The Artist Toolbox - Vortex Decoder II

One of the many video processing units created by Tachyons+ 'Vortex Decoder II' is a device created to make analog glitch effects to video content. I am always a sucker for the real thing and what makes the units from Tachyons+ really special is that they are essentially reconfigured after market units re purposed for the this.



The units come in a different variety of nobs and dials and if you navigate to their website ( you will find an assortment of different devices by different names. I believe (though I am not certain) that these names are correlated to the internal mechanisms not the external ones. What is fascinating about this design is that it is up to the user to figure out what combinations work in what ways. I purchased mine in 2016 and I am still learning new things from this. Its use is completely analog so if you want to use something that was created on a computer or is being played back from a computer you need a converter to to the job. I use a vga to rca adapter and the signal seems to come out clean on the other side. From there you just start twisting the the nobs and you can see your image being torn apart.



In the world of analog it use to be really simple when that is all you had. Once the transition to digital occurred things became complicated.  It is this understanding that will allow you to see the best versions of imagery from this unit. First there is the straight analog pipeline.  Essentially take your source, put it through the device and output to a CRT television. What is special about this is that most televisions, the more expensive at the time the better, have internal TBC or time base corrector. Its what fixes a bad signal from broadcasts or vhs tape to not completely drop the signal. Sense you are essentially destroying an image the output may drop the signal depending on how good your TBC is. That being said outputting to a television is going to create some the most consistent content. Depending on the venue this might be the final output and many artists have done this.


If this is a route you do not want to take then things get a bit more complicated, and in a way is tied you how you may capture this imagery. First if you want to play this through you computer as a live capture of sorts you can either a) capture from a device such as a blackmagic intensity pro or b) capture from a camera recording the crt source.  If you go with option a you have to understand that you need to have a TBC to regulate the image from dropout, otherwise your computer will stop capturing. Option b might work out but then you have to manage the possible glare from the glass. I have done both and each has there own benefits.


At this moment I have only used this item for about three productions. However, it has been very fulfilling using a hardware solution for creating glitched imagery rather than only a software one. I have found that I will still use the software plug ins (such as digieffects DAMAGE) in addition glitch made by this in order to give an overall look and the result is very satisfying. If text is to be glitched in a moment in a show it is often great to send it through the processor and record it and play it back as a layer in a show. I just recently did a play called 'The Burn' which is a version of a Crucible told through the lens of a modern day school. The moments in the digital space we wanted to represent as this distorted plane of reality. Below is some of the Vortex Decoder II in action.

Interview - Yale School of Drama

A few years ago I got a chance to talk about my process for the student show 'The Master and Margarita.' In the process we also discuss a little bit of my work, the program at Yale, and my general thoughts on these subject matters.

Practice - Storyboarding

An essential part of the process that I feel gets overlooked even in my own works is storyboarding. Storyboards of course in the context of theatre have been used quite extensively over the years and its' application has wonderful results. In terms of projection design it is a crucial step in the design process in communicating with the director and design team the intent of the projections. Of course these do not represent the product as a whole, nor it should, but it can get people one step closer in understanding the eventual integration of projections in the live performance. 

Storyboarding can be done in several different ways. I tend to vary between a couple. One is what I call Scene Plates. These are the most basic way of describing the look of the scene. This of course is only as still image of a moment of the show but the gesture is somewhat conveyed. I try to take as many images of the set as possible because one thing that is hard to determine are light looks. So I try to keep things open as well have a conversation with the lighting designer with possible scenarios concerning lighting and projections working together.

 Animation Plate for the final scene in 'The Flying Dutchman' complete with Title Block as a part of the 2017 Director Designers Showcase of Opera America

Animation Plate for the final scene in 'The Flying Dutchman' complete with Title Block as a part of the 2017 Director Designers Showcase of Opera America

 Projecting on to model for Cymbeline 2016 at the Yale Repertory Theatre

Projecting on to model for Cymbeline 2016 at the Yale Repertory Theatre

 Scene Plate for 'The Flying Dutchman' as a part of the 2017 Director Designers Showcase of Opera America

Scene Plate for 'The Flying Dutchman' as a part of the 2017 Director Designers Showcase of Opera America

Next are Animation Plates. With these I take a specific moment, whether a transition or actor driven and beat by beat create an image sequence that describes action. I use this a jumping off point to talk with directors on what the possibilities for how the projections could work. What's great about this is that you can make some initial choices without worry about whether or not they are the final thoughts. It allows the director to think about things for a bit longer time. And often they come back with something much more specific. Moreover, after you try something in the storyboard, if the director doesn't like it at least they will see where you are going, and it might show back up in the future as they work through rehearsals.

Finally crafting some sort of video using a combination of the model and projection mapping/masking, either on a video program or live, can be a very telling example of how projections works on the show. It is extremely contingent of the strength of the model and whether the projections can be accurately be represented in the model. I do believe it is important to point out that despite the quality that this method gives, the final and most important component can never be accurately represented and that is actors. To create these thing devoid of the very thing that attracts people to the theatre is to negate the entire experience. This is why I view this less as a product and more as a conversation so that as things continue they become less about how and what and more about why.

