I was pleased when longtime client Christopher Allen, executive producer of HKM productions, asked me to join the design team for E&J Gallo Winery's 75th anniversary distributors' conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Though I always appreciate the opportunity to work with great collaborators like Allen, I remembered the Gallo show from previous years as a pretty basic corporate event: nothing fancy, a simple set with a small complement of movers and color changers. As soon as I saw the early scenic drawings and pitch renderings this time around, however, I realized that HKM was ramping up the production values for this special anniversary and that it would be a challenging and fun project.
The initial production schedule called for a three-day load-in and tech rehearsal period, and a day of client rehearsals and touchups, culminating in the one-day show, including a morning and afternoon session, followed by a three-hour room turnaround for an evening of live entertainment and a formal dinner for 1,500. Overall, the pace of the production was ambitious but doable.
The task Allen presented to the design team was to create a live-to-tape television show aesthetic to wrap around Gallo's corporate presentations and interstitial live performances. To this end, Joseph Kale of JDK Design conceived a set comprised of two stages, four rear-projection side screens, a large 16:9 RP screen at center stage, and two large-format LED displays. The plan incorporated a circular performance stage integrated into a traditional main stage, and the script followed the convention of a studio TV show, with the main stage functioning as a home base and the circular stage as an area that presenters could “throw to” for special segments and live performances. To give the set a real TV awards show feel, Kale backed the performance stage with a curved Barco ILite 6 LED wall and specified a downstage, curved MiTrix screen automated to fly in and out to create both an animated video drape and scenic header.
It's always been a pet peeve of mine the way advances in automated lighting over the last 20 years, while giving us so many more choices, have also paved the way for a canned look in so many productions. The bang-for-the-buck factor that comes with using moving lights is a no-brainer for most producers, but after shelling out for the hardware, they often find it difficult to justify the added expense of custom gobos or even the relatively low cost of substituting alternate catalog patterns for the factory loads that come off the rack. The result is that we see the same textures and shapes used in show after show.
In much the same way, the advent of non-traditional, medium and high-resolution LED displays as scenic elements has opened a new technological Pandora's box (no pun intended, vis-à-vis media servers bearing the same name). Some designers are beating down doors to get the latest media-driven device on their shows with little thought as to what will be displayed on it. Add to that the complexity of creating media for a non-traditionally shaped screen or an artistically arranged pixel array, and this issue becomes more than many industrial producers and creative directors care to address. Fortunately for them, a mini-industry of stock content creation has sprung up to fill the gap, but a great number of shows have come to rely on the relatively small library of media that comes preloaded on many of today's media servers, giving these productions a generic feel.
With this in mind, rather than simply using the large, Barco LED displays framing the performance stage as eye-candy, I thought the production would benefit from a combination of custom, client-driven, and stock scenic treatments. It seemed that HKM Productions and Gallo were thinking along the same lines, which was great, but as we began to nail down the process of content creation, I realized that a downside to having a more integrated creative approach would be a less integrated workflow, with content coming from multiple sources. Knowing that many final decisions would be made at the last minute, I began to think about how to manage the flow of material to get the most flexibility for our client. We considered using media servers as a source to a Barco Encore Presentation System, which would then drive all the screens, but we eventually settled on a simpler, more elegant and flexible approach. The Barco screens would be driven by PRG Mbox Extreme™ media servers alone, and all content for these screens would flow through our department. We would provide a clearinghouse to assure that the proper resolutions, formats, and codecs were used on whatever media was rendered for the LED displays to ensure our ability to reap all the benefits of the Mbox servers.
