One of the biggest summer tours of 2004 was actually not cancelled due to a damaged knee (Britney) or strained vocal chords (Christina) or emergency heart surgery (David Bowie) or a wardrobe malfunction (Janet) or lack of interest (Lollapalooza, Marc Anthony), but happily rolled along from venue to venue, playing to thousands of screaming, adoring fans who leapt to their feet as their favorites appeared on stage.
Yes, the worldwide tour of Disney Live! Winnie the Pooh and the Perfect Day has been accomplishing in its first stops in New Zealand and Australia what scores of rock and pop acts failed to do in the US — pull off a successful tour. Produced by Feld Entertainment Inc., the show takes audiences young and old on Pooh's quixotic quest for the perfect day in Hundred Acre Wood. Much to the delight of children and parents alike, Pooh's pals join him along the way — Rabbit, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga and her little Roo, and Piglet.
The goal of the seasoned team of Broadway, concert, and television design veterans was to create an environment that would draw from the Winnie the Pooh canon of both the A.A. Milne books as well as the scores of Disney cartoons and movies. Designer Anna Louizos, sound engineer Charles Garza, and LD Patrick Dierson have crafted a family-friendly production that is easily adaptable to a wide variety of venues as Pooh and pals search for that perfect day down under.
Bringing the world of Winnie the Pooh to the stage required that designer Anna Louizos strike a unique balance between precious and practical. “We wanted to keep the show sweet and delicate like the original Milne books but how much delicacy can you have when you are talking about fabric-covered three-dimensional costumed characters on stage?” she says. “So the setting had to accommodate and complement the scale of the characters which, in the case of Kanga, can be almost 8' tall.”
Taking scale into consideration was not the first time Louizos had to do that — she also designed the sets for Avenue Q and its twisted take on Sesame Street. However, the enchanting forest was a far cry from the gritty Avenue Q hood. The Pooh set “needed to be an inviting place for children,” she explains. “With Avenue Q the biggest challenge was scale; I had to accommodate full-size humans and puppets and find a way for both entities to co-exist in the same architecture. With Pooh the scale is bigger because the characters are bigger since they're being portrayed by humans.”
There was no doubt that the setting was going to be Pooh's home in the Hundred Acre Wood but the fear was boring the audience with just one location. The solution was to use the trees — which are so prevalent in Louizos' design — to frame a variety of scenes as well as provide a few visual surprises. “On the extreme right and left of the stage the trees are stationary but have doors in them for character entrances,” she explains. “Seven of the trees are on a track that roll back an forth to create the various scenes. They are relatively flat because they have to travel on and off stage and they function as masking legs. They work extremely well against the characters because they have a more neutral color palette and pick up light exceptionally well.” The trees each weigh about 300 lbs. and are constructed through a process of aluminum framing, foam cutting, gluing, applying T-shirt material, and finally painting.
Louizos cites the New Zealand tour's venues as the biggest challenge when designing the set because, in that country, the show is mostly playing in arenas rather than the mix of venues it will encounter later in the tour. “We're creating a proscenium stage in arenas with no fly space; everything has to roll up or track off,” she says. “But designing within these confines was a given because the show has to go up and come down very quickly. You can't take for granted that something can't fly in and out. Everything is attached to these huge trusses set up like a giant arbor over the stage.”
Aside from getting her design into the production's framework, Louizos also had to keep a cohesive relationship with her fellow designers, especially LD Patrick Dierson. “There's a lot of bargaining for space up there, particularly with lights,” she says of the trussing. “Patrick had to find a way to light everything and it's somewhat deceptive how little space we have from downstage to upstage, which is only about 12' total. We're always tracking trees that have dimension to them and that encroaches on the space for lights so we're always doing a lot of ‘Let's move this here’ and a lot of switching things back and forth. It's more like a rock and roll show, but I like a challenge and the chance to try something new.”
During the final planning stages in Florida, Louizos built a white model to scale in order to get feedback from other designers, the producers, and others involved in the production. “That part is always challenging because everyone always has an opinion about what it should do and how it should move,” she says. “After that presentation the set was pared down a lot and we had to streamline the prop pieces because the show has to travel so much and we had to be efficient as possible with storage space.”
