Back in December 2007, Kris Murray, TMB server superstar, gave my contact info to Richard Willis of bandit lights, who asked if I would be interested in programming some Green Hippo V3 Hippotizers for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) HD launch in January. I was just finishing programming V3 Hippos for Disney's The Little Mermaid on Broadway, so a field trip sounded great.

THE SET UP

Willis called and confirmed what would be a tremendous undertaking: 900 HD Element Labs Versa Tubes, a curved Barco MiPix LED wall, a Hibino Chromatek custom LED stick wall with Nichia diodes, and a column wrapped with a Main Light Industries Soft-LED curtain. To quote WWE production designer Jason Robinson, “The set is all video, so we can change it to be anything we want it to be.”

Willis asked me to put together a server system that allowed all servers to be backstage in touring racks, near the LED surfaces, keeping the FOH footprint down to a small fortress. The setup for full rig capability required six consoles — four Compulite Vector Reds, one Vector Blue, and one Vector Orange. Programmer Anthony “Geddy” Kordyjaka ran one Vector Red, with another run by lighting director/programmer Jeff Wilkin, and another for me to program video, with the Vector Orange for media playback.

Playback was operated by Jordan Goodfellow, with server monitoring accomplished by Green Hippo Zookeeper remote control software, provided by Nigel Sadler of Green Hippo, running on a custom PC from Bandit Lights. The custom PC rack also had four output monitors using Magenta Research Infinea transmitters and receivers for DVI-over-Cat5, so we could preprogram before the set was even finished being built. That meant we took up the entire long side of the hockey dasher camera side, just barely fitting.

Server control was through a Compulite Vector talking to four V3 Hippotizers, with a Zookeeper PC at FOH, and all DVI signals going to the new HD video truck, color-corrected, and then out to the video surfaces. Control with a Compulite was a challenge, as there wasn't a great working profile for Hippo available, so I built my own. Building custom profiles has become part of the everyday in server-land. Old software for us is basically three to six months old; console software extends to maybe six to 12 months. With servers, it's a juggling act to decide where to map all the knobs, so you don't look like a cat trapped in a litter box when programming.

Fortunately, Compulite super genius Chris Nathan was available to help vet the Compulite during the HD launch. He illustrated Compulite programming and was open to suggestions that could make the desk a better control surface for layer-based programming and live compositing. We had what we needed: a mother ship hookup.

A closed LAN using a private IP-address string handled media. That way, all graphic artist/3D HD compositor Dan Cerasale had to do was render and dump into a feed Hippo folder on the C drive of our Zookeeper PC — clean, delicious workflow, and my favorite part: no Sneaker Net! Sounds tasty, doesn't it?

I should probably explain the definition of Sneaker Net: The transfer of electronic information, via production assistant with a big grin, carrying the storage medium (usually a USB stick, FireWire drive or, even worse, a handful of DVDs) from one computer to another.

File transfer from a Mac to my PC workstation, media servers, and a backup drive is via a gigabit network switch over Cat6 or fiber. This way, the backup is built as we go and not after we are done and loading out — pure network workflow.

This new video rig was the centerpiece of the show launch. It was purposed for wrestler intros and WWE branding at the beginning, during, and end of each match, and seemed to give the wrestlers amplified super powers. The video surface was never blacked out, and there was also a huge lighting rig enhancing the video for wrestler intros and another lighting rig just for the ring, as well as the best indoor pyrotechnics I've ever seen, courtesy of Zenith Pyrotechnology.

The hurdle for the Bandit team was building a media system that could also tour 52 weeks a year, with no downtime, and provide 116 different intros, setups for Pay-Per-View broadcasts, and any other special event the WWE could throw at us.

“We Don't Do Subtle”

So, who else do you put on that team? Robinson brought together Cerasale, head tape room engineer Dave Taylor, IT director Bill Shortell, and me, and asked Bandit's production coordinator, Jason Shaw, to tape us to our chairs until we came up with something cool.

To quote Taylor, “The WWE runs under the mantra ‘We Don't Do Subtle’” — which makes you want to go hit someone with a chair. Taylor came armed with an intimate knowledge of each wrestler's talent and such overwhelming enthusiasm that he transformed into more of a design guru. We combined that knowledge with Cerasale's 3D super-bad (in a good way) compositing savvy. I can say to Cerasale, “How about some koi fish scales in 3D metallic red?” His response is something like, “It's in your feed Hippo folder.” With that kind of talent and speed, there's no limit to the cool stuff you can crank out.

Shortell comes packing eight-core-processor Mac towers, with all the RAM on the planet. For this core team, Robinson wanted us to create all the wrestler intros, with all Raw, ECW Heat, and Smackdown branding in only three days in time for the WWE HD Launch Live.

In wrestling, there are only two levels of creative feedback:

Critique #1 “Dude, we popped for that!” meaning, “That was the coolest thing ever.”

Critique #2 “That sucked monkey b*lls!” meaning, “Do that again, and you get hit with a chair.”

