(td)squared Blog

Learn about what we’re doing, learning, and discovering as technical theatre students at the University at Buffalo.

Cobalt Studios – 7.29

Here i am again! It’s Friday and the last day of class this week. 🙁

Today we focused on how to shade and shadow an object.
The most helpful advice I can give you is this,
Make your objects local color the base color
Make a shadow out of burnt umber and a dark blue, water it down so it is a little translucent
Make the objects shadow a color that would be the compliment of the source light (that’s how it occurs in life!)
Make your highlight out of your local color, add white and some of the source lights color
To create the “zinger” or hot spots you take white and the color of your light source and apply them sparingly
Then you add bounce light (from surrounding objects or surfaces) in your shadow. The most important part is that they appear in the shadow of your object. It’s best to do this with dry brushing, without thinned paint
The last step is to add the cut line, or line of shadow that occurs at the point where the object hits the surface, or is touching it’s cast shadow, this line is a very dark color, even black.

Follow this and you will have spectacular shading! 😀 sounds simple… But once you try to do it with a fled sashes and ditches to get just the smallest line ever – you discover that it can be quite the challenge. My favorite discovery was learning about the bounce light, that small addition really makes your painting come alive! I saw examples in the studio and I was marveling at how the artist included pops of color in their shading, and it went together so perfectly. Now I know how it’s done 🙂
Alright world, I’ll see you again on Monday!

Cobalt Studios – 7.28

Today began with everyone once again at their flat, the one we made the gradated wet blend and the stumble on. We then proceeded to test various tools on this surface, by dividing the flat into four sections we were able to work with three main tools.
Those were slinging, rags, textured rollers, and combing.
We then experimented with some other tools on the floor. My personal new favorite is a mop head connected to a handle by a wire, which enables it to swing around. You soak this with paint giving an amazing spatter effect. Even when you soak it in water you get another spatter effect when you rink it out.
After that we had a lesson on proper spattering (the irony). It is not proper to bang your brush against another item (or hand), instead you manipulate your spatter by how thin your paint is, how much paint is in your brush, and where in your brush the paint is resting. You then flick the brush with your hand, and control the direction by pointing where you want to spatter. It is important to keep the wide edge of your brush (we were using 4″ lay-ins for spattering) facing down. Otherwise you will end up with lines of spatter instead of a uniform spatter. We also worked by doing wet spatters and bath spatters, which is playing with how much water is on your surface prior to spattering.
Following the spatter lesson we began lining. Properly built lining sticks are key. They need a beveled edge and a concave base, making the bottom of the lining stick only touch the surface in two locations. Angled Sash brushes are ideal forlining. We also used fiches and created soft edged lines.

Cobalt Studios – 7.27

A quick lesson on how to clean brushes:

1. Put brush in clean bucket with water, bristles face down. Best way to do this is to have a bucket under running water where you then swirl the brush around, empty the water when it becomes colored. Repeat until water is clean (ish).

2. Stick brush in Murphy’s Oil, much like a dish soap. Make sure it is diluted. You don’t want the soap to be too hard to rinse out.

3. Scrub brush as you would your hair. Get between the bristles and down to the base.

4. Rinse under running water.

5. Get a plastic toothed scrub brush (metal ones damage the bristles), and scrub in one direction from the base of the bristles to the end of the bristles. This is to remover any
Ain’t that is stuck in the base of the bristles. You should do this step under running water.

6. Store your brushes horizontally on a metal mesh shelf. This allows the brush to dry without any leftover paint getting caught on the end of the brush. If any paint was left it will collect on the side of the brush, which is a lot easier to clean than the tip. The metal shelf also gives it a way to breathe.

Today we did a lot of work wit bamboo. Starting out with drawing exercises and then moving on to a large scale replica of a Mucha painting before lunch.
After lunch we used our ,iced paint from yesterday to do some wet blends, graidation and scumbling. Afterwards we learned about proper use and maintenance of sprayers.

Cobalt Studios – 7.26

Today was the first day we used paint! And boy is rosco worth it, the paint is so thick and the color is so intense. Basically after you thin the paint you really aren’t paying much more for it, because a gallon goes a long way.

The day began with some basic geometry skills, and knowing how to bisect lines and create right angles on the floor.

