Sunday, July 15, 2012

Me, Robot

 So the robot is built, and made it through opening night.  Now if it can just make it through opening weekend I'll be able to take it home, reinforce and improve it.

Everyone loves the design, and it is very much design by circumstance.

Original concept was a camera bot.  Given the wheelbase available in our price range, I was pretty much stuck with a robot not much more than a foot long, which meant it would have a small camera stuck on top of a long neck.  I built a mock-up turret camera with a servo for the turret and a fairly poor pan-tilt mechanism with another pair of servos.

Then there was a request for a second robot, a "girl" robot, which would chase the camera bot on stage and flirt with it.  Obviously someone had been watching "Wall-E" too much.

We were getting too close to tech for comfort and I wasn't getting assurances that the costs were going to be reimbursed.  So I picked up a forty dollar remote control car from a mass retailer.  And since it seemed a simpler proof-of-concept, I started building the "girl" robot on top of it -- mostly to see if a $40 set of plastic wheels would support the weight of a prop large enough to "read" on stage, or whether I had to gamble with a more expensive rolling chassis.

Framed out a dome-shaped body with foam-core and that ran.  Began adding extruded polystyrene chunks and carved up a smooth dome from that.  Still ran, although it was sagging a little on the wheels at this point.  The foam was delicate enough I altered the design to include a bumper.

So I obviously needed the performance of the Tamiya rolling chassis I had my eyes on.  Ordered that, and a Vex controller, and -- when I realized the chassis shipped without one -- a Futaba ESC, and a new medium servo, and a few more parts besides.  The draft for the "guy" robot was now a boxy body (foam-core) with an industrial look, and the turret camera on a smaller version of those hydraulic pillars used on ENG vehicles.  I bought some bumper material, sheet styrene, and a vent cover as part of the intended dressing.

The request came that one of the robots really needed a binocular head (more "Wall-E").  So that became folded into the girl robot; the guy would have the turret camera, the girl would have a smoother head that didn't look so camera like.

Made a progress report at a meeting and they cut the guy robot.

So now the girl was the primary camera carry, but the binocular head was half-built by this point.  And we no longer needed to distinguish her so much so she lost the pink bow and eyelashes and stayed with the smooth "EVA" white paint job.

And the only thing that lingers from the expensive exploration is that her choreography keeps getting expanded.  She has a long "flirt" scene with an actor, and her own bow at curtain call.  And the cheap plastic wheels and remote control are barely making it.  So over this next week I intend to upgrade to the Tamiya, and maybe stick some servos in her as well as radio control of her light-up eyes.

Made it to opening night with the sound effects as well.  A lot of things are not right and some are still not ready, and I'm going to be doing some serious reflection about how I need to change my design process.  This is not the first show in which sound has had to play pick-up, giving me too little time left to do the work.

My paradigm has been that sound fits into the existing environment.  That as a mixer, and as an effects designer, I work with (or around) the blend of voices and band, and the timing and, well, mood of action, choreography, and set movement.  If I have a cue about a drawbridge lowering, I will wait on the final version until we find out how long the on-set drawbridge takes.  If I have a piece of underscore music, I wait until the actor has found the way he wishes to do that scene and has settled on his timing.

This means, unfortunately, that when choreography is late, when set is late, when cuts and changes are made late, I need to re-think the sounds.  In some cases, when the show isn't blocked yet and the actors aren't even off book, I can't even start building certain cues.

James Horner talks about having a similar experience on scoring "Aliens."  He arrived in England six weeks before opening expecting to find a locked picture.  He had the shape, the ideas, motifs in his head, basic arrangements, etc.  But he couldn't start composing the actual running score until he had an actual film to time it to.  And he needed not just enough time for him to write, but for the copyists to do the breakouts and get the music on the stands, the LSO rehearse and be recorded, and of course the poor dubbing mixers (the editing team always suffers from this effect) to get it cut into the picture.

What I need, unfortunately, is a way to have cues that aren't right, but will do -- and have them built early on.  I'm not sure what to do about new cues that get added at the last minute.  The particular show I just opened, there were two DANCE pieces that I didn't hear about until we were two weeks out.  I spent the bulk of my available build time doing this, as they prioritized WELL over phone rings and toilet flushes.

I think that part of the problem is better addressed by making sure the clients better understand how long these things take.  That making two minutes of dance music is not something you toss off in a single evening.  But because of these prioritized (and time-consuming) cues, and another show that ran over their allotment considerably, I had even less time than the two brief weeks I was given.  And scenery changes and even basic scene blocking was still happening two days before opening -- when I had no more schedule-able time to build sound cues.

Another thing that will help is breaking out the effects design/reinforcement design again.  To go back into partnership so someone else is worrying about effects at the time in which band monitors and wireless mics become the necessary priority.

But even this, even all this, doesn't fix the basic problem.  And that is how to pre-load kinds of things that shouldn't be pre-loaded.

I have a lot more thinking to do about this show and what I can learn from it to do different, but one other thing stands out from the experience, and it is exactly the wrong lesson.  And that is that the artistic shape -- the mood of the show, the pallet, the kinds of sounds, the very approach -- wasn't clear to me until a week out.  If for some reason I had sat down with the script two months out and created all the cues then, they would have been wrong and I would have had to cut most of them.

The remaining question there is if this is still a net gain for the show.  Having even one cue that is right is one less cue to be working on during the crunch.  But that is based on an assumption of, basically, designing the entire show "on spec."  And on-spec work is the last thing you want to do if you are actually hoping to make a living as a designer.  Facing not just the chance but the probability that most of the hours you put in will be wasted is NOT a good way to have rent in hand at the end of the month!

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