Rent-A-Center Goes Wide


Cutting-Edge technology and some trial-and-error preparation yield a successful, big-screen presentation that impresses the audience.

As the new CEO of Rent-A-Center (Dallas, TX), Mark Speese wanted to make a really big impact on the company's 2,500 employees who had gathered at Bally's Event Center in Las Vegas in February. While most impressions aren't normally measured in quantitative terms, in this case, it was 15' tall by 50' wide. At least that was the size of the video screen that displayed a seamless image across its entire surface.

A 15' by 50' screen filled with seamless imagery was the focal point of attention at Rent-A-Center's annual meeting.

Rent-A-Center, or RAC, is one of the country's largest rent-to-own purveyors of name brand furniture, appliances, electronics, and computers. It holds an annual meeting to bring its store managers together for some training, state-of-the-company reports, meetings, and fun. For the last several years, Rocket Productions (Dallas, TX) has played a key role in making those meetings successful.

“We've helped them stage all kinds of different shows,” says executive producer John Mathis of Rocket Productions. “For example, last year we did the RAC Bowl. Based on a football theme, we built a kind of miniature football stadium inside the ballroom. This year, they had a new CEO and a change in leadership. He wanted to deliver a really powerful and important message, along the lines of introducing himself and outlining his leadership style. RAC has about 2,500 stores nationwide, so obviously he can't meet every single store manager in person. Our idea was to put up a giant video screen behind him and open with a huge video that would take everyone's breath away and focus their attention on one point in the room — the stage and this gigantic screen.”

Rocket Productions hired Tommy Melancon, a technical director from Level 2 Design (Dallas, TX) to help design the show they had in mind. “We handled all the production, lighting, and scenic elements for Rocket Productions,” Melancon explains. “They hired me to look over the creative part of what they were pitching for the job and to help budget and design that creative concept.

“For example,” he says, “if they were talking about a racing theme or a Broadway show theme, I would go through the aspects of all the needs to put the budget together for the technical aspects of the event. I also determine what types of sound and video we'll need and find out what the constraints of the ballroom are, then assess everything from labor requirements to video and lighting directors. I put a list of all of those people together to come up with the numbers of how much it will cost. Since I was in charge of the technical and design aspects, I hired AV Concepts to be part of the team so we could execute the video that they wanted.”

Melancon also created a series of CAD drawings of the room and presented them to Bally's and the Las Vegas fire marshall for approval. As soon as Rent-A-Center signed off on the renderings of the project's layout and budget, Level 2 Design started building and designing the actual project.

“Because Rocket Productions is a video company, we came together to use this wide-screen technology,” Melancon says. “The technology is still fairly new, so we only knew of a few jobs before this that had used it. But Rocket Productions could handle all the media internally. So we had a lot of opportunity to experiment with it and work with the sourcing for the wide-screen format. From a production point of view, we pitched the idea from a cost perspective. By using video, they could spend more money on production as opposed to a lot more money on scenic options. The wide-screen video was most of the scenery.”

The event included a one-day general session that brought everybody together and was followed by a keynote presentation from the company's management. After going through some of the company's strategy, financials, and marketing plans for the future, RAC gave away a lot of money through raffles. Later there was a keynote motivational speaker presentation followed that evening with a party hosted by a comedian.

“I'm primarily a lighting designer, so I did all the lighting design for all the events,” Melancon says. “I also had a lighting director, Lindsey Glover, on the job who did all the actual programming and operation.”

Christie Lites from Dallas was the lighting supplier. Lighting equipment included 60 ETC Source 4s and 60 ETC Source 4 PARs, 12 MR-16 blinders with scrollers, a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II control console, 24 conventional scrollers, 16 Martin MAC 2000s, 20 Martin MAC 1600 NTs, 1000' of truss, and 30 chain motors.

Just for Show (Las Vegas, NV) was the show's scenic provider. “We did a half circle stage with front plugs that had light coming through them. The stage had custom steps and wedges on the front,” Melancon explains. “Underneath the huge screen we put some wedge-shaped pieces that looked like they held up the screen. They were lit from the back and the front to give us backgrounds for the podiums and for people as they walked onto the stage. We had columns that were 22' high and 4' wide, also wedge shaped, to keep that theme. They were lit from the inside as well as on the exterior.”