Then we began to starch our soft good flats we made yesterday. Who knew you could starch a flat for a fraction of the price of primer?! Tomorrow were going to do the final layer of sizing ( a glue mixture ), which will completely seal the fabric

We then learned about the parts of paint, and created the ol’ color wheel. Then came the fun part: color matching.
Now the best trick I learned today was to figure out a recipe for your color using the fewest steps possible. You start with straight paint and then add white or a good color shifter like raw umber. From there you can really figure out only one or two more dabs of color will do the trick. I was able to color match two swatches exactly in less than 2 hours. Can’t wait to paint more tomorrow!

Cobalt Studios – 7.25

So here I am laying in my bed, in a giant farm house along with 8 other scenic artists for 3 weeks of learning, painting, and overall just having a great time.

I am currently at Cobalt Scenic Studios. It is everything I could ask for and more.
I will do my best to make a post for each day I’m here but forgive me if some days have shorter posts – sometimes I procrastinate ( gasp).

So today is my official first day stepping in the studio. Yesterday I moved in to my own room in a farm house that can sleep up to 12 people!
My day began with a general discussion on what a scenic artist really was, venues you could find employment in, from backstage jobs.com to painting houses and commercials. Then we moved to the studio where I was blown away by the sheer numbers of supplies in stock. For example, every can of paint was rosebrand – a gallon would run you upwards of $70. I’m not trying to brag, just trying to give you the lay of the land. I was given a list of items a paint shop should have in stock, and what cobalt keeps in stock. The list went on for three pages.
Now you may be thinking I was in this highly monitored store room with white walls and locks on every door… But really it’s just a giant barn. And I couldn’t feel a y more at home. Everything may be organized neatly but all the labels are hand written, the shelves are either a conglomeration of your kitchen wares or hand made contraptions, there are silly pictures and decorations, the paint sinks are old bathtubs, and to top it all off there’s a cat named Winnie, who loves to say hi by rolling on her back.
Aside from the mixing and supply room I just described there is also a lounge filled with visual research, an office that maintains any backdrop rentals or commissions, and a huge studio. The studio is large enough to fit two 60×40 drops stapled on the floor.

You had me at farmhouse and barn/studio.

Cobalt is in a town called White Lake, basically the nearest Starbucks is an hour away. And I love it.

Aside from our tour of the facilities we began a lesson on cartooning, or on enlarging line drawings. Today we learned how to use a grid system. We also learned how to make soft good flats.

While we were working there was a graduate of Cobalt painting a drop of the Saringhetti. It’s just so much fun seeing something come to life as you step back. The artists name is Brian, and he just got accepted into the scenic painters union! No small feat at that!

I should note that I am learning under Rachel Keebler, Kimb Williamson, and Hannah Joy (a recent cobalt grad).

Dalmatian Design

My favorite animated Disney movie of all-time is the 1961 classic One-Hundred and One Dalmatians, based on the Dodie Smith novel of the same name. One of the last animated movies made during Walt Disney’s life, it’s a designer’s dream film, full of beautifully painted backgrounds, stunning character design, and visually modern settings. I thought we’d take a little diversion from the world of stagecraft and check out this (in my humble opinion) under-appreciated diamond of the Disney collection. There’s not only a lot to learn about animation and filmmaking, but we can learn so much about design from this film.

Really, Dalmatians is unlike anything Disney had produced up to that point. There are a lot of reasons why, but primarily it was because it was the first Disney film to fully use a new Xerox process that enabled faster, cheaper animation, reducing the need for the huge staff of painters and inbetweeners (the artists who actually drew the thousands of frames in the movie, not just the key poses but the ones “inbetween” them) that existed before. The Xerox process also made the primary animator’s original imagery appear on screen, because the painters and inbetweeners no longer had such a strong effect on smoothing it down to the fairy tale look that Disney had pioneered in earlier films.

Even from the beginning of the process of designing Dalmatians, it’s clear that this film would have a radically different design. Early color keys and concept art showed modern tendencies that were unprecedented in Disney’s canon of animation.

A Walt Peregoy color key from "Dalmatians." Pergoy was the background designer for the film.

A Walt Peregoy color key from "Dalmatians." Peregoy was the background designer for the film.

Above is a color key by background designer Walt Peregoy. The key illustrates color choices for backgrounds and the natural environment of the film. Peregoy’s design is distinctly modern, and has a slightly messy “outside the lines” appearance – he’s not looking to create the exact look, but rather evoke it. Amazingly, this look was preserved in the actual film, and was only barely cleaned up.

