- by Jacob Coakley
Charting the advances in engineering that help theatres work smarter to make effects bigger as the tech gets smaller
When The Phantom of the Opera first began to tour, theatres across America had to upgrade their steel so they could accommodate the hardware necessary for the chandelier effects. Now, thanks to advances in technology, that chandelier appears in community theatres and high schools—along with turntables, scenic wagons and more. The companies behind those advances in automation, hoists and dimming are still working on bringing even more great effects to venues unforeseen. We spoke with leaders at each to find out what they’re working on to help theatres work smarter, not harder, to make shows safer and more dazzling.
“Variable Speed Control.” Not a phrase that makes the normal theatre audience member get excited—but it should. According to Patrick Finn, product manager at J.R. Clancy, it’s behind most of the increases in a theatre’s ability to perform spectacular effects. “For many years the primary type of hoist installed in theatres were slow moving or fixed speed,” says Finn. “But as more hoists have begun to go into theatres, there’s been a lot of innovation in what control capabilities are available and affordable.” The J.R. Clancy SceneControl Consoles all operate on the same Raynok software—from the 10-inch SceneControl 5200 to the their top-of-the-line 5600. And that means no matter what size of theatre you have, you can do spectacular things. “You have an incredible capability to control various speeds, capacities, motion as well as different types of hoists and machinery.”
SceneControl software is compatible with all J.R. Clancy stage machinery and many other motors and drives out there—and they’re constantly expanding the software’s library to include more, so theatres can expand or add-on to an install for a specific show if they want—J.R. Clancy’s extensive line of hoists can accomplish quite a lot, too. They cover everything from adding motorized control to existing counterweight sets, smaller hoists capable of handling a lightweight FOH lighting position, to the Powerlift which is most widely used stage hoist. “And then we have our Titan hoist, which is capable of lifting up to 3300 pounds at speeds up to 600 feet per minute, our Performer hoist for complex 3D flying, which can be used in performer flying and other types of 3D motion control,” says Finn. “We’ve been pushing the envelope as long as the company’s been around—which is quite a while. We’re pushed by our customers and theatre consultants who have visions for new ideas and help us push our boundaries and figure out ways to do things that haven’t been done before.”
They recently supplied a custom hoist for an arena that installed a wire-tension grid the size of the arena floor (creating a hoist system capable of lifting 84,000 pounds) which allows the venue to transform from an arena to a more intimate space. They also recently supplied a hoist and gantry system for moving LED walls at Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif. with Pacific West Sound. The system lifts and tracks the panels downstage for more impact, or back and up into special cut-outs in the wall to create a seamless panel. Their partnership with Wenger continues to grow and bear new fruit, too. “Working together has given us new insights and capabilities in how to provide a system best suited for the needs of a theatre designer and how to provide superior equipment integration.” And that’s smarter for everyone.
Gareth Conner, founder of Creative Conners, has great respect for the advances in stage technology that larger shows have pioneered—and just as much for the smaller theatres and schools who want to replicate those effects in their spaces. But even so, he says these effects will be a little more … streamlined. “The effects going into high schools are smaller,” Conner says. “They’re still marvelous effects, but they’re not as big.”
They can be smaller thanks to advances in the hardware. “Brushless servo technology has made motors incredibly dense, able to offer an awful lot of horse power in a small package. That’s driven us to make our systems smaller and lighter,” says Conner. Combined with advances in driver technology, it means that more options are available for more spaces—even those without the largest backstage space. And that let’s companies like Creative Conners offer modular, portable automation packages that are easy to rent, program and use for any theatre.
“The biggest stumbling block for theatres and schools is not around gear anymore—it’s financial,” says Conner. Creative Conners offers a host of rental and service options so community theatres and schools—who might not be able to justify the expense of ownership, can still have the “wow” moments. “Renting means no sacrifice of vision.”
Their Spotline is a lifting kit, the Pushstick kit will help people push or pull wagons across a stage, and the Revolver kit is for turntables. Their Curtain Call kit is for moving curtains and large dimensional scenery. You can even use the kits in combination with one another. On Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for example, you can use the Spotline in combination with the Pushstick to make the car fly.
Finally, their Spikemark software helps people create custom motion. “Being able to download Spikemark for free and pre-viz your motion is very helpful. Depending on effect—like the turntable for Les Mis—most people don’t need us on-site for in-depth training. Spikemark is so easy to use, just about anyone can get stuff moving on stage very quickly. We’re always available for tech support—but many times after we walk them through the first cue they get it. It’s thrilling to see how Spikemark’s intuitive interface unleashes creativity.” For more intricate effects they supply people as well as gear, all to make sure the show goes without a hitch. They’ve also opened a West Coast office, with Peter Veal working out of LA for sales and support. “We have someone who can be anywhere quickly for support at any stage in the creative process, whether you are planning the next show or ready to write cues.”
