More ambitious staging helps candidates and parties sharpen their pitch

Once upon a time, staging a political campaign event meant lighting enough torches for a decent torchlight parade. As recently as 1992, third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot managed to command national attention using nothing more than basic flip charts.

Those days are gone, however. Today, political campaign rallies, fundraisers, and other events are making use of sophisticated audio and video technologies as never before. It's all part of the drive to appeal to and entertain voters — both hard-core faithful and fence sitters alike.

Politics has always included a valuable entertainment component, “especially back in the days when there wasn't much other entertainment available,” says professor Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.

The biggest change today is that people have plenty of other entertainment options at their command. Political events must compete for attention. That may be why the Democratic National Committee once again hired the production team of Don Mischer and Ricky Kirschner to stage its national convention in Boston this year. Both are experienced producers whose résumés include awards shows, TV programs, and such major live events as Olympic opening and closing ceremonies.

Kirschner says the Democratic convention's big challenge this year was to attract TV coverage in order to get the message through to the folks at home.

“With the people in the [Convention] hall, you're preaching to the choir,” he says. “We don't control the television coverage, but we can only hope to put on something they will want to cover.”

“These things are so choreographed,” says Herrnson. “What they do in the hall is designed to evoke shouts and screams to be heard by the general audience outside the hall. If it's cutting edge, it will make it into the hall.”

This philosophy goes beyond the party conventions. According to Herrnson, even smaller, local campaign events are staged, above all else, to “attract free media coverage.” A successfully staged event “dominates the news, puts out a positive message for the candidate, and keeps the opponent from getting air time.”

On the Campaign Trail

It's no surprise that both major party national conventions in 2004 were AV showcases. What's equally true is that many of their campaign events were also big AV shows, as the candidates and their surrogates toured the nation for several months prior to the November election. Industry observers also report a trend toward more high-end staging activities for regional and local candidates and events across the nation.

“A typical, national campaign might do 400 to 500 events,” says David Grossman, founder of Political Productions Group in Washington, D.C., who has worked on dozens of national, state, and local efforts. “Some can be piggy-backed, but most are free-standing.”

Each of these events can generate its own set of specifications. As a general rule, national campaign officials provide specs, but they want to hire locally.

“Campaigns like to infuse money into local economies,” Grossman says. “We utilize local labor wherever we go, and we buy and rent a lot of things locally.”

A typical presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial campaign stop might require a pair of 9'×12' screens, served by 5000-lumen rear projectors.

“With any less brightness than that, you just don't get it,” Grossman says. These events are often lit with TV coverage in mind, so the projected images must be extra bright to compete.

Grossman adds that he usually relies on a Folsom Image Pro switcher to handle inputs for these events, which typically include IMAG, DVD playback, and PowerPoint slides from laptop computers.

Lighting can be a particular challenge on the campaign trail because stagers rarely have a chance to put up trusses and hang equipment in the way they would for a more traditional staged event. “The typical lighting company often has to rip apart their equipment,” Grossman says. “Somebody from a motion picture background can often do this better than a concert person.”

Campaign rallies often require multiple platforms for TV camera positions, as well as for speakers and other guests. Platforms may be of different heights and usually require railings, chair stops, and a variety of other wrinkles the staging company has to supply. The traveling press corps will require a common audio feed from the podium mic, which can lead to complications.

For example, mobile broadcast production trucks often used by local TV stations covering the events usually include electrical generators that can create interference with the audio feed. Moreover, the growing reliance of many news crews on wireless transmitters opens up a whole world of opportunities for local interference.

“We require them to coordinate and register their frequencies with us,” says Grossman.

The higher up the political food chain the event goes — a presidential campaign event — the more complicated the security concerns.

“Nobody with any kind of police record is even allowed in the room,” Grossman says. “There's no freedom of movement. If there's a problem with a stage monitor, you're not just going to walk up there and take care of it, and you can't argue about it.”

Presidential campaigns also take pains to fill their events with dependable supporters who will cheer and wave signs.

Small Events, Big Impact

“[In 2004] the Bush campaign started to control who comes to their events to an unprecedented degree,” says Herrnson. Filling the hall with enthusiastic volunteers and campaign workers also helps keep their energy high.

Large-scale campaign events may bring the most firepower to bear on persuading voters, but smaller events also play by the same basic rules, though not usually on such a grand scale. Political consultant Bill Greener of Greener & Hook in suburban Washington, D.C., notes that “you have to be a pretty large-scale campaign to make the investment worthwhile” for high-end AV and staging. “I don't think candidates running for Congress are generally well advised to do it.”

But statewide campaigns often do attach great importance to staging, and even modest events are driven by the basic premise as higher-profile events that it's the larger audience, reached through TV, that counts.

“Think how few people are going to directly encounter candidates in the course of the campaign,” Greener says. For this reason, he adds, most AV resources are committed to “the key event of the day,” and are designed to appeal “not only to the people who attend, but to the larger audience.”

