Conventional Wisdom

(PRG)

For those involved in its production, a national political convention may come under the heading of televised event programming, but it is event programming like no other. Rather than being produced for carefully selected and choreographed coverage by a single network, a convention is something of a televised free-for-all. “The problem that is inherently different from all other shows is that there are a hundred channels, a hundred different press cameras out shooting any shot they want to shoot,” says Bob Barnhart, who shared lighting designer duties with Bob Dickinson on the 2004 Democratic National Convention, held July 25-29 in Boston's FleetCenter. Though the press was provided with the option of closely monitored pool feeds, “we don't know what they're shooting, we don't control them, and we don't even see it half the time. So you really have to light your best for as many angles as you can conceive.”

Convention sound designer Pat Baltzell echoes Barnhart's assessment. “I do television special events, and it's the only one I do that I have to feed all of these things to all of these different people,” he says. “Usually I listen to the PA speakers. What I listen to is what I'm doing, and it's as simple as that. But this is, ‘Are you sure this guy's up on level 6, that the radio guys are fine?’ I won't know if somebody's not getting something they expect or the volume's not right, because it's not in my field of vision, so to speak.”

It's an issue that's also on the mind of the production's art department. Ken Zommer, senior project manager at Chicago Scenic Studios, where the convention set was built, says, “One of the things you've got to remember is, it's seen 360°, which is different than most of your scenery.” Not only that, but it has to function in a more complex manner than the set for, say, an awards show. “It's not just a stage, it's also a work environment for the people that actually hold the convention,” Zommer adds. “You go and set this thing up, and then a whole bunch of people come in after you that aren't typically there — there are data lines and phone lines and all of this other stuff, to make a working office basically. So you're dressing that out, and you're trying to make it as workable a space as possible.”

Given the complexities, there's a reason event producers Don Mischer and Ricky Kirshner called on the services of the aforementioned participants: they are all convention veterans and are well acquainted with the unique challenges the format presents. It has become axiomatic that today's national political conventions are disappointingly surprise-free. In fact, the major broadcast networks have grown so indifferent to the heavily scripted affair that they only carried an hour of convention coverage per evening. But the kinds of surprises you don't want are the ones that would leave a position in the vast convention space uncovered. Who knows — you might just miss a real unscripted incident unfolding.

PLANNING STAGES

Though Chicago Scenic's involvement with the Democratic National Convention goes back to 1996, when the event originated from the company's hometown, production designers Steve Bass and Brian Stonestreet were convention tyros. Chicago Scenic wasn't granted the job this year until mid-May. “It was very, very late this time, and the convention was exceedingly early,” says Zommer. “It was also the biggest stage we've done, easily a third bigger than what was in Chicago or L.A. in 2000. But because of our past experience, we were able to lend our knowledge and help everybody avoid pitfalls that are unique to this job, and incorporate things that need to be worked in. An example is, on the lecterns where the speeches are given, we need to accommodate the prompters and some timing for lights and sound.”

Bass and Stonestreet's design provided for speaker lecterns on either side of the stage, with a third lectern position in the center, which was utilized solely for John Kerry's Thursday night nomination acceptance speech. “Wednesday night, we just removed the front stairs, rolled in the center podium, and moved a second set of stairs into place,” says Zommer, whose crew had rehearsed the changeover in one of the arena's corridors. “We plugged everything in and hoped that it worked.” Behind the stage, and spanning its width, the audio-visual staging company AVFX used a 90' wide, 17' high Stewart Aeroview rear projection screen to display up to five live or pre-recorded video images or graphics projected by ten 16,000 ANSI lumen Lightning 28sx three-chip DLP projectors. Sixty feet above the stage, a large American flag made of red, white, and blue-painted Rosco Twin White RP material provided an eye-catching ceiling piece to the stage.

Due to the amount of scenery and the lack of time to build it, the construction job was actually divided between Chicago Scenic and Massachusetts-based Mystic Scenic Studios. “Mystic got the stage per se, and they got what we call the press Cadillac, which is a production platform directly across with risers for cameras and so on, and the state voting lecterns,” says Zommer. “Chicago Scenic got the flag ceiling piece, the wood surround for the screen, and all the scenery that was on mechanics,” including monitor walls and the speaker lecterns. “There were seven lifts, including a couple of screwjacks and hydraulic lifts that were all computer controlled.” Chicago Scenic also built the 1,500' of press desks that were installed off to the right and left of the arena. “In order to save time on site, they were brought in assembled,” Zommer says of the press desks. “So that ate up five or six trucks. I think the install was five weeks, and those were by and large six-day weeks, ten-hour days.” The process was somewhat slowed by the FleetCenter's floor position on the third level above North Central train station. Load out was considerably faster: “We got out by about 5:30 on Monday, August 2. But then again, stuff comes down pretty easily.”