Since each LED surface had its own resolution, Cerasale and Taylor built media tuned for those surfaces. The WWE does some of the most outrageous branding, so things we had to watch for included text size and interpolating which pixel would make the text look its best. After that, it was all about what to put on what surface. Versa Tubes really look best with media in random frame super slow, while the Soft-LED curtains basically like to look like proton chambers. The LED stick wall really does well augmenting the spread of the MiPix wall, so anything on the LED stick wall increased the impact of the MiPix by tricking the eye into drawing in what's not really there. The MiPix wall had to be clean media with minimal distractions to give the wrestlers full impact.

We hammered out a show in three days we hoped would rock the house. Taylor had a core plan: we'd watch a wrestler's entrance video, brainstorm, and then Cerasale would start cranking out clips using 3ds Max and Apple Shake. That left me free to put it all up on the video rig, cue the thing, and layer in effects that our operator Goodfellow could use to build the excitement during the intros. Then it was on to the next wrestler. Robinson oversaw the process, and fortunately, most of his critiques were of the #1 variety much more often than #2, as described earlier.

WrestleMania is an event that can't be contained. It's a five-hour live, worldwide, Pay-Per-View extravaganza. The vibe is everywhere: at the hotel, at the gas station, at the loading dock, and all the way into the stadium.

In true Jason Robinson-style, he outdid himself. The theme was sort of Art-Deco-hot-Florida-beaches-sun…and wrestlers, of course. Robinson designed a 150"×120" replica of a South Beach Art Deco hotel, all constructed from various LED surfaces, with a giant Toshiba 10mm curved screen for text right in the middle. Three enormous, curved Panasonic 20mm can-shaped LED walls sat on the stage deck right behind where the wrestlers entered, as well as a Versa Tube sculpture that gave the whole intro area a 3D thrust.

Above and to the sides was the low-res LED stick surface to finish off the look of the hotel windows and sides, and the WrestleMania sign sat atop the hotel. This design gave a 3D effect with great transparency for sunsets and fireworks off the lake behind the stadium. No seats in the stadium would miss out. It was a gargantuan, over-the-top playground — something the WWE fans have come to expect.

Fortunately, we were able to apprehend two of four touring Hippos, with all the media, from operator John Buck who was concurrently on the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony, for which they used pieces from the standard touring rig that does Raw and Smackdown every week. The day after WrestleMania, there's always a Raw live show, and since we'd be making even more amazing stock media, we wanted to be sure the touring rig could make full use of the Mania custom clips.

Here's where some mad science came in. I was granted an MA Lighting grandMA console for WrestleMania, and Shaw built me a second Zookeeper PC just for Mania. So, how do you use a preexisting show built on a Compulite platform and dump it into the grandMA? They are both built on the Vx Works platform. Both have touchscreens. You basically have to start all over again. Fortunately, I had a day before Mania with the most current Vector show file, detailed notes I had made of each wrestler, entrance videos, music, and the Hippo media library structure. Approximately 116 potential wrestlers mean 116 sequences, 232 cues for those 116 sequences requiring 464 palettes. Not so bad yet, but then there's that Vector Snap thing-a-ma-hoo-ha. Macros can do the same thing, so throw in 116 to 120 or so macros, each with two to four lines of commands, and you've got about 932 things to do in one day. I call that fun.

Building a skeleton of the show structure, completely blind, before setting foot on site, is server programming. Live compositing is based on precision. You can't wait for the rig to be built, vetted, color corrected, patched, and then handed to you. You've got to do your homework.

DAY ONE OF WRESTLEMANIA

First day on site — network the touring Hippos in with the rental Hippos, sync up all the stock WWE content, and get compositing-land built with Shortell and Cerasale. The WWE currently rolls with about 60 gigs of stock content. About 70% is created in-house by Cerasale and others he works with at WWE headquarters in Connecticut. Day one went in the tank after a short 12-hour walk through networking-land and leaving that night while the servers synchronized all the media. Hippotizer V3 has a fantastic media management system. Once a pile of clips is on the system, on one machine, you can sync all the media across all the machines, one machine, or any combination of machines. Instead of no sleep, I got a little sleep.

DAY TWO

The second day started with a quick meeting with Robinson, who said, “Peter, is Mania gonna rock?” I replied, “Absolutely, just look at all this cool s**t!” How was he so calm? Cerasale, Shortell, and I dug in. Cerasale was cranking out all the new stuff we thought up and all the WWE media just for the jumbo screens. I was busy building wrestler intros for “The Hotel,” as we called the set. Using Zookeeper, I started building the show. Cerasale could also see what I was doing and optimize what he was making for the style I was programming. With the Hotel offline, Zookeeper proved invaluable.

Wally Crum, senior engineer from Screen Works, on the other hand, had a lot of hurdles to overcome. The LED “cans” on the stage were causing a weight issue, and the rest of the crew was busy remapping all the low-res LEDs. We had to remap the whole low-res section of the Hotel because the sides were ultra low-res, so putting media on them was problematic. Instead, we separated the main processor feeds for the main low-res Hotel façade and the side low-res LEDs. That way, the side LEDs would get more information. More info meant LEDs that looked like something other than Christmas lights.

