Basic steps for finding the right program for your event.



Richmond Sound Design’s ShowMan show-control system is one of several options on the market designed to make running a sophisticated show easier.(Click the image for a larger view.)

SHOW-CONTROL TECHNOLOGY, born in the 1960s in mega-theme parks, is now found in applications diverse both in style and budget. Today, you might find show control on a live concert, corporate event, cruise ship, product launch, small theatrical production, museum exhibit, and, of course, in theme-park shows.

The term show control causes a considerable amount of confusion, mostly due to the overuse of the phrase in marketing products. As I say in my book, Control Systems for Live Entertainment, “Show control is connecting separate entertainment control systems together into a ‘meta system.’” A computer that controls fog machines to regulate the amount of fog in a harbor scene doesn't amount to show control. But a system that links the control of the fog machine with an audio playback system generating maritime sound effects qualifies for the name. You don't have a show-control system unless control for more than one production element is linked together.

The basic steps

  1. Safety

    Safety is the most important consideration in any situation. For the purpose of this article, we're talking only about situations where a faulty cue won't put anyone in danger. If you want to control pyrotechnics or machinery from any computerized system, consult an expert before proceeding.

  2. Type of show

    Many show-control systems can work in a variety of applications, but each system or technology is generally suited for one particular type of show. There are three different types of shows: live, asynchronous, and synchronous.

    Live shows are usually in a theater with actors performing live, and typically, a stage manager or technician calling the show. Show-control technology for live shows can be used to link systems together for complex sequences or to increase productivity, allowing one operator to run multiple systems. The former situation would be used most likely in a type of performance with a short run and little room for failure, such as a corporate event that will run only once (where all the technicians must be standing by) or a Broadway-style show where all department heads/operators will be present for the duration of the run since the show runs once a day.

    An asynchronous show is where many separate areas run either independently or simultaneously or both. For example, a haunted house in a theme park where audience members trigger various aspects of the show as they go through a maze. Unless audience throughput is tightly regulated, there is no way to know when audience members will trigger cues in a particular area. There is no time reference shared between the various areas of the show.

    In a synchronous show, there is a master clock that ties everything together. Typically, this is linear, pre-prepared media — video segment, film, audio soundtrack. There are many ways to synchronize all the other show elements to this master time clock, such as using a timecode that is sent from the master device to the show controller or directly to the controlled devices, or a show-control system that can tell everything, including media players, to “go,” and then let the systems run wild with no continuing resynchronization. This is possible only if each local device is not likely to drift off the time base.

  3. Control-information source

    Is there an operator running the system? Are audience members cuing the system? Is the show run from a time-of-day clock? Does the show start at sunset and run through sunrise? Translating these answers into a machine-readable form will be a factor in selecting the system or technology that is best for your application.

  4. User interface

    In a theme park, there may be no user interface at all — the equipment might be in racks in a control room and be activated by a signal from park-wide show management. In a live show, the show-control system may need to be operated by a skilled technician who is comfortable with cues, protocols, and timing issues. In a retail environment, someone who knows a lot about shoes but nothing about show technology may be starting and selecting the shows. Each of these applications needs a different kind of user interface, and each show-control system has strengths and weaknesses in each area.

  5. Systems and devices

    Since a show-control system connects other systems, the other systems obviously need to be specified. Once this is done, make a detailed list of each of the devices that need control — video players (DVD, MPEG servers, etc), video routing devices (mixers, switchers, matrices), lighting control consoles, programmable audio mixers and playback devices, animatronic characters, special effect systems. Be sure to include what control ports each device has.

  6. Control protocols

    Each controllable device will accept one or more control protocol/standard. Most show-control manufacturers can help you with your selection, and there are a number of consultants and dealers who are experts on this subject.

  7. Budget

    The most effective process for any show is to first figure out what technology is truly needed, and then see what that costs. Then can you decide if the system is affordable. Value engineering often results in a system that appears to work on paper but fails miserably to meet the requirements of the show. If a client insists that you compromise your system to the point of ineffectiveness to meet a budget goal, you won't regret walking away from the project.

Show control is increasingly affordable, and show-control functionality often comes for free with other devices. A few years ago, lighting consoles rarely had direct timecode input, so a show controller was often necessary to read the clock from a master source (video, time of day) and trigger the light cues. Now, many consoles and other audio and video devices are able to accept and generate timecode and other show control protocols. In addition, audio and video may include some basic show-control functionality.

Making the selection

By following the steps above, you should have all the information you need to select a show-control system or technology from one of the many on the market. (For a list of suppliers and talent, visit my website www.zircondesigns.com.)

You should also consider one basic question: Do you really need a show-control system? The simplest solution that gives the desired results is best. Is the show-control system adding unnecessary complexity, or worse, convolution? If it is, you should rethink whether there is a simpler way to get the job done.

Done right, show control is capable of tremendous cuing precision and will allow you to reach a level of sophistication in your show not otherwise possible. To get this amazing power, however, you need sufficient time to configure, test, program, and debug the systems. If you don't have that time available on a show, don't even attempt to use a show-control system. Try some experiments in a no-pressure situation first to see if it will work for you.

For true show applications, be wary of remote-control, touch-screen-based systems used in many corporate boardrooms. For boardroom applications, these systems are powerful and cost-effective, and for that reason, specifiers are often tempted to use them for show applications. You should resist that temptation. These remote-control systems, often used in shows for user-interface purposes, generally do not have either the timing accuracy or repeatability inherent in true show-control systems or, more importantly, programming tools of sufficient power.

A good show controller should offer timing precision and repeatability at the sub-video frame level, and have an easy-to-use programming environment that also offers the ability to jump around the show sequence during rehearsal/programming periods (it shouldn't restrict you to running from the top each time).

Once, a programmer of boardroom remote control systems called me. He had been asked to provide an estimate for programming a museum show. He asked, “How long does it take to program XYZ system?” I responded with a question of my own, “How much time do you have?” He was baffled. I explained, “If you have a day, it's a day. If you have a month, it's a month.” After much explaining, he got it — this is a show, not a boardroom. For boardrooms, he built his programming estimates simply by the number of buttons he needed to create on the touch screen — one hour for this type, two hours for that one. He eventually declined to bid the show project.

But don't be discouraged by that cautionary tale. Programming the right show-control system for a particular application is a wonderful experience that will change the way you look at shows. Done right, show control can take any event to a whole new level.


John Huntington is an associate professor at NYC College of Technology's Entertainment Technology Department. A member of IATSE Local #1, he authored the only book on show control, Control Systems for Live Entertainment, and works as a control and sound engineering consultant. Email at jhuntington@citytech.cuny.edu.