The character design is similar. Below is an design concept from the opening scene of Dalmatians – the popular walking sequence. It’s not attributed to any artist (although it has Bill Peet, the film’s writer and storyboardist, written all over it!). Looking at it, there are hardly any traces of traditional Disney elements (flowing, cherubic, romantic character design) – it’s supplanted for caricatures, and more comedic design. It looks like something out of a recent children’s book – appropriate, considering Bill Peet would go on to have a long and successful career as a children’s book illustrator.

Concept design art. No artist attribution available, but it definitely looks like the work of writer/storyboard artist Bill Peet.

Concept design art. No artist attribution available, but it looks like the work of writer/storyboard artist Bill Peet.

Studying these two concept images, they share some key elements that would define the Dalmatians style…

  1. Sharp, angular character design. While clearly Disney didn’t animate with only circles and ovals before, Dalmatians represented a shift in that angles became a core thread in the design fabric. The second image has much of its funk derived from angles; just check out those pointed noses! Pointed feet! The angles on those elbows and the clothes! Even the dogs follow suit.
  2. Blocky background color. Walt Peregoy’s genius shines through in his hip color keys. Rather then Disney’s traditional, romanticized, blended backgrounds that look more like romantic-era art (see Snow White for the original and best examples), Peregoy chose not to blend (at least not so blatantly), and rather to isolate various areas in specific colors. The result is a sharply focused look that pulls Dalmatians into the modern age.
  3. Natural color choices. The film isn’t afraid to eschew the traditional bold Disney colors. This is no fairy tale, and Peregoy and other colorists treated it thusly. We see appropriate London gray skies, browns and tans on the houses, and low-saturate greens on trees and shrubs. At only a few points does the look move into bold, primary color territory, and it’s jarring – the effect the filmmakers were certainly going for.

These three points are key to unlocking the style of One-Hundred and One Dalmatians, and set it apart from any Disney film that had preceded (although arguably sections of Lady and the Tramp come close – some of the Xerox techniques that were so crucial in Dalmatians were first being tested in Tramp).

You can see these attributes in effect in production stills and backgrounds. Let’s go through a few and analyze…

Three shots from London. Thanks to Colorful Animation Expressions for the shots.

Three shots from London. Thanks to Colorful Animation Expressions for the shots. Click for full size.

The above image is from the opening scene of the film (post-titles). We see the quaint London neighborhood where Pongo and his “pet” Roger live. From the outset, it’s clear that this is no typical Disney film. The sky is bleak and gray, reflective of the mood of our main character, Pongo (notice his expression and posture in the third picture). In fact, the sky actively reflects the mood of the scene throughout the film – a little later on when Pongo takes notice of Perdita and brings Roger to the park to meet her, things are looking much cheerier. Even later, the skies are foggy and dark when the puppies go missing. The background is also blocky and blending is rare (this would be even more pronounced later in the film).

Also notice: Upon close examination, the building design looks more like a sketch than a meticulously drawn Disney film. This is not to detract from the work of the artists, it’s simply not the Disney norm. Also notice the trees in panel two and three that are slightly blurred – this is the magic of Ub Iwerks’ “Multiplane Camera” which allowed animators to set focus for different levels of an image.

Regents Park. Thanks again to Colorful Animation Expressions.

Regents Park. Thanks again to Colorful Animation Expressions.

In this image, you can see the obvious change in color; greens are more saturate, yellows have mixed into the trees, the sky is taking on more and more blue, etc.

But color isn’t why I posted this picture – it’s character design. The angles are pronounced and strong, postures are distinct, and the animators are at top form, playing with people in crazy positions. That last image is quite impressive for the complex illustration of a leash tangling – the Disney animators prove their genius and why they were head of the class.

Also notice: Shadow. Just notice it, especially in that first shot. Wow.

The foggy night. Thanks to Colorful Animation Expressions.

The foggy night. Thanks to Colorful Animation Expressions.

Last but not least, the foggy London night when the Pongos escape for the north. These are beautiful pictures in their own right, and some of the most detailed and non-Dalmatians-like shots in the film. In fact, only the second image shows any noticeable traces of the sketchy-style that made up most of the movie. They still fit though, and the color and lighting has a lot to do with it. In fact, the lighting in this sequence is among my favorite in the film. The beautiful look of the street lights shining through the fog is perfect for this scene, and accents their journey into the unknown. These images could certainly be candidates for lighting inspiration images when preparing a lighting design!

Also notice: The way the damp road reflects in the last panel.

