New York. Boston. Chicago. Las Vegas. Berlin. Toronto. London. Blue Man Group is taking the world by storm, with permanent shows now running in seven cities. The productions are getting more and more high-tech, as they embrace new technologies like ducks take to water. Yet the basic show remains the same: three men with bright cobalt blue heads performing a series of silly antics, with pulsating tribal music accompanying paint and food that splatter and fly across the stage, requiring a food-proof, water-proof environment. Matt Goldman, Chris Wink, and Phil Stanton, the original Blue Man Group trio, started out as a New York City performance-art phenomenon and have spawned an entire troupe of blue-headed clones. But a look behind the scenes at their recent productions in Toronto and Las Vegas reveal that beneath all the silliness, Blue Man Group is one very sophisticated theatrical machine.
Blue Man Group opened in Toronto in June 2005 in a specially renovated theatre at 651 Yonge Street, home of the former New Yorker Theatre. Funded by Clear Channel Entertainment and Panasonic Canada, the Panasonic Theatre (as it is now called) was designed by Young + Wright Architects (Toronto) in conjunction with Martinez and Johnson Architecture (Washington D.C.), Schuler Shook theatre consultants (Minneapolis), and Akustics acousticians (Norwalk, CT).
Stepping into the lobby of the 700-seat Panasonic Theatre, one is immediately surrounded by video images cascading across the ceiling. Panasonic provided over a quarter of a million dollars in state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment, including its latest high-definition plasma screens, creating a “Plasmascape” in the lobby. A total of 32 TH-42PHD7UY 42" widescreen professional Panasonic plasma screens are mounted on the ceiling in a radial pattern, with an additional six TH-50PHD7UY 50" widescreen HD plasma screens mounted vertically on a triangular pillar. Blue Man's artistic director/video designer, Caryl Glaab, created a 15-minute content loop including images of the Blue Men throwing paint on the ceiling, where it spreads in the screens as if defying gravity. A Dataton Watchout system was used to do the programming, using MPEG files.
“We have always viewed the Blue Man Group theatre lobby as a type of portal, where the audience can get ready to enter the world of the Blue Man,” explains Glaab, who based the screen layout on water vortex machines used in the show. Glaab works closely with Jon Kiphart, who was formerly with Scharff Weisberg and moved to Electrosonic Systems when the two companies merged video departments (Scharff Weisberg provides the video and show control systems; Electrosonic does the install and programming). Kiphart supports Glaab's artistic vision by designing cutting-edge systems with show control and user-friendly interface to run the complex video in the Blue Man shows.
“Each show is a little different, especially technically,” Kiphart points out. “In making Toronto a template for their medium-size shows, we created a design/technical package that can be duplicated in other theatres.” The Toronto show is run through three video switchers with Medialon show control software.
“I create a button board as an interface that allows the operator to jump to any part of the show and skip cues if needed,” says Kiphart. He also created “idiot arrows” that make the interface visually obvious to the operator. “The advantage to this system is that they can train operators relatively quickly. There is no more arcane video voodoo.”
The Toronto show system includes two Panasonic PTD-7700U DLP projectors hung on the balcony rail, with a feathered overlap to create one large seamless image that covers the width of the stage. “There is not enough throw distance for one image,” notes Kiphart. The set contains flat, gunmetal gray tubes, and Glaab creates video templates to match the tubes. One of the most unusual uses of video is the “TV Heads” scene. The Blue Men are wearing flat screen video monitors mounted in special monitor houses that cover their heads, with images of their faces interacting. “They have TV remotes and can flip the channel to change the images, turning a head into a dog, for example,” Kiphart says.
GAMBLING ON LAS VEGAS
Blue Man Group opened in Las Vegas at the 1,200-seat Luxor Theatre in 2000. In October 2005, they moved into a custom-built 1,760-seat theatre at The Venetian. That production is now considered the flagship show.