I was aware of the challenges and pitfalls inherent in coordinating multiple media streams from different departments. We had content coming from the graphics department, the video department, and the client. Our creative director, Raj Kapoor, envisioned a suite of synchronized, seven-screen video pieces to play in time with the live dance performances that opened and closed the presentation. It would be imperative for us to have a chance to preview the content and work out any variable frame-rate issues ahead of time, but I was confident that the schedule allowed enough time to sort out any problems, even if we had to re-render non-conforming material on site. Our Mboxes came to us courtesy of Idyll Hands Imagery and PRG's New York shop, which meant we were able to test material ahead of time on the East Coast and on the same machines we would eventually be using in Las Vegas.
It looked as though everything was working out just fine, and then I received word that a day was being lopped from our production schedule.
A deep breath and a few emails later, I was able to secure the production's commitment to bring us to Vegas two days early for some offsite pre-production time with the rest of the team, our three Mboxes, and a console. Luckily, the digital components for the show were being assembled in a post-house a stone's throw from the MGM, making all the logistics a little more manageable. Brendon Boyd joined us and programmed all of the performance stage media on an MA Lighting grandMA, while HKM's line producer, Barbara Bermudez, and I fleshed out the sequences in the relative calm before the load-in even began.
The show was really taking shape. Multi-layered media servers are by no means new to our community's toolkit, but I still find it difficult to explain to producers and video makers exactly what these machines can do. I can practically hear the sound of eyes glazing over when I start to talk about live compositing and realtime rendering. When Barbara and her graphics team saw the way in which we could manipulate elements on the fly, however, it totally changed the game for them. We created scenic backgrounds for the ILite wall by combining the client's archived images with custom media and stock clips. Working side by side with the graphics department gave us even more of a chance to integrate the Gallo logos and the show's theme graphics with scene-specific text and keywords. In this way, we created a supportive collage on the MiTrix that appeared as a side screen or a superscript display, depending on which stage was being used. It also gave us the time to create a unified color palette for the show, whereby the graphics and lighting could really sync up for a wall-to-wall, coordinated look.
The corporate presentation opened and closed with two original pieces of modern choreography by Emmy Award-winner Mia Michaels. A recurring theme throughout the day was the Gallos' strong sense of family history. Michaels's choreography depicted the story of the company's founding brothers, Ernest and Julio Gallo, with an opening image that had the dance troupe emerging from a sepia-print family photo projected simultaneously on the 16:9 center RP screen.
Michael Appel programmed the 4Wall-supplied lighting rig — about 190 fixtures, half of which were moving lights and LEDs — on another grandMA. Appel is truly a part of the design team. While I'm being torn in multiple directions — dealing with the client, managing the overall media flow, and keeping everyone within the agreed-upon color palette for a given segment — he can really take the ball and run with it. He can watch a couple of run-throughs of a dance section and have a cue synopsis to present to me in a matter of minutes, enabling me to stay on top of the big picture at all times.
The load-in followed a very aggressive schedule under the direction of TD Peter Emminger of Yellow Light Live. We had two-and-a-half days to load in a significant rig, two stages, automation, and all the usual corporate show video equipment, including a five-camera package with a crane and an off-line editing suite, all for a one-day event. The crew had to strike 600 seats of stadium risers and reset the room, with the addition of a lounge area, another small stage, some rigged décor, and 200 tables with integrated LED lighting. We were rehearsing and programming until the doors opened, but in a matter of hours, we transformed a corporate theatre into a clubby dining room, and it all went like clockwork.
The evening event looked great, and the night finished off with performances by members of the Dancing With The Stars cast and singer Birdie Mendoza. It was a long day, but the thanks and accolades from our client made it all worthwhile.
4 MA Lighting grandMA Console
3 PRG Mbox Extreme Media Server
2 Barco Folsom ImagePro Switcher/Scaler
264 Barco MiTrix LED Panel
98 Barco ILite 6 LED Tile
40 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot
10 Vari-Lite VL2500 Spot
5 Vari-Lite VL2500 Wash
10 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash
36 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72
4 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 48
10 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal
34 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal
8 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal
2 ETC Source Four 50° Ellipsoidal
24 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
20 Wybron CXI Scroller