From Deere Revisited by Marian Sandberg, published in Live Design, reused with permission.
Most of those who work in corporate theatre say they love what they do: designing interesting projects in a variety of locations and at a wide range of budgets. And it’s often reuniting with people—an interesting client, a long time collaborator, or a respected technician—these designers say is the best part.
Few actually have an evangelical feeling about the products themselves. Unless you’ve got an unhealthy relationship with pharmaceuticals and their marketing strategies, or a childlike love of cars or computers, it’s often the work itself, and not the subject matter, which is most engaging. “Man, I can’t wait to hear what big pharma has planned for quarter three” is not something most self-respecting designers would mention to peers. “I certainly hope the brand extension this bank is planning is as exciting as it sounds” would be the muttering of someone seriously in need of a few weeks off.
However, Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design’s (UVLD) work for John Deere might be the exception. UVLD founding partner John Ingram recently replaced the 1963 tractor on his Virginia farm with a John Deere 5203 with a 533 loader, making chores “not only safer but, at times, fun,” he says. Ingram splits his time between lighting shows and dealing with his farm, so the continuing opportunity to light John Deere’s Agricultural Division’s Dealer Introduction is especially welcome. This year, the show took place for an audience of over 4,500 at Omaha’s Qwest Center and provided challenges unique to the project and the product line.
Executive producer Curt Reed of See Our Solutions (SOS) led the team with a clear mandate. “It was simple and understandable,” says Ingram. “The tractors were the stars of the show, but we’ve all lit gigs where such a simple concept is elusive. Curt is the kind of producer with good lighting ideas and valuable guidance. He asked for a ‘visual intersection of lighting centered on the floor at a couple points’ during this show. He wanted it during both video and live segments, and it had the ring of something that wouldn’t work, but it did. His vision began with his direction for the scenic and video design, and the process became truly exciting as we were able to combine the visual elements coherently in the show.”
The set, designed by Jerrod Smith of Designsmith Collaborative, placed the audience in the round, with one central globe of high-resolution projected video using the proprietary PufferFish system as well as nine 8’x8′ FlexiFlex medium-resolution LED ceiling grid sections. Six 12’x36′ front-projected screens handled the HD content, executed by video crew chief Tom Fouche and Corporate Image Associates.
Ingram partnered with UVLD associate lighting designer David Rees on the show from beginning to end. During rehearsals, Rees programmed wash fixtures and conventional lights, and during the run of the project, he operated the entire system. “This gig was cued to both track and tractor movement,” Ingram says. “There were many live adjustments and compensations to make, and David used his years of experience to evaluate these split-second decisions.”
UVLD’s Paul Sharwell was charged with programming all the spot units. “Any lighting designer will tell you that the ability to hide a ‘flaw’ can be equally important as making a fabulous look,” says Ingram. “This is intuitive for Paul.” The team was supported by head electrician Pete Campbell of CLS Productions, Inc., assistants Gerry Walls and Heath Goodwin, and a local crew.
Corporate Theatre in-the-Round
Conceptual discussions ultimately led to the creation of a theatre-in-the-round, which took the form of a series of concentric hexagons. Black drape hung from the outermost hexagon to form the walls of the theatre. Three alternating sides featured tractor entrances and exits while the other three sides had risers for audience seating. Each of the six walls had a 12’x36′ projection screen suspended from it.
“The need to accommodate large tractors and still make the video segments viewable from all seats presented the greatest technical challenge to the show,” Rees says. “All of the elements had to fit into a venue with ceiling obstructions as low as 30′. That left us only 2’6″ to work with, since the minimum height to the bottom of the screens was 15’6″, and the tops of the screen image were 27’6″. Such tight tolerances presented an especially tough challenge to rigger Kevin Leckey and technical director Brian Hemberger.”
Meeting Electrical Challenges
For Campbell, the tricky part of the technical layout was that, “although it was, in essence, a show in the round, three separate proscenium entrances/exits for the machinery precluded running cable across the floor at those entrances or anywhere along the outside of the perimeter other than along the drape line,” he says. “So it was, in effect, three mostly-identical systems built around a display area.”
Since one MA Lighting grandMA console was placed on each of the three risers for programming, all three zones needed to be networked together “so any programmer could go to any console and talk to any element of the show—conventionals, spot and wash fixtures, strobes, etc.,” Campbell adds. A total of 12 universes were required to accomplish this task with four universes per zone.
The new product introduction ran as a continuous 56-minute video without presenters, except for the very end of the production, creating a continuous digital timeline, unique for a corporate show. The track, conceptualized by Reed, composer Todd McGuire, and video producer James Henley, comprised a six-screen, synched tape roll displayed in 1920×640 resolution. The tape sent out stereo audio and a separate narration track to audio system designer Kelly Epperson of Easy Live Audio, who mixed them and sent the results out to the in-the-round audio system.
“SOS likes to create spectacles where the machines are the stars,” Rees says. “Once the show started, the tape never stopped. It was a logistical challenge to marry a fully-automated show with complex choreography for 37 machines ranging from 400lb lawnmowers to a 50,000lb tractor.”
The show was programmed with three grandMA desks in multi-user mode. UVLD visual media developer Cameron Yeary notes that the team maxed out the networking power of the grandMA. “We employed multi-user mode to program the show with three programmers and ‘worlds’ to confine us to what was in our individual systems. The new iPhone remote helped the technicians and programmers to focus and check parts of the rig without interrupting others, and the bitmap EFX engine controlled the layout of the LEDs covering the truss ceiling grid. Being able to seamlessly go from bitmap EFX to conventional effects and basic cueing is a great feature that not many consoles have.”
