Euro Bash

When I was invited to join the production of this year's Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) in Helsinki, I wasn't quite sure what that experience would bring. Upon arrival, I was in awe of the sheer amount of gear hanging from and tipping the scales of the load capacity of the Hartwall Arena roof. Picture a miniature metallic city growing out of the ceiling and encompassing the entire expanse of the 15,000-seat venue. The final load weighed in at just less than 100 tons, including lighting, video, set, and sound.

That's Eurovision. With a crew of 76 for lighting, rigging, and video and more than 29,000 channels controlling the lighting and video alone, you can imagine the scope of the production. The team of LD Mikki Kunttu, production designer Rikka Kytönen, venue sound designer Reima “Reiska” Saarinen, and production manager Ola Melzig (who has managed Eurovision five times in the past) led the way in bringing this unprecedented ESC — with more than 100 million international viewers — to life.

A Brief History Of ESC

Many Americans are unfamiliar with the Eurovision Song Contest, but its origins date back to 1955, when it was conceived by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) as a sort of “Olympics of song,” with the first ESC held in 1956. Each year, countries hold local contests for original songs, and each winner moves forward to semifinals and (for the lucky few) finals, both of which are televised internationally via the EBU and respective local broadcasters. The country boasting the winning song hosts the ESC the following year.

You've at least heard of many past winners, even if you didn't know it: ABBA (1974), Celine Dion (1988), and Katrina and The Waves (1997) were all Eurovision champs.

Viewers actually vote for the winners, much like with American Idol, except that the votes are tallied and winners announced in the 15 minutes directly after the show. The voting and points system alone would make your head spin. Certain countries with tenured history in the contest automatically move to the finals without participation in the semifinals, so this year there were actually 28 semifinalists, 10 of which made it through to join the 14 predetermined shoo-ins for the final.

Putting On The Show

Here is a timeline of the production: Thursday night, May 10, semifinals featuring 28 acts for three minutes apiece, with a one-minute changeover; Saturday night, May 12, finals with the last 24 acts, also three minutes each (whew!). Something of this scope and speed required one thing above all else: loads of preparation.

“The pre-production of this show started in the beginning of January, when Mikki and I started to go over the requirements,” says Melzig, contracted by Spectra Stage & Event Technologies AB of Sweden, who worked with Finnish supplier Eastway Sound & Lighting to come up with a lighting and video package. “This was a process that took two months, and it went hand-in-hand with the development of the stage design, managed by [local Finnish broadcaster] YLE and carried out by Stage One.”

The design started with the set, which was actually the result of yet another contest held by YLE, inviting local designers to give input and resulting in four design students — Kalle Ahonen, Samuli Laine, Kristian Schmidt, and Jenni Viitanen — winning the right to work on the stage design with Kytönen. The theme, to reflect Finland's heritage and mythology, was based on a pike's jaw. (The jawbone of the fish was historically used to make an ancient Finnish musical instrument called a kantele.)

The final product was a bonelike construction, a stylized fish mouth that arched over the stage, complete with three layers of backdrops: hanging “fish scales” in front of a Barco MiTrix screen with another stardrop behind. The stage included a central area and protruding runway, both filled with Barco OLites for video. The runway was for imagery only and not used for the competing songs but for the special performances before and after. A central curved OLite tower ran up to the roof at the back of the stage, dividing the MiTrix in half.

Most acts worked with local designers prior to the final competitions to incorporate their own looks, bringing in props and other set pieces. What really gave each a distinctive look, however, was the intense level of video and lighting design — the brainchild of Kunttu — that went into each performance.

Set and lighting/video were developed at the same time, so Kunttu didn't have a full set design available to him. “I had a concept of what kind of equipment I wanted to use, so I had a rough estimate, but the set design was a little late in the process,” he says. “The production designers also respected my opinion on certain things.” One of Kunttu's ideas was to include an arching structure — dubbed “the crocodile” — on the left side of the stage so he could put lights in the stage floor. He also wanted the catwalk and the stage screens to be all LED and incorporated into the set design.

