“I'm not the devil. I'm just the guy who taught him everything he knows.” Such was my snide retort recently to a control system technician who was taunting me about my rapid console input and how it was taxing the data flow in this massive multi-protocol monstrosity of a network we were working on. I had come in a few hours early that day to tediously sort through a multitude of cue lists and unblock unnecessary DMX information.
The task was normal enough, it just happened to be particularly daunting given the scale of the system, and I wanted to get as much accomplished in the relatively short amount of time I had available. This particular project had about 4,000 lighting fixtures, several video projectors, lighting media servers, professional video media servers, motion control systems, atmospherics, and water pumping stations with a couple of multi-million dollar robots thrown in the mix just to add a modicum of excitement to the show. The control system was running 44 DMX universes over at least three different control protocols. The transmission of it all varied between standard CAT-5 cables, 802.11g wireless, fiber channels, you name it. Triggering was being handled by SMPTE time code, MIDI note, and MIDI show control. If lighting and video could be controlled via Doppler radar, I'm quite certain that it would have been implemented into this system.
This project is, by all accounts, one of the most elaborate control networks on the face of the planet. So when a gremlin gets bored and decides to start creating mischief, you had better have your act together because there are about a million and three things that could go awry. Needless to say, detailed documentation is the key to its success. There are countless numbers of Excel spreadsheets that are constantly updated to keep track of the most menial of changes in the system; those sheets are arguably the most important troubleshooting tools available.
Ah, the details. By all accounts, they're what can make things look their best; when they're not given due attention, lackluster results are sure to follow. Tiny details can be particularly fascinating. When you look closely at things that possess great detail you can see just how much of a person's heart and soul went into creating it. Having said that, I must admit that I have a love/hate relationship with details. For while I truly appreciate the little things and actively seek them out, I find that taking care of them all is usually a tedious and frustrating part of the job.
Which brings me to the old 80/20 rule: When paying such close attention to detail it takes 80 percent of your time to complete the final 20 percent of your work. On this particular project, the 80/20 rule came into play just about every step of the way. This enormous system was pieced together in what could be considered a relatively quick fashion, but getting all the little bits to speak to each other nicely was truly a painstaking process for the system technicians. They worked incredibly long hours each day to see all of these little bits and bytes come together and, in the end, triumphed over what many originally thought couldn't be done.
It was in that last 20 percent of the process where thorough attention to detail was needed most, and it all paid off because it was very much like writing computer code: if one thing went wrong then it could have a domino effect on the system that would send you chasing your tail for hours on end in search of a problem that was happening somewhere completely different.
The 80/20 rule certainly wasn't limited to the control system, either. It reared its ugly head regularly in the cueing sessions as well. We could listen to a piece of music and just about cue it in real time. The lighting department had its act together when it came to rapid access and cue storing. But when it was time to finalize each of the numbers we were creating, there were so many factors that needed to be considered we would be adding point cues for days to carefully mark fixtures and manipulate this massive system so that it would provide absolutely perfect playback. In the end, the shows look quite simple and beautiful, as it should, and the audience will have no idea just how many painstaking hours it took to get that perfect final result.
To which many of you are saying “duh,” or words to that effect. Couldn't agree more. This is basic stuff; most projects have the same long and drawn out process in getting to the end result. It is simply the nature of the beast. So why is it that I've recently been involved in more and more shows that have lacked such attention to detail?
One show in particular stood out in my mind. An industry friend and I attended the performance of a permanent theatrical installation that had ungodly amounts of money thrown at it. Over the course of two hours, we saw just about every trick in the book in terms of technological effects, and it was really quite stunning. However, it didn't make up for what seemed to be a lack of attention to detail paid by the lighting department. There were enough sloppy cue transitions to prompt a comment from my counterpart, who normally would not take notice of such things. There also seemed to be a very lax consideration toward physical fixture placement given the fact that a few random fixtures were left out in the open, giving it all away, when others were perfectly hidden.
Am I being persnickety about it? Perhaps. As the theatrical saying goes, “Plays are never finished, they're abandoned,” so it's always difficult to know what went on behind the scenes during the creation process that led them to this result. But it felt as though they did all this very hard work until they got close to the end and then let the finer points slide. Worse, it's disheartening to actually notice it.
So what's the bottom line to all of this? Never give up! It's always that last 20 percent that's the hardest to get through, especially mentally. You have to keep pushing yourself to be motivated even when you feel like you've had enough and after working hard toward a goal you owe it to yourself to pay attention to the finer points and make what you have the best that it can possibly be. It is often said that the devil is in the details. Gee, maybe I'm the devil after all.