So there you have it, a short introductory look into one of my favorite Disney films. We started to dissect the elements that I believe make this film visually unique among the Disney canon, and looked at some examples from the film itself.

Dalmatians is an incredibly unique film, and definitely deserves your attention. If you’re interested in reading more about it, here are some links you might enjoy…

  • Colorful Animation Expressions brilliant series that details the color design in the film. A huge inspiration for this post and the source of some of my screenshots. He does it bigger and better.
  • Color keys from the film by Walt Peregoy. Not only are these a great way to look at the color design choices of the designers, but they provide a neat look at the conception stage of the film. They’re also just plain good art.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think in the comments!

Learning from the pros

Hello (td)squarians. Today I’m here with not a lot to say, but a video that you definitely want to watch.

The American Theatre Wing, a.k.a. the folks who created the Tony Awards, have produced a long time video series called “Working in the Theatre,” and it’s a must-see for anyone who wants to, well, work in the theatre. They have the best directors, actors, and designers on discussing what they do, and it’s a fantastic way to get insight into how professional, successful artists think.

Oh, and the best part? It’s all free on their website.

The video I want to share with you today is called Crafting Worlds: Theatrical Design,” and it features four of today’s leading Broadway designers (in the four primary design disciplines) discussing the state of design, how designers shape a production, etc.

American Theatre Wing - Working in the Theatre - Crafting Worlds_ Theatrical Design - March, 2009

The designers featured are Scenic Designer David Gallo, Sound Designer John Gromada, Costume Designer Susan Hilferty and Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski.

The video is an hour long but it’s worth it to hear from the top folks in our world. Check it out, and be sure to subscribe to the series and browse around their website for more!

Adventures on Broadway – Part 3

So here we are, the third and final part (for now) of my “Adventures on Broadway” series.

Hopefully you’re all rested up from my monstrous post about South Pacific. Today’s topic will be a little more focused, and hopefully a bit shorter. So with that in mind, let’s get right to it.

August: Osage County

Straight from Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company, August: Osage County is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning play by Tracy Letts. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family in rural Oklahoma, and the secrets they are keeping from each other. The play itself is absolutely brilliant, and without a doubt one of the most exciting new plays in years. It was actually my first time seeing a play on Broadway, and it was an excellent first. Let’s look at the design though…

The Weston home in August: Osage County

The Weston home in August: Osage County

From another viewpoint - the dollhouse qualities shine through.

From another viewpoint - the dollhouse qualities shine through.

The set is a relatively straightforward gothic-style two story (plus attic) home. It was described by a reviewer as being almost haunted house-like in design, and that’s definitely a quality that shines through (with a lot of help from the lighting). Whether intentional or not, the house has an imposing quality, and being seated below in the orchestra certainly helped convey the sense that the house is larger than life. I also saw the house as a doll house, with its open face and the people appearing in relatively small scale to this massive structure. This almost implies a voyeuristic quality to the play: this family’s house has been ripped open and their deepest secrets are being exposed to us.

Unfortunately it’s tough to find pictures of a lot of August: Osage County’s finer lighting moments, so you’ll have to bear with me as I describe in text!

As I already alluded to, the lighting plays a huge role in the house’s cycle from dark and lonely in to full of life (positive or negative as that may be) and then back to dark and lonely. A plot point requires all the windows to be covered, so the interior of the house remains relatively dark for the opening of the play. Ann G. Wrightson starts by isolating the lighting, and focusing only on individual sections of the house, allowing light to creep around corners or through entryways. All the while, it remains relatively naturalistic – it doesn’t seem like overly stylized or forced creepiness – but it has a haunted quality that’s key. When Violet Weston stumbles in and makes her first appearance on the landing, the lighting slowly creeps in to greet her – it’s a subtle and relatively simple effect but without a doubt one of my favorite cues in the show.

One element of the lighting design that was interesting was the use of top hats. Every single light in the house had a full top hat, and many of the lights behind the proscenium had either full or half top hats. Perhaps Ms. Wrightson read our post about the top hat (or maybe she is just plain smart)? Either way, I thought that showed a focus on keeping the design clean and focused, in spite of the gritty show on stage.

Something about sound

I don’t usually talk about sound design here, because I’m definitely no sound designer, but I thought this show merited an exception. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to big musicals where amplification is the name of the game, but I found this show to be refreshing in the sense that, for awhile, I almost thought there were no microphones at all.