Just before dark, Crum and the Screen Works guys (including Kevin Hoyle, head wrangler and operations director) were able to get us up on the Hotel with a temporary fiber run to three of our four gigantic surfaces. This gave us time to get a look at our cues during the overnight programming to see if the media would even work. Every now and then, Taylor would stop by to cheer us on. When you see the wrestlers do what they do, and you think, “I want a replay of that dude getting hit with a ladder,” and they replay it as if they know what you're thinking, well, that's Taylor.

At about 6am Friday, we got our first critiques, but they actually came from the news helicopters hovering over the stadium while we were running cues. I think if you can captivate a flock of news helicopters at 6am, you're on the right track. Day two ended at about 9am Friday morning. Daylight is such a buzz-kill.

DAY THREE

When we arrived, Crum had some good news for us. The entire rig was functional, but the temporary fiber run had to be pulled to do the real run out to the video truck for color-correction. No problem for us, as we had Zookeeper. Cerasale and I kept working until color-correction and final troubleshooting was done around 2am. Finally, it was our turn to play with the rig.

After checking scaling and a few updates to palettes, we jumped into the stuff we programmed blind. When we began updating those palettes, the cans had problems holding media. Text didn't read when characters ended up in the cracks of the can seams, so our solution was to space the letters using the “aspect” effect in the Hippotizers and, at other times, spread the text onto the opposite side cans. With the few hours of precious night left, we pounded out all of our presets, cues, and macros for the first rehearsal Saturday evening. We got out early…8am.

DAY FOUR

First rehearsal, and fortunately, the roof had been taken off our FOH position, so we could see the full rig and feel the searing Florida sun. Rehearsal was the usual thing. Wrestlers changed order, new ones came in, and others went out. The only things we knew would happen for sure were a Hall of Fame inductee moment, a “Money in the Bank ladder match,” a “Lumberjack Playboy Bunny match,” and maybe a “Battle Royale” thrown in for fun.

The rehearsal rocked, and, after Robinson gave us a #1 critique, we settled in for the last night of programming.

DAY FIVE

WrestleMania XXIV, 8:30am, and the fans were already tailgating. Mmmmm — the smell of barbecue grilling in the morning. Robinson came over to our media-land and asked, “Well Peter, how do you feel?” I replied, “We are going to blast this one out of the park, Raahrrr!” He smiled and put his headset back on. The last rehearsal went well. We get a new handwritten, show-flow, and it's doors.

The only glitch was some rain and way too much sun. Fortunately, I had a giant straw hat that I used to prop up the Visqueen tent we had during the two or three rainstorms that blew over. For me, the roar of the Citrus Bowl‘s record 74,000-plus crowd said that we rocked that house.

WWE WRESTLEMANIA

GEAR

4 Compulite Vector Red Console

3 MA Lighting grandMA Console

1 MA Lighting grandMA Light Console

6 Green Hippo Hippotizer HD Media Server

Element Labs Versa Tube Wall

Barco MiPix LED Wall

Main Light Industries Soft-LED

Hibino Chromatek Custom LED Stick Wall

Panasonic 20mm Screen

Toshiba 10mm Screen

142 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Wash

2 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profile

112 Martin Professional MAC 600

80 Martin Professional MAC 300

30 Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash

24 Vari-Lite VL500

12 Coemar Infinity Wash

28 Syncrolite SXB 5/3

50 Syncrolite SXB 5/2

192 Philips Solid State Lighting iColor Accent Powercore

190 PixelRange PixelLine 1044

6 Skytracker 4-Beam 2kW Searchlight

8 Strong Gladiator III Followspot

74 Martin Professional Atomic 3000 Strobe

44 6-lamp Bar PAR64

300 PAR64

12 5kW Fresnel

3 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal

CREW

Jason Robinson, Production Designer

Jason Shaw, Lighting Production Coordinator

Jeff Wilkin, Programmer

Anthony Kordyjaka, Programmer

John Lucksinger, Programmer

Peter Acken, Media Server Programmer

Dan Cerasale, Graphic Artist/3D HD Compositor

Dave Taylor, Head Tape Room Engineer

Bill Shortell, IT Director

James Greenawalt, Crew Chief

John Buck, Media Server Tech

Mark Steinwach, Tech

Andrew Kirk, Tech

Erich Hudgens, Tech

James Schroeder, Tech

Paul Holst, Tech

Micah Andrews, Tech

Scott, Allee, Tech

Matthew Dean, Tech

Samuel Morgan, Tech

Steven Fitzgerald, Tech

Marco Ale, Tech

Mclain Moss, Syncrolite Tech

Alex Flores, Syncrolite Tech

Greg Pfrommer, Followspots

Glen Rupert, Tech

Ryan Morris, Tech

Joe Denham, Tech

Doug Eldredge, Tech

Aaron Wagner, Tech

Bill Worsham, Tech