LITITZ, Pa. – It was the ultimate “reality show,” the real thing all the way through: real people, real building facades, real programs. Teachers and students with no scripts or coaching from the sidelines – just going about their daily routines as they normally do. It was virtual. It was real. It brought home the mission of the Robin Hood Foundation which fights poverty in the boroughs of New York City.
This was the Foundation's annual gala held at New York's Jacob Javits Center in May. By all accounts, it was a banner event for the Foundation that has helped the City's impoverished since 1988. For the first time in the gala's ten year history, donors and patrons could virtually walk through the neighborhoods they benefit and experience the growth and well-being of those they help.
The virtual reality setting for the gala's cocktail reception was the brainchild of Robin Hood Foundation managing director of events, Jim Samalis, and designer Peter Crawford. “We wanted to present a snapshot of a neighborhood funded by the Foundation so that benefactors could visit actual program sites and see people being helped,” explains Crawford. “Using file video footage, very tight schematics and production logistics, we were able to visually peel away building exteriors and show the programs inside.”
While Crawford was new to the Robin Hood gala production team, he was supported by a stable of event veterans: Live Nation Special Events (LNSE), gala producer; Doug “Spike” Brant, lighting design; Atomic Design, scenic and stage lighting. Another newcomer to the team was Alex Coletti Productions, producer and director of live performances which included Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Fallon, a surprise appearance by Sting, and emcee NBC News anchorman Brian Williams.
The team directive from Samalis was to create a purpose-driven environment showing real people benefitting from Robin Hood programs in an entertaining, yet motivating, manner. With the aid of Google Earth maps and precise video projection by Scharff Weisberg on building skins, the Javits Center was transformed into a virtual, reality-based neighborhood that teaches, heals, feeds, nurtures, trains, and shelters residents in need. At the cocktail reception entrance, a gigantic Google Earth map pinpointed locations of all 200 Robin Hood programs. Guests entered through a tunnel which took a deep dive into a Google Earth neighborhood where they could walk through a replica streetscape of actual buildings. Tight mapping of video projection onto the building facades created the effect of walking down a real street where guests observed actual Foundation programs in action through the windows.
For example, students in one program could be seen studying through the windows of a 22x42-foot three dimensional replica of the Excellence Charter School in Brooklyn's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood. Nearby a 5-story apartment shell yielded to an inside view of the Foundation's sheltering programs. All buildings, framed by a cityscape backdrop, provided glimpses into the real life worlds and people benefitted by the Foundation.
“This was an incredibly ambitious concept,” says Samalis. “When Peter Crawford and I first came up with the idea, we were cautiously optimistic that it could work. It was a wonderful expression of Robin Hood programs in action. To see it come out spot on was thrilling!”
The biggest challenge, explains designer Crawford, was to find new ways to express services provided by the Foundation. “The logistics necessary to make real buildings that were recognizable, credible, and alive were unbelievable. The precise scale of the buildings fabricated by Atomic Design was key to making this work. We couldn't have done it without them.”
The overall challenge was bigger than representing the character of each building and the snapshot of a veritable neighborhood. Windows, doors, and architectural features of each replica had to fall in line with the exact spot where video would be projected. In addition to designing and constructing the facades, Atomic assembled them in its Lititz, Pa., studio where images were mapped to buildings prior to the day of the event.
“It's important to note what Atomic brought to the table,” says Crawford. “They did not just provide scenery. They also brought an attitude of collaboration and a commitment to what we were trying to do. When we got to the event, the production was flawless. Atomic nailed it!”
Event producer, Dan Parise, LNSE vice president of special events, explains the enormous size of the Javits Center and the 24-hour turnaround time created challenges to be sure. “Everything had to fit like pieces of a puzzle. The coordination of many individuals and specialties was flawless. It was a fantastic event!”
Realizing that pre-preparation was critical, Atomic Lighting delivered stage lights already mounted in trusses. This saved precious time and coordination on-site.
Alex Coletti, who worked closely with Parise to develop creative run of the show, says the sheer magnitude of simultaneously directing live performances and a catered event for 3,600 people demanded the ultimate precision. “We had to make sure that everyone stayed connected with the program each step of the way.”
Crawford credits the professionalism of those involved for the event's unprecedented outcome. “This was a marvelous team overall. It's one thing to do your job. It's another to have a positive commitment to make the project the best possible. Everyone approached this project with a commitment to its success.”
While the event generated a record-breaking $87.8 million in donations, Crawford adds the moment that brought it home for him came from a woman who, with the Robin Hood Foundation, had rescued a rat-infested burnt-out shell of a building and turned it into one of the best performing schools in the city. “When she saw our replica of the Excellence School where students now thrive, tears welled in her eyes. Her emotional reaction was so powerful for me. It showed how much we had connected with her and others through our virtual representation of the changes in their lives.”