“In Las Vegas, we used two Christie Roadster S+16K projectors for front projection and two Christie Roadster S+12K projectors for rear projection,” Kiphart explains. The video display destinations include two Daktronics ProStar® spiral LED full-color ribbon board screens built into either side of the stage and flanking a rectangular Daktronics LED screen (15'×8') that flies in and out on center stage. Video signals can also be sent to the High End Systems Catalyst™ units in the lighting rig and directed to any one of the screens, as well as anywhere on the multilevel set of giant tubes and pipes or set pieces that resemble PC board trace patterns and physically connect the gray pipes throughout the band's onstage locations. Video can be used to cover the entire stage, or sent anywhere in the entire theatre for that matter.
Playback is via six Doremi hard drive video decks (five primaries plus one backup). “We used the decks as sources. We also took signals from two onstage cameras (one of which is also used in the house at one point in the show), a ‘cigar cam’ (also known as the ‘esophagus cam’), and a remote controlled camera mounted on the balcony rail,” notes Kiphart. At the core of the video system is a Barco/Folsom Encore video switcher and mix/effects device with 24 inputs and four outputs.
“I should mention that the Barco Events Manager/Medialon control system gave us an incredible amount of flexibility in creating our own user interface that the show operator uses to punch cues,” explains Kiphart. “Once I'd created the basic interface with all the show cues represented as buttons, I was able to sit with the operator as he ran rehearsals and modify his control screens to make it as simple as possible for him to run the show. I've run shows myself for decades, so I wanted to create an operator's interface that was easy to understand and presented all the information the operator needed, in a simple and obvious visual representation. I could also take suggestions from the operator during rehearsals and quickly incorporate them into the interface — things like color-coding the cue buttons to indicate whether the cue was a blackout, a called cue, a cuelight cue, or a music cue — that made the show even easier to operate.”
Kiphart points out that in Blue Man shows previous to Berlin, the operator had been responsible for recording short clips of audience members onstage to be used for the final “bows” sequence. The operator was kept pretty busy recording these clips to videotape, quickly editing them together during the show, and then running them back on cue. “Starting with Berlin and the introduction of the Medialon system, all the operator needs to do is punch a cue button to record the clip, then quickly go to a custom editing page when he has a break near the end of the show and define the in and out points of these video clips,” Kiphart notes. “The system takes care of everything else, recording and playing back the clips from one of the five primary Doremi hard drive decks.”
Video and lighting go hand and hand in Blue Man productions. When lit, the ribbon boards on stage are used not only to convey video content of text and images, but also used as a light source to backlight the performers with different colors or change the color and look of the set. “The video is so strongly integrated into the show, people don't realize its video,” says Kiphart. “The lighting and video are merged in the way the show was put together. It's hard to tell what's doing what. The video is all over the show and merged seamlessly with the lighting. It's magic, and they don't want the audience to be thinking about the technology.”
“The Blue Man Group comes to us with an intention, and we make sure they get the right gear to best meet their intent, from light output and resolution to lensing of the projectors,” says Josh Weisberg of Scharff Weisberg. “They are very sharp guys when it comes to technology and its capabilities.”
BLUE MEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The challenge of lighting the men with blue heads falls to Marc Brickman, who serves as both production designer and LD, with Marc Janowitz as lighting director and associate production designer. “Toronto is a model for shows in 700 to 1,000-seat theatres around the world, with certain limitations for space and budget. This allows us to replicate the show around the world without the creators being there all the time,” says Brickman. “The set has simple, solid moving pieces. You start in a dark cave like an explorer going on a journey with the Blue Men. Things become apparent as you travel with them.”
Brickman would travel from his home in Los Angeles to Toronto for three or four day programming sessions. (The Toronto show was programmed on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 console by Mark “Sparky” Risk; in Las Vegas, an MA Lighting grandMA was used and programmed Mike “Oz” Owens.) In the preliminary stages, Brickman uses the Maya pre-visualization software at Think Tank Matter in Los Angeles to create 3D renderings in real time on a large screen that the designers can see in New York.