The sets were constructed by Palmetto, FL-based Hagenbeck-Wallace Scene Shop, well known for its years of circus set construction as well as fitting out circus trains to accommodate all the big top denizens.
The closest Louizos had come to working on a project such as Pooh was when she served as associate designer to Tony Walton on Madison Square Garden's A Christmas Carol, which she cites as her best learning experience. “Every day it allowed me to learn how to make things work and prepared me for something like this,” she said. “Working on a project requires a lot of negotiation. It's not just about pretty pictures. There's a lot of collaborative discussions about honing the piece to make everybody happy and that's certainly something they don't teach you in school.”
The fact that Disney Live! Winnie the Pooh and the Perfect Day is hitting both theatres and arenas necessitated a flexible design for the creative team, perhaps no more so than on the sound. Charles Garza, the manager of audio operation for Feld Entertainment and the person responsible for the show's sound design, says, “Because we're playing everything from arenas to convention centers to proper theatres — you name it, if it's a room we play it — I had to have some kind of a rig that would be versatile enough to handle ground stack or whatever and still accommodate the creative essence of the show.”
To that end, Garza and his team — chief engineer Will Nelson, assistant engineer Drew Dennison, and assistant manager of audio operations Joe Havens — opted for a Meyer rig consisting of 16 M2D line arrays, eight per side; four 650P subwoofers per side; 13 UPM 1Ps, five of which accommodate the front fill, the other eight for under-balcony fill needs or strange geometry in certain buildings that require a speaker to fill to the main rig. “The nice part of the Meyer rig is that we can fly it, we can ground stack it, we can take it apart, we can mix and match it into 50 bazillion pieces — pretty much morph it into anything we require.”
Creatively, Garza's goal was to have the music and general program come primarily from the line arrays, and to try and localize the dialogue more from the stage area front fills. “I didn't design a specific left-center-right-type rig,” he explains, “where we'd have a cluster in the middle, because in a lot of venues you'll have really low trim heights, and you can't really afford to have a bee-hive — all puns intended — speaker cluster right in the middle of the stage at such a low height.”
Another challenge on a world tour of this size is the varying RF restrictions for each country. Garza opted for Shure wireless mics, beltpacks and receivers, as well as the PSM-700 systems for in-ear, but notes that he was forced to do his RF homework on this tour. “There were some people at Shure who were wonderful at helping me dig into that, but you'd think there would be one piece of paper that would tell what's legal in which countries. Unfortunately, it's not quite like that. So I had to go to one site that's tailored their gear for sale in certain areas, and pick what I can from there, and then somebody else may have tailored their gear in other areas, so I'll do the same thing there.
“Interestingly enough,” Garza continues, “I've noticed that some companies like Sabine are starting to get into the 2.4 gigaHertz band, which is the worldwide free scientific band that doesn't require any licensing anywhere on the planet. That's something I may look into in the future, just because it'll make things easier from a legality and transmission standpoint.”
In addition to the Shure gear, Garza used the Countryman E6 mike for Tracy, the show's narrator and the main live component of the show. “I gotta tell you I absolutely love the E6,” Garza says. “One, because you can't even see she's wearing it until you're standing next to her, and two because it sounds absolutely beautiful. It's a completely transparent microphone.”
The need for versatility also extended to the sound effects. The show is run on two 360 Systems Instant Replays, and the front of house engineer, who has a keyboard and sampler, plays to what's going on onstage. “For instance, when the Hunny Helpers come out with their antics, we've got all kinds of clown effects to liven things up. There are also some atmospheric sounds that can be layered into the soundtrack — birds chirping, etc. — and played on the sampler as needed for the venue. Some sounds respond a little differently in different rooms, so that gives us a little more versatility.”
Pooh Goes Digital
Winnie the Pooh and the Perfect Day was created as a highly interactive show. “They've really broken the fourth wall of theatre in a major way, by constantly having the children involved,” says LD Patrick Dierson, who puts his recent writings in ED [On Projection/On Lighting] to work, while performing double duty as the lighting designer and projection designer. Much of this interaction, and the magic of bringing Winnie's world to life, is achieved visually, with a careful mix of classic Pooh imagery and technological effects.
