated into the live performance. The evolution of analog to digital content creation and playback systems, and the comparatively lower cost of these new systems, allowed the field to grow exponentially over the last fifteen years.

So, what do we call ourselves? Professionals use terms like media designer, projection designer, video designer, and interaction designer. It wasn’t until 2007 that The United Scenic Artists Local USA 829 offered a category known as “Projection Design,” and not until 2010 that the Yale School of Drama even offered an MFA in Projection Design. It is clear from these two examples that the traditional theatrical world—both academic and professional— narrowly define the role of media design to projections. But what about when a designer creates content for a wall of televisions? Nothing is being projected, so does the title still work? What about when a designer creates an interaction with sensors and displays it via LED panels?

What really matters is that we are on the same page as our collaborators, and that we have a shared vocabulary, history of the field, and understanding of what we are trying to achieve with the project.

At Arizona State University, where I earned my MFA, and other academic institutions that train designers, the term Media Designer is used. This title is broader in scope and more inclusive, not only of projected content and system design, but also for elements such as motion capture, interactions (sonic, haptic, sensors), lasers, and even robotics to name just a few.

I usually refer to myself as a media designer. But often when working in the professional theatre, I am credited as a projection designer. When I am designing projections, this is usually the most straightforward name for everyone, especially the audience, to understand. But it really depends on what you are doing, where you are doing it, and what your preferences and biases are about the subject. Not to mention if you are or are not a member of the union.

What’s in a name? Does it really matter? Is this just semantics? Yes and no. What really matters is that we are on the same page as our collaborators, and that we have a shared vocabulary, history of the field, and understanding of what we are trying to achieve with the project. Moving forward, I will use the term media designer as it includes projections, and all the other various elements described above that may be incorporated into a media design.        

As this blog series unfolds over upcoming months, I will examine specific relationships with digital media design; key aspects of how it effects live performance—from rehearsing with media to playing nicely in the sandbox with lighting and scenic; to dramaturgy and meaning making; to working with a director, scheduling, and budgeting. I look forward to sharing my thoughts, insights, and some survey results about where we are currently in the professional and educational fields. But most importantly, I am excited to start a dialogue on how we can work together to best incorporate digital media into live performance so we can effectively create new and exciting stories for the digital age.

a band on stage
Everybody's Talkin': The Music of Harry Nilsson, starring Tony Award Winners Gregory Jbara & Alice Ripley in the world premiere musical event conceived by Steve Gunderson and Javier Velasco at The San Diego Rep, 2015. Projection Design and photo by Daniel Fine. 

Up next: Media Design and Dramaturgy: Creating Meaning

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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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Can't wait to read more, Dan! (And, you know, attend your class on this very subject)The implications of outlining an approach to a brand new medium feel daunting--in terms of awareness, analysis and application. How long were people painting pictures before someone said "hey, we should think about this whole 'painting' thing?"

The emergence and mass adoption of digital media has had such a deep, wide-spread and near-instantaneous effect on our culture that our surveys and studies on it barely scratch the surface. Approaching the interaction from a theatrical viewpoint is helpful not only in it's keen self-awareness as an art form, but also it's manageable scale.

Looking forward to the rest of your posts!