Friday, June 8, 2012

The Concept

Hat tip to Matt Dacey who got me rolling on this, thanks for bringing back the memories.
The first five minutes of my college education got me started down a road that would forever shape the way I thought creatively. Design Fundamentals was boot camp for visual arts. Not so much in the way of teaching us to draw and paint although it did that as well, but more in how we perceived what we saw and communicated visually. I was able to translate the lessons learned there when I went into audio work and they have never failed me.

The cornerstone was "the concept". This was an actual piece of paper on which you formally stated your design intentions. It was to be brief, a second page was not even an option. Just three paragraphs, as short as they could be and still be effective. Here's how it went.

Concept - This was the most basic, boiled down, simplified essence of the play.  I say play because that was the medium we theatre kids were working on. You try to capture the mood, the feel, the plot, message, psychology and whatever else there is and describe it in a paragraph.

Image - You then come up with a visual that captures that essence. The one you got right out of the gate was "a rose blooming through ice". You'll see how it works in a minute. The idea is to bridge the gap between the intellectual first paragraph and the physical third paragraph.

Implementation - Now you convert the image into what you will actually do on stage. Maybe everyone on the show is using the same basic concept and the block of ice is a hard angular set, augmented with cool blue lighting and costumes that follow suit. Then as things heat up the lighting changes color, layers of costume come away revealing warmer colors underneath, and the rose... blooms.

That's just one way of going about it. In other countries (I'm told) there are seven and even ten step processes that are gone through before anyone ever puts pen to paper to start designing. But sticking with this one, here's how I've gone on to use it in my work in sound.

Back when I was recording garage bands I would try to get them to come up with a concept. Something simple, a phrase or an image that we could hold on to while we tried to make a bunch of songs into an album. The first time I tried it I got, "Dude, we just wanna sound like Godsmack." for a reply. At least it was something. You can see though how it can really help ground you when you're trying to get a lot of different elements together under one roof.

Working in community theatre I don't often have the luxury of weeks of planning. I get a day to load in, a day of tech, two dress rehearsals and we're live. I do what I can to prep but each cast is so unique that I like to wait and see what each one brings me. Then I zoom in on each character. I can do things to beef them up or whittle them down, make them warm and attractive or cold and unlovable, just by changing what I do with EQ.

Whether it's mixing a metal band or a worship service, I always try to take just a few seconds and go through that three step process in my mind. I don't always come up with a specific image and the concept isn't always very deep, but it's something to go on. I come up with the implementation on the fly, but it can be informed by the concept I came up with early on. As I'm deciding how to EQ guitars I'm helping them be "angry" or "buttery" depending on my thoughts about the band.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm hoping to do a whole podcast on the subject, and in fact got started on one but didn't finish because we couldn't keep a Skype connection up. For now though Brethren of the Knob and Fader, I encourage you to adopt the practice. The more you think about your work and the better and quicker you get at it, the better the results will be.

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