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The Reality Triangle: Time

Part One of Three

Perhaps you’ve heard of, or seen, the so-called “reality triangle”, wherein three fundamental restrictions on the final outcome of any endeavor are laid forth. Good, fast, and cheap are the most-commonly encountered, and though I’ve seen various incarnations crop up over the years, the general concept has remained stable over time. The basic idea is simple enough to grasp: time to execution, the quality of the finished product, and the cost involved are three immutable aspects of any project that can change in ratio but are predestined to add up to one. In this first of three posts, we’ll examine the triangle as it relates to time.

Once as a lonely security guard (yes, really, ask me about if you meet me) I chanced to read Faster by James Gliek. Fun run, a bit pop-y, but whatever. I found the discussions of time fascinating, well…at the time. One of the phrases that remained with me long after I finished the book went something like this: “We cannot save time, because time is not something we ever had. It’s what you live in. We can swim in its currents, or let it carry us along.” I found this, at the time, profound, and I think perhaps I still do, and I think it would behoove many higher-ups in the production industry to consider the relationship of time to costs, and moreso, quality.

I finished, recently, a short outing with a band whose music I really like. This is always doubly fun for those of us who work in the industry; often we don’t get a choice as to who we work with, we take the gigs as they come. While I didn’t design the show, I did have the privilege of being the touring LD. Being the touring LD comes with its own set of challenges, as any touring LD will tell you. You have to contend with the Rig Of The Day, cloning things over in a coherent and non-stupid way, and dealing with any changes on the road.

Of the challenges on the last day of tour was that this was to be a show that was streamed live, and therefore included production elements that we didn’t normally use: cameras. IMAG is is a fun way to add excitement and movement to any show, but it does need to be considered before using it. Cameras are tricky beasts, particularly in live situations and particularly as most of the lighting technology has transitioned to LED. Centuries of Hollywood productions being lit with incandescent and shot on physical film generates a sort of technological current; an undertow, if you will, pulling development of sensors toward a certain spectral favoritism. Colored light, especially narrow-bandwidth colored light, can be difficult to expose and shoot for without crushing detail.

This is (more or less easily) correctable, if you’re programming a show with the use of IMAG in mind. But if you’re not, well, those dark saturates look really great in the room. Lighting designers lurrrrve their Congo blues and deep primary reds, at least as how the human eye renders them for our brain-canvas. Programming for IMAG, a talented LD will likely strike a more cautionary pose with regard to where you point those saturates, keep your talent lit with skin-pleasing peaches and creams and beiges. This is the sort of thing that takes, well…time: time to consider which tints and hues look best, which colors don’t blow out on camera, and balancing levels on talent and scenery by sitting and looking at a camera feed of the stage – hopefully the actual cameras you’ll be using – and making sure things look good.

You might see where this is leading. While we had very talented camera operators and top-notch engineers at control, the show was programmed to look a certain way, and while I did my level best to use what time I had to add in extra audience lighting and ride the levels on my lead singers and talent throughout the night, at times a way-too-bright beam would hit somewhere I didn’t want it to, or the lights would go deep blue and suddenly all the detail is crushed. Would most of the people in the audience have noticed? Probably not. But I noticed, and the lack of perfection bothered me.

This interplay between quality and time cannot be overstated, and while many will point to the triangle and say “You can just money your way out of a lack of time” this is not always the case given the physical constraints of Euclidean space and the limitations of our fleshy brains. Scenic pieces can be constructed faster with the addition of more workers, to a point, past which human beings start bumping uncomfortably into each other. It’s conceivable that there could be multiple programmers working on a song, but there will come a (very fast) point of diminishing returns, and costs will go through the roof. Time is an indispensable ingredient in quality.

Allow another example from the world of drafting. For those playing the home game, drafting in a program like Vectorworks, especially for larger shows, can turn into a surprisingly painstaking process. Vectorworks being an especially user-hostile program¹, things can sometimes take more time than is necessary, but even if this were not the case, creating complex 3D geometry, considering lighting angles, and laying out extremely complicated rigging systems is not something that can be hurried. Considering 3D placement of objects on a 2D screen is difficult work – will this hit that? How much weight is on this point? The client wants to add a B-stage here, is that possible? And this would not necessarily be made faster or better with the addition of increased skill or additional money. Sometimes, time really is the secret ingredient; indeed, the only ingredient that matters, and no amount of wishing it were not so will change that.

1Fulfilling my obligatory calling-out-Vectorworks-for-being-horrible quota

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