“I was looking for something that was very multifunctional — heavily based on the use of video and graphics — and a rig that enabled us to do a lot of photogenic looks,” Kunttu says. “The rig is built from circles of truss because it gives really nice angles for all the cameras, which doesn't always happen if you just use straight trusses.” Most of the truss was from Prolyte, with additional pieces from Slick, Thomas, Eurotruss, and Total Fabrication.

“The gently asymmetrical over-stage rig was made from a series of curved trusses and designed to look good on camera, in addition to its practical role for hanging lights,” adds Melzig. “There was also a 15m trussing circle above the audience with a series of fingers, plus assorted other trussing constructions positioned around the arena — together totalling over 1.7km of truss.”

One of the earliest orders of business for Kunttu and Melzig was to finalize technical partners for the production's extensive equipment list. These included Robe Show Lighting, Barco, MA Lighting, Green Hippo, Beacon, CyberHoist, Massteknik, and Philips. Live Design was the official partner publication for ESC. “Our technical partners are a critical part of this production,” says Kunttu. “They share their insight into what makes their products unique and often look forward to pushing the boundaries as much as we do.”

Creating lots of video content to distinguish each act became one of the central tasks. The balance of lighting and video differs from song to song. “Moldova, for example, was completely video,” says Kunttu. “Russia has graphics, but was heavily dependant on white lighting.”

Peppe Tannemyr and Lennart Wåhlin, graphic designers at Beacon DigiGobos®, produced all the content under Kunttu's direction. “I have an idea of a style of the song and a style of the graphics, and then I work with the guys at Beacon, showing them photos, for example,” says Kunttu. “The more specific I was, the easier it was for them. We also created some general content looks, just to have them on hand.”

As Tannemyr and Wåhlin received information on each act, they programmed the graphics for the Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers, using the latest beta Version 3 for the event. The songs, introductions, and intermission acts involved thousands of cues and terabytes of graphics, which were rendered by a dozen PowerMac G5 computers from the Beacon team. Beacon also created all of the custom gobos.

A combination of software was used for content, including Adobe Photoshop and Cinema 40. “We also put the model of the stage in Cinema 40 so we could see our screen materials onscreen in an animation, which was a big help,” notes Kunttu.

For his lighting rig, Kunttu had about 430 moving lights including mostly Robe fixtures with Philips FastFit lamp — a combination ColorSpot 2500E ATs, ColorWash 1200 ATs, ColorSpot 1200 ATs, ColorSpot 700E ATs, ColorWash 250 ATs, and eight customized Robe Media Spinners modified to hold Studio Due CS4 bars — and a few Vari-Lite VL3500Q spots for keylight on all fixed stage positions (background singers, drummers, etc.) since they possess the same color temperature as the followspots, and have framing shutters. To control all this and the nearly 400sq-m. of LEDs, 10 MA Lighting grandMAs, two grandMA Lights, and 20 MA NSPs, including backups, were used. Dik Welland from the UK was the head moving light tech, with Andy Peat as staging production manager, and Oswald “Oz” Marsh and Jaska Erkinheimo as head lighting riggers.

Additional effects and gear for the show included pyro from Le Maitre (via Finnish distributor Pyroman), Martin Atomic Strobes with color changers; Robe Wash LED 136 LTs; James Thomas Engineering (JTE) ACL 4-bar; JTE 8-Lights, 4-Lights, and 2-Lights; ETC Source Four ellipsoidals; and Robert Juliat Aramis 2.5kW HMI followspots.

A FogScreen Inia projection screen — used with a Barco R12+ projector for downstage center effects — descended from above the stage to add a special effect for Lordi, the opening act of the final broadcast.

Backstage, Robe also supplied StageQube 324 LED panels for mood lighting and ambient effects in the green room, designed by YLE's Teija Vilkkovaara.

Just before gaining access to the Hartwall Arena for setup, preprogramming was done by a five-person team on lighting and two for video, all of whom also acted as operators for the broadcasts. “It was planned and agreed that we would move the entire FOH from the studio to the venue on April 23, which gave the crew only seven days to get everything up and running. And they had a big pile of stuff to get in there!” says Melzig. Three weeks of preprogramming took place offsite in a defunct train station in Helsinki, using ESP Vision, MA Lighting grandMA 3D, and MA mediaPCs. “All of the songs, basic looks, and timecode was done in advance, so we had all the accents already in,” adds Kunttu.