LIGHT AT EVERY ANGLE

Barnhart and Dickinson have also worked on the last three Democratic National Conventions, so they have a good idea of what's required of the lighting: pretty much complete coverage, which can serve the needs of both television and still cameras, not to mention the on-site crowd. Obtaining the proper levels on the video imagery is a case in point. “Anytime you have a video screen that's a dominant portion of the scenery, you have to take into account your footcandle level, so that the screen maintains its prominence in the set,” says Barnhart. “It's very easy when you're dealing with television to adjust the light level. But the still camera people, who are using very long lenses to get a close-up of the podium, really need a lot of light to get their f-stop happy. There's a compromise in there, and consequently, there are ten projectors on the back screen to help punch it.”

The LDs were hired in March, but could only do preliminary work until the set design was completed. An early survey helped them to “understand the building and the power needs,” which invariably require boosting, and not just because of lighting. “A local electrical contractor was hired to draw power off of a city vault, and run 480 voltage up into the grid and transform it down for us,” Barnhart says. “We used basically 6,000 amps of light, three-phase, for the show. But there are also the press booths, and the interview areas that the press needs…just in general, the power consumption for a show like that is probably the highest you'll ever see.

“Once the set gets settled into the building,” the LD continues, “We'll go and survey it again, and come up with a design — mainly a truss design at first, a grid layout, because you're really building a venue inside a venue. So we come up with a truss design that's going to work visually with the set, and give us the ability to get the lighting angles that we need, because you do have to light the entire arena in a theatrical mode. You can't leave on the game lights for hockey or basketball. So we do our audience layout with PAR cans, figure out the set, and add a little bit of eye candy for moments of entertainment.” In other words, concert performances by the likes of Patti LaBelle and John Mellencamp that may or may not be seen by the folks at home.

The lighting package, which was provided by PRG Lighting, included a rather extraordinary number of automated fixtures: 171 VARI*LITE VL5 and 194 VL5Arc wash luminaires, 30 VL6C, 38 VL7, and 90 VL3000 spot luminaires, and 181 Martin MAC 2000 wash lights. VL5s and VL6Cs were used to backlight and texture the scenic flag, and were installed in a truss 30' above the piece. “We put additional VL5s with Lekos on the backlight truss that sat under the flag and just over the screen,” Barnhart says, “and used that to hit the audience in the front ten rows. We used them to put in a little color for the performance end of it, but also to give a nice incandescent key light to enhance the audience.”

He adds that the VL 5Arcs were peppered throughout the venue and in “vomitory doorways at mid-level, so as you look around with the camera there's a little dynamic coming from right around the delegates. We used the 5Arcs with a clear lens because it makes it a bit of a sky tracker or beam light, which gives you a dynamic punch where you want it.” The MAC 2000s and VL3000s, he says, “are like your nice long-throwing versions of the VL5 and VL6: you get a nice wash out of the MAC, with the colors and saturation levels you want, and the 3000s are your pattern and edge lights.” The VL7s were used primarily for adjustable front key light. “We turned them around sometimes to hit the Kerry and Edwards family boxes, but we mainly used the VL7 as an automated Leko.”

For followspots, the designers specified four 2.5k and eight 3k Strong Gladiators, “basically in a clock formation around the building,” says Barnhart. “We put two followspots for the stage right podium, and two for the stage left podium, so the second followspot could hold somebody who's not at the podium but is standing near the main speaker.” Two more followspots were assigned to the center position, most importantly for Kerry's speech, while the rest were spread around to be focused on delegates during voting. “And sometimes when you'd have a performance on stage, it was nice to come into a side spot instead of a front spot, depending on the mood of the performance,” he adds.

Matt Firestone controlled the event from a VARI*LITE Virtuoso VX console, and got a lighting director credit for his trouble. “When one guy is controlling 700 moving lights, he's definitely an artistic contributor to the show,” says Barnhart. “By no means do we have time to tell another person what to do with every single light and every single cue and every single color.” Though the event isn't totally spontaneous, neither is it entirely predictable. “We know how they're going to walk, but we don't now what they're going to say when they walk,” the LD says. “We know what's supposed to happen next, but we've never seen it. There's no time or place to rehearse a four-day event, it just kind of happens.”

