This adventure started on January 17 when I stepped off the plane in Miami to inspect the gear for the largest all-gay cruise in history, the Atlantis Liberty Cruise in the Caribbean aboard the largest cruise ship in the world. I picked up a rental car and drove out to Paradigm lighting in Ft. Lauderdale with my partner, Robert Montenegro. He is now in charge of all visuals projection and video content, and assists me with the lighting of events as well. We finally met up with John Finen, our production manager, after we all missed the same turns twice, and went into the shop.
We love working with Paradigm, since they have great gear, it's always in shape, and have a great team keeping their clients happy. They are a medium sized local shop, and their prices are reasonable. They also do their own trucking, which adds an extra level of insurance to the whole gig for us. With our tight window of operation, I don't want to ever hear ‘The trucking company messed up' as an excuse for why my gear did not arrive.
My design required 32 Robe 1200 CS Profiles, 110 CK [Philips] Color Blasts, 10 CK Color Splashes, six fog machines, 180 ft of truss, and the existing LED lighting on the ship, all run by a Grand MA. Robert's video rig was a pair of 16ft square Soft LED scrims and an Arkaos video mixing system. The rig all came together well, but the ship's electrical staff threw a wrench in our gears.
We like to be well prepared. I made sure we had 100 amps of 440V three phase power which I stepped down to 208/120 V with a transformer. I asked for 100 amps per leg to be safe, which the ship's electrician promised we would have. What he did was send me a feed of 440v power, attached to a 100 amp breaker, which they dialed down to trip at 52 amps. It was running through 16mm cable, and the chief of the department explained that the wiring was too small gauge to withstand the amperage. He didn't seem to understand that 100 amps was what I needed, and 52 was insufficient. I ended up splitting the power distro into two and running off separate feeds, then running two Robe lights off 240 V ship's power and setting the ballasts to accommodate it.
Something like that always happens on a ship. The staff is accustomed to working on a certain track. The luggage handlers have the run of the ship's stevedores and elevators on the first and last day. The electrician's job is to keep the ship running as it was designed to do, and no more. The tech staff and lounge techs do no load-ins or much programming or even maintenance. They often just run the same shows over and over on prerecorded music every week. Safety officers keep order with retired cruisers, and the customs officials and Homeland Security look at palettes of food and drink, and check luggage. In the meantime, the crew come from about 50 different countries all possessing their own languages, customs, and cultures.
We come in with two semis of foreign gear, carnets, documentation, all our own specialists, a small local crew of lighting and sound guys, and exactly what we need to build a spectacular open-air nightclub on the pool deck with not a cable, adaptor, or piece of rigging missing and no excess gear. We have video, lasers, a massive sound system of 16 stacks, in addition to my light show. When we have left the dock, if anything is missing, we have to build it, improvise, or risk having no show at all for the cruise. And that has never happened.
What it takes to make it all work is to run our department as much as possible like part of the ship, and walk a fine line with all the other parties and agencies involved. I have to know their track in order to ease them off of it and help us get what we need done. I also have to help them get their respective jobs done, their luggage loaded, and their shows rehearsed, and their ship secure while they help me. While on board, I am an officer of the ship as far as they are concerned, and I have to conduct myself like part of their team, and the head of my own. It requires mutual respect, patience, calm leadership and teamwork.
It takes about five hours for the gear and our crew to make it through customs and port security in Miami every single time. Miami is about as bad as a port gets, as far as security goes. You know how they check your luggage at an airport for potentially exploding shampoo? Imagine that sort of treatment with a semi truck of lighting. The rules change by the port, by the week, and sometimes by the hour, based on the whim of whatever Homeland Security officer happens to be having a bad day that day. On this trip, a new officer was being trained, so all 47 cases were laid out in rows on the dock and completely dismantled, dog sniffed, explosive tested, and checked against their manifests before being allowed on board. The ship also came in ‘code red,' which meant that 5% or more of the passenger felt a bit under the weather, so the entire ship was cleared and then scoured with antiseptic before we were allowed to board. That pushed our load-in back to about noon, which is a bad sign, since we had to get the local crew off the ship by four o'clock so the ship could sail. We worked until about 8pm to get the gear up, then finished the job the next day for several hours to get it tested, addressed, and programmed for the first deck party.
Once all the road cases were stowed, and I had snorkeled Jacques Cousteau-style in all the pools to install the Colorsplashes, and the riggers hung from the huge ‘wing' and rigged the LED screens, we were ready for the first big blow out. The Mardi Gras party is a DJed affair, and we think of it as the first rehearsal and ring-out. The equipment that is all at least 95% functional at the outset is usually limping along midway through, and I spend a lot of time tinkering with it to find cables that got kicked out by passengers dancing on them, or dip switches kicked into new settings, or underwater fixtures that leaked, or cables that simply got wound around something in the wind and connectors jerked off. I usually wait until something really annoys me, as I like to stay at the board and run the lighting myself, keeping with the dynamics of the music. The crowd is really connoisseurs of lighting, and get into the effects. The party runs from 11pm to about 6am, and it's not the longest night for us by far.
We do four almost consecutive nights of these deck parties, culminating in the White Party, which goes til past sun-up. My night off is spent Deejaying a six hour party of my own of all 80's music in another venue of the ship. The final day, strike starts at 10am, and with the help of all the ship's crew and my production manager, we are usually boxed up in 4-5 hours. The most impressive (and expensive) nightclub at sea is re-converted back to a pool deck and powerwashed for the next cruise of loungers, and the exhausted crew shuffle off to airports and hotels to pass out for several much needed recovery days.