Live Show Control for Entertainment, Part 1
Jul 20, 2012 11:06 AM, With Bennett Liles
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Savannah, Ga., is an old town with lots of ghost stories. They even have a ghosts and gravestones tour that takes visitors right to the Perkins & Sons Chandlery where visitors are treated to live actors triggering effects from crashing objects to lighting and rain. The man behind the curtain on the design was Ryan McCurdy and he’s here with all the tech details, coming right up on the SVC Podcast.
SVC: Ryan, thanks for being back on the SVC Podcast. Had you on a while back and it’s good to be talking to you again. Working on a job in Savannah, Ga., for Historic Tours of America and it looks like these show control things are really fun to do. The Perkins & Sons Experience on historic River Street and you haven’t really been to Savannah if you haven’t been to River Street. So tell me a little about Historic Tours of America.
Ryan McCurdy: Yeah, Historic Tours, it was one of my biggest clients, is the undisputed leader nationally in tourism as far as bus tours, walking tours; they have operations all over the United States. Savannah’s one of their best biggest cities. They have walking components; they have a wonderful trolley tour and they operate from a prospective of wanting to incorporate as much of a live actor as possible. Their goal is telling the stories from a perspective where the actor retells. They’re bringing history to life more so than having someone in a polo shirt and khaki’s just walk around and point at things. They really try to bring historical accuracy into it and really make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time rather than that you’re in the present seeing what things were like. [Timestamp: 1:58]
And with as much history as there is in Savannah there’s plenty of time to step back into. So what’s the story on the Perkins & Sons Experience right there on River Street?
Well, River Street has been around as an institution since 1733, and it went through a number of pretty terrifying iterations in its time. It was the home of pirates; it was the home of bootleggers; it was not a pleasant place to be. These days it’s just on St. Patrick’s day where it gets a little bit out of control, but there is a deep history down there with the marina and of course you’ve got the Savannah River flowing both ways right in front. So Perkins & Sons came about as wanting to do an experience based on the history of River Street. And the Ghosts and Gravestones of Savannah Tour, which is a long running bus tour there, had been stopping at a number of buildings once went into one of the graveyards, once went into a historic building, but we actually had storefront space on River Street that we wanted to use for this. So they took a building, completely redid it, sound proofed it—basically gave the designers and the tech folks a completely empty blank space to make this event happen. The bus stops there about an hour and ten into the tour and then they spend about 20 minutes inside of Perkins & Sons. And it’s called—the full name of the building itself is the Perkins & Sons Chandlery, which was a real chandlery in Florida and a lot of the maritime exhibition, the props and set decoration, are from that actual chandlery. And that’s something that you would have seen if you had been there in the 1800s in the less savory times of our history. [Timestamp: 3:31]
Which is one of the things that makes it so much fun to explore. So what did they need as far as interactive tech stuff to help tell the story?
Without ruining too much of the surprise, it’s hailed as being just a warehouse visit, so you’re just going to go in and maybe meet the proprietor and see some of the stuff that’s in there. And so it starts out very traditionally; they point out a couple of things around the building and then you go into a back room, which is obviously not supposed to be visited. There’s a padlock on the door; there are signs telling you to not go in, and it’s when you get in there that things start going a little haywire and you end up meeting someone not from present time. Not the present owner, but someone that very well could be 100 or 150 years from our history. Interactively they’ve started directly from a perspective of not wanting to do a 3D film with 5D elements. They didn’t want to do that kind of a traditionalist experience, so they have a live actor that narrates an entire 28-minute tour, but they wanted to, from that storytelling base, add ghostly elements and that’s where all the interactivity comes into play. The whole place is wired with lights, sound; we have hydraulic effects. We have effects that are based out of DMX control—all sorts of stuff, which happen throughout and inclusive of the storytelling. [Timestamp: 4:47]
And you’re the one who put it all together and I think you went with Alcorn McBride gear for the most part on this one.
We did, Alcorn McBride, I always praise them because it works. I’m not biased, I don’t know anyone that works there from a family base. I have no reason to say other than the fact that it works. We use one of their black boxes, the V4 Plus, at Perkins & Sons. Actually, that hardware is now outdated, which is amazing; we could upgrade if we wanted to, but it’s been working so well eight times to 10 times a night without any trouble. As far as I know we’ve never had to do any major reset. I’ve flown down there to do maintenance, but never actually on the V4 itself. So we’ve got a show controller V4, which really kind of runs the show. We have a closet that’s soundproofed and thankfully has its own air conditioning, so that we keep everything cool. It’s a closet which is built into the set in a way that it looks as though it were actually a door to the outside and we sort of use the trickery of that to give ourselves space to have a V4, an AM4—which is the I/O controller—a DMX machine to handle some of the lighting as well as the rest of the effects, and then of course we have a plumbing system in place as sound receiver, an amp, and everything all on a series of tables in there. [Timestamp: 6:04] And you’ve got everything that runs the show all coming from that one hidden little area.
Sure, it’s behind that door, which to the guests it looks as though it’s going back out to the street, but in fact it goes into this environment behind that door. I would say [there’s] about 150 square feet inside that room. Everything’s racked in there, the laptop in case we ever need to augment with the V4s running. Everything’s in there as far as the power, surge protectors, all of the hardware—everything comes out of that room and runs around the exterior from there. We actually have two different stages of running wiring through this too, which was nice. We ran a lot of wiring along the ground naked, and then there is some wiring which is also inside of the wall and a lot of that came with the decision of knowing we might expand it in the future and wanting to leave ourselves open to an expansion—of which we’ve already gone through one and that was fairly painless because of the way we had wired it so. [Timestamp: 6:59]
It looks like sound design might be one of the more involved parts of this exhibit. So how do the hidden speakers and the audio playback stuff work?