“When we got to Toronto, everybody said, ‘it looks just like the pictures.’ We do a little bit of tweaking on site to fit the set pieces. The chemistry between us is really great, very collaborative,” Brickman adds. When it comes to the two Marcs collaborating on the design, Brickman brings his knowledge and wisdom gained through many years in the rock-n-roll arena to the table, helping Blue Man Group expand into new territory. Janowitz serves as the “translator” and executor, managing the details from concept to completion including all of the design packages, systems and associated paperwork, and light plots to make it all possible on a day-to-day basis.
In Toronto, the lighting maintains the intimate feeling of the original Blue Man show. The rig includes six VARI*LITE VL1000™ fixtures, three of which are hung on front catwalk positions as 45° followspots. The other three VL1000s are hung over the stage in back light positions. Six High End Systems Studio Spots® are used for additional backlight, while four Studio Beams® provide low sidelight.
“The VL1000s help pop the Blue Men from their environment,” says Brickman, who says they are his “favorite light for the Blue Men. It makes them look good, with the crisp, white 5,600°K color temperature on the blue faces. In Toronto, there are no followspots, so we really rely on the VL1000s,” he notes. In Las Vegas, where the theatre is so much larger, three Robert Juliat Cyrano followspots are used (other large shows such as Berlin also use Juliat followspots). PRG Toronto and PRG Las Vegas supplied the lighting rigs.
The conventional part of the Toronto rig includes ETC Source Four® ellipsoidals with Wybron CXI scrolling color mixers. These are hung in groups of three in catwalk wash positions, high box boom positions, lower box booms, and torm positions. There are 107 blacklight luminaires, four-cell Sky Cycs, and three-circuit Micro Strips from Altman Lighting. The show also includes a Live Wire electro-luminescence animation display, reconfigured for the size and shape of each theatre.
HES Catalyst media servers and DL.1™ digital light fixtures help converge the lighting and video in the show. In Toronto, there are two DL.1s, while in Las Vegas, that number expands to twelve. “We can integrate the lighting and video systems at any point. Caryl Glaab can send us images we play through the DL.1, or we send footage to his projectors for playback,” explains Janowitz. “We exchange ideas on the fly. It's really a joint system, and as far as the production design is concerned, everything is considered a projection surface.”
In Las Vegas, the Blue Men have cranked things up. “Las Vegas is a culmination of all they've done so far. There are a lot of cues, and the show is technically jam-packed but still looks simple,” says Brickman. “I love that, but it's actually a very complicated show.”
The Toronto template for future Blue Men shows was already tested with the London show in November 2005. “The Toronto and London shows are modern day versions of the original New York production, but now we can replicate the lighting from venue to venue,” says Janowitz. As Blue Man Group continues to multiply, heading toward world domination, their technical cocoon might be getting more and more high-tech, yet its goal is to support the simplicity of their original low-tech gags.
BLUE MAN GROUP/CREATIVE PERSONNEL
Blue Man Group founders and co-designers: Chris Wink, Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton
Artistic Director/Video Producer: Caryl Glaab
Production/Lighting Designer: Marc Brickman
Lighting Director/Associate Production Designer: Marc Janowitz
Director (toronto): Marcus Miller
Director (las vegas): Michael “Puck” Quin
Assistant LD (toronto), Asst. Production Designer (las vegas): Daniele Guevarra
Assistant LD (Las Vegas): John Cumiskey
Associate Video Director: Brian Harrison
Lighting Programmer: Mark (Sparky) Risk
Lighting Programmer (Las Vegas): Mike “Oz” Owen
Video Programmer (Electrosonic Systems): Jon Kiphart
Production Manager (Las Vegas/BMP): Paul Ackerman
Production Manager (Toronto): Ian Pool
Technical Supervisor (Toronto/las Vegas): Peter Lamb
Production Electrician (Toronto): Jason Jennings
Production Electrician (Las Vegas): Joe Allegro
Pre-Visualization/Maya Artist: Chris Nyfield