WHEN THE EDITOR OF THIS august publication asked me to write about show control, I was interested, but questioned my qualifications. With a background in automation, I consider myself a pretty savvy technical production type, but I don't really know much about show control. Still, I felt that might make me a pretty good representative of most people reading this article. So my plan was to do what technicians the world over do when faced with a new technology they are suddenly expected to be conversant in; i.e., frantically call people you know, get a very fast brain dump, and then punt.
So what the hell is show control, anyway? “A show control system is a linkage of separate live entertainment control systems into a metasystem, a system of systems.”
This definition was provided by John Huntington, a colleague of mine from the Entertainment Technology Department at New York City College of Technology, where he teaches, among other things, show control. He is also a freelance sound and show control designer and consultant and an industry-wide show control advocate, guru, and gadfly in the various trade publications; he literally wrote the book on modern show control called Control Systems for Live Entertainment.
Huntington is, not surprisingly, one of the three experts I talked to for this article. Since in John I had both a freelancer and an academic in one package, I wanted to spread out my other interviewees across the industry. I wanted at least one product producer and one large-scale end-user. Alex Carru is the president of Medialon. And Lars Pedersen is the show control sales engineer at Scharff-Weisberg, Inc., which is one of the larger and better houses here in New York. SWI rents gear but also provides a very full service production team for audio, video, lighting and integrated special events.
Show control is all about integrating diverse and disparate control systems: lighting, sound, scenery automation, video, pyro, and so forth, so that effects and events can be synchronized reliably and repeatedly and, needless to say, safely. The goal is to achieve a level of precise coordination that separate systems can't realistically achieve with separate human operators taking verbal cues. None of the three mavens I talked to had the slightest interest in, nor felt it remotely desirable to eliminate human technicians from running shows. At least two of them are IATSE members in good standing and all of them made it a point to mention that this is not, repeat, not the purpose of show control before I ever mentioned the issue.
It seemed like the technical limitations of what could be controlled with a show control system are evaporating rapidly, so what should be controlled? Centralization usually improves efficiency, but the trade-off can be in freedom and flexibility (trite metaphors about Mussolini and train schedules spring to mind). Furthermore, once automation and pyro are on the table, life safety issues suddenly loom very large.
On this subject, Carru was very firm. Show control controls control systems, not lights, not sound, not pyro, and certainly not multi-ton pieces of moving metal or explosives. The mechanical or pyrotechnic control system must have its own life-safety system in place before one can even consider integrating it into an over-system. Then a dialog must be possible between show control and the subsystem. The analogy Carru used was a stage manager calling a winch cue. If there is a safety reason why the cue cannot go, the operator or deck carp gives a no-go and stage manager processes that information and adjusts.
In the case of Medialon's software, alternate scenarios can even be pre-programmed for serious potential show killers so when the big winch malfunctions in Act II, it can tell the controller, and a covering light cue is immediately loaded up so that the show can continue.
Huntington goes even further. If the thought of automation being slaved to another system makes you edgy — and I confess that as an automation guy it does — then don't do it. But do output your positional data, which you need anyway to the show control system so it can use that data to project that animated figure onto the moving wagon synchronously, or at least output a MIDI show control cue message each time a cue is executed on your automation controller, so that other systems can track it.
Pedersen made the point that centralization is not really the right paradigm anyway. You could use show control that way, but you probably wouldn't want to. “That's not really practical, nor safe, nor even efficient.” He trotted out, with apologies, the neologism “networkcentric,” instead. “No one wants a show control programmer programming the light cues, least of all the show control programmer.”
The real holy grail is integrated communication. Pedersen offered the model where each discipline has a controller in line, monitoring the departmental console, and all are in communication. When coordination is needed, it is available, but during most of the tech process departments can function independently. But anyone who has ever torn their hair out trying to sync multi-discipline cues reliably can appreciate the usefulness of being able to say: “Okay, for that sequence everyone slaves to that turntable move, which takes from the timecode on the video.”
One somewhat odd restraining factor on show control's use, particularly on this side of the pond, is simply innate conservatism. People are used to a particular model of structuring the technical sequence of an event, and things tend to run smoother if they don't have to completely reinvent the wheel.
Carru and Pedersen mentioned that often they work on projects where the show controller is slaved to the lighting console, not for any particular technical reason, but because people are used to structuring technical events around lighting cues. Stage managers are used to calling them and for many they are the bass line, so to speak, of the technical performance. It's a comfort thing as much as anything else.
