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Integrated Imagery: Sven Ortel Talks about Teaching at UT-Austin

Michael S. Eddy • EducatorsFebruary 2021 • February 3, 2021

Sven Ortel is a projection designer with 20 years of experience who works internationally and nationally creating projections and imagery for theater, opera, dance, and more. Born and raised in Cologne, Germany, he started in lighting design, which he went on to study in London. With Dick Straker, and his company Mesmer, Ortel explored the use of imagery and projection. For the National Theatre, Mesmer established a video department which introduced technologies and techniques that have become de-facto standards today. 

Ortel’s work has been recognized with a Tony Award nomination in 2012 for Disney’s Newsies; a 2014 Drama Desk nomination for A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and the Suzie Bass Award in 2018 for his work on Candide in Atlanta. Recent projects include Roman Holiday at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco; Vienna 1900 in Houston; Space, In Perspective at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago; Thoughts of a Colored Man in Baltimore; Life After at the Old Globe; and Maybe Happy Ending in Atlanta.

Ortel is the associate professor of practice, UT Live Design / Center for Arts and Entertainment Technologies at the University of Texas at Austin and leads the MFA program in integrated media for live performance. He shares with his students his guiding principle—to use the tools and skills of projection and media design when they can contribute something no other design discipline can to the audience’s experience. We caught up with Ortel recently and spoke with him about his approach to teaching projection and integrated media. 

Have you always been interested in teaching?

Back before I started teaching I was working on a production thinking about the fact that the only reason why I’m able to realize these innovative and groundbreaking ideas and solve technical challenges is because I’ve been doing it for so long. I had the experience and the knowledge that comes from that. So, two years prior to teaching, I started a dedicated site for projection [www.projctn.com] that was designed to answer common questions about projection design. I think there has always been a part of me that was interested in demystifying what it is people like myself do and how it is done. I have always been interested in opening projection and media up to more people; allow more people to practice it and to help elevate this work from a not very well understood niche occupation to a profession that is recognized as a real craft in the field of design.

What were some of the ideas you brought to developing the UT Austin projection/media design program?

I’ve always been driven by a desire to use media as a tool to tell stories better. Like when it does something better than traditional design disciplines or it does something the other traditional design disciplines can’t do. I brought the idea to the program of projection design being a toolset that is very adaptable and something that should always be in the conversation with the other design disciplines. It is also based on it being a craft. 

Because I was trained as a lighting designer where you first learn the tools and when you master the tools then you can start to look at being a designer. So I took what I knew from the lighting design profession and what I’ve experienced as a lighting designer and translated that into a design approach for media and projection design. Then over time integrated aspects of the scenic; the cinemagraphic thinking into it, because it is visual communication.

You have to approach it as something that can be architecture or texture or just information. So it took a while to develop sessions with the faculty but I think what I brought to UT is an awareness of it being rooted in craft and then knowledge of technology. That it’s not unlike other design disciplines only that by default it must always be in very close conversation with them because you can’t have media on its own. You certainly have to have something to project on; something that reflects the light back and then displays right. So you’re always working automatically with the set designer or getting in the way of the lighting designer, just by default. There are always built-in conversations. And then you have visual information that is in conversation with the costume design and any projection or media person will know how important sound is when suggesting worlds or moments; or you know visual effects that distract, or attract you, so you’re also immediately in conversation with a sound designer. It is essential to have those conversations the moment you introduce media and projection, which makes it so challenging, but also so exciting.

Is there something essential you think theater educators should bear in mind when developing a curriculum.

You can’t just have a beautiful curriculum. You do need resources. Which means you need a space and people. Just like any other design discipline you need resources that supports the work of your students. When I came to UT there wasn’t a lab space dedicated to working with media, so I created one in the basement of the building out of a couple of storage spaces. That became the blueprint for the larger space that we have now which has a truss rig that can go up and down so you can hang projectors and it’s all very accessible and manageable. So you shouldn’t underestimate the resources required for media work in a university.

The other part is that it is important to recognize that this technology, these tools, and these workflows are not specific to theater. So being at a school is an incredible opportunity to teach students skills that can be transferred should they choose to work on something else besides theater. That is something I have done over the years with our program. Basically create some projects that are not theater projects. Then the question as educators is, ‘how do we actually allow students to practice working in these other kinds of environments when this is a theater department?’ You have to speak with the other faculty and eventually have department seasons that includes non-theatrical, or non-traditional, performances like an E-Sports tournament or a concert which allow students to apply the same theater skills but in the context that they may want to work in when they graduate. 

So that is a big challenge particularly in theater departments right now. I’ve basically solved it here in Austin by creating partnerships with other departments. Like, I’m working right now with the advertising school. They have a program called Texas Immersive and they basically teach how to use XR technology in service of marketing events. Of course that is actually one of the big applications of XR / VR and MR; the events industry. So, I’m working with them at the advertising school and also the film school. They are moving in the direction of virtual filmmaking, working with game engines and teaching students how to create virtual sets and integrate virtual cameras into their workflow. So these are great chances for my students to work in other areas outside theater. 

