Wu Chen Recommends: The Underwater Welder

All storytelling mediums have their own strengths and nuance, and each has different ways of engaging its audience. All are wonderful. Mainstream acceptance or rejection has nothing to do with the narrative power of a medium—only the scope of its reach.

Detail of cover art from  The Underwater Welder  by Jeff Lemire.

Detail of cover art from The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire.

For graphic novels and comics, I think that Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder showcases the staggering power of the medium like few others I have read. This quietly understated yet compelling story of the titular character as he struggles with anxiety, fear and regret; demons that plague us all. It’s a deeply human story, and the scratchy, sketch-like art underscores the haunted uncertainty of the lives of the characters—our lives—that drives the narrative. The libretto (for what else is it?) is sparse but compelling. The many frames with no words serves only to highlight the unspoken, the thunderous silence of our fears, our refusal to face ourselves and our realities and our human condition.

This is a work well worth your time, from the haunted eyes on the first page to the two full-page panels at the end, the journey—like that of our Welder—is all too uncomfortable and familiar.

The Underwater Welder at Hennepin County Libraries

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.

To Cert or Not to Cert?


Roger Rosvold is a respected carpenter, rigger, technical director and educator around town. Equally comfortable in a black box theater as he is in a 100+ foot arena, Roger is a dedicated and capable teacher, stagehand and colleague. I first met Roger many years ago at the University of Minnesota (I honestly don’t remember the year…) when I was a Fringe tech on the Thrust Stage there, and was struck with his devotion to best and safe practices rooted in the real practicalities of our industry—this was someone who knew what it was like to be on the floor with us—and his clarity and smarts in articulating his point of view. Roger, alongside Kerry Korman and Levi Houkom, teaches our very highly regarded Arena Ground Rigging workshop. —Wu Chen

I regularly rig for Live Entertainment in theater and concert venues. I have rigged the full gamut from paper banners hung from railings (tape, please) to multi-ton line array clusters (three 2-ton hoists, please). I’ve used monofilament, tie line, rope, and steel cable. I’ve installed permanent rigs with lifespans of decades and rigs intended to work once.

I love rigging. It makes sense to me, appeals to my sensibilities, and is unendurably cool. I love it so much that I read every word I can find written about it, whether it’s for my industry or other industries. I take every work call I can fit into my schedule even if it means pulling a rope while another rigger makes the point. And I happily ground rig even though it pays quite a bit less than you’d expect and my hands get a lot dirtier than you’d think.

I find my coworkers’ skill levels quite high and their attention to detail typically immaculate. The deftness of the working rigger pleases my sense of rightness and assures me that they are skilled at their task. I respect their ethic and the work it creates. And I respect their understanding of the danger inherent in the industry, a fiercely real peril they struggle with each work call. However, I am sometimes disappointed at the knowledge level of my coworker riggers. My great peeve is the arrogance of the on-the-job–trained rigger who has worked for 20 years without incident, especially where ETCP rigging certification is concerned.

After I passed my first written test, I felt assaulted by co-workers who dismissed the certificate as meaningless. “So you have a paper—what does that mean?” implying I was personally responsible to show value in the certificate process. On some work sites, I was challenged with, “Every certified rigger I know sucks at actual work,” as though I should defend the skills of another. Yet the accusations continue, so as one of three riggers in Minnesota who is certified in both arena and theater rigging, I feel compelled to address their concern.

ETCP is a knowledge certification. You do not need to demonstrate a single skill during the test to pass it. You never tie a knot, make a connection, or handle a single tool. You handle no hoists and run no line sets, fold no soft goods nor pull a rope. You answer questions, written and reviewed by industry respect riggers who are the leaders of our trade. And you are responsible for a broad cross-section of information.

Also, not just anyone can take the ETCP test. You must demonstrate that you have worked in entertainment as a rigger for at least 3,000 work hours, though education and training can reduce that requirement slightly. For comparison, full time employment is 2,010 hours per year. So applicants are not newbie riggers and should have a reasonable skill set in place by the time they sit for the test. The test assumes your training and workplace have exposed you to a reasonable variety of rigging situations.

Knowing that, we wonder what you do on the test and how does passing the test matter?

You present your knowledge of a surprisingly broad field to a minimum standard. The topics you have vary pretty widely and include identification of hardware and materials, general principles of rigging, interaction of forces, usual rigging procedures and techniques, inspections, and rigging math. For those who are interested, here is a full list of topics. For those who are concerned, this information is not secret; ETCP is happy to spread the word on their test content.

Passing the knowledge test means you can be relied on to understand the principles and application of the rigging scenario. You can determine loads in a complex and unclear situation. And you can identify which force relationship applies to a situation at hand. You understand the difference between design factor and service factor, and know when to apply efficiency reductions (or gains!) and can demonstrate your decisions as more than, “That looks beefy enough.”

Passing the test means you accept the responsibility to ensure the rig meets “best practice” for our industry. You examine the rig to determine actual loads and apply design factors to ensure safety. You work through each load path, every connection, determine forces and loads at each step. You make sure every link is equally strong. You specify appropriate hardware and refuse to sign off where requested cuts would compromise safety, even though refusal may cost you future work.

ETCP was established to face a very real concern held by the rest of the world. You see, concert entertainment is no longer a young industry and, as the skills and demands have grown, so too have the costs and risks. A simple Google search of “concert accident” or “truss collapse” shows how risky rigging has become as more gear is used, more weight is flown, and ever-demanding needs arise (I’m looking at you, Kanye…).

As failures mounted and damages increased, we realized that, sooner or later, the U.S. federal government would take notice and decide to impose regulations on us. And they would put us into a category convenient for them but one we did not really belong in. Can you imagine trying to run a show under construction worksite conditions: hardhats and fluorescent safety vests on the performers? Full white light any time any piece of gear moves? Full volume alert chimes on moving scenery? Rather than risk such a fate, ETCP was created to head off that future.

One way to demonstrate our industry takes the risks seriously is for our events have a “Qualified Person” overseeing work practices on the job site. That title has a specific meaning attached to it in general industry, including legal weight and government recognition of authority. ETCP is the foundation our industry has built toward establishing a recognized “Qualified Person” program. At the end of the day, this is the reason we now have certification—to keep us from suddenly needing to conform all of our work practices to the rules surrounding cranes.

Which brings us to the question I am asked most: Do you, dear reader, need to be certified? Answer honestly. Do you plan on rigging something once a month, every month for the foreseeable future? Do you plan to rig anything other than a simple banner on a railing? Do you foresee rigging “tricks” like scenery that traverses or flips? Do you plan to move one rig to many different venues? Will your rig weigh more than 500 pounds total? More than 5,000 pounds? More than 50,000 pounds? Do you expect there to be more than ten different rigs in the air in the same room at the same time? Will they move past on another? Will the weight on your rig change for any reason? The more yes answers you provide, the more you should consider certification. If you think you might fly people, you must have a certified, experienced rigger involved.

One last thought on ETCP certification: I believe holding the certificate signals that you want to be the best. It is a commitment to study and pursue rigging as a lifetime interest and career. It says you intend to read the entire rigging bibliography and find new sources to add to that library. It signals that you take further training to broaden your horizons. It is not a declaration that you know everything but have a desire to know more. It is a signal of your commitment to excellence.

Rig safe!