Nestled in the scenic Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania since 1958, Woodloch Pines Resort is a rustic family getaway spot that features golf, skiing, and other activities during the day. At night, the resort offers a variety of entertainment: bands, comics, and “staff” and “theme” shows. Woodloch has a waiting list for guests, even though it rarely advertises.
You might not expect to find state-of-the-art entertainment technology in the Poconos, but Woodloch, and other “destination resorts” like cruise ships, represent a kind of frontier for show control: they are exploiting newly affordable show control technologies which, a generation ago, could only be found at high-tech, mega-budget venues like Disney World.
The professionally staged “theme” show is redone each year, and features Woodloch's highest production values. For 2002's production, A Night of Legends, producer/writer Joey Casella, Woodloch's entertainment director, wanted to add more video, ranging from multiple projection systems to live camera shots. The show is run by a single operator, and Casella realized that to add these expanded video elements, some new technology would be needed. He contacted lighting designer Ted Mather for help, and Mather recommended a show control system and my book, Control Systems for Live Entertainment. (In interests of full disclosure, I ended up working with Woodloch when they called me with questions about the book.)
Show control is an oft-misused term, but Mather had recommended show control exactly as I define it in my book: connecting separate entertainment control systems (i.e., lighting, sound, video, etc.) into one meta system (a system of systems). Chris Engel, Woodloch's technical supervisor, is responsible for all the technical aspects of the shows — sound, lighting, video, pyro, even scenery automation — and has for years been singlehandedly running all those systems manually. He was tasked by Casella with finding a show control system, and, he says, “Our main concern was to reduce the operator's workload.” Interestingly, since any show production process will invariably maximize all available resources, what usually happens in these situations is that show control actually increases the operator's productivity while the workload stays the same, allowing him to do more with the same resources more accurately.
Anyone interested in implementing show control will have to go through a selection process similar to what Engel went through, since one of the most interesting (and simultaneously daunting) aspects of show control is that there are an infinite number of ways to solve any system design problem. Each solution can only be arrived at by evaluating what systems need to be connected, and what, exactly, is needed for that particular show, taking into consideration budget, the operators' and designers' backgrounds, among other issues. For some applications, modern show control systems essentially come “free” as part of another system, such as sound or video playback, and since the impetus for the system at Woodloch was the addition of complex video segments to the show, whatever solution was to be used had to provide both video playback and show control for budgetary reasons. Engel also wanted the solution to be PC-based, since most of the rest of the resort was on PCs already.
Engel investigated a variety of show control systems, and broadcast solutions like digital JPEG recorders, but in the end “bought a Stage Research SFX system largely because of the cost factor. We purchased a new computer complete with an MPEG video decoder card, high-quality audio card, and SFX Pro Audio/Show Control software for about the price of a professional digital video recorder.” Although Engel had never programmed a show control system, he found that, “SFX is a very easy program to use, so it did not take long to go from dragging files in to creating cue lists and then assigning timecode addresses to the cues.”
Once properly configured and programmed, show control systems are generally extremely reliable. However, getting the system set up, debugged, and working the first time is often time-consuming even for experts, and, for someone new to show control, more time will likely be necessary since the user often encounters unexpected difficulties. Keeping this in mind, Engel wisely implemented the Woodloch show control system in phases. “At the beginning,” he says, “I only had the WAV audio files in SFX, and I just played them back manually. Then, I added timecode address to each file and cues to set, start, and stop the clock. Next came the video files. We edited them on another computer, converted the AVIs to MPEGs, and transferred the files to the show computer. They were given timecode addresses too, and we were ready for rehearsal.” Later, after dealing with some issues in getting the video system working properly, Engel explains, he “recorded the light cues into SFX via MIDI. SFX's learn timecode function made it easy to stamp each light cue with timecode.” Now that it is all in place, Engel is looking to expand the system to control the show's automated roll drops, projector dousers, and other systems.
While Woodloch's phased-in approach went smoothly overall, a debugging period is necessary for any complex system. On top of that, Engel had to not only get the system up and running, but also to learn the details of SFX and technical aspects of show control such as MIDI and serial communications. However, Engel says, “The learning curve was not bad at all. I picked up a piece at a time.” In the debugging phase, he encountered some problems getting the video working properly. “With the video card we are using, I had to be careful how I handled the video files, because opening or closing one uses enough CPU power to cause WAV files to drop out during playback. Unfortunately, during rehearsal we found that two of the files had persistent audio dropouts. It took several calls to tech support and a bit of fiddling around with the settings of the codec I used, but eventually I found out that I needed to set the codec for a constant bit rate instead of the variable one I had used initially.”
Engel hasn't found many limitations with show control, but, of course, there's always room for improvement in any system. Of SFX, he says, “The only thing on my wish list is an interface more like a video editing program's timeline, possibly even one where you could see the audio wave-form. That would be a timesaver because you could drop cues into the timeline very precisely in relation to the music without having to play back large portions of the show.” (Note: Other video and show control systems such as Dataton and Production Designer currently provide this capability, but are Mac-based solutions, and Woodloch wanted to stay PC.)
Engel says he is very happy with his system: “With show control, running the show is a matter of playback as opposed to performing all the cues in real-time. Once the cues are stored into the machine, they play back the same every time. The biggest thing is the consistency, especially with the light cues. As an operator, it gives me back the time that I used to spend cueing CDs and videotapes as well as running the light board so I can concentrate on the sound.”
Out on the show control frontier, Woodloch Pines Resort is running technologically complex shows with a single operator on a limited budget. Anyone considering show control should be encouraged by Engel's success, and can easily and inexpensively follow in his footsteps, as long as they carefully implement their system in phases, and leave plenty of time to learn and debug the system.
John Huntington is an associate professor at New York City Technical College and can be reached through http://www.zircondesigns.com.