GRAND VISIONS: MICHAEL SCOTT MITCHELL ON EVENT DESIGN
In this conversation with Michael Scott Mitchell we decide to focus on his work as an events designer. The APDG represents event designers, and celebrates their work at the APDG Awards, but it is an area of design that gets less airplay than screen and live performance design. I was interested to hear Michael talk about his process when designing events such as the 2006 Asian Games Opening Ceremony in Doha, and most recently, the Abu Dhabi UAE National Day Celebration event – Legacy of our Ancestors.
Michael is was one of the initiating members of the APDG, and is honoured as an accredited member. His design career spans opera, drama, film and events. In recognition of his contribution to education, the University of New South Wales has appointed Michael as their first ever Professor of Practice in Art and Design.
SC: Michael, what do you think makes a great event?
MSM: Essentially a great team is what it boils down to; and a very clear-minded visionary leader to lead that team. The mega-events, or ‘monster’ shows as I call them are normally led by a producer who deals with the often very heavily political situation of the country we are in. For Abu Dhabi Producer/Director Catherine Ugwu hand-picked her team; using years of experience and selecting experts in their field from across the world she assembled what was actually a very small team. She already knew us well – and knew we could achieve a challenging project in very tight time-frame. The core team was about 170 people.
I had a great design team too. Recent NIDA graduates Nick Fry, Sabina Meyers, Isabel Hudson, Alexi Creecy and Hannah Sitters joined me over the course of the project. Nick was my Associate Designer, and he worked with me very closely both here and over there – the glue between a lot of different departments.
In fact the project was only possible because of the great team. We got that event on in 5 months, with a three month build, which is less than a third of what is typical. For the Sydney Olympics opening we started 4 years out, and Doha [Asian Games Opening Ceremony, 2006] was 18 months development. We actually got flack from other top events people for showing it can be done in such a short time frame!
SC: How much of a concept was there when you first began with Catherine?
MSM: In that initial meeting there was only an assortment of national stories and poems as loose idea of where we could build a narrative. I had brought references of moons, landscapes, water – a range of dream images. Never the less, the bones of the design concept was mapped out and rendered within the first week in what was a pretty fast process. Which is not to say that it didn’t go through endless changes, but the gist of it was there. The role of women, and the moon became key elements in the visual narrative. There are resonances of the moon all through traditional Arabic poetry, and since this poetry was the inspiration for the narrative, these moons fit right in as we built the dreamscape. As the design developed we discovered that Her Royal Highness Princess Haya had very definite ideas about design – she didn’t like stairs, or geometry which she thought were too masculine – but we worked around that.
SC: For the audience – those experiencing the event – what makes a great event for them?
MSM: I think something that they are absolutely not expecting to see in that environment. When we first saw our 12 moons rising in Abu Dhabi – despite the provisional rigging and, at that stage, rudimentary lighting – it took my breath away.
It’s going for something that is difficult to achieve but for the audience looks effortless.
And I think it is taking an audience into a world that you have created… One of my events collaborators observed that the cauldron in Sydney changed the event industry in this respect – the theatricalising of a moment to make it a metaphorical, emotional, aspirational, magical experience – more than just ceremonial- a whole imaginative world.
SC: In your events work is your entire design development process digital?
MSM: For Abu Dhabi we did build a physical model, but not right until the end of the process, and then it was used to choreograph the cast – there were about 1000 in the cast. In an even playing field the combination of digital and analogue are a great intersection. In an ideal world I still test ideas out in a physical sketch model – it doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is a way of sensing the mass. In many ways they are of more value to me as a designer then the finished model – it is where the designing really takes place.
The tricky thing with a 3D render is that at the end of the day it is only a sophisticated drawing, it’s all it can ever be. People think they are looking at a finished thing, but they are only looking at an illustration – you can’t get your hands in there and play with it.
SC: Michael, you recently designed Madama Butterfly for Opera Australia, and received the award for set design at last year’s APDG Awards. The AO has invested a lot of resources in LED video technology, and set designers for AO are contracted on the basis that they will use the LED screens…
MSM: There is no other kind of contract with them now. You either do it or you don’t. But as long as I keep control of the whole design vision I am OK with it. The design becomes a ‘digital wrapper’ and I need to be in control of that, because it is such a large part of the audience’s experience.
But it is a very grey area for designers because the design roles are not clear and established. I brought on Sean Nieuwenhuis, who had worked with me on Dr Zhivago. He did the animation of the visual content on Butterfly , but we could never really settle on what title we should give to our roles. The tricky thing is – what is someone like me on that production called? Inevitably there needs to be a way acknowledging the content creation role – it is a massive design task, in addition to the physical set design.
SC: Yes, there is no way currently that our traditional credit as set designer stretches to include content creation, yet the set designer might have a major role in this. But it is also different on every production. Do you think this element of the design should have its own credit?
MSM: Yes, I think we need to be prepared to break the creative role down and credit all of the design roles as they apply on that production. For example Sabina Meyers had a huge creative role in preparing all of the storyboards for that that production. She should have been credited – as Associate Content Designer. [Sabina was nominated for design illustration at the 2019 APDG Awards].
One of the things that Shaun did with us on Butterfly was to use particular software to enable use to preview animated sequences while we were assembling, and this is something that I have followed through on in my role at UNSW. We are investigating a proposed research project to develop software that integrates the digital visual content right through – from the initial project development to the final delivery systems. Using the same software to go from a play pen where you are tossing early ideas around with your director right through to running the media onstage.
The commonality in the productions I am designing is that they all utilise digital assets in their design evolution and in most cases have significant digital imagery in their performative realisation. The traditional worlds of ‘stage’ and ‘screen’ are morphing in many ‘live’ productions. This isn’t new, it is however far more prolific. My interest lies in how to navigate and harness the wellspring of technological expansion to best serve simple creative dialogue. To facilitate an ease of creative exploration and play. Whether that be the initial creative team discussions or the subsequent or simultaneous enfolding of performers into the world that is being imagined and ‘physically’ realised on the stage.