Sometimes, this results in the somewhat baroque arrangement where a lighting cue is called, the LX operator hits the Go button on the lighting console, which the show controller takes as a sequence initiation and then proceeds to control an entire series of events, including the lights, in an oddly circular sort of logic.
Huntington had another caveat about how far show control should go, from a purely aesthetic issue. The whole point of show control, as all three stated, is to do things that a human operator couldn't do: syncing complex events to hundredth-second precision, intricate sequences following a MIDI or SMPTE track, matching sound, video, motion and lights perfectly over and over again. A mistake, and one John has seen done, is using show control to do something that human operators are better at anyway, like sensing the day to day, or minute to minute variations that make live performance, well, live. John cites a rock concert he saw where the entire show was locked to a Pro-Tools SMPTE track. The lighting, projections, and scenery were incredibly sophisticated, and doing this improved the visuals of the show substantially, but the music, which is after all the point of the thing, had a canned, choreographed feel that he felt flattened the usual energy of the artist. The one exception was the encore, which all of a sudden came alive. That was the one part of the show that wasn't locked to a track. Live performance still needs live people on the stick.
On a related subject, Huntington is currently researching, with David Smith, (co-developer of the Virtual Orchestra), a way to get time data into a show control system that is metrically derived (metric in the musical sense rather than the units of measurement), so that timed sequences could follow a conductor or musician's tempo instead of a specific time duration.
So what's next? Well, lots of things of course. But the general consensus is networks, networks, networks. The shift to Ethernet and TCP/IP protocol has opened a whole new realm of possibilities. Carru talked a lot about redundancy. Picture a back-up controller, following along with the show, ready to jump in like a cybernetic understudy, if and when the primary controller either tanks or seems to be off-cue for some reason.
Carru mentioned a special event project his firm did in a large theme park in Europe, which has three pairs of controllers running the show. One pair is needed, but if that pair drops out for some reason, a completely redundant pair can step in within milliseconds and keep the show from missing a beat or a cue. If that pair goes, a third pair, with somewhat limited functionality, can at least finish the show in a scaled back form. Pedersen noted that something similar is currently loading in to a show in Vegas, which he thinks is the first use of this on our shores.
According to Huntington, this level of flexibility and communications will allow the seamless integration of disciplines to an unprecedented level. He postulates a controller that actually tracks moving elements in 3D space, ensuring perfect match-ups of projections and lighting with automated scenery, and even with performers.
A choreographer friend recently told me about a CG house in California that is using realtime motion capture technology with some modern dancers to create incredible duets of dancers and virtual objects. This is the sort of thing Huntington is talking about. He feels strongly that the very achievable goal of show control is not a more rigid but a more adaptable system, and a performance-driven one. This is actually already possible with available technology, it's just still somewhat complex to achieve. As he points out, tech that performers can interact with on some level has been around in some avant-garde performance for a long time.
Current technology, however, makes this sort of stuff more and more accessible, achievable, and a whole lot easier. And it's moving into the mainstream. He offers the example of Cirque du Soleil's KÀ, which your humble author worked on, where the entire deck was basically a big moving touch screen, and projected video could respond directly to the performers contact with the deck.
The point Huntington makes is that it is not so much about new tech as it is about embracing and applying existing stuff. “Conservative people in our industry have just discovered time code in the last ten years; now they need to discover truly interactive systems that follow performers, not the other way around,” he says.
Video came up repeatedly in speaking to these experts. Multimedia is one huge part of how this stuff is getting used and show control makes such things exponentially easier. Whether it's nirvana or anathema to you personally, and opinions differ hugely, projected film and video are becoming a more integral part of live performance, and not just in rock and roll. The corporate market, of course, is already well versed in video as part of a live event. People are used to more incredible effects on film and television, and this visual grammar is increasingly part of how we wish to be entertained.
Live performance is understandably trying to keep up with the Joneses, and show control is how it's going to do it. You could argue that it's at least one of its raison d'etres. And integrating video into live performance without these sorts of tools can be a profoundly frustrating process. The first time I ever saw a Show Control Editor's software GUI, I was struck at how much it resembled software I was quite familiar with, namely video editors. Perhaps that's the really useful paradigm for this technology: think of it as a film editing suite for live performance.
Having set some useful parameters about where show control's use should perhaps be, if not limited, at least judiciously restrained, in the things show control is designed for, just how far can it realistically go? The sky seems pretty much the limit. Carru offered the following: “If the designers and directors keep imagining more and more amazing things, we will keep expanding to keep up with them.”
Murphy Gigliotti works as technical designer for the entertainment division of McLaren Engineering Group and is an adjunct faculty member of the Entertainment Technology Department of New York City College of Technology.