Concepts - Visual Poetry

Wendall K. Harrington has often been quoted for saying 'projections should be like music.' The density of that statement positions itself less on the intellectual understanding of that, and more of the feeling of listening to the music. The most interesting thing about musical instruments is that each instrument has its own special properties and also expresses its own range of emotions. Really thinking about that, its interesting to grab a hold of the abstraction of sound and it's relationship to human emotion. Abstraction then is a path to emotion. Right? But what is abstraction? I cannot count the number times I have been told 'let's do something abstract!' only for me to counter, 'what do you mean?' I of course know kind of what they mean. Solid colors maybe, non - real textures, erratic shapes maybe. Sure, abstract. But really, abstraction is so much more than that. 

Context is everything and really, anything could mean anything given context. It is the responsibility of the projection designer to challenge the audience's perception of the story and the space. It is within this that the objective of creating an ephemeral space to create meaning can visual poetry come across. I am not going to propose that I have any rule book on the subject, however I do use this question an approach to, if anything, simplify my life.

Canvas and materials are tools in an artist's toolbox to create work. In the same way what you use and what you are projecting onto directly correlates to the meaning of the subject matter. A blank canvas allows an opportunity to immediately grab attention and pull the audience into a completely different world.

 The backwall as 'empty canvas' in TheMassive's Faust 2011

The backwall as 'empty canvas' in TheMassive's Faust 2011

With an empty canvas time, space, and dimension are fully open to control and often diverge from the onstage flow. Meaning it doesn't have to worry about lighting or actors as a distraction. That being, in this setup, both lighting and onstage action are affected by this mode of operation and the artist controlling this must be sensitive to this. This is the final direction cinema made in the crossover between magic shows and vaudeville to cinema houses and movie theatres. Therefore careful attention should be made to not distract from the intent of the performance. That is not to say that the projections can take center stage, but only if that is the point. Careful conversations with the creative team should be had to understand how a large presence takes the space. Technical examples include movie screens, backwalls, LED Walls, RP Screens. I often see this as the ultimate freedom and at the same time bondage. In one way you are not bound by the constraints of the space, and it is fairly simple (no matter how complex the design) to completely create beforehand. However, there are no tricks to be had, no reveal, no surprise.

There is another way in which projections evoke imagery in space and that is through what has begun to be called projection mapping, which is a great term to describe industrial shows and technical exhibitions. In my work I like the idea of a term that describes something a little more narrative driven, spacial displacement. Spacial displacement is about illuminating or changing the surface from one thing to another. The concept of the reveal comes into play making what is hidden seen and transporting people to other worlds. The space becomes then an element of the story, a conjuring space that allows the spirits - or god/higher being/computer world to transform the space as it sees fit. A technolgocal version of this is the holodeck of Star Trek, and I must admit I have used that analogy more than once.

 A mixture of real and simulated smoke and clouds in a performance of Song for Terrance 2015

A mixture of real and simulated smoke and clouds in a performance of Song for Terrance 2015

 A waterfall displacing at the end of the third act before intermission in Yale Repertory's Cymbeline 2016

A waterfall displacing at the end of the third act before intermission in Yale Repertory's Cymbeline 2016

The final thing that I would like to describe in the space with no walls. In an installation performance Flying Lotus describes this as 'layer 3' and in various iterations and formalities Joseph Svoboda describes this as a one of the versions of a plastic space. In essence both the foreground and background are complete illusions. It is very easy to become 'animated' in this setup. But what makes this interesting is the opportunity to completely control the the space that the actors occupy and alter the perspective to that of almost a dream. 

Why does the space matter so much? I feel like alot of scenic designers and directors look at me like I'm crazy or trying to take over a discipline I have not been hired to do. On the contrary, I feel when understanding the poetry of the moment (no matter what that moment is) is all about context. Who are you walking into the situation, and what you become coming away from it. How you see something, where you see something is a just important (if not more so) than the thing itself. Like music the projections must be in tight rhythm with all of the elements, but the first thing out of the gate is the scenery. I leave you with one last image, one of religious consequence. It's representation has meaning in all manners. Which one you chose is appropriate is not only your decision but one of everyone who is involved. Moreover, everyone is in someway necessary to make it happen.

Representation on Stage - Didactic

The word didactic is defined as information designed or intended to teach or sometimes teaching, with the ulterior motive for moral instruction. In terms of projection design this can be accomplished quite easily and was first embraced by Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht in 1920's Germany. Didactic projections can take the form of a variety of mediums but it should be understood that whatever that is it should be in someway a reflection of reality. The reality that the play is trying to expose and use that information to fuel the meaning of the work. Projections does this easily by employing techniques that can derivative of the news (Newspapers, Broadcast television, Newsreels), political concepts, instructional information, and anything that can give historical context. Often times text is employed but also iconic imagery that can be easily reconizeable within the context of understanding a time period.

