In most shows it's the lighting that flies; often the sound and sets fly as well. But in Spider-Man Live!, the main character does most of the flying. A self-described “stunt spectacular,” this new production, currently touring the US, is aimed squarely at kiddies four years and up. As such, it features plenty of the flying, leaping webslinger, plus the evil Green Goblin, mid-air fight scenes, pyro, and all the other things that make young boys (and quite a few girls) squeal in delight.
The show was written for the stage and directed by Kevin Shinick and features flying effects by ZFX Flying Illusions, special effects by WOW! Works, and stunt choreography by Ottavio Gesmundo. The design team includes set designer Michael Allen, lighting designer Mike Baldassari, projection designer Michael Clark (otherwise known as Mike A, Mike B, and Mike C), costume designer Wendy Stuart, and sound designer Bruce Yauger.
Three things were decided early on in this production: Budgets would be tight, video would be a major component, and Times Square (or some variation thereon) would be a predominant part of the set. “The original idea was, what can we do that's Times Square and also utilize extra characters,” explains Allen. “Perhaps we could use a projection screen or giant TV to do some live feeds from the audience, and pre-taped characters from other locations or to establish locations we'll be going to. That's how the idea of the Jumbotron came about. And it worked great, because, you know: Times Square, Jumbotron. It was very serendipitous.”
Continuing that serendipitous theme, after one of the first meetings, several members of the design team did the next logical thing: They went to Times Square and picked up some Spider-Man comic books. “Mostly it was to get a sense of the action,” says Allen. “We knew that everything we needed to do was to support the fight and stunt choreography — to get Spider-Man and his enemies in those dramatic poses. It also helped solidify the difference between the Times Square research and how realistic we wanted to portray it onstage.”
The main set, which Allen calls “Times Square as a jungle gym,” features brick pedestals with truss jutting out at different angles to serve as bridge girders, billboard trussing, and other useful webslinging tools, a trampoline hidden by a brick retaining wall, and an LED wall (which serves as the stand-in for the Times Square Jumbotron) surrounded by various billboards. “The best thing about it is that it's functional,” Allen says. “It can be a rooftop or a loading dock in an alley.” Small units are brought on to represent the science fair, Peter's dorm room, The Daily Bugle, etc.
The sets were built by Hudson Scenic, as was some of the trussing. “We did a combination of custom truss and modified-to-fit truss,” Allen says. “I tried to be intelligent in picking the size of the truss that I knew were stock truss sizes but in some cases, where we knew we needed something special, Hudson would rework the truss we'd bought and put that in.
“One of the things Hudson did was provide maximum tourability,” he adds. “Anything that could hinge or flip up or down in an economical package, fit in the truck, and then roll onstage and set up quickly, they did. Once all the motors are hung and the truss is up in the air, the walls and scenic pieces get put up in about three hours.” Hudson's Rick Mone was production supervisor on the project.
The Spider-Man Live! design also provides maximum safety for its cast. “Safety was probably the biggest challenge,” says Allen. “There needed to be space and room for the stunts and flying, while still allowing us to tell the story, with scenery that really needs to work for kids.” To keep things safe for the stunt crew, everything that can be padded onstage is padded. In addition, the entire floor is a sprung floor, a combination of plywood on springs with carpet bonded to it, and the edges of the trampolines are covered with foam.
What's Behind the Mask
As the lighting designer, Baldassari was obviously very cognizant of the safety issues involved in the tour as well. He even went so far as to don the Spider-Man mask to get a sense of how well the stuntmen (several performers don the suit during the course of the show) see. “The eye pieces are like plastic scrim,” he says. “They're doing these incredible gymnastics with these masks on, with followspots in their eyes, on a pretty dark stage. I'm amazed at how much they can do.” The biggest impact of this on Baldassari's design came in the sidelight, which had to be dimmed most often when there was flying, more for the operators of the flying mechanisms than for the performers.
Like the other designers, Baldassari used the Spidey comics as a reference, borrowing from his nephew's stash; these gave him his sense of color for the show. “Knowing the target audience we were going for — this is for a lot of kids for whom it would be their first time in the theatre — I wanted to color-coat the scenes,” he explains. “It's obvious stuff: Everything goes green when we go to the Green Goblin; whenever there's danger there's some kind of red; when we go to Times Square it's a steel-blue industrial thing. Even when we were doing the scary scenes, it's in comic book colors, so it's not really scary for little kids.” He used Lee 139 for the green, Rosco 27 for the red, and R84 for the steel blue.
