The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and videogames may seem like an odd mix, but for one night this May, this odd couple seemed like a perfect combination. That's when the new Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles hosted Dear Friends — Music From Final Fantasy, in which the L.A. Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed music created by Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu for the popular Final Fantasy videogame series.

The event took place in conjunction with the release of Final Fantasy 12 and other titles from videogame publisher Square Enix. The titles debuted at a press event at the Disney hall prior to the concert. The concert sold out in just three days, and fans were reportedly swapping tickets on eBay for as much as $1,600, so obviously, pressure was on the organizers to present a unique and exciting live music experience.

Among the organizers was the show's producer, Jason Michael Paul of JMP Productions, San Francisco/Los Angeles. Paul says the concert was the first-ever performance on U.S. soil of music originating in the world of videogames. Square Enix had been producing similar concerts in Japan featuring the Tokyo Philharmonic and other Japanese orchestras.

While serving as production manager for Luciano Pavarotti and The Three Tenors, Paul invited members of Uematsu's team from Square Enix to attend a Luciano Pavarotti concert at Tokyo's Suntory Hall earlier this year. The venue's acoustics were designed by the same team that designed the Disney Concert Hall's acoustics. After meeting the Square Enix group, Paul encouraged them to stage a videogame-based concert in the United States, and that is how the Final Fantasy concert concept was born.

There were hurdles, however. The first involved persuading the L.A. Philharmonic to join the project. “The L.A. Philharmonic had never done a show like this in that venue, nor had there been any show like this in that venue,” Paul says. “It was difficult even to get a reply at first. You have to remember, this orchestra is used to playing Strauss and Beethoven, so getting them interested in playing this type of music was a challenge.”

Paul's experience with The Three Tenors and orchestra presentations finally helped persuade philharmonic officials to participate in the project.

Paul's plan for the Final Fantasy concert was to have musical pieces from the game series performed live, with game imagery and IMAG projected on video screens. Originally, there was talk of presenting those images widescreen, but the production team opted instead to project the images on a set of screens aimed at different sections of the audience to make the images viewable for every audience member. “That was something that was very important to our client,” Paul recalls.

Planning for the event began five months before, with multiple visits to the Disney hall by Paul, production designer Thomas Mahler, and technical director Anthony Valcic.

The design they developed included three front-projected 10½'×14' video screens facing front of house. The center screen hung directly above the orchestra, facing the back of house, while the screens to either side were canted at an angle, to provide imagery for those seated on the sides of the hall. A fourth screen was built back-to-back with the center screen, to allow projection for those seated behind the orchestra. In addition, six stacks of three 42" plasma monitors were placed between each screen, providing additional imagery.

The large screen scenics were designed by Mahler, and constructed by Global Industries of Burbank. “I originally sat down with Thomas and asked him to come up with something that would keep in tune with the design of (Disney hall architect) Frank Gehry's beautiful building,” Paul explains. “He designed the curves of the scenic to match the very drastic curves of the stage.”

Planning and Scrambling

Another of Paul's challenges was figuring out how to fit the show into the Disney hall's already busy lineup. The venue was slated to host a Bach concert the night before the Final Fantasy show, permitting only a slim 27-hour window for load-in, performance, and teardown. “We did quite a bit of pre-production to try to minimize the effects of the schedule,” Valcic says.

One of the ways they accommodated that tight time window was by rigging some items the week before the show. Riggers hung chain motors from the hall's hang points on the Monday of that week. On Friday, some lighting instruments were set on the hall's balcony railings. Cable was also pre-laid for video use, and AV Concepts of Tempe, Ariz., which provided A/V services for the event, set up its “video village” in advance. In addition, Global Industries did a run-through at its Burbank offices of its set construction to ensure easy assembly on-site later.

The orchestra rehearsed all of the music two days prior to the concert, with stage managers, the technical director, and lighting and video directors all in attendance. This let them observe the performance, even if their equipment was not yet in place. The press event was rehearsed at an off-site location the day before the show.