Of course, it turned out they actually had a few lav mics inset into the front of the deck (presumably for reinforcement) but even with just those mics I could still hear fine (maybe a little better since I didn’t have to process slightly grainy amped speech) and had no problem understanding the show. I know it’s generally not common for plays to put body mics to use (we don’t at UB if I’m not mistaken) but seeing/hearing the same thing on Broadway was definitely a good experience.

Also, they used Qlab for their music playback. It’s always cool to know that you and the pros are on the same page, software-wise!

You can dress it up, but…

Really, no ifs, ands, or buts about it – the set dressing and detail work was the best I’ve seen. Much like South Pacific (see my post about it!) the detail was quite clearly a huge consideration when designing the set.

Set dressing - very intricate

Set dressing - very intricate

During intermissions I ventured up to the edge of the stage and took a closer look, where I was able to get a better view of all the various set dressing elements, props, and other things hanging around and making this house look lived in. Books were strewn about. magazines were stacked high – it was all very real. The mess seemed to be a reflection of the deep depression and resulting neglect for the household. It was a beautiful messy chaos.

Similar detail was evident in the painting and the detail of the actual constructed elements. Looking into doorways and into areas which are very difficult to see in from most of the audience, I was constantly noticing (intentionally) chipping paint, or a crack in a wall, or a bit of discoloration. Again – the house appeared lived in, uncared for, almost forgotten. Perhaps a metaphor for some characters in this play.

Notice the split floor, as well as the detailed set painting/wear-n-tear

Notice the split floor, as well as the detailed set painting/wear-n-tear

Being at the edge of the stage also tipped me off to another interesting element of the design – the stage deck actually appeared to be sliced down the middle where rooms were supposed to be divided. Being in the orchestra, that wasn’t easily clear from my seat, but I imagine it was a good effect in the mezzanine (and probably helped keep the actors from ‘walking through walls’). I am particularly curious how it was accomplished – it seemed almost like the deck was built up and out to accomplish this effect, although that’s purely conjecture. Having seen many plays at Buffalo’s own Irish Classical try to accomplish splitting up rooms in interesting ways (particularly tough when you’re in the round) I thought this method was a particularly cool way, although it really only works if you’re seated looking down on the deck.

Mr. Rosenthal and Ms. Wrightson were incredibly smart in the way their designs worked off each other’s strengths. As is usually the case, the more unified designs seem to be the stronger designs, and that was not proven wrong here. The lighting exposed the decay in the home (on the home itself and of the people within it). The set enabled the haunted look that the lighting ventured toward, without making it seem cartoony or unrealistic.

The famed 'dinner scene' from August: Osage County

The famed 'dinner scene' from August: Osage County

Unfortunately, the play has closed, but it will be beginning a national tour shortly. If it comes near you, be sure to check it out. The design alone is great, but the play is absolutely thrilling and moving. Definitely worth seeing!

The Details

August: Osage County at the Music Box Theatre
By Tracy Letts

Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Scenic Design by Todd A. Rosenthal
Lighting Design by Ann G. Wrightson
Costume Design by Ana Kuzmanic
Sound Design by Richard Woodbury

Closed as of 28 June 2009.

Adventures on Broadway: Part 2

(Subtitle: In which Chris discovers his favorite Broadway stage, suddenly has a revelation about lighting design, and is totally awed by an intricately-detailed set)

Welcome back to part two of my ongoing series, Adventures on Broadway. Today, we will look at the Broadway smash revival of South Pacific, the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center. I suppose then, that is as good a place to start as any – discussing the theatre itself.

Setting: Vivian Beaumont Theatre

I think it’s fairly well known that I’m a passionate fan of the thrust theatre. In my mind, it gives you the best of both worlds – the ability to work with sets in a pseudo-proscenium style, while forcing you to work in some semblance of realism as theatre in the round (or in this case, 3/4 round) does.

Love at first sight - the thrust stage at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre

Love at first sight - the thrust stage at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre

So imagine my amazement when I get to see the theatre at the Vivian Beaumont. Not only is it a thrust stage, but it’s a deep thrust – there is essentially a full proscenium-style stage that just happens to jut out into the audience, thrust-style (as opposed to some thrust stages which either completely forgo the fly house or only make space for a few feet of battens).

It was love at first sight.

The flexibility afforded by this type of arrangement is incredibly useful, especially for a show like South Pacific that involves a number of different locations. Without a full fly house supporting all those scenic elements the designers of South Pacific simply couldn’t use have achieved what they did.

