Dreamgirls Comes to OCPAC

24 Apr

Reporter Dave Brooks was lucky enough to catch the premier of Dreamgirls at Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, Calif. on Wednesday. The Broadway musical makes use of five LED screens that serve as backdrop and set. We spoke with Howard Werner of design firm Lightswitch, which created the content for the boards. We asked him about the future of LED on Broadway.

I was looking through your portfolio site. You have lots of cool set design and all sorts of visual design items. I was really impressed.

Thanks, we keep busy.

Lightswitch did the entire staging for Dreamgirls, correct?

We didn’t build the LED walls,  but we designed everything that’s on those surfaces.  Lightswitch, designed the multimedia part of it

There are five panels, correct? How does this work exactly?

There are five panels, each one is two meters wide by six meters tall and they are made up of 25 mm LED product. They travel upstage and downstage and spin 360 degrees and can actually fly up and out of sight for different parts of the show.

Do you actually script in all the lighting cues for the show?

We work through the show, page-by-page, moment-by-moment and figure out where those LED panels need to be and what’s on them at any given moment.

What is the content development like?

Well we go through and figure out what story needs to be told, and how we can further the story through visual media. We read through the script and listen to the music and to the songs—that gives us our clues. We talk to the director and the other collaborators on the show and we decide what makes the most sense for any given moment. That particular moment that you’re looking at is a section called “Step Into the Bathside,” where the Dreams, who are the musical group that the musical is about, are coming up in the world of R&B. They are trying to get their record heard on the radio so they start to pay off the DJs at the different radio stations to get their record played.  That particular dance and song are about a sort of dark side of the music industry.  We depict the moments of these sort of shady characters holding briefcases both on stage as dancers and actors but also on screen. As the video and magnification and multiplication of people in those moments where there’s money changing hands, we depict some money on the screen.  It all just choreographs together in sort of a ballet of the video and the actors.

Are we going to see these moving panels more often?

I think we will. As the quality of LED gets better, the cost gets cheaper and the people start to understand how to utilize and conceptualize imagery. I mean you certainly see a lot of them in rock shows now. A lot of touring acts are using them and a few Broadway shows here and there are using them, but I think you’ll start to see a lot of the corporate industrial style shows, business meetings and corporations using them more.

Is LED the main technology?

There’s a lot of technology out there, like plasma screens, LED and projectors. It all depends on the application.  I was just involved with a project where we used projectors.  We didn’t use LED.  I think you’ll see more LED because it’s more versatile­— you don’t have to worry about where you’re going to put a projector and the noise of that projector and people standing in the way of it.  The LEDs are much brighter, generally, so that’s good.  But the resolution of a very high resolution LED screen compared to the cost of a projector is a pretty significant difference in terms of dollars. The Dreamgirls set is not a very high-resolution LED surface and it was intentionally so; it was a design choice to make it that way.  I think you’ll see more LED screens used in staging and show but you won’t lose all those other things. The other technologies will be out there still for sure.

Were those screens fabricated specifically for Dreamgirls?

The LED panels themselves are commercially available, but the way that they’re configured in panels two meters wide and six meters tall was completely fabricated for Dreamgirls, mainly because the way they have to move and travel and things like that.

How do the shows build into the cost of this?  Is this cost prohibitive, getting cheaper?  How do you budget for it?

It’s definitely more expensive then other ways of doing it, but it is getting cheaper. The technology and the cost of an LED surface is definitely a lot cheaper then it was a year ago or three or five years ago.  So how do you budget into it?  You know it’s something that you really need to kind of know what products are out there and what they cost.  This is a 25-millimeter LED screen. If we chose to do this with a 10-millimeter LED screen it would have been quite a bit more expensive but, we didn’t want that look. We also knew that we didn’t want to pay that much for something that was higher resolution.  So you just have to know what’s out there.

What are you going to do for Spiderman?

I can’t really reveal too much about what’s going to be revealed for Spiderman, but I can tell you that visually it’s going to be very exciting.

Is there anywhere that it is going to push the boundaries on visual display?

We’re definitely cutting some new ground with Spiderman­—there’s no question about it. There’s new technology being used and sort of older or current technology being used in ways it has never been used before. I can tell you that.

There are a lot of sealed lips on that project.

There’s a lot that has been written that’s been inaccurate, which is unfortunate.  It’s a cool project and everyone wants to know about it. I can’t blame them for wanting to know about it.  I can say that it’s going to be great when it happens, that’s for sure.

