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Illustrating Scripts: A conversation with Video Designer Lucy Mackinnon

Michael S. Eddy • Artist SpotlightAugust 2020 • July 29, 2020

The Blue Man Group’s tour Speechless (photo credit: Jason Ardizzone-West)

Lucy Mackinnon is a New York City-based video designer, motion graphics artist, and illustrator. Broadway credits include Jagged Little Pill, Regina Spektor on Broadway, Lifespan of a Fact, Six Degrees of Separation, and Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening. Off-Broadway, she has worked with The Public Theater, The Atlantic Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, and MCC among others. Regional theater credits include Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Geffen Playhouse, Goodspeed Opera House, Huntington Theatre Company, and Indiana Repertory Theater. As a video and projections designer, she has worked with some of the most innovative theater directors on and Off-Broadway, including Michael Arden, David Cromer, Trip Cullman, Tina Landau, Lila Neugebauer, Diane Paulus, and Leigh Silverman. When the pandemic shutdown of theater happened in mid-March, Mackinnon was working in Pennsylvania on a show called Otherworld. Here spring projects of MTC’s Broadway production of How I Learned to Drive, and Sarah Silverman’s new musical Bedwetter at the Atlantic Theater were postponed until 2021. Mackinnon graciously shared her time to speak with Stage Directions about her career, her mentors and influences, finding ways to thoughtfully add video to a production, and new technology she enjoys working with.

Tell us a bit about your approach to your work; how do you see your contribution supporting the narrative?

Every show is different and there are a billion different reasons why directors, producers, playwrights, and set designers choose to use projection in theater. I think that my abilities are pretty wide reaching, that I can work in a lot of different styles and with a lot of different mediums, but one thing which is consistent through all of my work is that the first step for any show I work on is to do quite a bit of script analysis. To break down the show and do a lot of research, both historical research but also research into different graphic styles, different ways of using video. I really like research, I like reading through scripts and I think the most fun I have as a designer is the very beginning of the process. Trying to figure out how to fit video into the show and do it in a way where it relates thematically to the piece. Finding a sort of style or hook, some way to fold video into the production so that every single cue can be absorbed into the show. I always try to find what I want the show to look like, what kind of material I’m dealing with in video, and try to make sure that I understand how the design can cohere all the way through the piece. I bring a catalog of ideas back to the set designer and director to discuss and try to understand how they’re interested in using video in the show. One thing that I’ll also say about research, is that it lets you be flexible. No matter what the plan is, there’s always going to be new ideas, new considerations to take into account in the room. So, having a lot of research behind you allows you to be flexible and come up with new ideas and propose variations on an idea.

The point at which I’m brought into shows can vary pretty widely. Projection designers are often the last people to be booked on a show. Usually I’m brought in at a point where the set designer and director have really done their own storyboarding and have figured out what the scenery is, how the set moves, all of that. So, often times I’m handed a series of storyboards with suggestions about how video should to be used at different moments. If I’m given that to start with, then I try to work out a plan in my head and put the images that I can create into the storyboards that I’ve been given. Now there are other times when I’ve been brought in so much earlier that the way that video is going to be used is really up for discussion and up for debate. If that’s the situation then there’s a lot of creative work to do just to figure out what makes sense, how we want to use video. 

Everything is storyboarded out, and then the work is revised and movement is added to it. There’s a huge amount of research that has to go into getting stock material, finding sources, licensing things, making our own things, building things from scratch, illustrating. By the time we come into the theater, I have a lot of content ready and built, which hopefully much of it is approved and the director and the other designers are aware of what it will be. And then, there’s the process through tech and previews of correcting things, fixing things, changing things, adding to things. Usually we come in with one idea of what the video is going to be and almost always it expands. It very rarely contracts and gets smaller. So, there’s a huge amount of work that’s done on the front end and then there’s a real rush of work in the theater to respond to what’s happening on stage and to the ideas as we are teching the show.

Do you do a lot of the content creation yourself?