Summary: I really like the thrust style, I think the Vivian Beaumont is an amazing space (which I will break down in further detail in a moment), and let’s move on.

In Which Detail Amazes Me

On Twitter a few days ago (you should follow @tdsquared on Twitter!) our professor Lynne Koscielniak posted this regarding a scenic construction project she’s working on:

Striving for Lincoln Center quality visuals. – Lynne Koscielniak on Twitter

A truck being used for the "Thanksgiving Follies" sequence. Recovered from the junk pile and restored. Sara Krulwich, NY Times

A truck being used for the "Thanksgiving Follies" sequence. Recovered from the junk pile and restored. Sara Krulwich, NY Times

After seeing South Pacific, I definitely know what she’s talking about! Michael Yeargan’s brilliant scenic design itself could be discussed in a post of its own, but the scenic construction completely blew me away on its own right and I felt deserved particular attention this time.

As I mentioned before, the show deals with many scene changes. And as I also mentioned before, they were working with a sort of hybrid proscenium/thrust combination. For this show, that meant there were a fair share of flats, but also a number of three dimensional pieces (either in front of the proscenium or behind it). Taking advantage of the size of the stage, the set featured a larger-than-life palm tree, a full stage sand dune, a 1:1 scale half of an airplane (and rotating propellers), and those were just in one scene.

Washing up. For real. Ari Mintz, Newsday

Washing up. For real. Ari Mintz, Newsday

Of course, these larger-than-life toys weren’t the only things on the set, and in some respects, they weren’t even the most impressive. Some of the coolest elements were for Luther Billis’ various enterprises, including his laundry and his shower business. The laundry unit was constantly moving around during his scenes, shaking around the tub that was holding all the dirty clothes. It looked like exactly what it was supposed to – a hacked up machine from old parts lying around the seabee camp. Of course, it is more likely than not an incredibly intricately engineered device, but it had character that made it feel very appropriate for the setting.

Similarly, the showers had the homemade feel. And like the laundry, they had actual working action! These actually had water come out of them, through an elaborate effect involving waterproof wireless mics, special shampoo, and all sorts of craziness. Awesome stuff.

Looking out onto the dunes.

Looking out onto the dunes.

Of course, there were other more classic settings, such as Emile de Becque’s home. There were a series of flats in layers, designed to evoke the outdoor open terrace where many of those scenes take place. Open doors lead out into the dunes beyond (the dune and palm tree were immovable due to their size, and the designer brilliantly used them throughout). The wall was ornamented with practicals that cleverly helped evoke the time of day. Their slow fade up made it easier to understand where we were in the narrative, and added to the realism of the scene again.

Palm leaves being attached to the slats.

Palm leaves being attached to the slats.

Downstage of those doors were hanging vines, clinging to the furthest downstage set of slats. The slats were used throughout the show, not only acting as a purely scenic element in this scene (and prominently dominating in Bali H’ai) but also masking off the wings from the audience.

What was most amazing about all of these was the quality of the build. The attention to detail was incredibly apparent, and in spite of the scale, the folks at Lincoln Center obviously knew what they were doing as they assembled these pieces and parts. Even from my spot in the loge, I could clearly see the fantastic painting, physical flourishes, and other amazing details. Our friends at Live Design did an article in their “Problems & Solutions” section that addresses some of these elements, explaining how much work truly went into them and the efforts that they had to undergo to solve various problems.

Summary: a larger-than-life set, with amazing attention to the smallest detail. These are craftspeople of the highest order. Good job crew!

I suddenly understand lighting design

It's sand...

It's sand...

One of my biggest revelations during South Pacific involved lighting design. Though I have always considered myself a lighting and scenic designer, in actuality I tend to lean in the scenic design direction. South Pacific may have successfully re-balanced that though; the lighting in this show was stunning in a way that I have never experienced before. Donald Holder’s design balanced a real portrayal with an idyllic artistic portrayal in a way that fused these two competing halves and pushed them to new heights.

It's a terrace!

It's a terrace!

Interestingly, it was the floor that tipped me off to this stunning design. The stage of this show is designed in a hardwood floor pattern (real or fake? I couldn’t tell from my seat!) in a light color, presumably a maple or something similar. But Holder’s design brilliantly uses this floor in a way that enables it to meld with the scenario. When we’re outside on the beach, the maple color shines brightly, and it takes on all the colors and characteristics of sand. When we move to Emile de Becque’s terrace, a textured and multicolored appearance takes over, suggesting a tile floor of some sort. And as we enter the office of the captain, the wood floor simply acts as that – purely a wood floor.