Well, what’s great about it is since the actor really has the control over the entire experience, obviously we want to keep it under 25 minutes, but the actor has five different targeted buttons which are concealed throughout the venue and they have the opportunity to run sequences or not run sequences as the case may be. If, heaven forbid, something were to go wrong with the audience, they have the choice to put a complete halt to everything if they want to. But to the audiences prospective, it looks as though everything is just happening as a reaction to their storytelling and not their clever button pressing. But with the actor in charge, we had to create a soundscape that was very, very detailed—gave the actor clues of what was coming next effect-wise while not letting the audience in on the joke. So when the actor presses the first button, which is actually off stage for them, it sets into the soundscape the room tone, which is then a continuous sound for the rest of the show so that at no point do you ever hear the sound go completely out and at no point does it ever feel like you’re getting a jarring change of soundscape. All the buttons that they press, all of the effects all have additional sounds to augment them. Obviously something falling is scary enough, but if you have a giant metallic sound from a speaker it helps the thing. One of the best effects which I think I am allowed to talk about is a cotton elevator which drops a good 4 or 5ft. during the storytelling, and we have a combination of a hydraulic effect, which drops the cotton elevator, as well as a lighting effect, which isolates the cotton elevator for the audience to see as well as two hidden speakers and a subwoofer, which absolutely just tear that thing apart, which is a really great effect. We actually just have a traditional Dolby 5.1 system. All of the audio was rendered for a six-speaker control, and the speakers themselves were designed to be hidden around the space. One of them has a painted faceplate. None of them are visible to the audience, although three of them are well within view if the audience knew what they were looking for. [Timestamp: 9:10]
And you’re using the Alcorn McBride AM4 for all the audio playback functions in the system?
Yeah, the AM4, we actually have dual AM4s in the space. We found the AM4s because it’s solid state. It can only run one callback track at a time and rather than get an entire Binloop, an audio Binloop, where we could run a bunch of thing simultaneously, [there are] two AM4s and it allows us to piggyback the tracks so each new cue set runs from the alternate AM4 and that way there’s no chance that they ever hiccup or interrupt each other. But two AM4s controlling all that and I would say there’s probably 380 or 390 targeted sound effects within the show, which the actor controls seven major key sets. [Timestamp: 9:53]
And when you got all this down there and set up did you run into anything that made it more difficult? How long did it take to get all of the gear in and holes drilled, cables run, and all that?
Well, we started middle July and it opened just after Halloween. We were doing pretty accurate show testing for staff by the Halloween vacation time, which is a great time to put something into play because that’s considered to be some of the off season in Savannah. So when we put it into play it was with groups that weren’t quite sure what they were expecting. One night they were going in one house, and then the next night they were stopping on River Street and going into this crazy new experience. So it was that—July, August, September, October—pretty much 40-50 hour work weeks. Obviously the first thing that we did is we laid the entire network out. Pieces came in at different times, but we got the lights set. The V4 was show tested with all of the effects before we did any storytelling, and the script was rewritten to accommodate whatever—we kind of bounced back and forth. The script would be re-written to accommodate an effect we wanted to do or we would then see that he had done a great piece of writing and we would make the effect work for that. So it was a lot of back and forth, but once we knew that the V4 controlled things solidly, we started doing the actual scripting and in a very theatrical fashion we came from a nine-page script and I actually notated that for all of the timing and all of the time design and we ended up coming up with a very theatrical experience. [Timestamp: 11:20]
I know that’s got to be the fun part, when you watch this thing in testing and then get some more ideas along the way. So what was the most challenging part of it? Anything that was really difficult or tedious to work on?
Well, the interesting thing is with so many layered cues and so many layered buttons, there was a lot of show testing and a lot of needing the actors to run the show over and over and over because, since this is a very theatrical presentation, you can’t just press GO on certain section and see if it’s working. You really need the actor up there targeting all the cues, making sure that different transitions work. Obviously all the actors have different ways of telling the stories. They add their own flare to it and have their own timing, so it’s making sure that that worked. So really the hardest part was just the minutia of sitting there in the audience with the wireless connection on the laptop and watching and then making 10-15 script changes on the WinScript, which is Alcorn McBride’s scripting software and just getting things—there are effects that are down to the frame that were changed five or 10 times from frame to frame to frame just to make sure that it worked. And we are dealing with a water effect toward the end of the show and that was probably the most agonizing aspect. We obviously needed to run it for long periods of time to test the plumbing of it and of course everyone would get wet and there was no way you had to stop and mopped it up every once in a while, although it does have a pretty good drain system. Getting the exact number of frames we wanted of rain without either irritating our audience or making the audience not feel like they got wet—it was kind of a mid-point there that we worked on for, I would say, probably five straight days. [Timestamp: 12:54]
Well, when a crowd comes down to River Street in Savannah they’re going to be ready for just about anything. It’s a big party town. That would also make them relatively hard to impress I would think. A big job and I appreciate your being here Ryan to tell us about it the Perkins & Son Experience and Historic Tours of America. Ryan McCurdy of theryanmccurdy.com and we’ll see you back here for more on this in part two.
Fantastic. Always good to talk to you.
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