Technological Theatrics: The Scenographics Course at NMSU

At the Theatre Arts Scene Shop, where future theatre productions are being realized as others rest and wait to be reused and maybe reborn, I met Jim Billings, coordinator and set designer in the Theatre Arts Department at New Mexico State University. The theatre magic that we have come to discuss today is, at its most basic, set design.

Billings was the recipient of the Ralph B. Crouch Memorial Award in 2002. The award is named in honor of Ralph B. Crouch, a former head of the university’s mathematics department and former associate dean of the graduate school. It is given each year to a current and former New Mexico State employee who has made an outstanding contribution to the university community.

Image of ...Jim Billings in the Computer Scenographics classroom.

Billings passes on his experience and expertise in theatrical stage and scenery design in the computer scenographic courses he teaches at NMSU. Billings explains that what a theatre set designer does, and what his students learn to do, is interior space design. But before the students are able to design entire sets, they first learn basic computer design through many small projects, “One project I have them do, which is more of a design project than anything, is to have them design a chess-set that tells us something about them. I have had people design chess sets out of teddy bears, deserts, and all kinds of stuff. “

In the computer scenographic courses, Billings teaches the students to use Vector Works, a CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) program, and Cinema 4D, a commercial 3-D graphics application that provides high quality images. Though Billings still uses paper and pencil to begin his designs, and encourages his students to learn to draw and sketch, he says that most of the production done today is digitally rendered, “What I used to do was sketches – for the director, the other designers, and the people involved in the show – so that everyone has an idea of what the set is supposed to look like. Now, majority of the sets are computer generated. Its easy to do because I still start out with pencil and paper, and then as I firm-up the idea I will draft the pieces using a CAD program, and then I make a model…then I can verify that all the pieces actually do fit together, and can show the folks in the shop different stages of assembly.”

The computer generated blue-prints and diagrams made on the CAD program, Vector Works, go far beyond basic rendering of set pieces when manipulated through Cinema 4D, allowing the designer to light and shade the set as well, “I can try different lighting effects because I know the properties of the lighting instruments I use in the theatre, and so I can duplicate that on the computer,” Billlings’ says. This is also part of the skills taught to the students in the scenographic courses.

Though Billings’ course is offered as a theater course students from all majors who are interested in this type of design have attended. Billings says that he has had students take the course in degrees ranging from engineering to communications, though majority of students taking the course are theatre majors, “I have been teaching the class for about six years, and it is always a very small class. I teach a basic scenographic course every year and an advanced class about every other year…which I will be teaching this fall.”

In the advanced course the students continue on from the small design projects attempted in the beginning class, like the chess-board, to intricate lighting and texturing projects.

Image of ...A view of scenary used in and created for NMSU’s theatre.

Billings explains that “In the advanced class the students move from small design projects to large projects – for instance, their first project is to take the model of the Holy Ghost set, which has all the texturing information and lighting removed, and use the given geometry to recreate the textures and lighting. It is a warm up for the real thing.” Though the theatre department does not currently offer a major for students particularly taken with this aspect of performance, Billings’ says that it is in the works.

The main classroom used in teaching scenographics is found in the rafters of the Theatre Arts Scene Shop, snugly situated with half-a-dozen or so Mac computers donated by ICT. Though Billings, a self-proclaimed Mac-evangelist, says he has used the Mac lab in Jacobs Hall, much to the cheers of his students, he does not use it often because they do not have the Cinema 4D software that he prefers to use to teach the students. However, he does like to use that lab to “teach students how to research to find textures, and how to use Photoshop to manipulate those textures,” Billings says.

Time and time again the magic behind some the most entertaining spectacles is not magic at all, but rather well laid plans aided by technology. Set design is no exception, adding another to the growing list of spaces where artistic expression  meets the technological age. Billings and the theatre department are aware of this cooperation between technology and the arts, and are preparing their students for the job market and a world by adding the computer design aspect to their layered education.

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