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Behind-the-Scenes at Toyota’s Glitzy Press Event

The video wall dominates Toyota’s black-curtained room at the Auto Show. All photos courtesy of: George P. Johnson Company and Creative Technology.

Welcome to the Auto Show.

Officially, it's called the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), and it happens every January in downtown Detroit's Cobo Center. It's one part media circus, one part car show — the grandest of the entire auto show circuit (the other major shows are in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago), and the only international auto show in the U.S. Several thousand journalists spend four days attending press events (while eating shrimp, sipping latte, and scooping up freebies) before the public portion of the show even begins.

There are dozens of press events to introduce vehicles — some are elaborate extravaganzas, while others are more straightforward. They take place inside a large, black-curtained room in the public booth or in a corporate theater created in the public space. The theme of these events: “The cars are the stars.”

Once the press days are over, the show transforms almost overnight and opens to the general public. In the corporate theaters, a show usually runs throughout the day, and in the booths that used to be black-draped theaters, the curtains come down and the area is transformed into a completely different space that will soon be filled with the manufacturers' newest models.

Unlike other publications, SRO didn't attend to cover the cars. Two high profile Toyota press events took place at the start of the show: the Sienna minivan introduction and the Toyota corporate event, which highlights the latest concept cars from Japan.

The George P. Johnson Company of Auburn Hills, Mich., a major player on the auto show circuit, served as the overall press event/public booth producer for Toyota this year. Press event producer/stage manager Robert Kalfin, project manager Josh Anderson of Creative Technology's Schiller Park, Ill. office, audio engineer Thom Morgan of Sine Wave Audio (a division of Creative Technology), TiMax sound device operator/systems designer Tom Miller, also of Sine Wave Audio, and Myrle Burch, IATSE Local 38 Steward served as SRO's tour guides for the press events.


Inside the enormous black-draped room, there's gear — lots of gear. It's a show inside a show, since we're nestled in the middle of the Toyota public booth. Once this equipment comes down, the public booth emerges (workers started building it in October). The 24ft. black drapes are almost monolithic, and when you duck inside the darkened room, your eyes see one thing: a huge video wall. More precisely, a Barco Ilite 6mm LED that dominates the upstage area.

“I believe that it's the largest single wall of LED running in the show right now,” Anderson says. “It's 180 panels total, 10 panels high by 18 panels wide.” This translates into 14.7'×26.47' — an impressive wall at any show. The reason for choosing the Barco I6 lies in the LED units themselves. “The I6 has a tighter pattern on the LED,” he explains. “There's six millimeters between the LEDs, and consequently, the resolution is better [the total LED pixel resolution is 1296×702].”

The booth's video world, bursting at the seams with gear, is nestled upstage of the tech riser at what could be called the equivalent of front of house. “We're using one of our Masterswitch systems — it's a Grass Valley 100, with all the appropriate odds and ends,” Anderson says.

The Masterswitch system is a component system put together by Creative Technology to fit a variety of different types of events: The system in use at Cobo Hall is their Masterswitch 2.

“For what we were doing for the content they wanted, it was just a matter of putting the right system with what they were asking us to do,” says Anderson. Along with the Masterswitch system, the booth includes a Grass Valley 100CV production switcher, a 20×10 component video router, monitor racks, an engineering rack, a timecode rack, and a transcode rack. All of it glows eerily in the darkness behind the tech riser.

Tempest’s virtual magic show featured four performers wearing “video heads,” as well as Tempest himself flying a ball of light around the room.

And that's just a smattering of the video equipment. Feeding the wall is a Vista ScreenMaster II-1608, with two Folsom VFC2200 DE video format converters. The Vista was added for its high-resolution output, to keep all graphics at their native resolution, as well as to create a picture-in-picture effect for the booth's reveals.

“There was a point in time where they wanted to do multiple picture-in-picture,” Anderson confides. “Then they decided we'd do a single PIP, so we all had to get together ahead of time and sort the issue out,” he adds. The issue involved the smooth transition of the PIP with the rest of the onscreen content. However, since the video team finally decided to use a single PIP, rather than multiples, that potential technical hurdle of creating smooth onscreen transitions between multiple PIP images and the graphics became a non-issue.