The rig was divided into sections for programming and operation: Joeri Swagemakers was CyberHoist operator, while Pekka Martti handled lights on the moving truss pods flown behind the MiTrix video screen, as well as some moving lights on the floor; Juha “Mäksä” Mäkinen had all washlights and blinders; Mikael Sylvest took on all spots in the main rig and the 1200s on the floor; Morgan Brown handled house lights; and Antti Rehtjärvi programmed and operated all white lights for audience and stage. For video, Mikko Linnavouri handled Hippotizer via the grandMA, while Zok Sabijan controlled Hippotizer from its own control in Version 3 using the Timeline function for some songs. Tobias Åberg was crew chief, with Jussi Kallioinen as local production manager.

Thirty-seven Wireless Solution W-DMX Generation 3 BlackBox units sent wireless DMX signals to moving trusses containing Syncrolite B52s, PAR 64s, Studio Due CS4s, strobes, and the moving lights, controlling a total of six universes of wireless DMX. BlackBoxes were also used on a 120cm-diameter prism mirror ball suspended from the ceiling, custom-assembled mobile fog machines, and the FogScreen.

With all that gear, preprogramming was crucial, but loads of tweaking still happened onsite. “Timing-wise, with the cues and accents that we had in timecode already, maybe a maximum of 15% changed onsite, but, of course, there was a lot of work related to intensities, looks, and beam-shaping,” says Kunttu. “In the big picture, probably 45% or 50% changed overall during rehearsals.”

And changing that much during rehearsals was not such an easy task, given the rigorous schedule of so many performances. With no time to make modifications after rehearsals each day, changes had to be made with talent onstage during the rehearsal. “The biggest challenge was the size of the production and the time,” says Kunttu. “Let's say I see a song onstage during first rehearsal, and in the first verse I see that what we have done is not working, but by the end of the song, we have fixed it — changed the graphics, changed the lighting, all in three minutes. I was really pleased with the system, especially the grandMA and what the operators could pull up using grandMA and the way we divided the rig. By the end of the rehearsals, when we'd gone through each song 35 times, that was it. It's really fast.”

To uphold the massive lighting and video rig, rigging comprised 1-and 2-ton CM Rigging Lodestars and 1-ton Chain Masters. All moving trusses were operated by 36 250kg and 500kg CyberHoists. Flashlight Rental of Holland supplied a substantial motion-control system to Spectra for the production. The motors were controlled by dedicated InMotion 3D software running on a Mac. Dedicated DataMotion data interfacing and PowerMotion mains power components completed the system.

That Big Arena Sound

Creating great live sound for so many acts isn't a picnic either. Freelance sound designer Saarinen handled the live venue sound system for the event. He's done around 100 gigs at Harwall Arena in the past decade, so he was intimately familiar with the venue when YLE asked him to join the production. Finnish sound company Akun Tehdas got involved early on to supply the gear and personnel for FOH sound and stage monitoring.

The sound was designed using two identical systems for complete redundancy, but while each could act independently, they were linked to allow for switching between the two. “Precise adjustments and settings could be stored on the remote system, which controls the amplifiers that drive both the monitor system and the line array-type PA,” says Saarinen. Two InnovaSon Sy48 digital consoles at FOH, two InnovaSon Sy80 digital consoles for monitors, and two Yamaha DM1000 mixing consoles for announcers and video inserts during the one-minute set changes were used; one of each was for backup.

Keeping the size and variety of acts to accommodate, Saarinen came up with a three-part PA system comprising d&b audiotechnik's J Series and Q Series. On each side and closest to the stage were six flown J-Subs, along with a main hang of 12 J8s, with two J12s loudspeakers beneath. The third flown hang was the acute offstage coverage — short-angle — via three Q-Subs at the top and nine Q1s beneath, all pointing 55° off-axis from the front edge of the stage. There were also two J-Subs per side on the floor and built into the fascia of the set, but no front-fill for the center first few rows, so that area was covered by the flown J12s.