On show day, the plan called for load-in at 10 p.m., immediately following the Bach concert. Lighting trusses were to be in place by 6 a.m., as were trusses to support the screen sets, and the sets themselves. Lighting director Greg Brunton would then have three hours to program his lights, after which, at 9:30 a.m., the stage would be set for an 11 a.m. orchestral rehearsal. The rehearsal with the orchestra was slated to run until 2 p.m., during which time the video and lighting teams would rehearse their cues. At 2 p.m., the orchestra would leave, allowing construction from 3-4:30 p.m. of the set for Square Enix's press event. After the press conference, that simple set would be struck to allow the stage to return to show condition, with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. show.

Unfortunately, as often happens, things got off track early on. First, the hall didn't become available for load-in until 11 p.m. By 6 a.m., therefore, the set had not yet been built, and wasn't fully assembled until 10 a.m. If that wasn't enough, a chain motor failed, preventing the set from being lifted into place until 2:30 p.m.

By that point, it had been decided to forego the rehearsal and orchestra setup, and proceed with construction of the press event set, which let the crew get back on schedule. That set consisted of fine chiffon material hung from a special support that was fixed to the trusses supporting the screens, attached behind them to allow the screens to remain visible. In addition, two 60in. plasma monitor screens were placed on stage, flanking the event's presenters.

After the press event, the chiffon and the support were removed, and the crew began setting up for the orchestra. The musicians were placed on built-in, terraced hydraulic risers, with lit music stands and chairs. Once set, the doors were opened and the audience members filled their seats, and the show began on time.

“With such a tight timeframe, we knew in case any problems arose, if anything had to give, it would be the rehearsal,” Valcic recalls. But how did the show go on without a rehearsal? “We ended up guessing,” chuckles Brunton, used to this sort of thing.

Once the set had been lifted into place, Brunton and Vari-Lite operator Andy O'Reilly spent the next three hours programming 220 lighting cues, even though no orchestra setup was yet in place.

“We had good coverage of the orchestra, and we made sure there wouldn't be any dead spots and that we were hitting the people and not the scenery,” says Brunton. “But we had to guess the brightness levels and focuses. It was all cold-cued. It turned out to be pretty successful, a lot of which I have to credit Vari-Lite for. We couldn't have done it without their system and support.”

To assist in programming, Brunton and the other technical department heads were provided with pre-recorded versions of the show's music (from previous shows in Japan), allowing them to become familiar with the specifics of the music.

“I had already pre-cued, in the script, all of the cues for the show and what color changes were going to be, and where they would occur, with times, etc.,” Brunton explains. “So when Andy and I realized we were in deep trouble, with no rehearsal, we just ran off my cues in the script. And (the orchestra) played it live to the exact tempo as the versions which had been recorded in Japan.”

JMP also provided additional help in the form of a living score reader, Jay Richardson, a veteran Hollywood music editor who recently worked on Spider-Man 2, among other big feature films.

“I hired one of Hollywood's top music editors in Jay Richardson, who was actually reading the score,” Paul explains. “Originally, we were going to use a click track, but I felt that that would have created a lot of complexities, given the time frame.”

Richardson attended the earlier orchestra rehearsal to become familiar with the music as it would be performed, and then called out cues for lighting and video over the crew com system.

Lighting the Disney hall

Though Brunton and his company, Design Partners of Hollywood, had never worked with JMP, Brunton brought one big advantage to the Final Fantasy show — experience in the Disney Concert Hall.

“I had been consulting with Greg (Brunton) on another show when I asked him to work on Final Fantasy, not knowing that he had done the lighting design for the opening gala of the Disney Concert Hall,” says Paul. “So it was a perfect fit.”

Brunton says the design of the hall placed some limitations on what he normally would have used for such a program. “Jason really wanted a theatrical, sort of rock-n-roll approach, something that's never been done with the L.A. Symphony before,” he explains.

