Have you ever been given a project that sounded exciting, but quickly realized that bringing it to life was going to be a challenge? All of that excitement quickly turns into feelings of being in over your head, especially when the trusty Google search fails to bring up a suitable Instructables.com webpage. At PC3, my business card says I’m the lighting coordinator, but more frequently, I’m anything but that: I’m a carpenter, a woodworker, and electrician, a designer, and even sometimes an engineer or an architect. In the past year, I’ve run head-on into projects with which I have no experience, from making 10-foot long farm tables, to concepting and producing portable displays for Overflow merchandise and books. And I’ve learned a ton from making many many mistakes. So how do you start not just a new project, but a project whose process is utterly unfamiliar? I’m no expert, but I can walk you through what works for me.
Dream Before Designing
It all begins with a pencil and two blank sheets of paper. One sheet is for doodling, dreaming, and drawing out the rough sketches, while the other one holds whatever your best guess is for a final blueprint. I do this even when I’m starting a project that doesn’t have a physical product at its end. When the staff was asked to reevaluate our roles here at PC3, we were asked to come up with four to seven things we could personally work on that would further and enrich our ministries. I started with a pencil and two pieces of paper. One sheet held around 25 ideas that I refined down to a solid four. I went through the same process when I helped the Worship Service Programming team set our goals for this year. It all begins - for me, anyway - with a pencil and two blank sheets of paper.
Live In Lists
I’m very goal-oriented, and lists help me to remain on task while also giving me a way to celebrate little victories along the way to a completed project. So after I have a plan to work by, I create steps to work toward. I live my everyday life with a bunch of lists. They keep me sane. They break the big, seemingly-unaccomplishable things up into smaller, “Man, I got this!” bites. Also, as an added bonus, you get to check things off, and who doesn’t like that? When I know I’m going to have a busy week, I make a task list. When I’m going on a trip, I make a packing list. When I have two weeks to produce four stands for coffee carafes for the Host Team staff, I make a list. And everything goes on the list, not just the largest items. Too many times, I’ve gotten big projects done, and forgotten to do a small thing (like send out the volunteer schedule for the month which starts in… well, tomorrow). And it’s not just work. Too many times, I’ve unpacked my suitcase and forgotten to pack socks. I mean, just way too many. It’s embarrassing. But hey, new socks!
Prepare For Battle
Big projects take a long time, but they often take longer than necessary when you’re heading to Home Depot for an hour or two every day. I try to take the time to prep my materials, and I’ve learned that if I think I’ll be fine with three cans of matte black spray paint, I’m going to actually need 5. Buy an extra dozen screws. Get that 10’ board instead of the 8’ board, because the ends are never squared. Do you think you can get the project done in a couple of days? Tell everyone it’ll take a week. It’s better to overdeliver on time that deliver a product that you’d wished you had an extra day to refine one more fine detail. What about when the project you’ve taken on doesn’t have a physical product at its completion? What if, like me, you’ve been asked to help plan a treasure hunt for three little girls on your family vacation to the Outer Banks? The same principles applied. I ordered lexan jewels and little metal coins from Amazon two weeks in advance, and I ordered enough that no one would fight over who got which color. I made sure the cheap wooden box I bought was sealed enough that three feet of sand wouldn’t come through the lid and ruin the whole thing. And I was prepared enough that I didn’t forget to pack a shovel.
Itty Bitty Aggravations
I think everyone has heard the phrase “The devil is in the details.” Your project isn’t actually plagued by Lucifer (At least I don’t think it is….), but the saying is pretty accurate. Small things can make and break a project. When we build a new set, we’re always focussed on the main structures because they’re the most visually apparent. They’re what the audience will see first, and the most often, but in a month? They’re going to notice the things we didn’t think about on hour 53 of set build week. Did I make sure the EPIX mapping stretched all the way to the edge of the fixtures, or will there be a dead pixel on the extremes? The drums are lit really well, but when that bass player steps backward, is he going to be just a floating, glowing, head? Is the center of the set the same center for the whole stage? If you’ve done the previous things - made a list, designed well, and prepped as best you can - then you’ll have both the time and the energy to notice and address the small issues before anyone else notices them.
Too often, I’ve made a mistake and been quick to brush it off, trying to forget it and move on. While that sounds pretty productive, it can be detrimental. I’ve also gone on and made the same mistake 20 minutes later because I didn’t pause to reevaluate how I made the mistake in the first place. Mistakes teach us. They help us grow. When we’re doing something new, mistakes help us streamline and refine our process. I used to hate mistakes, but I’ve come to learn that mistakes can often be fixed or erased, but without having made them, I wouldn’t learn as much about the thing I’m trying to produce. I’m not saying that anyone should ever try to make mistakes; rather, when you do make them - and you will - learn to appreciate them as part of the process. Think of your finished project as a note to your growing experience, signed by your mistakes. In the end, what you’re really building are the techniques you’re learning.
Lighting Engineer, Wilmington Campus