Because it is aimed at the younger set, producers early on set a mandate that the top ticket price not rise above $30. “As a new parent [he has a 16-month old girl, Sophia], I felt that was really important,” says Baldassari. “So we did a lot of things to keep costs down.” For one thing, the entire show fits in four trucks; Baldassari also tried to choose gear based on what was available in the price range. His rig includes 26 High End Systems Studio Spots®, plus 21 Studio Colors® with City Theatrical Concentric Spill Rings, a range of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, L&E Mini-Strips, High End Dataflash® AF1000 and Diversitronics 3000 DMX strobes, Wybron Coloram II color scrollers, a Wybron AutoPilot II system, Le Maitre FX Neutron XS hazers and G-300 foggers, MDG Atmosphere haze generators, and a custom fiber-optic drop with two TPR fiber-optic DMX illuminators. The entire show is programmed and run on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console.
The AutoPilot II was used on the flying Green Goblin. One sensor is placed on the Goblin flier, which is chased by dark purple lights following from below; another sensor is placed in the Goblin himself, and there are hard-edged lights following him with Fusion Fire Aqua, one of the High End Lithopattern special effects.
Baldassari had never really used the AutoPilot before, and the results on the road have been pretty good. “I don't think there's another way I could have done it,” he says. He credits Wholehog programmer Rob McLaughlin, the Wybron-appointed New York-area AutoPilot “guru,” as Baldassari jokes, with getting it programmed and road-ready.
Clark's involvement in Spider-Man Live! came astonishingly early for a projection designer; because the producers had hit upon the idea of using video to keep costs down very early, he was actually the first designer brought onboard. “They wanted to incorporate video projection,” he elaborates, “because they wanted to propel parts off the storyline along with the use of recorded actors that they wouldn't have to take with them on the road: a scientist in a science center, a news reporter reporting on the death of Uncle Ben, sports commentators at a wrestling match.”
Early on, Clark stressed to the producers that this shouldn't be a projection show as much as an emission show, something with LED panels or plasma screens or some combination thereof, “strictly because we didn't want to cast shadows from the lines or reveal the magic of how Spider-Man moves around the stage.” The solution was a Barco 12'×16' LED wall flown upcenter, with two 42" Pioneer plasma screens stage right and a 50" plasma screen stage left, driven by the Dataton Watchout system, with a Folsom Research Presentation Pro used for scaling.
Clark shot much of the footage, a combination of video and still images, himself, from a street in Queens to Times Square at night, to factory locations in Brooklyn, which doubled as the Goblin's hideout. “We'd go out and shoot these videos and then I'd colorize them to give them that comic book look, tinting them red, green, or blue by using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects and a little Apple Final Cut Pro here an there,” he says. “We'd import a clip from DV or something like that and then edit away the things we didn't want. Then we'd take all these different elements and use the Watchout to composite all the modules together. We had a lot of flexibility that way.”
The Mercedes-Benz of Pumpkins
Clark and Baldassari weren't the only ones to worry about exposed wires during the performance; special-effects designer WOW! Works ended up changing its design approach because of it. According to designer Tyler Wymer, his initial approach was to have the entire pyro system hard-wired, but changed it to wireless after seeing the show in rehearsals. “It allows for a much quicker setup, because the choreography kept changing. This allowed us to quickly reposition the equipment for the effects to happen when they needed to. Plus, there were a couple of gags in the show where, if it were to be hard-wired, there wouldn't be any magic to it, like where the Goblin throws the pumpkin bomb.”
In a show full of effects, the pumpkin bomb may be the most elaborate. Wymer designed the ball itself and then had it machined in a shop because there's so much stuff that goes into it, including a wireless receiver card, a battery-powered capacity discharge card that fires the device, and a system that monitors the batteries inside the ball. “The ball is made of 3/16" stainless steel,” he explains. “The reasoning behind that was that they told me that the ball was going to hit the floor and roll. So I ran a bunch of tests at our warehouse where I actually dropped the ball time after time in order to make sure there were no shock factors that could accidentally fire it off.”
Best of all, however, is the pumpkin's paint job. “It's Mercedes-Benz bronze,” Wymer explains, “a highly specialized color that costs $300 a pint, so it could deal with the heat and scratching.”