But the hall, with its dark, asymmetrical wood surfaces, wouldn't handle colored light or patterns well.

“There was no place to do any big cues,” Brunton says. “You can't put colored lights on the orchestra, because reds or blues cause some of the notation or hand-written notes on the sheet music to disappear. So we had to negotiate with the orchestra to use music stand lights, so that we could go ahead and use color. We also couldn't use smoke to project any graphics onto, because of concerns of the smoke irritating the voices of the chorale members.”

There was one element that did take light well, however — the so-called “French fries,” which are a randomly-stacked pipe organ arrangement designed by architect Gehry.

Knowing the brief load-in window, Brunton opted for a set of 83 Vari-Lite automated lighting instruments. “We could have done this show with conventional instruments, but that would have meant guys going up on the truss and focusing each light manually to a mark, and there was absolutely no time to even consider anything like that,” he explains. “We also needed something that was reasonably quiet, because of the acoustics of the hall. There are very few moving lights that make no noise, and only a few in the last few years that would be acceptable. Vari-Lite's products are excellent (for this purpose).”

Brunton used mainly VL5 STP units, augmented by several VL6Cs. The VL6s were a potential noise source because of their cooling fans, although that didn't end up being a concern. “We used the VL6s as subtly as possible on the back walls, soft and out of focus,” he says.

Meanwhile, a handful of VL1Ks were used to light the chorale. “That's a really wonderful light, excellent as a framing unit,” says Brunton. “But it's automated, so you can bring the cutters in on the sides, and you can shape the light very specifically. I was able to use those to cut out the chorale, and keep the light from spilling over into the audience.”

Brunton ended up hanging seven lighting trusses. “The set piece, with the screens on it, was really enormous, so it blocked the lighting positions to the orchestra,” he explains. “There was almost no place to hang lights, unless you could figure out how to get around this screen. And the lighting had to be steep, so you could keep it out of the players' eyes.”

Two trusses were placed at angles to reflect the shape of the house in order to provide back-lighting, and two more were hung in the front, behind the canted screens, to provide front lighting. These also permitted cross-lighting of the orchestra. An additional truss was required behind the front screen, lighting upstage, to capture the chorale at the back of the stage — actually, within the first few rows of seating. Two more trusses supported lights in the center of the hall, aiming toward the stage.

The light system was controlled with a pair of Vari-Lite Virtuoso control units. “The Virtuoso allows you to make changes very quickly, better than any other moving light board,” Brunton says.

The lights were programmed on a board at the house orchestra level, then the disk with the programmed cues was brought to the booth with the second Virtuoso. From there, the crew ran lights during the show. “The booth is somewhat blind — you can't see all of your moving lights, you can't see your focuses,” says Brunton. Video monitors connected to a programmable router were at each station, allowing Brunton to communicate with O'Reilly in the control booth, to bring his attention to any areas requiring adjustment.

Video projection

As mentioned, during the concert and press event audience members were treated to images of videogame footage, IMAG of the orchestra or the press event host, and graphics. After consulting with officials from Square Enix, Paul selected video-game footage from various Final Fantasy games to display.

“We chose seven songs, picking scenes which we gauged would move the audience,” Paul says. Footage was assembled for Square Enix by the Kenwood Group of San Francisco. Those clips were provided to AV Concepts, and the video crew loaded them onto four Fast Forward Omega Deck dual hard drives.

IMAG was acquired using five Sony DXC-D50WSP cameras — two manned, with 75:1 Canon lenses; two remote-operated with 18:1 zoom lenses; and one handheld. (An additional ENG-style camera recorded audience interviews and ambiance for use in future distribution of the concert footage.) The camera signals were then routed to various other systems — recording, camera switching, screen switching, etc. — via a 16×16 Sierra video router.