Tribal worship? No, she's in love

Tribal worship? No, she's in love

Seems simple, right? It probably is – but the way that floor was so well lit that it actually became other materials in my mind simply stunned me, and had me looking for more lighting throughout the show. I began to notice that the lighting had a distinctly stylized tone, but something I would consider a stylized realism. Holder’s lighting gives us a snapshot of how we imagine the South Pacific to be – beautiful, serene, and kinda sexy, but he is not afraid to show us the darker side when it comes time for war. It’s a beautiful island paradise, absolutely, but our problems still follow us there, and we have to face them.

Stylized realism in action

Stylized realism in action

Even when we clearly see the more stylized elements of the show (the War Room comes to mind) it’s grounded in very real elements. Despite these carefully focused lights, they still evoke the dimly lit depths of a barracks, where only a few lights hang over the individual desks to provide just enough illumination for work. It’s blatantly stylized, but grounded in reality. This stylization takes the harsh, shadowed lighting that would exist in the real situation and pushes it to an extreme.

The Follies, George

The Follies, George

One particular area where “real realism” takes the lead over “stylized realism” is in the Thanksgiving Follies sequence (Act Two opener). The aforementioned trucks quite brilliantly serve as a stage, with very simple lighting befitting of a situation like this – a pair of actor-driven follow spots.

The lighting for South Pacific completely changed my perception of lighting design. Seeing this intricate design, and the way Mr. Holder played with the balance between reality and stylization helped me understand that lighting is simply more than making this visible or not – it actually can contribute to the tone of the piece in new and exciting ways. Although I was already aware of this from lighting class and previous lighting design excursions, I had always taken it to granted, to a degree. South Pacific actually made this idea tangible to me in a way no show has before.

The brilliant scrim/drop combo

The brilliant scrim/drop combo, also see above for another look

Of course, I think it bears saying that I don’t believe the lighting design truly would not have been as successful without the scenic design – the two wove together to create a beautifully unified environment. Whether it was the moody shadows on the sand dune, the practicals on the de Becque terrace combining with a wash to indicate time of day, or the brilliant dual scrim and backdrop that could be lit to define atmosphere (natural or otherworldly), these two separate design elements work so beautifully together that I definitely question how well they would work separated.

This design is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant that I’ve seen on Broadway, in a venue I certainly hope to work in someday. The attention to intricate details while still maintaining a massive scale elevated this design above and beyond any Broadway show I had seen previously. For design alone, this show is highly recommended. Add in the stellar direction and a top-notch cast and you have a must-see Broadway show. Take the 1 train up to Lincoln Center and be sure to catch South Pacific.

The Details

Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Book by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic Design by Mark Wendland
Lighting Design by Kevin Adams
Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie
Sound Design by Brian Ronan
The run is open-ended.

South Pacific at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan

Directed by Bartlett Sher
Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan
Lighting Design by Donald Holder
Costume Design by Catherine Zuber
Sound Design by Scott Lehrer

The run is open-ended.

Adventures in Broadway: Part 1

Hey all,

I recently had the luck to take a four day trip to New York City. While I was down there (I was there for a Twitter conference), I made sure to take in as much theatre as I possibly could. What I saw during those four days (three nights, really) were three very different shows, and three very different designs that I wanted to break down here.

Today, I will start by breaking down the lighting design and scenic design for Next to Normal.

Part one: Next to Normal


The set, with cast on it

The first show I saw was the new musical “Next to Normal”. A new musical about a family coping with a mother’s psychological condition, “Next To Normal” took a stripped down and sculptural approach to design. Built on scaffolding, the show creates multiple settings in the various open areas of the scaffolding, and by manipulating the positions of a few translucent walls.

The set is also adorned with hundreds of light bulbs that serve to light and color the set. Interestingly, they were designed to look like incandescents, though I’m fairly certain they were actually LEDs (they definitely changed colors at several points). I’d be curious to know for sure. These bulbs were interesting because although they were lighting pieces, they were definitely a function of the scenic design, helping define different areas depending on what was lit. They weren’t designed to illuminate performers, rather to attract your eye to the different sections of the scenery.

The orchestra was placed on stage, in the set. I tend to favor this kind of placement, and it tended to work for this type of rock musical, but occasionally a stagehand or a musician had to run around for whatever reason and that distracted from the action. So there’s a warning – if you’re going to put the band on stage, make sure they know not to distract from the other action!

