Interview with Davy McGuire

Interview with Davy McGuire
January 15, 2013 Brett Jones

I recently had a chat with Davy McGuire (1/2 of the Davy & Kristin McGuire team). Davy and Kristin have thrilled the internet with their hauntingly beautiful combinations of projected light and paper models, The Icebook

Some new commissioned work, Courvoisier, that only expands on the awesomeness.

They have also adapted these ideas for live theater. They designed and directed a stage adaption of Howl’s Moving Castle for Southwark Playhouse in London. 


Check out their latest work “The Paper Architect” on sale now.


I had a chat with Davy in between their international tour of The Icebook.

Projection Mapping Central (PMC):

Walk me through your creative process, from conception to presentation.

Davy McGuire (DM):

The Ice Book started out with the models first. We try to make stories more than anything. The first thing we try to do is to map out the story; how we want it to be. Then we have a basic idea of what we want the scenes to look like. For the paper cut-outs, we did a back and forth process. Sometimes the models themselves look good but don’t look good with projection. Then we start layering in photos and video in After Effects. We do a lot of stuff in After Effects. When we take it into tour. We use MadMapper to move it around very slightly to fit.


How do you make the models?


The process is a real mix between digital design and manual construction techniques. The making of the model is one of the most laborious and time consuming parts of the process that takes extreme precision and concentration.

A lot of our work is single models. So we plan out how the action is going to take place and how we will lead the viewer through the scene.


What is the most difficult process of projection mapping?


Rendering. Because everything we do is in After Effects. We have to sit there and wait for the rendering. What we need is a real-time system with timelines.

Also, working with paper in that fine of detail is very, very fiddly. There is a lot of trial and error with how strong things can be. We are making things that are very, very small and the handcrafting of things can be quite difficult.


Tell me more about your experiences with Howl’s Moving Castle. How did you successfully incorporate projection into traditional theater?


During our stage production of Howl’s Moving Castle I learned a lot of things about using projections in the theatre. The setup was very interactive. The actor’s movements and gestures would often trigger projections to start. For example the actor walks out of a door on stage and walks back in again, as he does so the scene moves from an castle interior to an exterior forest. This was all done by a technician pressing buttons at the right time so the chemistry and interaction between the technician and the actor had to be very good. We had to find subtle ways for the actor to signal to the technician that they were about to do something that the audience wouldn’t be able to pick up on.

In reflection I think that the show itself relied far too heavily on the visual effects and tricks that we could create using projections that it did on the story and I think that the show as a whole suffered from this. The key to using projections in theatre is to know when and when not to let these elements take over. For example if you are playing moving images when there is an intimate moment on stage between two actors on stage the audience will generally draw their attention towards the images instead of the actors. Its perhaps a psychological thing that people do to avoid feeling uncomfortable with intimacy. If you’re not careful you can easily distract the audience away from what theatre is about which is an inherent live-ness that film cannot reproduce.


What advice would you give someone embarking on a show using projection?


Here are a few little bits of advice:

  1. Know when not to use projections and when to let the action on stage lead the audiences attention.
  2. Make sure your actors have a good feeling for projections, a good sense of timing and a good spatial awareness as they will need all of these skills in performance. Test this out with projections and actors in auditions.
  3. Make sure you can re create as much of the projections/stage setup as you can in rehearsals so that the actors get tight with the projections and don’t get too surprised when it gets to performance week.
  4. Make sure your technician is brilliant and can quickly react to cues, pressing buttons on time and make sure you can rehearse with them in as many rehearsals as possible.
  5. Try not to let tech stuff, set ups, problems, get in the way too much during rehearsals. Set up before the actors come in and don’t be to invasive to their process as they generally need feel comfortable and get into a rhythm in order to express themselves.
  6. Work as closely as possible with your lighting designer because there is always a compromise between lighting the stage and washing out the projections with stage lights.
  7. Dont use pretty pictures for the sake of it. I have seen some pieces in which projections have no purpose but to simply to make the play look nicer. I call these types of projections “screensavers”. Theres no point.
  8. Dont underestimate the audience’s imagination. Theatre goers as opposed to film goers are accustomed to using their imagination to fill in gaps that can’t be represented on stage, thats part of the stimulation of theatre. Don’t try to visually explain everything to them.
  9. Sometimes its best not to use projections at all. A lot of plays are beautiful in their simplicity and projections of any sort may actually serve to take some of this beauty away.
  10. Brecht once said something like: “Any element that doesn’t serve to further the narrative actually harms it”. Continually ask yourself “what is the purpose of this projection?”, “does it really help to tell the story, or would the story work without it?”.