Rules from the New Frontier of Video Design


Local lighting designer, media designer, electrician and Assistant Lighting Designer at Children’s Theater Company (and elsewhere!)—these are but a few of the titles held by Kathy Maxwell. Kathy’s a well-known figure around town, having made a significant mark on the theater scene since moving here from Texas about a decade ago. Always a smart and resourceful designer, Kathy is also an observant and insightful person and a conversation with Kathy is always an illuminating one.

I’m a lighting designer who just happens to get more video designs than lighting designs—which is a recent development. Video design as a medium is still relatively new, especially at many theaters in the Twin Cities. People, myself included, are still trying to learn where projections fit in and how to incorporate them successfully into productions.

Many times I feel as if the word projections gets thrown out by someone on the creative team and, before anyone knows what’s happening, there is a video designer sitting in the room complaining about throw distance and lumens and asking pesky questions like, “Is there a budget?” and “Does the theater own any video equipment?” Next thing you know, the whole team is arguing about midi and how many boards one operator can feasibly run at once—and whose responsibility is it to program said midi?

Finally everyone storms out not having reached any conclusions, but knowing that the show is gonna need more money. Yep, definitely gonna need more money.

The five other design elements are entrenched in our thinking and planning. No one needs to remind people that props and costumes have to be stored somewhere backstage. No one needs to explain the need for a stage crew to move large set pieces. No one needs mention that gear for a rock show is different from gear to do a straight play. These are simply tropes for anyone working in technical theater. When it comes to video, however, since everything is brand new, it is hard to come by a frame of reference or knowing what resources are appropriate to draw from.

Directors don’t instinctively know if the design they just described to you might cost roughly $20,000. Production managers don’t preemptively say, “Without two control systems for sound and video, tech will go extremely slowly since only one person can program at a time.” Companies don’t budget for video once the director has uttered the much-maligned words, “I want to add projections.” This means when I arrive at the first production meeting, I basically have to state some very hard truths including:

“No, your 8-year-old, long-throw projector will not work in this application.”

“No, your Mac Mini can’t run seven simultaneous video outputs.”

“I can’t rent projectors for free.”

“This is not the right cable.”

Usually, the first and most difficult thing I have to explain is the limitations of the gear the theater owns and what that means for the design. In a world where people expect computers and technology to do anything they want as fast as they can imagine, it’s hard to explain that what the director has asked for is not achievable. “Well, you see that’s not possible because the maximum output resolution of your computer—even with gear such as a TripleHead—is 2560 pixels by 1600 pixels which you are trying to divide over three projectors. Which means the closet native resolution per projector is 800 by 600 and, since you are trying to project across 30 feet with only 800 pixels, your image is highly pixelated. And…”

Did your eyes just glaze over? When I started talking about “TripleHead” and “maximum output resolution,” did you go to your happy place? Did you have flashbacks of your ex-boyfriend who worked in IT yelling about RAM and GPUs and how no one understood what they were?

This is where I become that ex-boyfriend.

Computers are not magic. Projectors do not just work. And not all of them are right for every application. While a computer and projector may have worked for your last show, they could be completely useless in your next one. I know, I know: You just bought that projector for that last show. I hear you. The computer was fully loaded when you purchased it five years ago. I understand. It works just as well as they day you bought it. Believe me, I know how expensive a projector rental is. But this does not change the fact that what you want from video is not achievable with the gear you have provided me.

You must change your expectations or provide different gear. Period.

The second thing I find myself reminding people is that, just because we have located the gear, that doesn’t mean we are done. As with lighting and sound, video must be programmed during tech and played back during performances. It sounds obvious—but you would be surprised at the number of times I have brought it up and heard, “Oh, yeah. I didn’t think about that.”

There are many options and solutions to accommodate the most bare-bones theater, but these options and solutions need to be brought up and discussed—preferably before tech. Waiting until the last day of tech to inform your video designer that they do not have a board op because the production manager couldn’t find one, and here is the midi cable they will need to be linked to the light board, is not totally fine.

Let me repeat: That’s not totally fine.

In my experience, most directors don’t understand the scope of the video design they are looking for and how it fits into the gear their company owns or can afford. Many production teams simply overlook such necessary things as additional control systems or additional personnel that may be required because they simply didn’t think about it.

Video is a whole new design area with specific needs and requirements that must be considered if the design is to be achievable—much less successful. If companies are interested in producing shows with video they need to start investing in it and providing it with the necessary resources.

I told you: You’re definitely gonna need more money.