This year's Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), ostensibly a simple but grandly staged celebration of songwriting talent throughout the continent of Europe, once again provided a tantalizingly wide spectrum of production technology, on Europe's big-gest TV stage.

With up to 200 million viewers looking on across the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the production team conjured up a feast to rival any televised show worldwide. And with 36 countries competing through live voting, it was also a hotbed of politics and controversy that reflected the tribulations surrounding the ever-expanding body of European Union nations and their peoples' expectations.

Instigated by the European Broad-casting Union, the world's largest association of national broadcasters, whose Eurovision sports, news, and special events transmission division first staged the contest in 1956, ESC was a curiously political beast from its inception. The recent expansion of the European Union with a swathe of former states that extends to the former USSR's borders, and the entry of many recently warring nations and nascent nation states, has given ESC's politics new edge. There are both political cachet and potential tourism benefits for the winning country, which automatically gets to host the following year's final, but then has to weigh those benefits against the costs of staging it for the national broadcaster.

All EBU members are eligible to compete and since the organization merged with its eastern European counterpart, OIRT, in 1993, this is now a fairly sprawling list of countries. So much so that this year, for the first time in the ESC's history, a semi-final event was staged three days before the grand final, using the same venue and production, at the Abdi Ipekci sports arena in Istanbul.

Feelings about the event across Europe range from the cynical and blasé, mostly among the nations with internationally successful (i.e. English language) artists, to what the International Live Music Conference would term the “emerging markets.” The passions of the central, southern, and eastern European fans are another story entirely and their comments on the “neighbor voting” politics makes fascinating reading at ESC fans' chat sites on the Internet.

This year's ultimate winner, Ukraine's Ruslana, was widely predicted with her feisty folk-inspired song and dancers, which bodes well for Kiev, Eurovision 2005.

ANOTHER FINE MESH

With the visuals team enjoying its fourth consecutive year of growing artistic freedom on ESC, the TV show wowed viewers with a blend of integrated video, lighting, and motion control technologies from an international band of production contributors.

The design and production team was led by Turkish broadcaster TRT and principle lighting and Catalyst Media Server Pro supplier Spectra+ of Sweden, with local lighting company Staras, Flashlight of Holland with a CyberHoist intelligent chain motor system and around half of the 300 moving lights, DM Audio of Sweden on live sound, Sweden-based Massteknik providing video screens, and UK-based head rigger Oz Marsh and stage manager Mark Emerson.

The Swedish-led lighting and projection team's real success was their artistic and technical integration of video, lighting, and motion control technologies.

Like the artists and audiences, ESC has steadily built a tradition of international production co-operation. The past four years of Scandinavian and Baltic involvement, and their fraternal contributions from Flashlight in Holland, have raised the bar of technical production and allowed new ideas to come to fruition that have broken some barriers in the traditional supply chains.

With lighting designer Per Sundin and lighting and video production manager Lars-Ola Melzig heading the creative team, several key systems ensured a strong, distinctive look for each act.

The Istanbul show featured a wealth of gobos, images, and graphics, all sourced from the Catalyst Media Server Pro systems, controlled via four Pronto! consoles from Avab for lighting control and complemented by backup systems and network components from Transtechnik Lichtsysteme. Lighting and video production elements were even more closely integrated than at last year's ESC final, with Spectra+ drawing on their extensive Catalyst experience — boosted this year by the addition of High End Systems DL1 digital luminaires.

One of the first things in this visual cornucopia to catch the eye was the semicircular backdrop: a 160' by 16' back-projection cyc carrying a single ultra-widescreen-format image from an arc of 16 digital video projectors, their outputs soft-edged together. Fed by the same bank of 11 Catalyst Media Server Pro systems that also drove the DL1s and stage-floor Barco LED screens, and connected to a gigabyte LAN network with additional Apple® Mac G5s supplied by Swedish graphics specialists Beacon, the rig provided real-time imaging across all video display media for a true “live” feel, as well as permitting creative design changes by the team as the combined effect was seen live for the first time during rehearsals.

Besides ever-moving imagery, there were numerous mobile set elements. Forty-eight CyberHoist motors — a joint design by Flashlight and hoist manufacturer Verlinde and rented along with a specialist crew from Flashlight — controlled the movement of a number of separate objects: the main central “dome” ringed by lights, six pods carrying high power automated Syncrolites, three circular lighting pods over the audience and a special rig with a mirrorball, created specifically for Bosnia-Herzegovina's “In the Disco” song.

The 300-strong moving light complement included four HES DL1s, 100 700W X-Spot H.O. luminaires, 100 700W Studio Beams, 100 575W Studio Spot CMY Zooms, 75 Cyberlight SVs, four Studio Colors, and 800 conventionals.