The Wide-Screen Challenge

“The main challenge from the video standpoint was that there was not a lot of experience in doing this wide-screen format,” Melancon continues. “So there were a lot of test shots to do and send to AV Concepts. Since we were shooting front projection, everything had to trim up very high, which was quite a challenge because we were in a ballroom space. So a lot of the lighting had to be side hung and top hung to meet all the challenges. But everyone at AV Concepts and on the technical side of things came together, and we got it all done on time and within budget. Over at AV Concepts, I worked with Mitch Teitlebaum, who is the account executive. He puts everyone together and then assigns a project manager — Bob Gladding, who did a great job — who works directly with me.”

Because the production budget didn't allow for the use of HD video, AV Concepts went through an extensive trial-and-error production process in order to get a seamless video image running across the full screen that could still maintain high-quality resolution.

AV Concepts was one of the first in the rental staging business to take advantage of the capabilities of the ultra-wide-screen CanvasMaster system from Vista Control Systems. Teitlebaum's role as an account executive was expanded on this project because of his experience working with the big-screen format on a couple other projects.

“Normally, I work with a technical director or producer to put together whatever they need to show their product,” he says. “This time it was a little different because it's such a new product, and I was really on the ground floor with it. I was really excited about it when it came out, so I learned as much as I could about it. This was our second show that we had used this system, but the first that we'd used a 50'×15', all-front projection screen. So my role has been as more of a consultant than just the guy who puts together the show — even though I did that as well. I talked not only to the technical director, Tommy, but I also dealt with the actual producers of the video and the producers of the graphics they were using. Neither of them had produced a show of this scale on such a wide screen. So I had to help teach them a way to produce their graphics so they would appear across the whole screen and also to produce their video across the whole screen.”

Trial and Error

The participants spent about three months working on the project. “We were working on it on and off pretty much the whole time,” Teitlebaum says. “We did a lot work with Rocket Productions, the video company, to edit the video to three separate sources. They kept trying and getting closer and closer and sending us back tapes to view them. And we would film what we saw and send back our videotape of the screen to them to show them how close they were getting. And each time they did it, they got closer until they eventually nailed it right on the dot.”

Throughout the process, Rocket Productions continued to shoot a lot of test video and sent it all to AV Concepts. “We executed the video by shooting it all on green screen and we hired a company called Moving Pictures Editorial, which is another company here in Dallas, to composite the whole thing,” Mathis explains. “They figured out how to do the offsets between splits and between the blending.”

“For us, they were just shooting tests to see if it would work,” Teitlebaum says. “Really, the biggest challenge for Rocket Productions was to create a video in a format that would cover the entire 15'×50' screen surface. The easiest way for them would have been to produce this video on high definition video or film in the proper ratio. When you do wide-screen video and you shoot in high definition, it's at such a high resolution that it works really well with one tape. This was not an option because of budget constraints, so they had to shoot standard NTSC video. And when you blow up NTSC video that big, it loses all its definition. It gets all pixilated, and you can't even read it because it's so muddy.”

To solve that problem, Rocket Productions used the flame and smoke video editing systems from Discreet to cut a standard video shot in the correct aspect ratio for the screen to three separate tapes.

“It's really high-end video processing software,” Teitlebaum says. “They shot the video at the appropriate aspect ratio and created a single Beta tape. Then they used Discreet to split one frame into three different tapes to keep the resolution as high as possible to make it look good. Here at AV Concepts, we laid these tapes to three Doremi hard drive video players and played them back as a sync roll, one machine per projector. This method enabled full-motion video to appear across the length of the screen without the need for producing high-definition video,” Teitlebaum explains. “This was not as easy as it sounds, as there had to be a 256-pixel overlap between images. It took all the skill of the Rockets' post production staff to figure it out.”

Christie Lites of Dallas provided the lighting for the event, while Just for Show of Las Vegas was the scenic provider.

Rocket Productions worked directly with RAC on the video's content, which included both prerecorded tape and image magnification (IMAG) images. In addition, they needed to show PowerPoint slides. To handle the imagery, AV Concepts combined Vista Control Systems' CanvasMaster server with Folsom's VFC-2200DE dual scaler for edge blending.