The Cyc

The cyclorama definitely did change colors throughout the performance though, often reflecting the music. It was generally cold throughout the show, sticking to blues, occasionally venturing into greens or purples. It did venture into warm territory occasionally, but infrequently. Interestingly, the cyc often seemed to be lit in portions, based on the level of the scaffolding. Often, the ground floor would appear to be a pure blue, and the upper level would seem to be a purple. I’m not sure if this was actually due to color mixing or some other trick (they might have had LEDs placed in the second level of the scaffolding – it was very tough to tell). I loved the use of the cyc, and how they got playful with changing colors (the ‘rock doctor’ sequence is memorable for this).


Halftone will blow your mind

Halftone will blow your mind

The design of the “flats” was unique – they used a halftone look on (I’m assuming) plexi so the pieces were translucent from the audience’s perspective. The halftone look carried on in the close placement of all the bulbs and created a very “dotty” feel (for lack of another descriptive term). One could infer that the halftone was used because it creates images that “aren’t all there”, and thus neither is our lead character or a healthy family dynamic or… you get the idea.

I captioned this image to the right (demonstrating halftone) as “halftone will blow your mind”. The show has an actual standard halftone plexi flat (white) bumped up against the cyc in two sections of the scaffolding, and I spent a significant amount of time confused and bewildered trying to understand the optical effect I was seeing. Something about how it was lit masked the halftone and how sometimes the pattern appeared or disappeared totally blew my mind (it only became clear once the lights dimmed for intermission). Maybe they planned for that too!

The flats, in motion


The eyes watch over Alice Ripley as Diana

Those same halftone flats were also moving throughout the show, on and off the stage. They appeared to be on a track system, although they shot on and off stage with incredible speed and accuracy that it might have been something more sturdy (or Local One is just that good!).

There were several different sets of flats (all in halftone), a house, eyes, and a mouth (combine to make a face). Depending on the placement of these flats, the show created very surreal scenarios for their characters – a scene taking place in the bathroom or the bedroom of the daughter always had the eye of the face watching over. The face itself was one of the most iconic aspects of the design, although I’m hesitant to analyse it for fear of totally missing the boat. It came on stage in pieces, eyes first, followed by the rest of the head in the second act – perhaps it represents Diana (the main character)’s journey in discovering herself and seeing herself as she exists? I’d be curious to hear from the designer what his intention was.

Lighting it up

Lighting up a house

Lighting up a house

I’ve already mentioned the awesome incandescent-style fixtures that adorned the set. While I don’t believe they were designed to illuminate any actors (and probably fell under the scenic designer’s jurisdiction) they were undoubtedly utilized by the LD to light up the scenery itself. As the picture to the right shows, the bulbs were great for sculpting the set. Combining the bulbs with the halftone panels created a really great look (especially when the bulbs were behind the plexi panels, and really exposed the halftone pattern).

The standard lighting design itself seemed to borrow from two worlds, as was fitting based on the musical’s influences. Rock design pervaded the lighting, with frequently flashy musical sequences, bright colors, and other conventions more fitting for an arena stage (get it? get it now?) than a Broadway stage. But in the more dramatic scenes, and especially in the second act, it takes on a decidedly darker tone that reflects the text, as opposed to the first act reflecting the music’s tone. The rock tone is no surprise though; Kevin Adams designed the show, and with a portfolio that includes design for the revival of Hair, Passing Strange, and Spring Awakening, he was a natural choice.

The final scene (which I won’t spoil) was particularly moody in its lighting. Because it’s such an important plot point I can’t reveal the plot, but the lighting was great. A stage which had been almost entirely lit for the duration of the show is reduced to near darkness, until… (see the show, you’ll see).

Putting it all together

"Catch Me I'm Falling"

"Catch Me I'm Falling"

This was one of the best musicals I’ve seen on Broadway (certainly compared to the show I had just seen a week before this, the revival of Guys & Dolls – but that’s another story). Stellar performances, a great score, and awesome design made this an awesome experience and a great start to my theatre trifecta.

It’s highly recommended for its provocative story and puzzling (in a good way!) design. The halftone makes you think, and exposes the layers of the characters that inhabit it.

3 1/2 stars!

The details

Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre
Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Book by Brian Yorkey

Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic Design by Mark Wendland
Lighting Design by Kevin Adams
Costume Design by Jeff Mahshie
Sound Design by Brian Ronan

The run is open-ended.