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Americana Kamikaze

Mar 29, 2010 12:00 PM, By Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Q&A with Video Designer William Cusick


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Written and directed by Kenneth Collins, and performed by Temporary Distortion, Americana Kamikaze (click here to see the show on video) is a performance piece inspired by Japanese ghost stories that pushes the boundaries of theater by staging meditative vignettes in claustrophobic, boxlike structures that bridge the gap between cinema, live performance, and visual art. The innovative video projections by William Cusick include video doppelgangers for the live actors, and On The Boards in Seattle did a multicamera recording of the show as part of its OnTheBoard.tv program. Live Design touches base with Cusick on this groundbreaking project:

Live Design: What was your design concept for the video in Americana Kamikaze?

Cusick: The video projections in Americana Kamikaze serve two purposes: as a film that plays concurrently with the live performance and as the primary lighting of the actors. The video projection as film provides a parallel narrative that complements the narrative unfolding between the live actors. This cinematic projection is formatted vertically, at approximately 7ft. high by 2ft. wide, situated between the performers. The lighting elements vary from scene to scene in the performing space on either side of the screen.

The concept of a parallel narrative in the video world is an ongoing exploration by Temporary Distortion. We're interested in creating complicated narratives that move through variable states of reality and time. By juxtaposing filmic reality with live performance we create an altered state unlike the unique experiences of theater or cinema. While the onstage dialogue unfolds tense, static storylines, lush dream-like video sequences expand the narrative world beyond the stage boundaries. Our production Welcome To Nowhere utilized a horizontal projection screen directly above the performers but used only industrial lighting fixtures for onstage illumination.

The idea behind using the video to light the performers was inspired by my experience working on larger theater productions, where lighting designers have Vari-Lites to create specific shapes and change colors. We're effectively trying to emulate moving lights. The design of the box structure housing the actors and projection screen naturally lends itself to this design, since the video raster outside the projected images fills the performing areas as part of the native aspect ratio of the projector. Instead of masking off the excess projection area, we use it for the lighting. It works nicely with our style of staging and performance, allowing us a high level of specificity.

What is the technology used?

I shot all of the content using a Sony [PMW-EX1] XDCAM, which proved to be a great choice. Having a solid-state camcorder allowed us to review each take directly on my [Apple] Mac Pro tower to confirm both technical and performance details. Some shots we managed to get in just one take thanks to this technology.

All of the footage was edited using Adobe After Effect CS4, and all of the matte paintings were done using Photoshop CS4. The opening scene of the show is a dolly shot down an endless hallway, which I created entirely in Autodesk Maya 2008, based on a photograph by Lauren Bentley of a hotel hallway in Manhattan. The video projector is a 5kW Sanyo HD projector.

The software we use to program all of the video projections and lighting is Mark Coniglio's Isadora. I've been using the software for years both with Temporary Distortion and in my freelance projection design work. Early in the process, I paired Isadora with a Behringer BCR2000, a MIDI audio mixer with 32 rotary knobs that I programmed to interface with Isadora's controls. Each row of knobs on the Behringer coincided with a series of actors within Isadora to manipulate shape, color, size, softness, intensity, and a variety of other lighting parameters, so that Kenneth would be able to design the lighting as intuitively as possible. We use a LanBox-LCX to control all of the onstage dimmers that power industrial lighting fixtures built into the set.

Continue with the rest of the article at Live Design.

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