Pre-programmed on a WYSIWYG system over a three-week period in Stockholm, the show was run from four Avab Pronto! consoles, adding up to a total of 12,288 DMX channels, for moving lights, conventionals, house and keylights, and Catalyst images, respectively. These were run in tandem with backup systems and network components from Transtechnik Lichtsysteme with an Ethernet system including 16 E-Gate Pro Ethernet-DMX nodes. A fifth console was available as backup.

VIDEO IN MOTION

“At Spectra+ we've now had a lot of experience with Catalyst and it has had a big influence on the way I approach the design of a show,” LD Per Sundin comments. “Here, it allowed us to reflect the same imagery on all the different surfaces — back projection wall, the stage floor, and the set projections. In terms of the back projection, we originally looked at using a huge LED wall behind the stage, but to achieve high resolution images it would have to have been heavy and expensive.

“So we changed that idea into back projection using bright, high-resolution video projectors, which was a superb alternative and much lighter and more budget-friendly. It gave us some extra challenges — in terms of soft-edging the images together correctly — than a video wall, but in some ways it also allowed us to be more flexible.” The effect of this idea was a major factor in helping Sundin achieve his goal of creating an individual look for each country using exactly the same stage set and with just 30-second changeovers between acts.

An idea carried over from 2003 was to inset LED video panels in the stage floor, partly for visual effect and partly to carry production graphics including monitor and microphone positions to guide the stage crew during changeovers.

The panels were made up of 260 Barco i8 tiles, mounted in three large oval shapes. Supplied by Massteknik under technical project manager Niclas Ljung, these were also fed from the Catalyst Media Server Pro system and were surfaced with a protective glass layer. “One of the reasons we are part of so many international events is our combination of high-end technology, creativity, and experience,” comments Christopher Milnes, managing director of Massteknik UK.

The moving experience was taken a step further with the CyberHoist system, a collaboration between Verlinde and its lead European entertainment rental partner, Flashlight. Flashlight's Shark 3D HoistShowControl software, running on an Apple Mac G5, provides 3D object-oriented movement programming, while the motors — each with its own built-in moving light-style processor board — interact via DMX over Ethernet with the host Mac in real time, producing fluid and accurate moves across a wide speed range.

Most of the CyberHoist moves were deliberately visual, the team keen to make the most of the system's potential, although some were conducted in blackout between numbers — all under the control of programmers Aart Gigengack and Erik Berends. It moved set and lighting elements in and out with millimetric precision, including the giant Dome, which moved from a heart shape at the start of the show to a color-changing DL1 projection surface during the event.

CHANNEL SURFING

The sound production followed a similar format to last year's show in Riga, Latvia, with DM Audio again supervising the live sound production in cooperation with local company Altinñizme Electronics. DM Audio's Lars Wern, the system designer and FOH engineer, specified Innova Son Sensory consoles for front of house and monitors, asserting: “The Sensory is fantastic for this type of show.”

The team exploited the console's memory/recall facilities to pre-program the desks for each act in rehearsal, recall them on the night, and then be able to concentrate on mixing the show. Much of the backing tracks were from playback, but the show's live nature and the restriction of 30-second changeovers between songs nonetheless made the ability to recall instantly a complete country set-up invaluable.

Also making a return appearance was DM's JBL VERTEC line array PA along with JBL VERTEC VT4880 dual 18” subwoofers. Customized LE12JB-based Martin Audio stage monitors, clad in transparent Perspex that were created for last year's Eurovision, were used once again and were supplemented by concealed LE12JB and LE 700A monitors. Four Martin Audio Wavefront W8C cabinets provided side fills with further Martin WSX subs hidden in the stage structure, all driven by QSC Powerlight amplification and Allen & Heath DR128 processors.

Sixteen Sennheiser 3000-Series wireless monitoring systems provided most performers' foldback, while 48 of the company's wireless microphones and bodypack transmitters with 5000-Series clip-on microphones were employed to deliver the performances.

A Sennheiser team added technical expertise to assist with the difficult radio mike conditions prevailing at the Abdi Ipekci arena. Klaus Willemsen, Sennheiser's RF specialist for the project, said the radio transmission situation was particularly difficult, with a number of TV stations located close by. More than 30 fully occupied TV channels left few available frequencies for radio mikes and in-ear systems. However, Willemsen explains, “the filters in our wireless systems are so good that the systems can basically concentrate on the music signal alone. We got around it with our technology and by choosing the optimum positions for the antennas.” All receivers were fed to two 48-channel XTA DS800 distribution systems.

Also on hand at FOH to complement the Innova Sons' onboard processing and dynamics were a TC Electronics System 6000 and Drawmer MX 50 de-essers. A Rane RPM 88 programmable DSP unit provided a digital matrix, EQ, delay and distribution to the BSS processors and the VERTEC system, while Genelec monitors were used for engineer foldback and a SMAART system provided overall system setup.

As midnight passed — the show was timed to go out at Western European prime time — and the cheers for Ukraine resounded around the arena, Wern had the last word: “As always with Eurovision, you push everything technically to the limit in every department, and I think this year everyone was pretty proud of what was achieved.”