Quality staging can lend excitement and help lure voters, even to events with modest budgets. John Paul (JP) Brozyna of AGF Media Services in Van Nuys, Calif. says that recent campaigns have made it clear that local political events “are a real growth market for us.” He cites voter registration drives and related events geared toward new-citizen immigrant communities in Southern California, such as Hispanic-Americans.

“Maybe two or two-and-a-half years ago, we started to see a real grassroots movement to get the vote out,” Brozyna says. This effort often includes rallies with extensive reliance on AV technology. “They are events that use event branding,” Brozyna says. “They like big screens and big sound, and they always get a big turnout.”

IMAG is common at these events, and rallies often feature video rolls of celebrity spokespersons or other preproduced content mixed in with the IMAG.

Serving this market means working with volunteers, which entails more hand-holding than most other staging jobs. Brozyna's glad to work with these groups to help them improve their content and presentation and grow their events.

Southwest Voter Registration Education (SVRE) represents a typical client that AGF has served for political events.

“Over the years, our needs have really evolved.” says Mike Bustamante, consultant to SVRE. “Increasingly, candidates are looking more toward the Latino community. We've evolved from a purely local effort to a national stage. We've been challenged to stage more sophisticated events, better for the camera, better for those in attendance.”

Indoor events staged by SVRE have typically been meal functions in hotel ballrooms and have relied mostly on hotel AV organizations. But a handful of staged outdoor events were fairly elaborate. During the 2004 campaign, for example, the group hosted an appearance by Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Senator John Edwards, that involved projecting over a 150ft. throw distance, building a three-tier riser 40ft. across, and providing sound ports for five television cameras.

Summer Spectaculars

“You can always tell when things are done well,” Bustamante says. “When an important national candidate is making a speech to an important audience and the sound is bad, people notice that.”

Murray Lapides, president of AVFX in Boston, remembers putting together an old-fashioned 35mm slideshow for Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988. “It was sort of an odd experiment,” Lapides recalls.

It was also a dramatic beginning to the evolution of such events from an AV perspective. Compare that slideshow with AVFX's presentation for this year's Democratic convention at Boston's Fleet Center.

The AV centerpiece for the Democratic gathering was a 17'×90' seamless Stewart screen served by five double-stacks of Digital Projection 28SX projectors.

“The challenge on this gig really was the allocated space,” says Lapides. “Even with a 20,000-seat arena, space was extremely tight. We were forced into an extremely short projection distance, and ended up using 0.64 lenses from Digital Projection to make it all work.”

Lapides takes pains to credit both Stewart Filmscreen and vendor Digital Projection of Kennesaw, Ga., for providing staff, products, and almost round-the-clock support.

“It's important to look at how this screen was used,” Lapides says. “It was not used in the traditional political fashion, just for IMAG. They really broke ground by using the screen as a visual element, as part of the set.”

According to Kirschner, another difference was the fact that the screen “was mainly meant for the room,” rather than for the home audience because TV viewers probably could not get the full impact of the widescreen projection. But such a large and bright image was necessary to create the desired impression in a brightly lit hall.

“Our lighting levels are very much designed for the networks,” Kirschner says. “We were very intimately involved in helping them. Normally, we would light the room a little lower.”

Keeping the lighting at a higher level helped support the TV news anchors and other talent in their studios overlooking the convention floor.

“The networks have people in their booths, and the hall can't be dark behind them,” Kirschner emphasizes.

The Republican Convention in New York also blazed some new trails in AV technology. The convention built toward a climactic final night, when President George W. Bush appeared between separating walls of an LED video display on a new stage platform extending into the middle of the Madison Square Garden audience.

LED displays were central to the AV concept for the convention. Working with Scharff Weisberg, XL Video set up a huge array of Barco ILite 6 LED panels behind the speakers' podium — 15×24 panels (roughly 23'×36'). The main array was flanked by two columns of video displays, each 15×5 panels (23'×15').

How bright is an LED wall that big? Too bright even for Madison Square Garden, says XL Video CEO Marcel de Keyzer. And also bright enough to overpower television cameras. XL Video; therefore, had to come up with a solution for this brightness problem. The company decided to cover the wall with a rear projection screen affixed about 1/4in. from the LED units. This reduced and diffused the light and eliminated the pixel effect of the LED. The result, according to de Keyzer, was “the best of both worlds” — high brightness of LED with the video quality of rear projection.

Mounting that big of an array of 6mm LED modules was difficult because at that resolution, small misalignments can create visible seams. What's more, Madison Square Garden is a union hall, so XL Video's staff had to supervise other technicians, rather than doing the work themselves.

In fact, both conventions confronted their contractors with very stringent security and hall access rules that resulted in some late nights and marathon setup sessions.

Even with candidates at every level looking to AV and staging techniques to help them communicate and win, Professor Herrnson recalls the single-most vivid, riveting image, which was decidedly old school, from election night 2000. That image showed NBC's Tim Russert, armed with a small whiteboard and a black marker, endlessly revising and rechecking his Electoral College arithmetic as the night and the disputed count went on.

Even though political campaigns have come a long way from torchlight parades, the basics have stayed the same.

John J. McKeon is an independent journalist and consultant based in Chevy Chase, Md. He specializes in professional AV, multimedia, and graphic arts.