Beyond City Limits For ACL: The Venue and Lighting

Texas may be known for its oil wells and cattle, but the city of Austin is certainly the state's best music showcase, as well as home to Austin City Limits (ACL), a PBS program recorded live by KLRU since 1976.

In February 2011, after 35 years in the legendary KLRU Studio 6A, ACL moved to its new home, the $40 million, state-of-the-art Moody Theatre, which also serves as a concert venue for Austin City Limits Live and SXSW (South By Southwest music festival), with a variable seating capacity between 300 and 2,700 seats on three levels. The opening night concert featured Willie Nelson, while the Steve Miller Band headlined the first ACL show to be taped in the new space.

Designed by architectural firms BOKA Powell and Rios Clementi Hale, with additional work by Andersson-Wise Architects, the venue is located in a commercial complex, attached to a W Hotel, with retail on the ground floor. On the second floor, the Moody Theatre actually has easier access than the former sixth-floor TV studio. "There is a dedicated loading dock with freight elevator, where the old venue had no loading dock and an elevator shared by the rest of the facility,” says Curtis Kasefang of Theatre Consultants Collaborative (TCC), who coordinated the lighting and rigging systems, plus seating layout for the venue. “It is designed to function like the old studio where most bands used the in-house rig.” The primary goal was to make this venue feel as much like the old studio as possible, so that the main floor has the same proportions, and the audience has the same proximity to the stage. “In studio mode, it seats 300 to 500 and mimics the interior of Studio 6A,” notes Kasefang. “In venue mode, it holds 2,700, with no seat further than 80' from the stage, and will host 60 to 100 concerts per year. In addition to the usual complexity of a theatre, we needed to consider the production suites for a television studio and the desire for flexible staging and seating.”

The adjustable seating, specified by TCC, comprises telescoping risers and seats on the main level by Jezet. These can be used in three ways: as loose seats on a flat floor, on the telescoping risers, or completely removed for a mosh pit environment. Level two has premium theatre seating and VIP suites, while the upper balcony, with additional theatre seating, can be closed off with a large U-shaped blackout curtain that drops just behind the balcony rail to create a space approximately the size of the old Studio 6A. The 1,491 installed theatre seats are Roma by Mobiliario. In addition to audience sightlines, camera angles also had to be considered. “Two pedestal cameras are in the middle of the audience for shooting Austin City Limits, in addition to two hand-held cameras, two jib cameras, and a robotic camera on the balcony rail,” says Kasefang. “We had to be careful about what the cameras do and don’t want to see. They start with a tracking shot from behind trees to give the illusion that ACL is filmed on a hillside outside of Austin, with a tracking shot from behind the trees, but it all takes place in the studio with an iconic city skyline. The new venue is very much a black box, but when the skyline is flown in and turned on, it becomes magical.”

The venue is somewhere between a television studio and concert venue with permanent followspot positions (using Robert Juliat Victor units) and multiple trusses for flexibility, along with permanent positions for fixtures to wash the audience and low front-light positions for TV usage. Kasefang and his team looked at what lighting was used for the show originally and worked with production managers Billy Heaslip and John Wheatley from ACL Live, and with Walter Olden of Olden Lighting from the broadcast side, to make sure the new rig layout was as multifunctional as possible for live and broadcast purposes. The rig itself—supplied by Barbizon Lighting—comprises 40 High End Systems Intellaspots, 52 Philips Strand Leko Lite units (fixed and zoom with FastFit lamps), and 50 Wybron Cygnus LED fixtures, with performance lighting control via a High End Systems Road Hog Full Boar with full expansion wing and a Philips Strand Light Palette VL3. Additional gear includes ETC Sensor+ dimmers and Lyntec motorized breakers, with architectural control via an ETC Unison Paradigm system.

“Billy had specific ideas about the live lighting for the venue,” says Olden, who has worked with the broadcast lighting of Austin City Limits for years. “The varying functions of the Intellaspots provided us the ability to do color washes and patterns, illuminate, and do anything that having a spot or wash would give us. This way we were able to integrate 40 moving lights, all the same, and any place, whether hung or on the floor, we’ve got the same ability to do what we want.”

“The rig was designed so it can grow and change to meet the needs of the two primary tenants and their different stage heights,” adds Kasefang, noting that the ACL TV stage is just 1' high, so that the pedestal cameras are pretty much at the same level, while the ACL Live concert stage sits 5' off the floor. Stage and camera platforms are by StageRight. Built by Custom Creation, the iconic ACL skyline was illuminated by Olden Lighting. It uses three Rosco LitePads, as well as a High End Systems Axon media server (with custom content in Adobe After Effects to map each window element) that feeds HDMI to a Barco Vizomo L1i processor/digitizer, which sends PXL addressing over Cat5e to nine Barco Helix node boxes that drive 36 Helix P1 flexible 150mm LED pixel strings.

Provided by Texas Scenic, the rigging system has 10 winched trusses (for electrics) with pantograph power feeds, as well as two winched utility pipes and a winch for the skyline. A full grid over the area in front of the balcony adds flexibility to the room. “Everything can be gridded to allow a touring rig to be flown below,” notes Kasefang. Texas Scenic used Tomcat truss, manufactured the motor and drum assemblies, and provided control via the company’s DeckBoss portable handheld control system with a manual backup. Texas Scenic also provided some of the soft goods, including VIP box curtains. John Owens, VP of sales, worked on the project, and Michael Freeman was Texas Scenic’s project manager.

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