 Preshow ads in Skin of Our Teeth 2015

Preshow ads in Skin of Our Teeth 2015

 Lesson in literature in Wit 2017

Lesson in literature in Wit 2017

 Character looking at security footage of self on the wall. columbinus 2013

Character looking at security footage of self on the wall. columbinus 2013

It is in this context that many playwrights will write these images into the script it helps to offer a window to the issues important of the times. Using facts to support an argument similar to how a new program may use information to not only report an event but also to promote a perspective. For example the play columbinus draws on the images of the events surrounding the incident to put the audience in the feeling of someone watching the events unfold in front of them.  Didactic imagery is often used in shows that deals with social and political issues and gives credibility to stance the play presents as its perspective. In a simpler manner they can also either be presentations given by characters or survailence video from a live feed.

 Chatroom in columbinus 2013

Chatroom in columbinus 2013

Narrativity Tropes - Applied Phlebotinum

Applied Phlebotinum can be directly described as a substance that is believed to reveal the truth. In narrative terms many stories have seen this substance in the form of, for example, a crystal ball in a fantasy novel that reveals a moment either in the past, present, or future. This crystal reveals the truth or form of truth that should be taken seriously to propel forward the story or plot. In the context of projection design for the stage, this is a powerful trope that can be used to the advantage of a said designer. Understanding the mechanics of this can control the eventual use of projections throughout a show.

 Final moments before acceptance of fate  'tick, tick....BOOM'  2012

Final moments before acceptance of fate 'tick, tick....BOOM' 2012

 Playing a game on the computer ' The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus'  2015

Playing a game on the computer 'The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus' 2015

 The cell of  '50:13'  2015

The cell of '50:13' 2015

 Sifting through the microfiche of time in  'tick, tick....BOOM'  2012

Sifting through the microfiche of time in 'tick, tick....BOOM' 2012

In the 2012 production of tick, tick...BOOM with Porchlight Music Theatre a big concept that the director Adam Pelty was interested in was the idea that the lead character was effectively experiencing the entirety of the play in a flash before his death. In a play originally written by Jonathan Larson as a one man show, it outlines a one week journey of finding oneself  in the midst of being a playwright in New York in the 90's. Slightly autobiographical the director wanted to make a more specific connection outlining a direct connection to Jonathan Larson's death and the character Jon in the show. To execute this idea the concept of the microfiche of time that looked at his whole life in the this void that we start with at the top of the show. As the character interacts with it, the play begins. Leading us to land on the story of the play.Using this device throughout the show then influenced everything from the look (old photographs, grainy paper) to the movement (quick swipes) to the dimensions of transitions. Using projections in this manner then gives a system of rules to which the projections occupy. They then become directly tied to the character that wields them. In the case of the character Jon he controlled the storytelling, until the rules where broken and the projections began to take on a life of it's own to tell him a story. In that since the tool becomes a vehicle for the audience to elevate their perception of the story on stage.

Other examples could include the use of computers and or the internet. In the case of Doctor Faustus were used as the portal to communicate to Mephistopheles. A surveillance camera looking onto a scene and game show with judges can also be examples.

 Sam or Larry  'The Magic Negro'  2017

Sam or Larry 'The Magic Negro' 2017

Representation on Stage - Contextual/Dialectic

In as simple of a term projection design can be signified as both a subject and a question. In as much as one can answer the 5W's of investigation (What, Who, Where, When, Why) as well as the definition of a noun (Person, place, thing, or idea) as projected imagery and the manipulation of it allows for the solution to the questions posed by the text. It is easy to assume that this could be considered the oldest use of projections, but in fact that fails to take into account the Phantasmogoria's of the 18th and 19th century, the experimentation of cinema, and magic lanterns by magicians in the late 19th century, and light shows from artist like Thomas Wilfred in the early 20th century. However, in the mid 20th century this was the main use of projection design in commercial American Theatre with the use of slide projectors. In that format in it's simplest form projections can provide the opportunity to contextualize that information to define the space.

 It can be as simple as projecting the words 'noon,'

 Designation of time from  'columbinus'  2012

Designation of time from 'columbinus' 2012

to what can be defined as a scenic backdrop whether still or moving. The dynamics of which can be explored either in the defining of a space (ie the place itself) or the feeling of the space. Such as moving branches on a window, or scrolling images on a idle computer.

 Dead moving branches on voile windows in  'The Stone Witch'  2016

Dead moving branches on voile windows in 'The Stone Witch' 2016

 The Devil's Ball in ' The Master and Margarita '   2014                                                                                                                                                     

The Devil's Ball in 'The Master and Margarita'   2014                                                                                                                                                     

 Faustus after the deal is finished, with idle computers in the background  'The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus'  2015

Faustus after the deal is finished, with idle computers in the background 'The Life and Death of Doctor Faustus' 2015

In short contextual projections simply places the character and audience with the world defining time and place. Defining the space is an expensive enterprise to invest in when dealing with projections, as the first priority of this path of representation is believably. More plainly, does this world mesh with the world of the play that has been also defined by the scenery, costumes as well as the other design elements. Does it communicate the dimensions of the space, does it shift with the rhythms of the text, can it disappear are all questions that must be take into consideration, is equipment powerful/sofisticaed enough to acheive these things. In one sense it can be defined partially as a realistic rendering of a fictitious reality on stage. In another way it is a great way to set up an expectation from the audience providing the illusion of expectation to the surprise of a change to that same space.