ONCE WITHIN A TIME
Director Godfrey Reggio is best known for his landmark experiential film Koyaanisqatsi and its two companion pieces Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi. When he approached me, he was in the planning stages for a global theatrical performance that would reunite him with his Qatsi collaborator Philip Glass and, for the first time, with theater director Robert Wilson. He needed what he described to me as a “sacred object to produce what it signifies” that would help secure the initial funding for this project.
At our first meeting, Godfrey took me through the story. An opera in four acts, “Once Within A Time” is an anarchic comedy told without words, a sensory feast to be felt through art and music, and through the faces of the cast. The opera shows us life on Earth as we are caught between the five fundamental elements—earth, air, water, fire, and money—headed towards a critical moment of choice between annihilation and redemption.
He had already developed many of the key visuals, and had assembled them in a basic pitch document alongside the story. However, he now needed something more—a presentation tool that, by its nature, felt immediately impressive to people with the power to finance a major theatrical production. He needed the aforementioned “sacred object.”
A while back, I’d done the same for director Tarsem when he was presenting “The Fall” to potential distributors. Godfrey loved the large format I’d chosen then. We decided to take the same approach for “Once Within A Time.”
We were working on an ambitious schedule, and I immediately involved my colleagues at Typecraft to make sure that anything I designed could be produced in time and on budget. We looked at available papers and book cloths, and as we only needed a few copies of the book, we determined the optimal size to work on the digital press. Here are some of the initial cover designs. A few sample spreads from my initial presentation follow below.
Godfrey has a long-standing relationship with creative directors Jon Kane and Mara Campione at Optic Nerve in New York, and asked them to act as his consiglieres on this project. After we’d gone through the initial round of designs I flew to New York to discuss our direction with Jon and Mara. In terms of content, I’d stayed faithful to the pitch documents Godfrey had put together prior to connecting with me. In this stage, the book would take you through all the beats of the piece, illustrating key images and hinting at others in the text. The aesthetic was that of a modernist story book.
Sitting with Jon and Mara, we quickly agreed that this wasn’t the best way to introduce the project to investors. Godfrey’s materials went into great detail on the story and presentation of “Once Within A Time.” We all felt that this should be Step Two. Step One would be to properly introduce Godfrey and his collaborators.
Godfrey, Philip and Robert are all giants in their respective fields. Godfrey and Philip have collaborated many times, as have Philip and Robert (most notably on Einstein on the Beach), but this would be the first time all three had worked together on one project. We set out to present “Once Within A Time” as a chance for investors to back a once-in-a-lifetime coming together of three artistic pioneers. Once investors understood what a rare opportunity they had on their hands, Godfrey—a charismatic presence if ever I’ve met one—could come in and take them through the actual story in person.
This changed everything about the book. It was no longer an enhanced storyboard, but a story of three great artists combining forces. In the course of an intense brainstorming session, Jon suggested giving each of the three principals his own spotlight. We hit on the idea of producing three individual books bound together in a trifold hardcover. Each book would present one of the principals, and all three books together would create a larger experience. Jon and Mara immediately saw the potential, and together we fleshed out the best way to utilize the format in the weeks following our meeting. Jon made some wonderful mockups that helped to convince Godfrey and his producer, Lawrence Taub, to roll with the idea. Along the way, I worked with Typecraft to make sure we could deliver this new format within the bounds of the existing budget.
The three principals
On the same trip to New York, we also met with Philip Glass, and got his advice about how best to frame the project. Philip suggested that we stay away from the term “opera,” as this would be something else—not strictly an opera, not a concert, not a play. There would be elements of each, but no words would be spoken, no lyrics sung. The story was non-linear. All of this made the piece hard to explain, hard to define. This further cemented our conviction that the book should present the artists instead of the piece. Telling the story would have to happen in person.
Jon and Mara used their intimate knowledge of Godfrey’s work to gather representative frames from his films for the book, and Larry helped me get images from Philip and Robert’s archives. All of us worked together to shape the text, and Godfrey guided all of us on pacing the visual flow of the three books making one experience. Based on his vision, we retained one image I had created for the initial storybook version of the book—a black swan before a background of black storm clouds. The appearance of the black swan is a key image in the story of “Once Within a Time,” and spread out over all three books, it makes a big visual impact here.
The Black Swan spreads its wings
On the production side, we partnered with Roswell Bookbinding, who have bound most of my catalogs for L.A. Louver. We chose a lovely Brillianta book cloth to give investors an immediate feeling that they were holding something special in their hands. Each book within the book would be mounted vertically, and Singer-sewn with black thread for the same reason—to convey that this is something out of the ordinary!
Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass, and Robert Wilson with the finished book (Photos by James Hart and Optic Nerve)
Of course, at some point the piece had to present an “ask”—a concrete request for the investors. This ask would be different from person to person. To accommodate this need, we added a pouch on the last page of the center book, so that a customized sheet could be inserted. I designed a template for this insert, optimized for the team’s office printer, so that they could create documents on the fly whenever last minute meetings made it necessary.
It was an honor working with Godfrey and his team, and I’m grateful that they trusted me to present their wonderful project in such an ambitious format!
Another one of my projects that’s hard to show in one composition, but there you have it: