Or, How to Launch a Product Post-September 11
It's September 27, 2001, just over two weeks after the events of September 11. Imagine on that day you're sitting in your workspace, whether that's your office, your studio, or your living room. Imagine a client of yours calls, wanting to put on an ambitious public event in five weeks. What do you do?
Here's your brief: GMR Marketing has been charged with the live marketing aspects of the Xbox campaign to get Microsoft's new gaming console out to the public. If the premise for Xbox is simple — build the ultimate console for gamers — then the preview event had to be just as straightforward. Xbox Unleashed is to be the ultimate event for gamers.
GMR Marketing's Xbox Unleashed concept is a 48-hour gaming competition, open to the public with two events happening simultaneously in Los Angeles and New York. The parties are to take place in high foot traffic areas to expose the high-output social energy and cool factor to unsuspecting passersby. You are being asked to design and produce the theatrical, scenic, and audio-visual elements of the LA event, which is scheduled to take place at Universal CityWalk.
On September 27 last year, Charlie Whittock of Image Event and Julia Zarro of Zed Ink got the call to produce and design the event, respectively. Charlie and Julia assembled the initial team: I was brought in to help with creative and for lighting design, Ken Kaler production-managed, Carrie Schupper assisted Julia, did the dirty work, and watched our backs. We headed out to Universal Studios, met the team from CityWalk, and checked out the site.
THIS IS DIFFERENT . . .
When we first saw the cinema courtyard selected for the site, it looked like we had more than enough space for the Xbox Unleashed event. Luckily, the Universal Studios production team members we met with were on their game; they told us that the fire marshal mandates that a fire truck must be able to pass through at all times. The fire lanes were 35' (10.5m) wide. I shudder to think what would have happened if we didn't talk to the fire department early.
In the courtyard, we were stuck with a 20'x35' (6x10.5m) space that was barely large enough to hold a fraction of the event. We decided to put the competition there and enclose it in a two-story-high, clear green Plexiglas structure. The underlying structure was a standard self-climbing roof, supplied by Total Structures. We decided to throw the rest of event upstairs in the adjoining food court. We needed to reinforce the Xbox brand, so we planned to close all of the restaurants and wrap them all, Christo-like, in Xbox green stretch fabric.
My secret confession is that creating the lighting design was less about art and much more about practical reality. To that end, we went with the two lighting companies that had the most experience in the venues we were working in. ELS supported us at CityWalk by supplying two lighting systems of Martin Professional MAC 600s for the courtyard and the upstairs food court. In the theatre where bands were performing, Radiance Lighting supplied a rock-and-roll power wash rig with additional High End Studio Colors® for movement and effects.
Again and again and again, the people we work with in our business amaze me. It's very easy to come up with ideas; it's a whole other prospect to get those ideas built.
I had no grid to hang lights from and putting lights on the floor was a trip hazard. Then Rob Kerwath, master electrician, came onboard; he was able to figure out how to hang a lighting position off an existing structure. In this case and in so many instances, finding practical solutions was much more difficult than generating design concepts.
Julia, our production designer, had similar experiences. It's one thing to say we'll wrap the buildings in green spandex, but it wasn't until the boys from Kisch Rigging came in and worked with the Universal team, the fire marshall, the building people, and the engineers that they figured out a way to install a pipe from which to hang the fabric.
By far the most monumental challenges that lay ahead of us surrounded our two-story, green Plexi competition arena.
The first slap of reality was the fire marshall insisting that 80mph (128km) winds were a common occurrence in CityWalk because the architecture funneled and amplified the winds. Our competition arena was shaping up to have to protect from the rain, withstand earthquakes, hold up to high winds, and protect from sun glare.
We looked up the wind data that night. At 63mph (100km), trees are uprooted. 73mph (117km) winds cause widespread damage. Our own joke was that 30mph (48km) winds were enough to keep most Southern Californians at home.
To add to our problems, we heard from our suppliers that there wasn't a single sheet of green Plexi to be found anywhere in North America.
In hindsight, and especially looking at the pictures of the finished product, it's very easy for us to look back on it and think the solutions came easily. But there were some pretty dark and depressing evenings when it seemed like a solution just wasn't going to come.
Of course, the only alternative is to come out swinging. Charlie compromised with the safety people that if a major storm were to come through the Southern California area, we'd shut the event down. Our big green box now had to be engineer-certified only for 60mph (96km) winds.
In the meantime, Julia was working with Bill Brower and the A&D Scenery team who were building the cube. They were trying to come up with an alternative cladding to the green Plexiglas. They looked at acrylics, vinyl coating, translights, duratrans, scrims, perforated metals, and more. We contemplated going clear with the box until we saw the new Nintendo commercials featuring a clear glass cube in public spaces. All the while, every potential supplier of green Plexi was burning the phone lines looking for a stash of the stuff. We had ignited a North American suppliers' race — they all knew that whoever found the clear green sheets first would make a very easy sale.
None of the alternative claddings were great. Either they just didn't look as good or they couldn't hold up to the environment or they weren't transparent enough or they were prohibitively expensive. Thankfully, one supplier finally found a stash of 50 green Plexi panels in New Jersey.
The A&D Scenery team generated amazingly detailed schematics that were more like architectural blueprints than scenic drawings. The structural engineer suggested some changes, Julia modified them, we got approvals, and away we went!
Of course, the only time it rained on us was during the load-in and the load-out. The event itself was greeted with beautiful weather. We had no glare problems, no security issues, no space problems. Best of all, the gamers, the clients, and the staff all had fun for two days straight. On a personal level, we were really proud of how everything turned out.
Xbox Unleashed was just one event, but the implications are for all of us in this post-September 11 world. It's become more important to work with all types of safety and security personnel earlier in the game. We were lucky we had the fire marshal at our first meetings; he was able to set us straight on fire lanes which let us start with the correct assumptions in our space planning.
Security has become a substantial item in any producer's budget: Metal detectors and bomb sweeps are now standard line items. Space planners have to plan for multiple rings of security. Event planners and facilities managers have to allow that it takes two to three times as long for a crowd of people to get into large public spaces because of security sweeps.
Less obvious is that facilities' and insurance companies' paranoia factor has justifiably ratcheted up on even non-security issues. Structural engineers need to get in the game earlier and more pervasively. For scenic and production designers and scenic companies, it will become more important to find structural engineers who understand the nature of temporary production and can approve builds on the basis of non-permanent building standards. It becomes more important to find insurance carriers that are dialed into what it is that we do and make sure that our backs are covered.
Ultimately, we in the entertainment community can bring the same kind of innovation and creativity to our clients and their clients that we always have. We just have to be better prepared.
Arnold Serame is a freelance lighting designer and programmer and creative director. He can be reached at [email protected].