UVLD chose the PRG Mbox Extreme as the media server for the project, and PRG was quick to help with additional infrastructure to drive the unique surfaces involved. “The PufferFish had a custom plug-in created by PRG to take care of the spherical requirements needed,” Yeary says. “Both of the Mboxes were triggered by SMPTE to lock to the main screen video and create a seamless video environment.”
He emphasizes that “being able to control these video scenic elements along with the bitmap layout of the LED ceiling truly created a seamless-looking system from floor to ceiling and out to the surrounding video screens. Convergence of video and lighting is always a tricky thing. This was our second time using media servers for this client, and I feel that we really showed them the power of what they can do, from the on-the-fly capabilities of punching up contrast during certain points of the preproduced video to jumping in and out of UVLD content and client content to show variation during portions of the show.”
The in-the-round mapping of the FlexiFlex tiles proved to be a challenge. “We wanted to be able to play back one clip and have it look like it was radiating out of the center of the PufferFish onto the FlexiFlex, but because of the 120º rotation each Flexi panel had from the previous set, it caused the squares to be a bit off,” says Yeary. “This was never really an issue until the client requested a graphic of an arrow with straight edges. I was glad I could position each panel with its own arrow and background to make them appear to have straight lines.”
Sharwell operated all of the show’s automated spot fixtures, as well as 40 Martin Atomic 3000 strobes. “The show was really different from most,” he says. “Because it was all about the tractors, it was pretty much a barrage of reveals from start to finish with few breaks.” More than usual, Sharwell’s chief concern was clean programming and organization. “Since the spot programming is probably the most complex, and I leave before the first show, Dave Rees needed to make sense of what every fixture was doing in every moment of the show. For that reason, I took more time to label cues and organize palettes than I would have for a normal one-off.”
Another key aspect of the show was the dot system of marking vehicle positions that has become standard over the years. “Because multiple heavy vehicles were tracking and turning on a concrete floor, it was impossible to mark the floor correctly for vehicle positioning,” Sharwell explains. “The zoomed and irised spot fixtures were used to create bright white dots that appeared every time a tractor entered or repositioned and faded out a few seconds after the machine hit its mark. This allowed more accuracy in vehicle placement, so we could light the machines tighter and more precisely.
“While there is nothing artistic about this process, the dots are supremely important for safety reasons as well as for the comfort factor of the drivers,” he continues. “No matter where we were in our cueing process, if a tractor was moving, his dot needed to appear. It always amazes me that the drivers can see their dots with the level of flash we have during their drives. If we made a big change, I needed to spend extra attention on keeping the dot sequence and timing untouched.”
Sharwell found the new product introduction to be quite complex. “In addition to the ballet of the machines, the music track running through the show was dynamic and called for a continuous flow of cueing, at times subtle and other times flashy. A cue based on a music change may have been the start of a flashy effect, a change to another effect, the lighting of an entrance area, and a new sequence of dots appearing, each with its own timing. This was further complicated by the need for all the cue lists to have the same called cues so they could be executed together.”
Despite these complexities, Sharwell declares that the show is “one of the most enjoyable to program because it is lighting at its purest—no speakers or PowerPoint presentations, simply video, loud music, and lots of moving vehicles. I liked having the whole space as our canvas and finding ways to make it look dynamic and different through every part of the show. The producers and clients were very lighting-oriented and didn’t hold us back, so every video or music change had a lighting cue associated with it, but there was enough rehearsal time to fine-tune every cue. We really got to experiment creatively and leave happy with the finished project.”
In the end, there is no doubt the team inherited Ingram’s excitement about the Deere products. While it’s rare for a lighting designer to take an enthusiast’s interest in a parade of vehicles, it made the show all the more enjoyable and resulted in a tightly woven production of which everyone was proud. Moving forward, new products will come, and who’s to say how the reveal of the future will look, be it for tractors or lighting gear.
Producer: See Our Solutions, Inc.
Executive Producer : Curt Reed
Lighting Design: UVLD
Lighting Designer: John Ingram
Associate Lighting Designer: David Rees
Programmer: Paul Sharwell
Visual Media Developer: Cameron Yeary
Head Electrician: Pete Campbell, CLS Productions, Inc
Assistant Electricians: Gerry Walls, Heath Goodwin
Produced by: See Our Solutions, Inc. (SOS)
Scenic Designer: Jerrod Smith, Designsmith Collective
Audio System Designer and Mixer: Kelly Epperson, Easy Live Audio
Technical Director and Stage Manager: Bryan Hemberger, Stage Management, Inc.
Video Elements: Universal Images
Video Lead: Tom Fouche
A2: Russell Emery
Projectionist/Asst. Tape Op: Bill Lewis
Engineer In Charge: John Pendergast
Director: Dave Lyons
Spyder Programmer: Michael Barkley
Asst. Projectionists: Michael Fallon and Randy Taylor.
Head Carpenter: Don McGuire, Owner, McGuire Scenic Inc
Rigger: Kevin Leckey, OTB Consulting LLC
9 8’x8’ FlexiFlex LED Grid
1 PufferFish 360º Projection Sphere
2 PRG Mbox Extreme v.3 Media Server
3 MA Lighting grandMA Console
198 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal (14º, 19º, 26º, 36º)
41 ETC Source Four PAR
34 14” Scoop
36 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot
33 Vari-Lite VL2500 Spot
27 Vari-Lite VL2500 Wash
18 Martin Professional MAC III Profile
16 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance
48 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash
36 Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobe
172 Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12
6 Le Maitre Radiance Hazer
3 Jem Fogger
53 lighting truss
Over 3 miles of multicable
Lighting: Christie Lites, Larry Thomas
FlexiFlex LED: RGB Lights, Chicago
PufferFish: Video West
Video: Corporate Image Associates
Audio: OSA Int’l
Qwest Center Rigging:
J&S Audio Visual