Jim Smith, president and founder of RC4 Wireless, credits LEDs with helping everyone work smarter (and take that Phantom chandelier to new places). But he also knows that LEDs have created one of the biggest headaches for lighting programmers today: LED pixel tape.
Pixel products seem to be everywhere and can easily take over a console. A five-meter medium-density pixel string provides 160 LEDs, which is 480 DMX channels; add just 10 more pixels and you’ve consumed an entire universe just one bit of hardware! Enter the RC4Magic DMXPix from RC4 Wireless, which—thanks to some clever coding—can collapse several universes of control into one, or less than one. To demonstrate the effect, Smith hired David Wolstenholme to program a demonstration at the PLASA show in London, starting with 10 meters of LED tape for a total of 320 LEDs. Red-green-blue for each pixel took 960 channels—nearly two universes—but it looked great. “Dave is an incredible Hog4 programmer, and he had beautiful stuff rippling in from the sides and texturing across.” Then Smith set up 40 more meters of LED tape —but instead of needing 1920 channels to put multiple effects across twice as many pixels, it required a total of only 119 channels. “And it looks completely great,” says Smith. “Lighting guys at the show just freaked out.”
The DMXpix accomplishes this trickery through patterning: taking advantage of the fact that most effects are sections of fades and colors repeated over and over. The DMXPix lets programmers design an effect, with complete custom control, and then decide how to pattern that effect along the pixels. “It’s not canned effects,” says Smith. “The designer and programmer are in complete control, deciding how many channels are to create what I call the ‘key frame.’ And then they take advantage of the features in our RC4 driver to bounce and reflect their key frame down the chain in various ways.” The results—and channel savings—are eye-popping.
But Smith and RC4 don’t stop there. In addition to channel bloat they’re also tackling bandwidth overload. “The 2.4GHz band really is getting crowded,” Smith says. “The environment is becoming more and more challenging, and performance anomalies at 2.4GHz, no matter what system is used, are on the rise.” Rather than put up with diminished performance, Smith offers a way to relinquish the band entirely, offering a line of equipment that operates in the much less congested 900MHz band. “The thing about radio is that lower frequencies—all else being the same—propagate better,” says Smith. There’s a smaller list of countries the 900 band is available in, but where it’s available —including the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Australia—it works really well. RC4Magic-900 is going into several high-profile venues to help production deal with a shifting wireless environment, and make sure they can work smarter now, and well into the future.
Robert Dean, founder and president of eZ-Hoist—which he spun off from his company ZFX Flying—is big into uniqueness. While Dean recognizes that every version of Phantom must have a chandelier, he asserts that no one has to do it the same as someone else. “Schools and community theatres are doing their own unique productions, and therefore don’t need to figure out how to rig the same chandelier,” says Dean. “So that gives us an infinite number of technical options.”
Luckily, Dean set up eZ-Hoist to handle anything custom. Over two decades ago he invested in infrastructure that positioned ZFX to manufacture their own hoists and equipment for performer flying. Now that they’re offering that equipment under the eZ-Hoist brand to clients needing stage automation, it’s easy to customize anything. “We can make a customized product quickly and easily. We can build on demand, so there’s no long waiting period,” says Dean. “If you need a hoist with, for instance, a longer drum—no problem. It may be custom to a client—it’s not listed in our catalogue—but it’s just a minor change to us. We can customize it quickly, but still charge about the same price as our stock products.”
The other thing that helps eZ-Hoist create customized effects is the fact that their machinery and hardware is plug and play with most of the common automation systems. “The entire line of eZ-Hoist products are high-end, professional products priced for small theatres, and designed to be easy to use and install,” says Dean. If a theatre has gear and a control system from another manufacturer, eZ-Hoist has designed their gear to fit right into their system. “You unload it, plug it in, and it will work and work easily. If a theatre already has a foundation of automation from another company, they can buy ‘Lego blocks’ from us that will work. That’s why they’re called eZ-Hoists.” Dean also has confidence in his customer support—“It’s second to none”—so whether someone needs help inserting eZ-Hoist gear into a setup, or wants the eZ-Hoist crew to come in and design and install the entire effect, they’re up to the challenge. “In our line of work, we can’t play games,” Dean says. “But all this customization and dedication means a theatre can match the automation to their design, not designing or directing around a packaged cookie cutter effect.”