Flexibility is also the name of the game for Bruce Yauger's sound design; in fact, it's almost mandatory, since he's not only the show's designer but also the mixer, composer, even rental house (his company, Falconmusik, provided the gear). A friend of director Shinick, Yauger came onboard assuming the show would require a straight-up Broadway-style design, with lavs, effects, etc. Early on, the director hinted that they might need some music for the show; because Yauger is a musician/composer, he was fine with that and composed a couple of songs, alternative pop-style numbers similar to the movie soundtrack, to have ready just in case. But a week before tech it was discovered that they had no music at all for the show; that's when Yauger went into high gear.
“In seven days,” he recalls, “I went to Vegas, where the stunt crew was rehearsing, in a truck with my ProTools rig and recorded every line of the show with all the actors — we were going to have some dialogue that was tracked and some that was live, but we weren't really sure which we would use, so we needed all of it — then went back to L.A. with that stuff, underscored the fight scenes, put together all the dialogue, did all the editing, wrote another three or four songs, took the four extant songs, and created a show. Then I put all the gear together in the truck and drove to Wallingford, CT, where the show was to begin rehearsals. Straight, I might add — it took me 52 hours.”
Once he got into tech (and hopefully had a shower), Yauger started to figure out all the nuances of how the show was going to run. Spider-Man, with its mix of live actors and recorded bits, plus the unpredictability of stunts, made full tracking impossible. “It just changes every day,” he says. “Sound-wise, even the Foley that I do — punches, kicks, leg whips — changes based on what the actors are doing onstage. If they don't make a punch, I have to respond; if they change the choreography, or throw in extra punches, I have to be ready for that.”
Yauger's rig consists of two towers, each containing four PAS RS2.2 cabinets and one PAS MF-218 subwoofer, with three PAS FT-1.2s flown as a cluster where needed, EAW JF60s for fills, DAS ST8A power cabinets for sidefills, QSC Powerlight 1.8 and 4.0 amps, Sony 800 Series UHF wireless with Sennheiser MKE-20 lavs and Sony WRT 867 handhelds, plus Clear-Com base station and remotes, beltpacks, and headsets, and Telex BTR-700 UHF and BTR-200 VHF wireless for communications. Front of house features a Yamaha O1V and Midas Venice 160 console, a Roland CDX-1 disc lab for effects, and a Denon DN600F CD player.
Spider-Man Live!, which is scheduled to tour the US through June (additional dates may be added), appears to be a hit with the kids; just ask Baldassari's daughter, who saw it recently and loved it. “As a new parent, I don't think anybody walks out of it disappointed,” he says. “For $30 they see a lot of show, a lot of technology. We have everything you could possibly have in a theatre, except for water and an orchestra.”
Spider-Man Live! Credits
Director: Kevin Shinick
Set Designer: Michael Allen
Lighting Designer: Mike Baldassari
Projection Designer: Michael Clark
Costume Designer: Wendy Stuart
Sound Designer/Engineer: Bruce Yauger
Flying Effects: Paul Rubin, ZFX Flying Illusions
Special Effects: WOW! Works/Tyler Wymer
Stunt Choreography: Ottavio Gesmundo
Company Manager: Dennis M. Daniello
Production Stage Manager: Stephanie Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Dori Trent
Assistant Scenic Designer: John Pollard
Assistant Costume Designer: Chris Field
Assistant Lighting Designer: Brenda Dolan
Light Board Programmer: Rodd McLaughlin
Assistant Projections: Brian Beasley
Projections Programmer: Paul Vershbow
Associate Fight Director: Naomi Brenkman
Head Carpenter: Shane “Cowboy” Mayers
Assistant Carpenter: Whitney Wilcoxson
Fly Illusions Supervisor: Matt “Buzz” Harris
Assistant Flying Illusions: Andy Meeker
Assistant Carpenter: Dave Fulton
Head Electrician: Justin Freeman
Assistant Electrician: Chris Merriman
Video Projections Supervisor: Scott Bartel
Pytrotechnical Supervisor: Jason Ribando
Production Properties: Chris Pantuso
Head Props: Jason Wroblewski, Kurt Illinger
Wardrobe Supervisor: An Trimble
Assistant Wardrobe: Royce Renfro
Scenery Construction: Hudson Scenic Studios
Lighting Equipment: Fourth Phase/PRG
Sound Equipment: Yauger & Associates
Video Screens: CPR Multi Media Solutions