“This lightweight and compact system offered excellent coverage of the venue with a great frequency response,” Saarinen says, “and the possibility for quick and easy rigging. Also, the monitor wedges [M4 stage monitors] worked very well in the gutter of the stage.”

System DSP was distributed into D12 amplifier racks, “which made the realtime system control very easy and reliable,” says Saarinen. The PA system and stage monitoring were prepared using d&b ArrayCalc. “All the schematics for the cabling were first drawn on paper and then prepared by looming and connecting beforehand.”

Kimmo Ahola was the FOH engineer on the InnovaSon Sy48, the console fed by an InnovaSon DioCore EtherSound-enabled stage box that also fed the Sy80 console at the monitor position. The sound crew was given two days of console training by Klas Granqvist, monitor engineer using the Sy80. The other monitor engineer, Arto Nuppola, was provided by YLE. Monitor engineer Ville Kauhanen was responsible for being on stage during the rehearsals and providing artist-specific orders to the monitor operators. An analog splitter system on stage distributed the microphone signals to the A and B DioCores, and from that point forward, the signal was transmitted digitally over two separate EtherSound networks, each of which allowed the transmission of up to 64 channels in both directions. In this case, Akun Tehdas used optical cable due to the great distance between FOH and the monitors.

The signals for the monitor consoles were routed through 24 separate monitor mixes, 12 for the six stereo in-ear monitors — Sennheiser IE-4s, unless the performers brought their own — 10 for the stage monitors, and two for the side-fill mix.

For the performer's live mix, audio designer Pasi Vatunen spent lots of time listening to all of the songs in advance. “He made excellent notes and shared them with us,” says Saarinen. “Only some of the artists had requests for changes, but some of them gave us really good information.

“One big challenge regarding the whole system design was the need for extremely high rigging to raise the rigs out of the picture,” Saarinen continues. But it all turned out well in the end. “Time delay wasn't too much,” he adds. Santtu Sipilä was FOH engineer on the Yamaha DM1000. The system engineering was the responsibility of Timo Liski (Akun Tehdas crew chief), with Jorma Tikka assisting on backup. Matthieu Le Failler was InnovaSon technical field manager. Matti Helkamaa was the show's audio producer. Lawo supplied the mixing consoles for broadcast sound and the sound routing system.

The audio workstations came from Soundata/Pro Tools, while Genelec supplied the 5.1 multichannel audio-detection equipment for various work areas. The talk-back system, including wired and wireless radio-operated systems and support stations, was from Qualitron/Riedel.

Months of planning and weeks onsite in Helsinki made this Eurovision crew — as I'm sure like many others in the past — like a family. Following the final broadcast after-party, crewmembers expressed their sincere appreciation to their respective department heads. “Kippis!” (Finnish for “Cheers”) for a job well done rang out through the Hartwall Arena.

Fun Facts About Eurovision

  • Over 1,600 people worked on this production.
  • The generators for the show provided a total of five megawatts of power. Lighting and video consumed 1,537,350W.
  • It took a crew of 30 people just to run lighting and video, using 22,016 control channels on ten MA Lighting grandMAs and two grandMA Light consoles.
  • Over 400 moving lights and 620 conventionals lit the production.
  • 38 of the 281 rigging points were CyberHoists for moving trusses.
  • 14 Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers, 200sq-m. of Barco MiTrix, and 125sq-m. of Barco OLite 510 were used.
  • 3,780 hours were spent programming lighting and video.
  • It took 85,858m of cabling to feed the lighting and video systems.
  • Sound supplier Akun Tehdras put in place a dual redundancy system throughout, which meant having two of everything for back-up purposes.
  • The outside HD broadcast truck cost about 10 million Euros, and it had the ability to operate up to 28 cameras. The production used 21, with another three in the press center.
  • Each country had its own commentators, so there were 42 commentators' booths.
  • This was the first time that Eurovision was broadcast in HD for international transmission, although each country chose its own national transmission format.

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