“I love being surprised by a project created or set in a time or place I haven't explored yet.”
Ian is a Professor and professional Designer for theatre, among his many, many other talents.
Is This Not the Parlor?
Q1: TheatreArtists, “What theatre or theatre-related career interests you at the moment?”
A1: I’ve always loved straight theatre, but I’ve been working more in ballet these last couple of years and I really love it. There’s an old-world grandeur and sense of tradition about ballet that I find really appealing; I also love working with choreographers - there's a shared spatial language that makes collaborating with dancers really exciting. Themed entertainment has always been another fascination for me; as a SoCal guy, Disneyland is in my blood—in fact I grew up wanting to be an animator. I’ve always thought animation is the perfect blending of art and storytelling; I’m obsessed with the Golden Age Disney films and I've always idolized Glen Keane. (Like a lot of designers- I suspect- I harbor a secret ambition to be a stand-alone artist.) The collaborative nature of theatre is wonderful and we all love that aspect of it, but sometimes it's fun to collaborate with yourself... Sometimes I miss my mural-painting days when a client would say "Here's a bunch of money and a huge canvas; do something cool, I don’t really care what."
Q2: TheatreArtists, “Do you personally know any professional artists doing what you want to do?”
A2: Well there’s me, for starters haha! I was cleaning out a closet the other day and found an old essay I’d written as a college freshman; the assignment had been to reflect on where we’d like to be in 10 years and what sort of career path we’d like to be on. I hadn’t thought about it in ages but it was eerie how closely my life has mirrored that essay. I’m almost exactly where I’d wanted to be. I feel very lucky to be doing what I'm doing. A few of my friends are working in full-time design careers, some in theatre, some in TV, some in themed entertainment; I love what they all do but I'm very happy with the mix I've got going on right now. It will probably change--everything does--but for now it's great.
It’s Always MerMay at my House
Q3: TheatreArtists, “Tell us about your wildest craziest best theatre work.”
A3: Hm. I don’t know about wild or crazy... I worked on a new piece with a playwright in Austin a couple years ago that was truly bizarre—and frankly a nightmare—but it produced one of my favorite designs. It got so mangled through the production process that I swore the photos would never see the light of day, but it’s still my favorite scenic model.
Q4: TheatreArtists, “Have you ever worked in film or TV?”
A4: Yes, I worked on some commercials for Kelloggs and Kia back in my location department days. Remember the Kia commercials with all the hamsters riding around town in their wheels? I was on the scouting team for all those neighborhoods, garages and downtown city shots. And that Kelloggs commercial was going hard after the female demographic. Lots of shots of middle-aged women engaging in "healthy" activities while various female voices narrate about their busy lives and the importance of eating Kelloggs HA! My favorite was a shot of a woman jogging through snowfall. It was filmed in late summer in a neighborhood near Dodger's Stadium and the "snow" was ash from a snow candle. Talk about healthy!
Most recently I worked on set decoration for a really exciting new cooking/talk show last year that was bought and then shelved. It was sort of like an industry TED Talk over a gourmet meal, we had some really great round-table discussions with a lot of big name talent, it's a shame it hasn't aired. We filmed in a great big old Spanish Revival house in the Hollywood hills, hauled out all the furniture/decor and brought in all new pieces for the shoot, it was exhausting but it looked great. There are a lot of things I love about work that’s destined for a screen; composing an image for screen feels a lot like painting—theatre always reminds me more of sculpting. The hours are brutal, though— It’s like endless tech rehearsal until you wrap. Definitely something I'm glad I've done, there's a unique energy around a film/TV set that's intoxicating, despite all the "hurry up and wait."
Tales From the Cutting Room Floor
Q5: TheatreArtists, “Describe the “formal” theatre training you have had, such as classes in high school, college or vocational technical school.”
A5: My training has been such a mish-mash I hardly know where to start. I owe a lot to so many mentors... My dad was a mechanical engineer, so my first exposure to drafting was pretty early on. I was always drawing as a kid, always trying to figure out what made the work of my favorite artists "good." I lived near Cal Arts as a young teen, and one of their animation faculty offered a class at the Boys and Girls club, so I learned some stop-motion and 2D animation; I loved it but was frustrated with how slow the process is. I want results YESTERDAY. My mom was good friends with artist Debbie Kunic and we used to barter art lessons in exchange for help around her ranch; she was my first exposure to watercolor. My first life drawing class was in high school; I was concurrently enrolled at a junior college- my parents were really distressed at the live model situation but somehow Debbie and I convinced them that this was crucial art training (and it was, my drawing came along leaps and bounds that year! Joy Von Wolffersdorff was a phenomenal teacher and it was awfully good of her to take a chance on me; the school didn't let minors work with nude models so we had to petition.) That same year I studied 3D design with Robert Walker; he was the first person to suggest that I think about scenic design. I'd designed and built a haunted dollhouse for an assignment and he said "You need to go to New York and be a set designer." I thought he was crazy and I wanted to be a Disney animator so I didn't think about it again for years!