Using a system designed by Andy Canales, the video engineer-in-charge from AV Concepts, IMAG images and other video and graphics were routed through two 32×16 Sierra high-resolution routers to a Vista Systems ScreenMaster III 3216 screen-switching console operated by video engineer Larry May. The outputs were then sent to eight high-resolution Folsom VFC-2200 scalers, which directed the images to the projectors and plasma screens.

Program switching, under direction of video director Hal Bassett, was routed through a Grass Valley Group component switcher. The five individual camera signals (ISO) and program video were recorded by Sony BVW-75 Beta video recorders — five for ISO, two for program (to allow overlap between tapes), and two for program backup. “We chose the BVW-75s because they offer four audio record channels,” explains Mitch Teitelbaum, AV Concepts account executive. “We were playing back 5.1 Surround Sound during the press event, and we wanted that recorded, along with the other press event content.”

Besides video, AV Concepts also provided EAW JF80 and KF300 speakers to supplement the hall's JBL VerTec audio system for 5.1 Surround Sound, as well as the Surround processor itself.

For projection, AV Concepts chose eight double-stacked Christie S9 units. “We used the S9s for a couple of reasons,” Teitelbaum says. “First of all, the videogame graphics were very high resolution, and it was important that the contrast be dark. The S9s have a black chip which produces very dark blacks. It was so important to the client that two weeks before the event Square Enix's president came to San Diego, where we did a demo with the projectors.”

AV Concepts used fiber-optic lines to run signals to the projectors, mainly because of the long runs to the projectors and to avoid the presence of thick cabling in the path of audience members. Two of the four pairs of Christie projectors were placed — one pair each — on the hall's side balconies, projecting onto the canted screens. Another pair projected from the control booth toward the center screen. And the fourth set was carefully set up in the “French fries” organ pipe area, projecting onto the back screen.

The projected video was supplemented by video shown on stacks of three 42in. Sony and Hitachi plasma monitors. Those screens often displayed imagery different from that on the main screens. Those images came from two feeds, with one image appearing on the top and bottom screens and the second image in the center — those images then switching places on the next, adjacent column of screens. The plasmas were hung on the corners and between the main screens, attached to the same truss structure.

Recording live audio

While front-of-house audio was handled by Disney Concert Hall house engineer Kevin Wapner, British orchestral recording veteran John Pellowe was brought in by JMP to serve as recording director. Both the concert and the press conference were recorded to video by AV Concepts, and audio by Pellowe, for future distribution on CD and DVD. The Grammy-winning Pellowe worked with Jason Paul on Pavarotti and Three Tenors live concerts for the last four years.

After a few early visits to the Disney Concert Hall, Pellowe says he was impressed with the new hall's acoustics. “When I first came into this project, I thought we would probably need to amplify sound for the orchestra,” he says. “But when I listened to music performed in the hall, I decided that the acoustic was so good that we shouldn't use amplification. It would actually be quite wrong.”

Pellowe was concerned that any amplification system would color the sound of the recording. He miked the hall with some microphones, mostly Schoeps MK4 cardioids, and Schoeps MK21 sub-cardioid and DPA 4006 mics. Some mics were suspended from the truss system, while most were on stands. The mic lines were routed through the house analog lines through the hall's patch bay system to a recording room just off stage left. The mic signals were brought up to line level using 32 PreSonus M80 pre-amps. Eight additional channels of dialogue were recorded for a total of 40 inputs. The signals were fed into a Pro Tools HD 192 recording system, which was backed up by a Radar 48-track recorder.

The recording of the concert ended up being the first major recording captured at the Walt Disney Concert Hall beyond the orchestra's own archive recordings. More generally, the show overall was a clear success — so much so that JMP and Square Enix are considering taking it on the road for a tour in the near future.

“I've never heard an audience respond like this, and I've been with Pavarotti and the Three Tenors, doing arena concerts,” says Pellowe. “This audience went crazy, and for me that's a good sign. The idea of associating really good quality music with videogames is brilliant.”

Matt Hurwitz is a freelance writer and regular SRO contributor who covers music, film, television, and the live-event industry for a wide range of publications.