Dialogue Summer 2017

The Digital Stage

How Faculty in the Arts Are Embracing Technology

An artist will always need a pen. Yet in a digitized world, an artist better have a computer too. School of Communication theatre faculty member Ana Kuzmanic is an accomplished booster of digital design, with stunning work to prove its worth.

Award-winning costume designer and associate professor of theatre Ana Kuzmanic (GC04) leans over a workstation in her Evanston studio, her deft hand adding saffron shading to a whimsical illustration. She is the costume designer for an upcoming stage adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and today Kuzmanic is fine-tuning the prince’s coat. She lifts her pen from the drawing, backs away, and gives it a look—then swiftly puts thumb and forefinger to the sketch and zooms in for detail, just like on a smartphone. Then with a few quick taps of her pen on the screen, the shading vanishes while the remainder of the drawing remains perfectly intact.

Her creation, bearing all the organic charm of a pen-and ink sketch, was entirely digital—and is representative of how she now prefers to work. No more smudges, no more desks full of pens, no more pressure to get a design perfectly right on the first pass.

“Computer technology makes virtually anything possible—but the computer is still operated by the artist’s hand,” says Kuzmanic. “In my classes I often use the term ‘dramaturgy of the line.’ What I mean is that costume designers utilize visual elements like line, form, volume, and color to develop design ideas. The pressure of the hand drawing the line, the volume of the shapes, and the rhythm of drawing crystalize the final idea. However, while we articulate the thought with the line, only the right line will advance the development of thought.”

“Technology allows for all the above,” she adds.

Kuzmanic has embraced the ease, intuitiveness, and outcomes of digital tools in her professional design work, notably with the Wacom Cintiq Interactive Pen Display and stylus pen, Corel Painter, and Adobe Photoshop. Thanks to recent grants from the School of Communication and the Alumnae of Northwestern, she is now teaching her students to do the same.

Life is easier with digital help, she says—even for a traditionalist. Wacom’s high-definition monitor display has stunning resolution, and its accompanying stylus can recreate the whisker-thin graphite etchings of a pencil, the saturation of oil paints, and every texture in between. The software allows her to build her designs in layers, thus making changes and “do-overs” simple. The screen can be raised, lowered, and angled, and the desktop dashboard may be customized for left- or right-handed users. Kuzmanic can share her work-in-progress with a production’s director and can seamlessly move between drawing, color coding, collaging, and redrawing without ever having to prep a work surface.

“Theatre is a closely collaborative process, so ideas go through transformations and tweaks constantly. Computation helps the designer make changes instantly, which saves a great deal of time,” says Kuzmanic. “Technology helps collaborators communicate visually from various parts of the world and change the appearance of design specifications in real time during virtual meetings.”

Kuzmanic additionally uses Autodesk Maya to create 3D costume figurines and ZBrush for digital sculpting and painting. With theatre professor Todd Rosenthal, another technology enthusiast, she coteaches a computer graphics class for MFA design students.

A sought-after, Tony Award-winning set designer who’s headed for Broadway with Roman Holiday this fall, Rosenthal says that training students in the digital sphere is essential for future leaders in theatrical and entertainment design. “They must have access to the latest technologies. Competing academic programs are staying current, so we must continue to upgrade our resources,” he says. “Also, better tools empower you. They allow you to communicate ideas more clearly, and they expedite problem solving.”

Rosenthal always begins his professional designs with a sketch, which he then manipulates in Photoshop. For museum exhibitions he relies on SketchUp, a 3D modeling program. Final designs for exhibitions and theatre sets are rendered in AutoCAD, a precision drawing and sharing software for 2D and 3D design and documentation. He uses a laser cutter to work on final models and also uses HTC Vive virtual reality equipment to gauge applications in 3D painting and set design. He sees the next wave of technology fast approaching.

“I can’t wait until there are sophisticated drawing programs that allow you to generate set designs in an immersive three-dimensional canvas,” says Rosenthal, “and then export your
work into design drawings, like Tony Stark’s holographic design station in the movie Iron Man. ”

Kuzmanic has used digital technology in her work for two decades, but today’s programs make the process more natural. While these programs are common in major motion picture and game design, they’re less so in professional theatre circles—less still for students, even those reared on technology. But Kuzmanic recognizes, and teaches, the difference between
computational proficiency and artistry.

“It is one thing to learn the language and capabilities of a computer program and an entirely different thing to learn how to direct those skills toward developing and executing a creative idea,” she says. “I am teaching computer graphics technology as a design class rather than a skill class. The students focus on generating strong design ideas first and then develop them further while learning the language of the programs.”

 A third-year MFA design candidate specializing in set and scenery, Lauren Nichols was one such early user of software like Photoshop, but the exposure to sophisticated equipment is
new—and revolutionary.

“Northwestern has given me the gift of using a Cintiq, a product that would never have touched my hands otherwise because of its price,” she says. “These drawing tablets let you return to traditional ways of working while still keeping everything computerized. There is no longer a disconnect between your hand and your work.”

So purists need not worry; the approaches are complementary, not competing.

“There are moments when you have to pull out a pen and napkin to brainstorm, but I’ve found that working digitally really brings your work to life in a way that markers, paint, or ink cannot,” says Nichols. “Modern art needs digital components, and their use in educational settings is critical.”