One of the most — literally — magical parts of the show involved four performers wearing “video heads” that were part of the Marco Tempest virtual magic performance during the Sienna introductory event. Actors wore video monitors playing recorded video content on their heads — the same video content playing on the LED wall. Feeding this material to the video heads and the wall simultaneously were three Omega Fast Forward units. The Fast Forward is a multi-channel audio and video hard-drive system.

“Usually we only use one Fast Forward, and then keep an additional one as a backup, since you're usually feeding only a center screen,” says Anderson. “Having this many feeds isn't typical.”

But why the Fast Forward instead of the Doremi? Anderson says the decision was made based on the unit's number of outputs. “The Doremi is only a single-channel output, so with what we're doing with the Fast Forwards, I'd need six Doremi units,” he explains. With a giant video wall and the four video heads to feed, Anderson said the crew needed five channel capability.

To complete the visual portion of the event, Creative Technology used a pair of Sony DXC-D35 cameras (trained solely on the corporate executive during the presentation), and a lighting package supplied by Tobins Lake Studios of Brighton, Mich.


The booth's audio setup sits on the right side of the tech riser, and the sheer amount of gear is reminiscent of a rock concert. In fact, Miller calls it, with some justification, “corporate rock 'n' roll.”

By far, the coolest piece of audio gear on board for the Sienna press event is the TiMax ImageMaker 16. TiMax, according to Miller, is “a virtual surround sound creation device.”

“Surround sound is becoming more standard in the corporate world,” Anderson adds. In fact, there are other TiMax units at various booths around the Auto Show, although this is the first time that Toyota has incorporated it. Miller, who worked with Sine Wave's TiMax systems designer Steve Rogers on the project, raves about TiMax, a tool that was originally created to direct sound on Broadway shows.

“It's kind of operated like a lighting console,” Miller explains. “It's cue oriented, and it can be automated via triggers, like timecode.”

Morgan adds, “TiMax doesn't create things. It actually controls the placement of audio effects.”

At the press event, the audio team used the TiMax system to make a swooshing sound (created by Morgan onsite on the 360 Systems Short/cut Editor) to accompany a glowing orb that's integral to the Tempest performance. Working alongside the TiMax unit was a Soundcraft Spirit 324 32-channel console, or as the audio crew called it, “the 324.”

“It's a digital console that we're applying as a way to activate and deactivate TiMax,” Miller explains.

But that's hardly the end of the console story inside the booth. The workhorse is the Innovason Sensory Grand Live digital audio console, another imposing multichannel board. “The Innovason is a 42-channel, all-digital board — we can route it any number of ways, once again, comparable to a lighting board,” Morgan explains, his arm sweeping toward the huge rock 'n' roll board. “I can set up three different shows on it as files.”

The Toyota Sienna minivan reveal was a high profile press event featuring a Barco Ilite 6mm LED, the largest single wall of LED that ran in the show.

Morgan, in fact, did set up three different shows on the board during the convention — the Toyota Sienna event, the Toyota Corporate event, and an event for Lexus, a Toyota subsidiary.

On the processing end of the equation, Morgan and Miller used a dbx 480 DriveRack System. “We're actually pretty stripped down because a lot of the processing happens at the Innovason,” Miller says. “The stuff you would need outboard for is already in the console.”

So what's in the drive rack then? Quite a bit, as it turns out, despite its stripped down description.

“The drive rack system can EQ, it can set delay times for speakers, it can add compression and gain control as well,” Morgan explains. “It's an effects rack in a three-rack space. It's digital and it has a remote control, so you can wander around the room with the remote control and EQ with your laptop.”

In fact, a laptop is one of the essential pieces for the audio crew.

“We're really living out of our laptops now,” Morgan explains. “The laptop has really become the crux of our show. The XTA 226 controller for the PA, that's run by laptop and interfaces with the drive rack to save our EQ's, and we also use a SmaartLive system where we pink-noise [create sound with all frequencies reduced to an equal energy level] the room and pick up the delay times on our laptop.”

The Toyota Fine-S presentation shown on the Barco Ilite 6mm LED.

Morgan is serious for a moment, making it clear that the loss of a single laptop in this situation would be disastrous. “No ones goes near my laptop,” he says.

