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Selective Focus: Daniel Benoit


If you were out and about during Homegrown 2018 and saw the giant chicken on the front of the Blacklist Beer / Solve Entertainment building, you’ve seen some of Daniel Benoit’s work. He pulls together design, video, animation, projections, and all kinds of technology to create immersive art. He tells about how he started working with this relatively new and experimental medium.

DB: I work in multiple digital mediums, but lately my focus has been projection design for theatre and immersive design for escape rooms. The path to getting here has been long and winding. The short version is that my love of filmmaking, theatre, and graphic design all happened to converge in 2012 when I created projections for my friend Davey T Steinman’s play Bagman at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. Davey introduced me to the software I still use today, Isadora, and that was it, I was hooked.

Interactive experiment using the Kinect, Isadora, and NI Mate.

Isadora was created by Troika Ranch, a dance troupe that specializes in blending media and performance, and at its core is very different than most pieces of theatre software. It’s built around the concept of interactivity and its open ended design opened the doors of my imagination to a whole new world of responsive performance art. As my skill in the software grew, I began to realize that straight theatre was too limiting and I began looking for other outlets. I moved to Duluth in 2016 and soon after played one of Solve Entertainment’s escape rooms. I had an aha! moment about halfway through The Cabin and realized that the escape room industry was the perfect place to explore new ideas around interactivity and immersive design.

So now I bounce back and forth. I still work in theatre, since I love the collaborative process and creative challenges each show presents, while I continue to push my understanding of immersive design and interactive technology through Solve.

Daniel Benoit

The roots of my work today go back to my days in high school when I started making skateboard videos with my friends. I was also involved in a tech savvy youth group where I helped design slides and produce videos that were played during services on their triple projection setup. So by the time I graduated, I had already learned learned basic skills in video production and editing, graphic design, animation, and projection. I felt like I had already found the general direction I wanted to take my life, and figured out how to teach myself skills through tutorials on YouTube and other online learning resources, but I wasn’t sure exactly why I wanted to create so badly. I opted out of going to college and instead I built a makeshift camper in the bed of my 1987 Dodge Dakota and took off for the small ski town of Crested Butte Colorado to do some “soul searching.”

Outdoor projection mapping experiment with Audio Visual Resources at Blacklist Brewery for HGMF 2018

I expected to find a sleepy old town, where I’d spend the summer climbing mountains and living peacefully among the wildflowers and waterfalls. Boy was I in for a surprise. Instead I discovered a den of hedonistic adventure nuts, free spirited artists, hippies, ski bums, musicians, a real gypsy queen, a 300 year old immortal witch, and many other types of unique creatures one only finds at the end of the road. The eyes and mind of this well trained evangelical child fell in love with the free thinking and adventurous ways of the mountain folk and I ended up spending the better part of 6 years there. I started an experimental filmmaking group, acted in plays and musicals, and went on countless adventures. By the time I left, I was hungry to test my thoughts and skills in the real world.

A glimpse inside of Vanishing Act at Solve Entertainment.

Working with experimental technology and fringe practices means just about every step of every production carries the potential for unexpected challenges. For me, that’s part of the draw. I love solving technical challenges and coming up with unique ways to tell stories and engage audiences. The realization that you only need to be one step ahead of the audience in order for the experience to become “magic” is something I’m really inspired by.

A real sense of wonder is something I often find missing in modern life. We’ve figured out and explained away so much of what was once sacred and mysterious, and to be frank, I think that sucks. Playing with different elements of perception and discovering new and interesting ways to combine and configure them, reminding myself and others that we still have so much left to learn, that’s the ideal I work towards. Projection and immersive design are both mediums ripe for this type of exploration, and is probably why I’m so drawn to them.

Blowing my own mind at the Dudley Experimental Theatre with projections used in These Shining Lives

At the same time, in the theatre world, you don’t want the technology to “upstage” or draw attention away from the actors and the story. Being that projection is usually presented at a very large scale, this can be one of the most difficult aspects to design correctly. I often heavily lean on the director’s and set designer’s insight to help process this aspect. We have conversations around what part of the story is essential for projections to tell and how literal or abstract that information needs to be. This is also where I see escape rooms and immersive design sort of picking up where theatre left off. Without such a literal dedication to story, as a designer you’re allowed much greater space to play with the senses. The audience, in a way, is writing part of the story themselves. I just need to provide the imagination with a fertile space for that to happen. While escape rooms around the country are currently heavily focused on the “escape” aspect, there’s a smaller subsection that is discussing how and why we should move beyond it and are imagining what might be possible. Though I’m just a single designer in a much larger movement, I like knowing that I’m playing some small part in shaping that future.

Projection design from the world premiere of Le Switch at the Jungle Theatre in Minneapolis

Tallrocks.com is the online home of my portfolio. The escape rooms I’ve worked on are available to play at Solve Entertainment (above Blacklist Brewery) every day of the week except Mondays.

I’m currently working on projection design for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane with Wise Fool Theatre opening June 8th at Harbor City, Pinocchio opening June 23rd with the Playhouse on the depot stage, and The Treehouse escape room at Solve Entertainment opening June 28th.

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