Digital imagery is integral to the set and the narrative, as the creators — who originally wanted a set made entirely of digital video — wished to place live characters into the animated Hundred Acre Wood. Two projection screens, one downstage and one upstage, provide ever-changing scenery projected from a double stack of Christie LX-100 Road Runner digital projectors.
“They ride a fine line of being very true to the original design concept of Disney and fitting into the physical set created for the show,” says Dierson of the projections. “We went to great lengths to maintain the integrity of the original Disney style, but we wanted to start making it look digital.”
Dierson and his team of programmer Rodd McLaughlin and assistant LD Demfis Fyssicopolous had Disney's original artwork of the Winnie the Pooh animated cells scanned at the Disney Imagineering Studio, then digitally manipulated them using Adobe® Photoshop® and After Effects®. The result: digital scenery that features classic Disney animation and custom-made material.
The projected imagery and technical tinkering provide many “special” effects throughout the show. Green screen technology allowed Dierson to place the live action characters literally into the cartoon world. For one scene, Pooh dances in front of a mirror, only to have his reflection dance back at him.
To the audience the moment is fantastical, but it took much preplanning to create. “We took several layers of the cells from the original Disney movie, showing Pooh's interior of his house. Then I actually extracted images from this,” explains Dierson. He merged the green screen video of the dancing actor with the extracted cartoon images of Pooh's home in After Effects. The video is projected onto the onstage mirror, which is really a projection screen. “After the dance, the screen melts into multi-tiled images of thousands of Winnie the Poohs to create a real magical moment.”
Due to the highly active onstage setup, with acrobatic actors and dancers filling the stage, focusing to the two projection screens became a spatial and structural problem. So Dierson and the creative team came up with what he describes as “a wildly elaborate and dangerous piece of equipment” to clear space on the stage. Rather than have multiple projectors focusing to specific screens, one laser-guided video projector dolly track was created.
The custom built structure — a Metroplex Conveyor Laser Guided Video Projector Dolly Track with an Xtreme Structures Folding 20' Truss System — runs smoothly from setup to break down in every venue. “It gets triggered through the lighting console via DMX,” explains Dierson. “We were able to cue it into the show and physically position the projectors from upstage to downstage.” Since nothing like this had ever been built before, he was amazed at the system's abilities: “They focus perfectly each time on the screen.”
For the lighting design, Dierson and the creative team favored a strict separation of visual imagery between the musical numbers and the scenes in the Hundred Acre Wood: a soft, consistent look for the woods and a fantastical, colorful look for the musical numbers. “We used a lot of different multi-colored gobos and things like that [for the musical numbers],” Dierson says. “And there's a lot of crowd interaction in them. So it was very colorful, saturated bright, and very fun looking for children.”
Dierson, who was brought onto the project with his touring background in mind, describes the musical numbers as having a “rock-n-roll approach.” His initial plan was to have conventional fixtures surround the stage, but budgetary and travel concerns created a need for the flexibility of automated fixtures. “We ended up going with an entire Martin Professional lighting rig,” he says, “and basically treated them like the conventional lighting fixtures; they rarely moved throughout the show.”
Of the 40 moveable lights and more than 100 lighting fixtures in the show, Dierson uses 12 MAC 2000 Wash units with different lens choices for each of the fixtures depending on where they will be playing throughout the show. MAC Performance units cover the stage, “specifically because of their shuttering capabilities. It was very important to be able to shutter off the projection screens,” he explains. The FOH setup includes eight MAC 2000 Profile units, “because of the wider range of gobo positions for the lights. Those play mainly on the audience during the musical numbers, that was part of the rock-n-roll styling that came into play.”
“It's a very cool vibe walking in,” says Dierson of the final product. “The children walk into the arena and their eyes light up. They see this enormous set that's all lit up. Rear projection screens are extending the look of the set through animation, where we have birds and butterflies flying through the forest digitally as the audience is coming in. It's very cool.”
Disney Live! Winnie the Pooh and the Perfect Day continues its world tour with dates in Australia, Thailand, and Singapore before moving to Europe in 2005.