Rounding out the audio system is the PA itself, which consists of 22 EV X-Array speakers, including subwoofers, working in conjunction with 10 MacPherson Monolith speakers. “We're seeing the X-Array more and more at the auto show,” Morgan says. “We used the X-Array compact series, it's a very small box, they put out a lot of SPL, plus they're very clean and even. They're also very easy to handle — the rigging is easy and it's easy to EQ them.”

Indeed, it's clear from staring at the ceiling that the compact boxes are easy to handle and the ceiling doesn't appear to be filled with rigging points.

Why the Monoliths? “The Monoliths have a nice, wide splay, different than the X-Array, so they're used as our delay cabinets,” Miller explains. The Monoliths are also used in conjunction with TiMax to create the surround sound used for the magic portion of the Sienna event.

All that is but a tiny portion of the audio gear present at the event. Some of that gear is hardware — ClearCom, Crown amplifiers, a 360 Systems Short/cut Editor, and a multitude of Shure wireless microphones — while there is also software. Among them: the PC Anywhere remote network interface and the Shure UA 888/Wireless Workbench that the team is beta-testing at the show.

“[The Wireless Workbench] allows you to scan for wireless frequencies while you're not transmitting,” Miller explains. He points out that Cobo Hall, or any major convention hall in the midst of a big show, is a hostile world for wireless equipment. The Wireless Workbench, therefore, helped the audio team see what was happening around them in the wireless realm.

“Normally, you leave your transmitters on at all times, so everyone knows those are your frequencies,” he says. “With this, you can go the reverse route and see what people are doing, even when you're not transmitting.” Miller adds that the system worked well at the show, and at press time, it was expected to be released to the public shortly.


When I arrive at Cobo early Monday morning, Jeff Meyer, general manager of Creative Technology Chicago, escorts me to the Toyota booth, where journalists have already gathered, rapidly filling up the 500-odd seats. The riser for the photographers is filling up as well, and I study the faces of the crew around me. Everyone looks calm. Obviously, I didn't miss anything during the morning's rehearsals.

All of the Toyota events made extensive use of Picture in Picture technology.

Well, actually, I did. Anderson walks over to my perch on the tech riser, and casually mentions that they had to replace part of the video wall about an hour ago. Kalfin fills me in on the details. “There wasn't anything major wrong with the video wall, it was all in the pursuit of perfection,” he explains. “It may well have gone unnoticed.”

He says that early that morning, technicians noted that one of the panels wasn't quite right. Creative Technology sent Anderson over to take a look. “My LED tech noticed the problem, but he didn't know what anybody wanted to do about it,” says Anderson. “The panel wasn't calibrated — it was taking on a slightly different color variation.”

It was a color variation that few people outside of the technology team would ever notice, but since the world's press would shortly be staring at the LED wall, the video team decided to take action.

“Robert [Kalfin] did specifically ask me if there was anything we could do about it, and I told him we did have another panel and we could switch it out,” says Anderson. He promptly located the available panel and told Kalfin, who presented the solution to the George P. Johnson Company.

“Josh [Anderson], being the enthusiastic person that he is, said it would only take five minutes and guaranteed that it wouldn't be a problem,” says Kalfin. The panel was changed out in plenty of time before the event, but that wasn't the end to the excitement.

“We had to re-boot the LED processor four times,” Anderson adds, chuckling. In fact, some press members, in search of a prime spot for their cameras, started to wander into the darkened booth.

“Robert was standing behind me, we were watching it go from panel to panel, you can see in linking, and as the panels were going by, I could hear him muttering ‘go baby, go,’” Anderson says, chuckling again. The fourth time was a charm, though, and the LED wall linked up. Problem solved.

“My end thought was that the client was paying for this wall and the idea of the wall looking perfect was in everybody's mind, so to have a panel out that was starting to be noticed by my guys, I felt it was unacceptable,” Anderson says.

Of course, at such events, the big moment is always the unveiling of the vehicle — in this case, the Sienna minivan. This reveal involved the now picture-perfect video wall. “One of the challenges we had to deal with was the reveal,” Burch explains. “The video wall moves to reveal the Sienna, and the timing is critical.”

Kalfin knew it was the most important moment of the event. “If the sequence of buttons for the screen isn't pushed in the right order, it won't go up on the first push, it'll go up on the second push, and I'll have to adjust all of my cues accordingly,” Kalfin adds.

