Probably the first thing to clear up on the performer flight systems for Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark is this: Spider-Man can't actually fly. "Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man refers to himself as a â€˜webslinger,' which is not the same as flying—he can jump very high and very far, and he can swing on a web line from location to location, but unlike a lot of other superheroes (and supervillians, for that matter) he does not possess the power of flight," says Scott Fisher, principal of Fisher Technical Services (FTSI) of Las Vegas, NV, who were contacted to provide the performer flight systems for the show.
Fisher notes that uber-nerdy conversations like this filled the conference rooms in the early planning stages for Spider-Man, as a core group of theater professionals all got their geek on and immersed themselves in the world of Spider-Man. "One thing that was clear from the start was that the performer flights and stunts were going to be the centerpieces of the show, so having a very strong technical team for this would prove to be crucial," he says.
Based on their experience with very high-performance performer flight systems, their experience with the Spider-Man franchise (through automating the movie stunt work on both Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3), and their experience in putting large scale, complex flight systems over audiences (Disney's Aladdin and Phantom in Las Vegas), Fisher subsequently put the production in touch with Scott Rogers, the stunt coordinator for the Spider-Man movies, and with the addition of Jaque Paquin for harness systems and technical coordination, the show flight team was in place. Rogers is a genius in understanding and designing flights and stunt wire work around the capabilities of high speed cable winches, and his skills and insights were a key factor in making the flights both spectacular and do-able for the cast on a regular basis. Paquin is a veteran of Cirque du Soleil, providing them with their core technologies for acrobatic rigging and safety, and his experience with harness systems, wire coordination, and the capabilities and needs of the performers were crucial to the overall success.
FTSI already possessed most of the technology necessary to achieve the stunt performances envisioned for the show, as they'd been providing similar effects at similar speeds for motion picture stunts for quite some time. The show utilizes flight speeds of up to 35fps, which is well within the performance range of FTSI's high end performer flight devices. However, the tight confines of a Broadway theater posed several key challenges to overcome. The first was simply logistic in nature: How do you deploy equipment in sufficient quantities and performance ranges to cover the huge number of flight sequences and rig types used during the show, without running out of room for winches or overtaxing the show's budget? The answer to that, as in many areas of theatrical production, is “multi-tasking”. The high performance machinery provided for the show also came with a very high performance control system—FTSI's “Navigator” automation system. In its most capable iteration, the system is designed for very dynamic live productions, where safety, speed, flexibility, and programming power are paramount. The architecture and tool set of Navigator allows the programmer to re-task machinery on the fly to perform different roles during the show—in one number, a winch may be a simple single point pendulum, and in the very next, the same winch can be incorporated as part of a complex multi-winch 3D rig. With some clever rigging and coordination, a limited amount of machinery can be made to do an almost unlimited number of different flight rigs and sequences.