Conceived and designed by its three founders, CEO Rami Ajami, Chief Creative Officer Rania Ajami, and creative director Walter Krudop, Pip’s Island combines innovative puppetry, digital animation, cutting-edge technology, and live actors to create an immersive theatrical adventure for young audiences and families. At this custom-built flagship attraction in New York, children journey through thematic rooms, encountering challenges where they can earn achievement badges called "sparks," which they can use to save the island's inhabitants from the darkness of the villain, Joules Volter, who has taken over the Lighthouse, the island's energy source.
Director of Production, David Valentino, assembled a world-class group of scenic fabricators, visual and installation artists, musicians, sound and lighting designers, puppeteers, and live actors to create a multi-sensorial world: lighting designer Al Crawford; scenic fabricators Pink Sparrow, Monkey Boys, Paper Maché Monkey, John Creech Design and Production, and Infinite Scenic; video designer Rocco DiSanti; sound designer and show control designer Brett Jarvis; and more.
The Show Control
The biggest challenge of the sound design was audio routing and mixing. “Making sure the 30 channels of RF mics were routed to the correct loudspeakers in 10 rooms with multiple pulses and casts running simultaneously was a significant task,” explains sound designer and show control designer Brett Jarvis. “Also, how does one mix all of those mics? These sorts of questions started popping up with other departments as well. This is what eventually led to us taking on the larger show control role.”
In January 2017, Jarvis and Pip’s Island director of production David Valentino knew that while timecode was the obvious answer to monitor four shows at once, it would ruin the organic nature of the experience. “The key piece of how Pip’s works is that we want to empower children through their actions,” says Valentino. “If you can imagine being in a show, and suddenly that story is advancing on its own, with a group of kids that are 30 seconds behind, it is going to ruin any sort of empowerment that they have.” They needed a tool that would allow them to put on a huge show with cues and effects in realtime.
Ten years ago, Jarvis worked with Sean Beach on The Ride, a tour bus project for which Beach invented a custom show control tracking system. It had a machine learning system where the brain lived remotely in a data center in the financial district, and it could make informed decisions and take control of the bus, relying on the internet since the buses were in motion. It evolved over the next 10 years into ShowPulse, complete with an AI backend, processing, remote control, and self-healing features, a system powerful and intelligent enough to handle the complexity of Pip’s Island.
“The software has been in what I call ‘endless beta’ for about 10 years now,” says Beach. “We launched in 2010 as a simple red/green dot in the menu bar of a Mac computer on The Ride. It has evolved into the product it is today by virtue of the shows, including Pip’s, that have come since then. We never really could have rapidly deployed it without the code, field testing, and learning experiences that happened on half a dozen shows in the past.
“It would also be disingenuous to say that the sheer size of Pip's didn’t lead to critical optimizations, new features, and more,” he continues. “I’m a firm believer that you don’t really learn much unless you dive into the deep end. Pip’s seemed bottomless when we first started putting it together, but we did it and now we know a lot more about how to piece a system this huge together, and so does ShowPulse.”
ShowPulse offers a platform where pieces of gear can be plugged in like Lego blocks. What the devices are do not matter. Even if the devices speak different languages, ShowPulse, which speaks OSC, acts as a translator and wires them together. When something goes wrong on one of those devices, the computer traces its virtual wiring, isolates the problem, routes around it, and gives operators a visual roadmap to getting back online.
“We’ve actually done a test where I rip the power cord out of the back of a playback machine,” says Beach. “Within 100ms, ShowPulse has detected the failure, found the most stable machine, switched all the relevant matrix inputs, and the operator has been alerted that a machine has gone down, which one it is, where it is, and why. Once that machine comes back online, it’s provisioned, caught up to the others, and put in the pool to be a backup for another machine. The audience can barely tell anything has happened at all.”
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater lighting director and Pip’s Island lighting designer, Al Crawford of Arc3Design, compliments, “In my opinion with 20 plus years of professional theatre and design, ShowPulse is actually the next generation of control infrastructure.”
Throughout the 10 rooms, there are five Dataton Watchout machines, two ETC Eos RPUs, 30 HD cameras, two video matrices, 10 sound processors/matrices, a digital mixer, 8 QLab machines spooling audio, and two more QLab machines distributing called cues to all the aforementioned equipment. Everything runs over two high performance networks: one for show control, lighting, and video and one for Dante audio. Five operators each control an ever-changing subset of those pieces of equipment, sometimes simultaneously.
The programming for Pip’s Island show system is both incredibly simple and insanely complex, say Beach and Jarvis. Every department has its own programmer: Zak Al-Alami on lighting, Ben Hagen on special effects, Rocco DiSanti on video, and Evan Cook, who programmed both sound and show control.
“Once the gear was in the room, powered up, configured, and ‘introduced’ to ShowPulse, it builds it’s virtual wiring network and sits back, watches, and learns,” explains Beach. “When something isn’t working right, we go back in and say, ‘That was wrong.’ Otherwise, it quietly sits there learning how things are supposed to react to a myriad of inputs. This is a component to programming that is new to show control, less so to anyone working with machine learning.”
Things that happen in one room preset cues for the next room. “The system had to be designed, and more importantly programmed, in such a way that allows up to four different audiences in the space at one time, without impacting each other,” he adds. “A lot of this logic lies in human discussion and observation, and Evan remains the authority for Pip’s Island.”
Five operators reside outside the show space in “cockpits” where they watch over a closed-circuit television with an audio monitor. Each cockpit can jump into any pulse at any time and drive. “I can even jump on and drive the system from an airplane as we’ve learned,” quips Beach. Two or more cockpits can drive concurrently. “But really, we have just one ‘operator’ with an unlimited amount of memory to keep track of what fader is who, and where that fader should go at any given time: ShowPulse. ShowPulse delegates off pieces of human-level control (levels, meters, cue lists, status) to our human operators, and then interprets their actions, weaving it in to its own.”
With such a complex system, collaboration was paramount. “Everyone on the design team was willing to work with all of the intricacies involved and was willing to compromise for the overall good of the production,” confirms Jarvis.
Stay tuned for more on the build and production.