To put these different pieces together plus engineering. I should say, you need engineering and computer sciences in there as well. But if you combine digital filmmaking, immersive experiences, and visual storytelling and narrative design then you have, I think, a very potent mixture to create interesting work. As educators we need to bring together all these ingredients and of course, they will always be in different places, different departments need to come together, depending on the university. I believe we have a good handle here on what skills are needed and what areas of expertise are required to put something like an immersive event together and you can’t do it all within a single department, at least you can’t do it successfully. You need to work together across departments.

I think it is great that students that come to our program learn the collaborative creative process in the context of theater but they also get to apply it in other areas of work basically after the first year. Then when they graduate they have these resumes and reels with a lot of interesting and different work that they can talk about with authority. Work that they’ve actually done that isn’t only theater. A lot of them want to do theater but not only theater all the time. Right now of course, I feel like if they can do some projects that are based in some online platform and that will prepare them well for the future. 

Understanding the theatrical aspects of storytelling I imagine is a great asset to bring to gaming and events. Being able to support the narrative, on whatever project, is so important.

Yes, that is it, that is essential. I mean the narrative is something that is at the foundation of everything. That is something essential that I think the theater students bring to these other areas; they bring that narrative driven, informed thinking to the other disciplines and they then help create these experiences together. 

When your students graduate what is one central thing you hope they’ve learned as they go into their careers?

That they’re only as good as the people that they surround themselves with and they have to know their own shortcomings and strengths to succeed.

It is said that teachers always learn from the students. What are some of the lessons that teaching has brought to you?

To be humble and less jaded. I’m constantly confronted with technology, ideas, and workflow discussions and conversations that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for my students. It just constantly reminds me to remain curious.

Every every time I see students create a piece of work or a presentation that is entirely their own and that I wouldn’t have done myself. My goal is to get the students to a place where they are better at something or have a unique ability and I have no idea how they did it. I want to see them make things and then when they have to explain it to me, and I’m not talking about how they programmed it, that’s just the nuts and bolts, but rather what I’ve seen, even in the last few weeks with some of the online performances. I have no idea how they made it work and how the visuals are being produced. There’s lots of students who are experimenting with artificial intelligence and generative technology and going sort of seamlessly between physical and digital worlds. It just blows my mind and it confirms something I talked about maybe five years ago, which was that the digital tools that many of us sometimes looked at as an obstacle are now enabling creativity. You can do things with them that you can’t possibly do in an analog way. And that is very exciting to me.

Are there three pieces of advice you would share: one with teachers, one with students, and the third with university administrations.

You have to listen. Listen to the experts, the people with experience. It doesn’t mean that they are right but they have a lot to share and it would be poor use of your colleague’s knowledge and your curiosity to not listen. That happens more often than I can count. I always ask my students to be curious and proactive; that’s really the only thing that I require. Many of my students do not have a background in projection design—they can come from game development, filmmaking, lighting, scenery, and increasingly from computer science but they have to have curiosity.

I think as colleagues it’s important to have conversations about what media can be, what media is, and how to collaborate. Because collaboration really is at the at the core of any of the work that we do and there are no established ways to collaborate with media designers or interactive designers. A lot of the possibilities that are out there can be stifled by a hierarchy that is designed to create different kinds of work but now we’re in a place where we can do anything and we need to adjust how we collaborate. We need to find the ways that we can really take advantage of everything that technology now allows us to do but also best use everybody’s talent. To do that it all starts with listening to each other, which means on some projects changing the idea of the hierarchy.

How do you see teaching media and projection design going forward? 

I think you have to look at where growth will happen where consumers and audiences will be in the next five years. I do think that fundamentally a lot of how we experience stories will change; it has already changed. We have to be prepared for experiences that have a degree of hybridity; that are a mixture of a digital and a physical experience essentially. Teaching and learning those do not happen within a single department because you have to look at creating XR stages, virtual filmmaking, and mixed reality experiences. There is no work for our students in the future without those things. Which also means that projection technology, media technology, film technology, game technology, creative coding, and electrical engineering are intricately and intrinsically intertwined to make this happen. As educators and designers we have to learn to put these pieces together and talk to people who are doing it because this is a process and an industry that is evolving right now. A lot of what’s happening right now is brand new and it will change how we tell stories. It’s exciting but it’s also hugely challenging as somebody in the middle of putting a syllabus together. I have no idea what I should really be focusing on because there is so much right now. I want the students and the administrators to see all the potential, because it’s all about potential right now.

I think theater artists are uniquely positioned to be leaders in storytelling you know whatever medium it is because we train theater people to be aware of the entire 360˚ space which everybody is in. We train theater artists to have empathy. And we train theater artists to see in their head how the audience will react before there is ever an audience in the space. So they’re perfectly equipped to design, produce, and generate any type of story driven experience. Then you add to that the fact that the process in theater is inherently collaborative. Theater artists know how to create something together that is really engaging and a successful experience with everybody sharing their expertise to create one thing. I see that with our students right now, they feel empowered to create things that haven’t been done and as educators our job is to advise them, talk to them when they have doubts about their work, and also make resources available. That is important because schools ask, ‘why should we buy all this gear for programs with five students?’ And the answer is because they’re changing the industry. Their ideas are going to push this all forward. Seeing that, helping them to do that is what I love about teaching.  

You can see more of his work—and his list of credits at www.svenortel.com.

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