The remedy to this potential timing problem? Practice, and more practice.

The FJ Cruiser is revealed as the Barco Ilite is raised on cue.

“Everyone is expected to do it perfectly because that's what they're paid for, and that's the hardest, most challenging part,” Kalfin notes.

As I sit and watch in the darkness, the show seems different from when I saw it in rehearsals a few days ago. The four men wearing the video heads move as one, and the magic of Tempest appears (at least to me) to go flawlessly, although I'm later told about a rigging issue that came up during his performance. The TiMax also works perfectly, and the ball of light that Tempest flew around the room really sounds as if it's flying.

Then, the stage is dotted with headlights, the music comes on, the video wall goes up flawlessly, and the headlights of the Sienna appear out of the darkness.

Kalfin's conclusion as a stage manager and producer? “It was damn near a perfect show — the show it was supposed to be.”


After the wildly successful Sienna event, the focus switches to the corporate event, which will introduce three alternative fuel-source concept vehicles. Toyota Motor Sales, USA handled the Sienna event. The corporate event, however, was handled by the Toyota Motor Company and featured the president of Toyota, Fujio Cho. Same company, but two very different outlooks.

Graphics were an integral and ever-changing part of the Toyota Corporate Event.

While Kalfin and company had time to rehearse the Sienna event, there was no time to rehearse the corporate event until 9 p.m. Monday night, after the space that was used for the Sienna event became available. Instead of clearing equipment, Kalfin's team has to add gear, while the people from O2 Creative Solutions of Troy, Mich., grapple with an avalanche of graphics changes.

“The second show came down the line so late that we were still behind graphically and script-wise, but we were doing well, given the circumstances,” Kalfin reports.

The biggest challenge was adding the traveler track and the white curtains that would be the backdrop for this event. “The curtains weren't pre-fabricated,” Burch reveals, which means they take longer to hang.

“Between the stagehands and the carpenters from George P. Johnson, we had to customize them on site,” says Burch. “We had the carpenters literally bending the track as fast as we could put it up.”

The purpose of the curtains was to reveal two of the three concept cars and provide masking upstage. The third vehicle was revealed by the video wall.

The cars themselves also posed a challenge. Because of the size of the venue and the availability of the load docks, the cars took a bit longer to get to the booth than expected. “The dock was backed up, and it wasn't just about Toyota,” Kalfin explains. “We didn't get all three cars in until midnight,” he adds.

Therefore, it's a busy night for the crew. There are rehearsals, seemingly endless graphics changes, and around midnight, the stagehands remove the curtains upstage.

The Toyota video crew relied on a variety of gear to play video content on the LED wall and the Marco Tempest video heads. Among their equipment is a Grass Valley 100 Masterswitch system put together by Creative Technology.

“Half the time, we're still building the show onsite,” admits Morgan. “The corporate world is very different from your average road show where you strive to lock things in. In corporate, we create it, then we lock it down as fast as we can. Sometimes things take longer to lock down than expected, but that's part of the fun. I like the challenge — it's an adrenaline rush.”

For many on the crew, the evening ends around 2 a.m. Others, like the lighting crew and stagehands, never leave — they work through the night. Rehearsals for the event start at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, with corporate executives arriving around 8:30 a.m.

“There were a ton of changes,” Kalfin admits. “We had to add some cuing for the travelers, and more importantly, there were a bunch of graphic changes. The rehearsal ran long because the speeches ran long, so they ended up cutting a lot of our second presenter's speech.”

When any of the text changes, the graphics and the cues change as well. “It was something I really had to focus the crew in on, to make sure they were listening to me since we didn't have a rehearsal with the text changes,” Kalfin adds.

From a creative standpoint, though, this show was much easier on everyone. There was no TiMax and no magic, just corporate presenters, flying gobos, and three very cool concept vehicles. “There aren't as many technical challenges for us in the corporate event,” Burch admits. “But it came off very well and made the client very happy. It was a great team effort.”

As producer/stage manager for the press events, Kalfin left after the corporate event. Well, actually, he stuck around for lunch, celebrating a job well done before departing. “This production was a huge team effort, which was brought together by many individuals extending themselves to create an outstanding show,” Miller notes.

Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. She can be reached at [email protected]