SCREEN DEMS

As impressive as everyone seemed to find the video screen at the back of the convention stage, Murray Lapides, president of Boston-based audiovisual equipment and staging company AVFX, says it was originally supposed to be even larger. “When we were first pulled in at the beginning of May, the discussions were to do a 22' high by 120' wide screen, which would have covered the stage wing to wing,” says Lapides. “But space issues started to take hold: putting that extra 30' up would have eliminated X number of press seatings.” The eventual 17' wide by 90' high Stewart Aeroview rear projection screen was approached as if it were three 16×9 screens. “The concept was that it was to be three images, left, center, and right,” he says. “In reality, that was done with five sets of projectors. You can't get a seamless image if you butt images next to each other, so you have to fill in that center section — fill in the cracks, so to speak. The other two stacks of projectors were filling in the cracks.

“There was a very tight projection spec, as there always is in something like this,” Lapides continues “You look at a big arena like this, and you go, ‘Oh, you must have two or three miles backstage for rear projection,’ and in reality, we were very much squeezed into backstage: so much so that we were using digital projection and the shortest lenses possible.” Ten 16,000 ANSI lumen Lightning 28sx three-chip DLP projectors were requisitioned for the job from Digital Projection International. Projectors were fired up at six every morning, and ran continuously until midnight. But from AVFX's point of view, the process wasn't overly complicated. “A guy by the name of Allan Wells was actually the production designer on it, so all the graphics and everything came from his wizardry,” says Lapides. “A lot of my job was geometry — the hardware, how is it going to fit, what are my throw distances, where does it all go? We went in, we set up projectors, and we had essentially two people there for a week to watch the projectors. Remember, it's a scripted television event, and we were just taking the feed directly from the truck. A lot of the ancillary parts were supplied by others, as opposed to a corporate event, where you've got a whole video crew.”

That said, Lapides hastens to add, “It's far larger than any project we've ever done. There are not a lot of places you can put even a 50' screen in this town. Going into the FleetCenter with a 90' screen was a one-time deal.”

SPEECH LIMITS

Pat Baltzell's convention experience makes some of the other members of the production team look like beginners: he's been doing sound design for the Democrats since 1988, and this year, he's crossing party lines to work on the Republican National Convention as well. From his point of view, he says only half-jokingly, the biggest challenge is “staying awake for seven continuous hours of rhetoric. You need to pay attention, because everyone who comes up to speak has a different tonal quality, and you're constantly tweaking little outboard things, limiters and DS'ers. Basically, it's a communication event, so speech is the paramount concern. But more and more, there's a trend toward making it more entertaining for the people in the audience. So you have to design a system that emphasizes speech coverage, but it's also got to have the bandwidth to do what a concert system would do.”

Coverage of the FleetCenter, from the stage to the various floor positions, is of course a priority. “The floor of the convention is kind of like the floor the stock market,” says Baltzell. “People are all doing their own thing — they're talking, there are interviews going on. Dan Rather did all his stuff from the floor, electronic news gathering style, and CNN was right on the floor. Fifteen different events are going on at any given time. Yet when somebody goes up to speak from the state of Iowa, the Iowa delegation wants to hear him. My job is to have enough headroom to get over all of this ambience.”

Baltzell's approach is “lots of speakers in carefully thought-out zones, which helps get gain before feedback. Lots of speakers in concentric rings with delays work pretty well.” He designed two rings of 72 VerTec 4889 line arrays and 48 VerTec 4887 compact line arrays, supplied like all the sound equipment by ATK Audiotek Corporation. “Then there were probably a dozen Electro-Voice Xi-1152 speakers built into the set for front fill. We even put little speakers in the podiums themselves, so there was a little bit of foldback for the person speaking. Then off to the sides, the writing press gets hundreds of little individual speakers, because they're not in the main listening field like the delegates are. That helps control the reflections and echoes in the building.”

The sound designer oversaw three mixers during the convention: a Yamaha PM5000, which operated as a master console, a Yamaha PM1D digital console for monitors, and an InnovaSon Grand Live for music. “It was about 120 inputs, between the music and production elements, speeches and wireless microphones and that sort of stuff,” says Baltzell. “I mixed audience mics in as well, because I was feeding the press.”

The designer was hired for both Democratic and Republican conventions back in February, and worked on them simultaneously. “The approach starts out similarly, but then the designs start to vary,” says Baltzell. “When somebody calls me in, say, June and says, ‘Can you move the cluster that's just off stage right of centerline down four feet,’ I go, ‘No, because it's going to bump into the…hold on, let me open that drawing, I'm not sure which one I'm thinking of.’ I do sometimes have trouble keeping them straight.” It's good to know that partisan divisiveness doesn't extend in all directions.