Lighting designer Jim Tetlow became interested in theatre in high school, where the auditorium was also the local civic theatre and the home of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, in the early 1970s. There he also met several faculty members from the Carnegie Mellon Drama Department who spent their summers at the Festival. Tetlow applied to CMU, was accepted, and graduated in 1977. Today he is the principal of Nautilus Entertainment Design in La Jolla, CA, a company that handles the lighting design for over 40 shows a year, from television to corporate presentations, and designs the entertainment spaces for cruise ships. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux, checks in with Tetlow about his take on new trends in entertainment technology on the high seas.

Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did cruise ships enter your life?

Jim Tetlow: In 1992, the production team from Carnival Cruise Lines saw Enter the Night, a show I did at the Stardust in Las Vegas. They asked me to meet with them on a short cruise from Miami to discuss the possibility of lighting some of their shows. At this point I didn't even know that there were theatres or shows on ships. I met with them, we hit it off, and I proceeded to light several shows for them on both new and retrofitted vessels. In 1994, they asked if I could provide input on a new class of ship, as they had never been satisfied with the equipment originally supplied with a ship. This was the Carnival Destiny, the first 1,000-seat theatre at sea with a three-deck-high auditorium and a four-deck-high flyloft. I started by consulting on just the lighting but in the course of the project picked up aspects of the rigging, stage machinery, and special effects. Following Destiny, CCL asked me to handle all of the entertainment consulting and that is when I built this into a larger business.

ELG: What are your most recent cruise ship projects?

Tetlow: The short answer is ‘all new construction for CCL, Costa, Holland America, and Cunard.’ The longer answer is that we have 12 ships scheduled to be delivered by 2005 from five different shipyards in Italy, Finland, and France, with options for several more. At any one time we are either in design, construction, or commissioning of approximately six ships. Beyond functioning as the theatre consultant for the major entertainment venues, we also design the lighting, audio, video, and special-effects systems for all public areas and crew recreation areas onboard the ships. There are typically 20 to 24 such areas, including bars and lounges, discos, restaurants, and spas, in addition to the theatres. We also track the project in what could be best described as project management on behalf of the owner, in that we follow progress and perform periodic inspections. We also work to ensure that there are no conflicts with other systems being installed and to avoid budget overages. When the systems are ready for testing, we have a team inspect and commission all of the systems with a protocol that we have developed. Any defects or comments are recorded in a ‘punch list’ database and we work with the shipyard and their contractors to clear this list prior to the ship's delivery.

ELG: Is there a specific project or part of a project that is especially interesting or unusual in terms of technology or design at sea?

Tetlow: For several years the challenge was to install as much technology as possible into the theatres in support of the entertainment productions. I think that we have reached the saturation point and I would be hard pressed to name any land-based facilities other than some of the Cirque du Soleil theatres that contain as much technology.

Now, I think the interesting work is in unique spaces such as the Queen Mary 2 Auditorium. This is a steep two-deck-high multipurpose space intended for live music performances, speeches and conferences, 35mm film, video, and television production. It also contains a planetarium with a dome that lowers from the ceiling to envelop the center 100 seats. We have designed a sound system that supports live performances in addition to cinema surround sound, 35mm, and four video projectors, and a lighting system that can support live contemporary performances, classical music, and corporate-type presentations.

ELG: How do ships integrate entertainment spaces successfully and what are the biggest challenges in doing so?

Tetlow: One of the obvious limitations is available space and almost any public area has to have multiple uses. This means that the theatre has to support not only the live variety production with 14 dancers, but also daily bingo games, a big-band dance set before dinner, shore excursion briefings during the day, and a late-night comic. Because all of these functions will take place in one place, there must be adequate storage and sufficient technical systems. Unfortunately, there is precious little storage space onboard a ship, especially the backstage wings, which are limited by the width of the hull and emergency egress issues. A specific answer would have to be on a case-by-case basis, but suffice to say that the backstage layout and booth layouts are very tight and the solutions have been arrived at through experience.

Another known limitation is the crew intended to operate the equipment. For the theatre, Carnival has one lighting tech, one sound tech, and a stage manger who operates the rigging system. Stagehands to move scenery and the followspot operators are not entertainment personnel and have normal shipboard assignments such as deckhands, stewards, and waiters. This is one of the reasons that a high level of automation is used and that the booth layout is critical. We have been designing our booth layouts in 3D recently and the information is priceless. Not only can you see any conflicts in spacing but also you can see the stage and all of the equipment from the operator's point of view.

ELG: What is the future of entertainment design and technology at sea? Any trends we should keep our eye on?

Tetlow: Incrementally, the future will include more networked systems. We are modifying the lighting DMX distribution on most of our new ships to be distributed over ethernet, allowing much more flexibility. I expect to see the same with the audio and video systems as well.

On a larger scale, I think that the future will be in more unique spaces such as the QM2 auditorium and in expanded video production facilities. I would not be surprised to see in the near future a ship with a 3D Imax theatre, or a video equivalent. A multipurpose area could be designed with arena seating that could work for a variety of functions. If you look at the onboard requirements as a challenge or opportunity instead of a restriction, I think that there are a lot of unique spaces that could be created.

Two or three things you might not know about Jim Tetlow: He enjoys running (as often as his knees allow); he takes photographs with a 4 × 5 view camera and develops the negatives in the guest bathroom, which doubles as his darkroom; current projects include new lighting for the Senate and House of Representatives chambers in Washington, DC, and the PA and video display systems for a new cruise terminal in Long Beach, CA, in the large dome that once housed the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes' airplane.