Deaf West Theatre’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening

When I was first starting out as a designer, I was working on stuff that usually had pretty limited budgets for content creation. So, I began my work really just doing everything myself. When I designed the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway I made everything. But, I found over time that it’s not efficient or useful to work that way. There’s more to video design than just having good ideas and being good at creating content. You really need a network of dedicated people who will sit in the theater with you, help you prep shows, break down things, show up on time, be really responsible. It requires a lot of people working together to do this work. So, as I do more and more shows, and the shows get larger, it’s really necessary to bring in other people who I can work with. I do however have certain ways of working; my own approach to animating and creating content which I ask other people to learn and work along the same lines in which I do my work. I will say though, that there are certainly things, for instance 3D animation, that I find I don’t do as well as certain assistants. But yes, in the creation of the content I’m deeply involved even if there are other people sitting at the computers and working to put the content out.

Is there a production or a design you’re particularly proud of?

Roundabout Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

I really liked Rose Tattoo. I did that show first at Williamstown a couple of years ago and then again on Broadway. Williamstown Theatre Festival is a wonderful but challenging place to work, because you have such a small amount of time to get a show up and built. For the production at Williamstown we didn’t have LED screens. I was basically charged with creating a panoramic surround of ocean all through projection, and we had eight or nine short throw projectors that were rear-projecting onto these screens, and two days to tech the show. It was really kind of a puzzle trying to figure out how to get it all up and working and make it beautiful in such a short amount of time, but it worked. I was really intrigued and happy with this sort of painterly video surround that both felt realistic but also felt very kind of abstract and metaphorical. It created a space for the show to happen that I really enjoyed. 

When we were able to do it on Broadway, it was nice to be able to take some of that content, look at what we did at Williamstown and build something more upon that. I remade all of the content, but based on what I had discovered in Williamstown. I did a ton of filming of clouds and all of the water; copying it all together and building all of that content. That was one show where I was able to do all of the content myself, there wasn’t anyone else making that content. When I’m able to do that, I get pretty attached to the show. I felt like the whole show was very fluid and the design was hard to construct but simple conceptually. So, it was great to just kind of dig deep into this fairly understandable design.

When we went to Broadway the the resolution of the video surface changed, we went to LED screens and a lot of what I had simply wasn’t usable. That was fine though, because when we did the show at Williamstown, there was such a short amount of time to work that in order to get all of the color into the sky and get the right mood for things I was working with a moving ocean but still skies. For Broadway, I also really wanted all of the skies to be active. I wanted the clouds to move. I wanted the light and the color to change throughout the piece and I wanted it to happen in natural way instead of color shifts. It was important to do the filming, find the correct skies, find the right tone for the piece, and just rebuild the content. If you were to compare the two productions by only photographs they wouldn’t seem all that different, but actually sitting in the theater and experience them, I think the design changed pretty significantly between the two productions.

Why the choice to change from projection to LED?

That was for a couple of reasons. One was that LED is brighter. There’s certainly a lot of brightness that projectors can put out, but as soon as a front light hits an RP screen, the image really disappears. And because we were creating this indoor, outdoor world there would be the need for a lot of light onstage, so, we didn’t want to obscure the projection with front light. The other reason was space. The size of the stage was smaller and we could leave a lot more playing space in front of the screens if we used LED. It was about brightness and the ease of the backstage traffic.

Were there particular productions or collaborations that really set you on the course in your career?

When I did Spring Awakening, with Michael Arden as the director, that was a big show for me because it was my first Broadway show. It opened doors, I would say. Also, because I was doing all of the work myself, I learned a lot in the process. There have also been certain directors who have been very supportive and interested in working with me again and again. Trip Cullman is one of those people; the work that I’ve been able to do with him has been really rewarding. Trip has also worked with [set designer] Mark Wendland and Mark’s ideas are wonderful. He often finds really intelligent ways to use video. All of the shows that I’ve done with him and Trip together have been really fantastic.

What’s a show you would really love to design?

I don’t know. I love old musicals. I grew up watching old movie musicals. It would be fun to be able to do some of those. I don’t think there’s any great urgency to use video in Carousel or any of those shows but they would certainly be satisfying to be part of; it would be fun to be in those rooms. 

