Search This Blog

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Computers in the Wings

From the Computer Vault Dept.: Computers were becoming a bigger-than-ever deal on Broadway in the mid-90s, so, as a writer for the then-gargantuan Computer Shopper magazine, I pitched a piece about examining the technology. I figured it would get me into some shows for free. I hadn’t met the misanthropes at Broadway’s PR agency, Boneau/Bryan-Brown. In other words, I figured wrong. Enjoy this glimpse into technology as obsolete now as it was new back then.


COMPUTERS BRING DIFFERENT KINDS of pleasure to the different people involved with the Broadway stage. To the Disney designers who spent $11.9 million bringing “Beauty and the Beast” to life, the $5 million worth of computer equipment give a cinematic perfection – not to say wonder – to the many effects, helping justify a $65 ticket. Computers move 1,000 pieces of scenery; computers control the miking of 38 actors and 26 musicians. And when a computer doesn't work correctly and delays the show, those musicians may end up collecting overtime pay. Which makes the musicians very happy.

"Coffee Break," from the 1995
"How to Succeed" on Broadway
Malfunctions are comparatively rare, however, which is testimony to the design and operation skill behind technology that has transformed Broadway and is in the process of changing live theater all over the world.

Linda Batwin is a partner in the video design team of Batwin + Robin (working with Robin Silvestri), whose work in multimedia over the past 12 years has always included some amount of computerization. As the control hardware has grown smaller and faster, her work has moved from corporate communications to include the Broadway stage – most notably, the ground-breaking video backdrop to “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

Working closely with scenic designer John Arnone, Batwin devised a rack of 32 oversized monitors – custom built to her specifications – run by four laserdisc players. “A lot of people still don’t do this kind of design,” she says, “because they think it’s too difficult or too expensive.” It’s made all the easier, she explains, by the combination of a PC-based hardware rig that includes interface cards to drive the laserdisc players and video wall, all controlled by ElectroSonic software.

“Most of the video walls you see don’t try for very sophisticated effects,” she says. “Just a lot of straight cuts. We needed smoother transitions for this show. I started with a wall that’s eight monitors high and four across, and we divided it into two banks of four by four. Each bank is driven by one laserdisc player, and two players are synced when we have one giant image up there.” Transitions are effected by an old Hollywood device: the dissolve, which, as far as she knows, hasn’t been used on Broadway before. “I insisted on it. How can you work in the theater without it?”

Arnone, who also works in film and television, finds current theater design to be something of a magic act because of the immediate audience response--an audience conditioned not only by movies but also the spectacle-driven shows by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh.

He and Batwin also worked together on Pete Townshend’s “Tommy,” where the computer proves to be a valuable aid while touring. A video rig comprising 44 monitors, five live cameras and a bank of laserdisc players for the Broadway production was scaled back slightly for the tour, with rack-mounted computers used to help size the rig for each particular venue.

Scenic effects are also now under computer control, and much of that equipment comes from Harris Production Services. They put a fully-automated system into “Phantom of the Opera” that controlled practically everything but the Phantom’s face – and in so doing changed the face of Broadway.

“We created a new theatrical window for our software,” says Harris vice-president David Rome. “You now have the ability to know the position of a scenic piece throughout its travel, you can create effects with seamless, cinematic transitions, and have full control over a number of effects all working at the same.”

A typical control style is called “Moses on the Mountain,” wherein a master control console drives the slave lighting, sound, and effects boards by sending out proprietary control code. A peer-to-peer network is part of the computer control system for Harris’ latest spectacle: “EFX” at the MGM Grand Theater in Las Vegas. The network makes each department that much more autonomous and adding an extra level of safety checks for a highly mechanized show.

Broadway began its computerization with the lighting for “A Chorus Line,” and lighting is still the dominant area in theater where computers are used. One of the biggest suppliers of such systems is Bash Theatrical Lighting in North Bergen, New Jersey, which rents to everyone from Broadway houses to high schools.

“It’s not a straightforward system of this computer or that,” says Bash senior systems engineer Paul Kleisser. “‘Sunset Boulevard’ uses some 486- and Pentium-based motherboards; other shows use a Macintosh.” Most of the newer lighting systems build the motherboard right into the lighting console, but he also works with systems that use an interface card that plugs into an EISA or PCI slot. “Those send MIDI or SMPTE code to the lighting board to indicate changes, and it’s all done with custom-designed software.” It’s an industry that stays as up-to-date as possible: a newly-designed console for the San Francisco Opera is supposed to be based on a P6 chip, says Kleisser, “but I don’t know where they got it from.”

The more intimate “Smokey Joe’s CafĂ©” brings the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to Broadway, but the show still has over 400 lighting cues that take place during its 105 minutes. Scenic designer Heidi Landesman used computer-printed graphics on the vinyl scrim; the traveling legs, which do yeoman’s service covering the many entrances and exits, are run as part of a computerized set movement control by Slow Motion, Inc.

Computers are also a tool for scenic and costume design, allowing designers to change proportions on the fly, alter sets to suit different venues, and even work long-distance. That’s one appeal the technology holds for Colorado-based designer Richard Finkelstein, who evangelizes that and other applications.

“I think the whole idea of telecommuting has an important promise for theater,” he says. “I used to use express mail constantly; now I can send my drawings over the modem, which is wonderful. If the director wants something changed, I can do a revision in a day. Commercially – with engineering firms and the like – this is happening all the time, but I think I’m one of the few who does it in the theater. Of course, it’s a two-way effort. I have to have someone at the other end who knows how to use the technology, too.”

Design is still in transition, he says, “because theater is all custom produced. Many of the shows I do are done in perspective, which means that if I have a wall with windows on it, every window is a different size. It can be done, but the challenge is to make things look like a computer didn’t do them.”

Finkelstein, whose “Peter Pan” flew from Albany to Moscow before settling into productions across the country, stresses the importance of remembering “the human element as you get immersed in the technology. It’s not the technology, after all, that’s perceiving the finished product--it’s the people in the seats. The real challenge is in understanding and using the technology in service of the art.”

“There’s always a danger of the technology quest taking over,” seconds Batwin. “That’s why we have to keep our knowledge of it as just as resource. The important questions you ask are ‘What are we trying to show?’ and ‘What are we trying to feel?’ If it’s all technical effects up there, you quickly realize that there’s nothing behind them.”

Computer Shopper, c. January 1996

No comments: