Clay or Reuben, Reuben or Clay? This is the question that consumed America this spring as American Idol II caused feverish speculation at water-coolers from coast to coast. Still, the hoopla around AI II was nothing compared to the 2003 Eurovision Song Contest. The first show captivated a nation; the second engulfed a continent, as it has done for decades. Once again, hundreds of millions of European pop fans, from Iceland to Israel, watched the Eurovision competition, held on May 24 at Skonto Hall in Riga, Latvia. Given the conflicts roiling the world, this edition had serious journalists probing the event for geopolitical conflicts; great significance was attached to the fact that the United Kingdom, an American ally in the war against Iraq, came in dead last in the voting, while the winner, Turkey, declined to provide the US with material assistance in the struggle against Saddam Hussein. Having seen the winning performance, Sertab Erener singing “Any Way That I Can,” it's hard to believe that the struggle between Islam and the West had anything to do with it. Erener is the kind of sexy, hip-swinging, belly-dancing performer that incites mullahs to issue violent edicts against the pollutions of the West.

Otherwise, Eurovision was its usual dizzy, cheerful self, with an array of pop acts fiercely competing for their moment in the sun. The show began with broadcast messages of support from the astronauts at the International Space Shuttle and from Elton John here on Earth. The hosts (Renars Kaupers and last year's winner Marie N) made their first entrance in ridiculous furry outfits because, they said, it was a tradition for Eurovision hosts to appear in ridiculous outfits. And this being Eurovision, there were the inevitable controversies; in this case, grumblings from third-place winner Russia, about irregularities in the vote-counting. Then again, the Russian entry, t.A.T.u., a pair of teenaged girls who variously pretend to be sisters and/or lesbians (thus scandalizing large portions of the former Soviet Union), were not likely to win the Eurovision contest, which generally prefers more earnest young stars.

We revisit Eurovision each year partly because we love the silliness, the extravagance, and the intrigue — not for nothing does one web page refer to the event as “the most loathed, the most criticized, and yet most-watched television program seen all over Europe every year.” But Eurovision also serves as a laboratory for new technology — each contest features some piece of gear hot off the assembly line. In the words of Ola Melzig, of Spectra+, the company that supplied lighting gear to the broadcast, “It's a big Beta test factory.” With an extensive lineup of High End Systems lighting equipment, this year's Eurovision provided the debut of the Catalyst® Version 3 video delivery system. Last year's broadcast saw the debut of the original Catalyst. (For those who are keeping score, there is no Catalyst 2; it was deemed that the new Catalyst is such a great leap forward that it was necessary to skip a number.) Also making its world premiere at Eurovision was the Verlinde CyberHoist intelligent hoist motor system, designed by the Dutch lighting and rigging company Flashlight.

This was the third year in a row that Spectra+ supplied lighting to Eurovision. (Spectra+ staff worked closely with the local Latvian supplier, NA Ltd., which is one of the biggest lighting houses in the Baltics. Aldis Janavics of NA worked in production management with Melzig. Lighting for various ancillary areas, including the press room and an outdoor stage in downtown Riga, was designed by Normunds Blasans) Also returning were Per Sundin, the show's lighting designer of SVT, the Swedish network, and, Melzig, the senior lighting manager. They had their work cut out for them when they saw the set developed by the Latvian designer Aigars Ozoli; created to represent “Planet Latvia,” it looked like what you'd get if George Jetson had suddenly become a concert set designer. (Unsurprisingly, the Latvian entry, was a song titled “Hello From Mars.”) The stage was surrounded by swooping Space Age arches and was backed by a glittering star cloth supplied by the English company S&H. “When [Ozoli] presented the drawing,” says Melzig, “he said, ‘I know it's not possible to build, but wouldn't it be cool?’ But, our technical coordinator [Jim Feinberg] said it could be done.” The result was an eye-popping construction that also served as an excellent canvas for lighting and projection.

The lighting package for Eurovision relied almost totally on High End Systems gear; over 300 of that company's units were put to work. This was the most extensive use yet of the HES x.Spot® hard-edged zoom luminaire, with some 135 units used to light the stage. Of these, 125 were the x.Spot HO, with new optics that feature a large-aperture 2:1 zoom and faceted “flat-field” dichroic reflectior, used to increase light output by 30%, as opposed to the 4:1 zoom of the original x.Spot; the HO also improves the beam's evenness and color temperature (Existing x.Spots can be retrofitted to achieve this). The rest of the rig included 109 HES Studio Beams, 75 HES Studio Spots, 11 HES Catalyst 3s (about which more later), eight Robert Juliat followspots, 100 ACL bars, thirty-six 2-lights, ten 8 lights, and forty 2kW Strand pole op Fresnels. In addition, all dimmers were manufactured and supplied by NA Ltd.

There were other lighting effects as well. The set's arches were lined with fiber-optics, creating a kind of silhouette effect for some numbers. Also, for audience lighting, 72 HES Studio Spots 575 CMY units were used along with some conventionals. The most visible arrays of lighting units were the “pods”, or “UFOs,” a series of six 5m circular moving trusses, each of which contained a 2×2.5m LED screen from Lighthouse, along with six x.Spots, six Studio Beams, six 2-lights, and six ACL bars. The movement of the pods was directed by the Verlinde CyberHoist. Billed as the world's most intelligent hoist motor system, it was used to move the pods in intricate patterns around the stage.

The CyberHoist is designed around a Verlinde Stagemaker hoist body and is run by the new 3D HoistShowControl software. In this system, every hoist has an integral processor and memory. With a 500Kg weight limit (a 1,000 Kg version is on the way), it provides variable speed from 0.1mm per second to 20m per minute. Positioning is accurate to 0.1mm, with the exact position being confirmed to the computer in real time via Flashlight Ethernet from the hoist. The HoistShowControl software runs on an Apple Macintosh G4, with no limitations on the number of CyberHoists that can be controlled. Programming can de done offline and every hoist movement can be stored, recalled, and edited at any point. The system also contains a full backup facility. Among the useful features of the CyberHoist: the product can hold a load without using mechanical brakes. Also, it can perform extremely slow movements without brake stops between upward movements.

Still, as was the case last year, the really catchy part of the Eurovision design lay in the projections, which were used even more extensively this time. Aside from the LED screens in the pods, the stage, which was made of toughened, laminated glass, also served as a projection surface.

The Catalyst® Version 3 provided all projection imagery (except for IMAG on the performers). The new edition of Catalyst adds the ability to work with four layers of imagery that can be crossfaded, merged, and blended. Response time has also been sped up, enabling the system to follow cues precisely without time lag. According to Sundin, “It's a radically revised system that can do a whole lot more. You can apply a huge range of effects to the images and scale them; having four layers that you can combine makes the entire system vastly more powerful as a creative tool. As a gobo content maker, you now have a whole new challenge, because this is like having four gobos wheels in one system, and much more besides.”

Peppe Tannemir, of the Beacon Gobo Group who programmed the images, adds, “The new system is beautiful to use and very fast, to the point that some artists' staff were requesting that we create new graphics on the day of rehearsals, and we were able to design and produce them there and then.”

Melzig adds, “All the graphics were made onsite. Peppe Tannemir is head of creative at Beacon, and he sat side by side with Per for a whole week in the studio and for the last 15 days onsite. All the graphics used in the show were specially made and will soon be available from Beacon on a DVD. They're completely license-free.”

Images were projected on the pods and, at times, covered the arches of the set. In addition, placed beneath the glass deck were Barco ILite 8 units; among other things, these were used to project the stage plot for each act up onto the deck, which meant that the glass stage wasn't marked up with tape, etc. As each act entered onstage, the performers saw their marks; then, as each number began, the stage plot disappeared and projected images began pulsating on the floor beneath them.

One thing about the Catalyst, notes Melzig, is that, “Each layer takes 40 DMX channels, so the universe goes out the window very quickly.” Thus, the production was controlled by three AVAB Pronto consoles — one for stage lighting, one for the audience and one for the pods. The three consoles handled approximately 3,000 DMX channels across six universes, distributed via Ethernet fiber optic lines and converted to DMX onstage by the Transtechnik E-Gate Pro DMX buffer system.

The process of preparing the lighting took several weeks. Sundin began work in mid-April using WYSIWIG to previsualize his design. The installation of rigging in Skonto Hall started at the end of the month. By May 6th, trucks from Spectra+, loaded with lighting gear, arrived in Latvia. By May 13th, the set was more or less done and the star cloth, from S&H, was also up. Focusing for the projectors began on the 14th, with the video floor installation commencing on the 16th. Programming took place between the 16th and the 19th. Rehearsals began on the 19th and extended until the 21st. (There were, reportedly, a few issues with the Russian act, who apparently disliked every aspect of the production, and then constantly changed their presentation.) However, by the 24th, the production was raring to go, and hundreds of millions of Europeans were ready to cast their votes.

The real question with Eurovision is: what's next? This year's show was so over the top, it's hard to know where the designers are going to go next. One suspects, however, that there are pieces of, as of yet, unreleased gear that are going to find their way into the broadcast, making Eurovision the cutting-edge lab for the latest lighting technology. See you in Turkey.