“There were three videos — opening videos and introductions were shot utilizing the whole screen,” Teitlebaum says. “There was also the IMAG video that we showed in a window. We also used a window to show off their commercials, which were in a standard 4×3 format. So there were actually three types of video shown. There were four cameras, three long lenses, and one 35' boom. Vista Control Systems' 3216 multi-screen controller allowed picture-in-picture to be used extensively to display IMAG. Sometimes we opened one window, sometimes two or even three. Also, the CanvasMaster actually splits up a graphic, but it does not split up the video because of the resolution issue.”

Positioning the Projectors

Setting up the video screen at the venue provided a new set of challenges. “The screen had to be front surface due to the audience size and room dimensions,” Teitlebaum explains. “Therefore, the projectors had to be flown over the audience. There were several major complications involved. First, due to the nature of projection and the need to overlap two projectors per one third of the screen for a total of six projectors, distance and position of the projectors within the screen surface was key. Second, there were very few rigging points on the ceiling from which to hang the projector rig. And third, RAC required tiered seating to be brought in, so that severely limited how low the projector could be flown due to sight line limitations.”

To prepare for the difficult logistics, AV Concepts duplicated the set up at the Phoenix Civic Plaza, the company's local convention center. “We put together the entire system, from screens and projection to the CanvasMaster system, to find out what the minimum required distance and height restrictions would be,” Teitlebaum explains. “We measured out the exact location and height of the last row of seats in the house. Only with this preparation could the technical director (Tommy Melancon), producer (John Mathis), projectionist (Richard Vinson), video engineers (Abe Hermosillo, Andy Canalas), and I be assured that it would not only work, but that everybody in the audience would have a clear and unobstructed view of the screen.”

The participants learned quite a lot from their dry run in Phoenix and were then able to make some key technical decisions. “We learned the best way to fly the projectors for a single screen did not work for the stacking and convergence of six projectors side-by-side,” Teitlebaum says. “Also, we learned that the system needed to be a rigid system, where the projectors all had to move as one. We designed and built special cages that allowed the projectionist to make this happen. Because of the new technology and importance of this being one of the first shows of this nature, the management (Bill Jett, general manager) and ownership (Nick Smith, Fred Mandrick) of AV Concepts allowed me to make the necessary adjustments in equipment to put what was needed to do the show at its best. Happily, we had a hugely successful show with minimum difficulties on the actual show site.”

With the help of Vista Control Systems' 3216 multi-screen controller, the event's producers could make extensive use of picture-in-picture for graphics and IMAG video.

Upon arriving in Las Vegas, the crew had two full days to install everything: video, audio, lighting, and scenic elements. “We worked approximately 14 hours per day to get this done,” Teitlebaum says. “It would have been easier to have used a rear screen, but unfortunately, the room and audience did not allow for that.”

Six converged Christie Digital Roadie 8K's, flown in the specially designed cages, produced bright and clear images for audience viewing. The projectionist's technical ability was key to aligning the projectors to create the single image across the screen. The event employed four cameras for video recording and IMAG. One of the cameras was attached to a 34' boom that allowed for exciting camera moves. AV Concepts also provided the audio equipment, which included: a Yamaha PM-4000 mixer, 22 speakers comprised of two flown clusters of EAW KF-750s, and KF-300s for the delay speakers.

“RAC wanted to do something different than the standard one-, two-, or three-screen show that everybody is used to seeing,” Teitlebaum concludes. “They wanted something unique so their message could be delivered in such a way that attendees were left with an impression of the company that would last well beyond their time in Las Vegas. The reaction of the crowd after just the opening video proved that their goal was achieved.”

“It was really cool,” Mathis concurs. “I was in the back of the audience when the opening video played and everyone collectively gasped. It was very loud. The video had kids talking and saying little business phrases in keeping with the whole theme of ‘back to the basics.’ I think in our case everyone left there thinking that this CEO is an okay guy. The way he came off was that ‘I used to be one of you, so I know where you've been. I worked my way up and anyone can do it.’

“You see these shows where people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this message across to their employees and you wonder if it really came across to them. In this case, I'm sure it did.”

Contributing editor Catherine McHugh is also a regular contributor to Entertainment Design magazine. She has been covering event design for more than 10 years.