It wasn't until the end of my undergrad that I started thinking about scenic design again; up until that point I'd been focused on illustration, animation and graphic design. I studied with a wonderful illustrator at Fresno State, Doug Hansen. I'd been a fan of his work for years- my grandparents live in Fresno and used to send me his illustrations from the Fresno Bee newspaper. I was excited to have the chance to study with him; in a sort of "never meet your heroes" moment, I found we didn't mesh well as student/mentor and wound up switching to a studio art emphasis instead of illustration (but I learned a lot about colored pencil from him)! Nick Potter and Stephanie Ryan, two fantastic painters, became a huge influence in my development, but it was Jeff Hunter in the theatre department who really championed me as a student designer. I had been working in the scenic shop as a painter (I'd worked in LA as a mural artist before college), and he suggested I take his intro to theatre design class. It was thrilling to see my art become part of something so much bigger than a painting in a gallery; much like animation, it was a chance to use my art in a larger narrative that could reach a much wider audience. I was hooked. Around the time I started undergrad, Disney shuttered their traditional animation department anyway, so I guess it all worked out.
From undergrad, Jeff convinced me to apply to URTA where I met Richard Isackes from UT Austin; in the space of a 5-minute interview we really hit it off and I knew this was the man I wanted to mentor me through graduate school. His approach was rooted very deeply in semiotic theory, something I was already familiar with from my graphic design days; it was fun to have that common language going into the program.
MerMay Day 4
Q6: TheatreArtists, “Describe the non-formal training you have had such as what you’ve learned through application experience, on-the-job-training, and plain old practice.”
A6: Wow, where to begin... There's an interview floating around the internet where Glen Keane talks about designing the character Rapunzel for Tangled; he describes being inspired by his daughter (also an artist,) and the enormous creative energy that seems to shoot out from her every pore. That was me as a kid; an electric bundle of creative force that had to come out one way or another- my poor parents... My room was constantly taken over by whatever project I was tinkering with, the backyard was always home to some half-finished construction project, the kitchen table was always usurped by my latest obsession. Continually experimenting, always trying to do it again, better this time, always working something out in a sketch or model. I liked making my own toys and was definitely the kid who'd be more excited by a cardboard box than whatever came in it; I was always raiding the trash for materials. It drove my mom nuts, "I just threw this out!"
I was always at the library, too, obsessing over my favorite illustrators, pouring over books on toy making, animation, painting, Disneyland... The internet is fantastic but there's something so satisfying about discovering something in a book, you know?
Looking back, I'd say most of my training was just plain old practice; every course I took or job I had was just another outlet for the practice I was doing anyway. One of the most important lessons I try to impart to my students and something I gleaned from all of my teachers, is "experiment, experiment, experiment.” Sure, I can share with you what I like to do to solve specific challenges or what my workflow generally looks like, but all that is built of years and years of experimenting; there's no formula to follow, and beyond basic design principles, there aren't really any rules... You've got to get in there and get messy and make discoveries. There are no failures, only feedback. All of my mentors and teachers took the approach of “I’m here for guidance if you get stuck and I’ll grab you if you’re about to walk off an artistic cliff, but generally you’re going to have to discover things on your own,” and I’m so grateful for that – it really set me up to be self-directed and curious.
Q7: TheatreArtists, “Do you have a favorite historic period of theatre work? Why that one?”
A7: I can’t say I do. As an artist I love Fragonard and Watteau but I’ve yet to tackle anything from their era in my theatre work (that’s not entirely true; I’m finally working on a Rococo Cinderella ballet that opens next summer- I couldn’t be happier, it's going to be gorgeous.) Part of what I love about my work is I never know which corner of history I’m going to be playing in, I love being surprised by a project created or set in a time or place I haven't explored yet.
TheatreArtists, “What artistic tools, including computer programs, do you use?”
I love working in model form. I hate drafting—always have—it bores me to death; I want to figure things out with my hands in real space. I love graphite and vellum for 2d work, though most of my sketches wind up being a combo of whatever paper and basic ballpoint pen were closest. For digital work I’ve always been a Photoshop and Wacom fan, though for the past year the bulk of my work has been done in Sketchbook Pro on iPad. I LOVE IT. I’ve tried Photoshop for iPad and Procreate but Sketchbook and I just clicked.
I love google slides for organizing research and/or presentations, Pinterest is terrific (but like Wikipedia, take everything you find there with a block of salt; I keep telling younger designers, "Whoever uploaded that might not actually know what it is or where it's from, you can't trust the label when doing period research!")