The shows I had scheduled for the spring, to me were sort of dream shows. I’m very much hoping that they do come back next year and that we’ll be able to do them. I like a show that has some basic need for video but that I can find a larger voice for video within it, that is really satisfying to me. There are lots of obvious reasons to use video in theater now as we try to create work that relates to the modern world where technology plays a very important role. It would seem that there are lots of opportunities to use screens and video and representations of technology and I can play a role in those things. But, there are other ways to use video; other meanings for it that don’t necessarily have to relate to our devices and our screens. I would like to design any show that has a lot of opportunity where video isn’t restricted to a small set of cues but can have some sort of a larger role to play.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I like moving from show to show. I really like having an idea, finding a way to respond to a show, becoming really immersed in it, and then being able to move on to the next thing. I find that really satisfying. I really like the people I work with. I like collaborations with other designers. As video designer I’m really never working alone, there’s always a discussion to be had with the scenic designer, the lighting designer, and often with the sound designer. I like the collaborations.

What’s some of, let’s say, old-school technology you still rely on for your designs?

Old-school technology, I don’t know, things are being updated so often. When I work with projectors now, I work with laser projectors. And when I work with LED technology I usually work with newer, higher-res tiles. In terms of programming software, I like to work with disguise and I like to work with [Dataton] WATCHOUT. Both of those have been around for a long time, but have wonderful people developing and continuing to update them. There isn’t, frankly, a lot of old technology. There’s new technology that has some old roots. 

What’s some of the newer technology that you like from the last couple of years?

Jagged Little Pill on Broadway (photo credit: Matthew Murphy)

There are a lot of really great new LED products which are really helpful to have in theater. WorldStage has a line of LED products from ROE Visual. Those are beautiful, and they are high-res, light, easy to load-in, and they fade to black beautifully. They work with great processors. It’s just great technology and it looks beautiful on stage; really a great asset to have that kind of thing. Epson has a great line of laser projectors which they keep expanding on. There’s a new laser 20K which Epson released last year that I’ve worked with a couple times now and they’re great projectors. It’s fun to work with those. Also I liked on Jagged Little Pill working with these snorkel lenses that had recently come out that were created by Panasonic that let you mount projectors at a 90° angle from the stage.


Who have some of your mentors or people who’ve had influence on your work?

I really admire the work of William Kentridge who is a director and animator and visual artist. I’ve seen a number of his shows. The first show that I saw which he directed and did the video design for was the Magic Flute at BAM in 2007. I was pretty amazed with how much video was onstage. How beautiful and touching and rough and raw it was. I just thought it was wonderful. His work, I think continues to be… I don’t know if it’s influence, but it’s certainly an inspiration to me. There are others, a handful of artists and designers who have been important to me or whose work I admire. I learned a huge amount from assisting and I continue to learn a lot from my own assistants as well. I think probably of all the people I assisted, I learned the most from Darrel Maloney who just makes a lot of great looking cues and really likes to sort of fill a stage with video and make it varied and very responsive to action. I learned a lot about cueing shows from him. And also quite a bit about art direction and graphic styles and layouts and that kind of thing. The work I do, it’s both kind of self taught, and it’s also work that I’ve learned to do by working for other people. I didn’t study theater, so really all elements of it I’ve really first encountered on jobs. Like when I came out of college, I started interning at the Wooster Group, I was the lighting intern. But there’s a huge amount of video often in Wooster Group shows and it was there that I really learned about video in theater. I had been making little films and little documentary segments that played in shows all through high school and college, but it was really at Wooster Group that I learned how this work was done professionally. When I started the thing that interested me, and still does, was it felt like video design on some level was a way of illustrating scripts, and illustrating shows. Figuring out a sort of series of images, or pictures, or ideas that could relate to a show. That has always attracted me to this work.

Is there a piece of advice you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?

At the beginning of my career, I don’t think I was told this by anyone who I was working for, but it became clear to me, that even on the smallest shows it was important to put a lot of thought into it and really show up. Come in very prepared, because, you never really know how that show will affect what you do next. There are always those ‘important’ shows that will be seen by everyone, those shows that will change your career, but the thing is, you don’t know which show it is when you are starting to work on a show. So, if you have an opportunity really to design anything, it’s very important to put yourself out there and try to get into the rooms and get the work. But, it’s also really important that you stay interested in the shows and that you do the very best work that you can. Because every show is important.  

You can see more of Mackinnon’s work on her website: www.lucymackinnon.com  

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