What are the growth areas for Lightswitch and visual design?  Obviously Broadway’s a very high profile place to be, but is there more growth in corporate or concerts? Maybe even sports?

We do a lot of corporate stuff. We’re currently doing a huge project for McDonalds right now. We’re also in Shanghai doing the world expo and we’re in Broadway right now. We just opened the Barry Manilow show at the Paris Hotel in Los Vegas a week ago. Lightswitch has a lot of stuff going on and a lot of what we do is incorporating multimedia and cutting edge technology into all of our projects so you think of us no matter what your project is. We do a lot of architectural installation, also.

Besides display staging, you seem like you get very in depth into the project.  Does that mean you get involved with sound, too?

Well we don’t really get too involved in the sound. We are very much on the visual side.  We pretty much collaborate on all aspects of the show. I mean we get involved in the concept part of all types of shows and help to realize the concept of the sow.

What kind of percentage do you usually spend on R&D, to push new technology and get it to the level you want it at?

We spend quite a bit of time on R&D, working quite closely with a number of different manufacturers on a number of new products that they are making. However, we at Lightswitch don’t actually manufacture any product, nor do we sell any product. We strictly design shows.  We spend quite a lot of time reading, researching and meeting with people about products we think should be made, or are being made that should be made differently or that should be improved upon. We spend quite a lot of time there.  The way to really keep the product world moving forward is by always developing new things.

At Venues Today, we have a lot of college readers and people thinking about careers. What are the merging positions in video and visual concert in visual design?

Interesting you should bring that up because just half an hour ago I did a video chat with a class of visual design students and lighting design students from the University of Illinois and a week ago I was at USITT in Campus City. There’s a lot of work that’s being done in the schools, which is great. Ten years ago, even five years ago, there wasn’t much of that. Students need to sort of get out there and learn about the sort of visual media they see every day, like on MTV or in videos, and how to apply that to really telling a story. Whether it’s a play or a concert, music that they want to tell in their 360-degree tour— that’s a story.  And how you apply that technology in that use of multimedia to telling that story is really key. You need to really know what the technology is and how it works, but what you really need to know is how to apply that technology to the story you’re trying to tell.

How many people does it take to build the visual needs of, say, Dreamgirls? Who makes up the development team?

We have myself as the designer. I have an associate, John Lyndell, and we had a programmer who programmed all of the video content for us, Troy Fujimora. Those were the three key people that were in the theater making the show.  Then there were many other people who, prior to actually stepping into the theater, helped us to storyboard. There were also video animators and researchers and craftsmen.  There were probably another six-to-eight people whose came into the theater or is in the show even though they personally never stepped foot into the theater.  It’s very involved.

I know you guys worked with Alice Cooper, at what level does Alice Cooper get involved in the design and storyboard work? How much involvement do the artists have?

Well, it depends on the artist. Certain artists are very, very involved and some are not involved.  Alice Cooper, I think, was pretty involved; Barry Manilow was certainly involved in the content selection for his shows. It depends on the artist.  In the case of Dreamgirls, for example, we worked extremely closely with the director of the show who was very involved with the content of the shows and the way it timed out with the music and the choreography of the dancers and the story.  It depends on the project. It’s hard to say.  Some artists are very, very involved; others are involved but less so.

What are going to be some of the new emerging trends in years ahead?  You mentioned the scalable, movable, separate-able screens that we see at a lot of Broadway shows. What are three technologies taking off in movie theaters and at home too and what are some of the merging technologies in visual display?

Well I think that some of this stuff will get much cheaper and the quality will get much better.  It will get much lighter in weight and much more energy efficient, so I think people will be able to apply it in many different ways that people haven’t even thought of yet. I think that one of the things that will be very important as we go forward is to display into very flat surfaces that are very energy efficient and that don’t have much weight or take up much space. I think there’s going to be some advances that I don’t even know about, and I’m pretty up on those things. I also think that 3D technology that we see in movie theaters now, wearing our 3D glasses, will become very useful in the way that people stage shows.

I’m wondering how that will work. How will 3D and live-action combine?

It will, for example, with the Michael Jackson tour. His show had a 3D component and the audience had to wear glasses.  There will come a time, soon, where the audience won’t have to wear glasses to view a visual 3D surface. When that time comes, things will change radically.

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