SketchupPro is my favorite program for designing show packages; the interface is intuitive and artist-friendly, and with Layout I can send CAD, PDF or Vectorworks-ready files to all my collaborators. I've used CAD for 2D and Vectorworks for 3D but I find for what I do, SketchupPro is the best of both worlds. All through my undergrad and grad work, I was told "You can't use Sketchup, nobody uses Sketchup, it's gotta be Vectorworks!" Then I started visiting Disney's live entertainment studios in Anaheim and talking with a whole bunch of designers, all of them working in different programs, many of them using SketchupPro - it was a small thing but I felt so vindicated HA! We also used Sketchup Pro a lot in TV just because it's so fast and you can do a lot with camera placement which makes it a great tool for storyboarding and planning a shoot quickly. There are so many plugins for it, you can pretty easily solve anything you’re trying to model, and with VRay you can get some pretty awesome renders (though I prefer to export a basic model view and sketch on top of that for my renderings. Digital photo-realism has never appealed to me, I want my renderings to show my hand in them.)
MerMay Day 8: Sharkbane
Q8: TheatreArtists, “What are the best online and printed book resources you use?
A8: Pinterest is great, I’ve amassed an enormous library of boards for different things; boards for color palettes, boards for different historical periods in fashion, furnishings and architecture, boards for different painters, paint finishes, sculptural inspiration, textures, lighting, you name it. In print, I love Communication Arts; it's a fantastic collection of the best in design, photography, typography, illustration... Really wonderful stuff, some of my favorite artists were discovered through their publications. Check your library, they probably have back issues, they're huge. Online databases from various museums are invaluable... Most countries have some version of a national gallery and many of them have online databases you can access. There are so many wonderful books, it would take me days to list everything in my personal library… I have books on different artistic movements, illustrators, artistic techniques, architecture, crafts, animation, film… For designers or anyone who needs to represent the world through 2D media, I strongly recommend 2 books by James Gurney: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint what Doesn’t Exist, and Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. This is such a Millennial thing to say, but Youtube is an incredible resource. I’ve found so many wonderful artists demonstrating their tricks and techniques, you can find tutorials on anything from fake cobwebs to metalwork. One of my favorite artist channels on Youtube is Marco Bucci; he’s brilliant and his videos are just oozing with easy-to-digest lessons. Anyone starting out now in design is so lucky; we have access to literally all the information in the world, most of it is free. It blows my mind.
A Bird May Love a Fish…
TheatreArtists, “Describe your process for a theatre artwork creation.”
Oof. That's a tough one. It really depends on the project; usually it starts with a quick read of the script, all the way through in one sitting - get a sense of the flow, the general story... Usually I'll have impressions and start doodling right away. I don't worry about period research or specific needs of the play yet, I just put pen to paper and have a little visual chat with myself about the play. Then I'll read through the script again, this time paying more attention to specific needs of the story, any special blocking, crucial physical elements required by the text, how many times we shift locales, that sort of thing... Usually at this point I start doing some specific world exploration/research. The "when and where are we?" phase of the process. Sometimes I jump right into modeling, sometimes I do more sketching, sometimes I start with lists and charts of scene shifts and various physical elements I might include. But generally it goes something like "reading, sketching, reading, research, reading, modeling, reading, final drafting/color." Peppered throughout are conversations with the director, and that can alter the process at any stage, so flexibility is key.
A lot of the workflow is dictated by what language the director/team understands best. Some people understand and respond to sketches really well. Some people need a model to understand the space. Some people can't picture it no matter what you give them until you're on stage with a rehearsal set and then they start to "get it." Whatever you have to do to communicate with your team, that's what your process needs to support.
MerMay Day 2
Q9: TheatreArtists, “Are you interested in other aspects of theatre work such as Themed Entertainment or Museum displays or Commercial exhibits?”
A9: YES. All of it. It's such a big sandbox and I want to play in every inch of it. I worked on environments for several SXSW events a couple years back and used to handle events for a nightclub in Austin; I wouldn't mind doing more of that, especially for theme parks or museums. I'd also like to work on a team designing Escape Room adventures. Oh! Another thing I've just learned about, similar to Escape Rooms, are "Rage Rooms," you set up a room and people pay to come trash the place. They're usually pretty rudimentary, temporary plywood walls, old office equipment or TVs, stuff that's fun to smash... I'd like to design some top-notch themed rooms to be trashed, really go all-out with the theming and details... You could do a "Trash Dracula's Lair," or "Trash a Luxury Hotel Suite," or "Trash Your Ex's Apartment" HAHA! As theatre artists, most of our work winds up in a dumpster anyway, why not let somebody pay to enjoy destroying it?