Years ago, in a sly commentary on the enduring nature of celebrity, Saturday Night Live ran a skit called “He May Be Dead, But He's Still Elvis,” in which the King of Rock & Roll's sequined suit, hung on a hanger with a spotlight and microphone, toured the US to the adoration of thousands of loyal fans. Thanks to the latest video projection technology, Frank Sinatra ups Elvis big time in Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way, a live show that meshed old television and film footage of Ol' Blue Eyes with jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, a full orchestra, a gospel choir, larger-than-life puppets, even the Radio City Rockettes-all in a highly theatrical setting.
Conceived and directed by theatre vet Des McAnuff, and produced by Radio City Entertainment, this special production, which was staged at Radio City in October, highlights rare footage of Sinatra singing some of his greatest hits on moving projection screens, each a different size and configuration, along with other moving and still images of the entertainer in concert, in studio, and in his private life. This flood of visual imagery runs in frame-synch within the context of the live performance, which is part concert and part documentary, mixing autobiographical facts of the entertainer's life with live music and staging. The result is a tightly integrated piece that pushes the boundaries of what video projection can contribute to the stage. The design team for the production includes multimedia design by Batwin + Robin Productions, sets by Robert Brill, lights by Howell Binkley, costumes by Gregg Barnes, sound by Dan Gerhard, and puppets by Michael Curry.
“Frank's presence was the prize,” says Brill of his experience working on the project. “It's not like working on a new play where you don't know how the audience will respond.” For the design team, the challenge was to create an environment stylish enough to present the most elegant of icons, but flexible enough to showcase each era of a career that spanned most of the twentieth century. Oh, and it had to work with some of the most cutting-edge technology in use today.
Brill was brought onto the project even before it was pitched to Radio City Entertainment, because, as he says, “we started from nothing, there was no treatment. The design was evolved so that we could think about the project in visual terms to help develop the piece on paper.” The eventual look of the show, what Brill calls a “landscape of moving surfaces,” had to work on the scale of Radio City Music Hall and accommodate production numbers featuring the Rockettes and the live band.
Clips from Sinatra's performances and family home movies were projected onto four moving screens, one bottom half-screen, and one full sheet screen, all framed in a stainless-steel laminate that also covered the proscenium portal. Even a moving stretch limousine that delivers the Rockettes onstage for the song “I'm Gonna Live ‘Till I Die” is in a classic metallic Mercedes Benz silver. “I tried to keep everything tailored and handsome and present him in a dignified, austere setting,” says Brill. The designer allowed himself a little more fun with the song “Come Fly With Me,” creating an airport lounge with a bright sixties sofa, inflatable escape slide and an airplane tail that glides past the window using Frank's favorite color, orange.
The airplane tail and escape slide are pushed on and off stage by stagehands, making “Come Fly With Me” the lowest-tech production number in the show. Many of the other entrances and exits were staged on automated units, courtesy of Stage Command Systems by Scenic Technologies; they include the band, which moved in three sections, a large stair unit from the pit to the apron of the stage, left and right units, an Apollo rocket and a self automated limousine. The overhead projection screens were double-automated so that they could be flown in and out and also travel onstage, so between 20 and 30 motors were used during the show.
Not all the moving units were automated. In one sequence, the members of the Rat Pack — Frank Sammy, Dean, Joey, and Peter — are represented by 15' tall puppets manipulated by cast members and created by Michael Curry Design of Oregon. To make them at home the design team created a larger-than-life Sands Casino sign and booze cart.
One of the more technically challenging vignettes in the show involved taking a clip of Sinatra singing “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” in a bar and, through blend of staging and projection magic, adding John Pizzarelli, a sax player, and a bartender into the clip. The effect was achieved by setting up a bar onstage that mimicked the bar in the clip and coating the surfaces with a gray material called Chromatte, discovered by Scharff Weisberg, that enables the image the camera picks up to be manipulated.
“The bar onstage didn't need to be painted chromakey blue or chromakey green, which would have been ugly, explains Scharff Weisberg president Josh Weisberg, who made the discovery. “This material has these reflective beads in it; you shine a bright blue light on it and it turns into chromakey blue, at least as far as the video is concerned. The light is a ring of LEDs that mount on the camera lens. We had a compact camera on an arm built into the bar.”
For this scene, as well as the others, Sinatra, who famously refused to do second takes, was anything but difficult. “Frank was very cooperative,” Brill quips, “and he was always on time.”
Scenery was provided by Scenic Technologies, Chicago Scenic, Cigar Box Studios, F&D Scene Changes, and Centerline Studios. Technifex designed and built the finale special effect, a 3D Pepper's Ghost special effect used for the song “New York, New York. Other effects, including pyro, were provided by Jauchem & Meeh. Properties were provided by Prism Production Services. Flying effects, including floating astronauts, for, appropriately enough, “Fly Me To The Moon,” were provided by Flying By Foy. Joe Lambetta served as Brill's associate.
If Brill was responsible for creating the frame around Sinatra, it was up to Batwin to create the portrait. A little over a year ago she was given the opportunity by the Sinatra estate to see if there was some fresh source material for a tribute to the star. “The estate let us go into the Sinatra vault,” she explains. “I hired Keith Robinson, the project's film transfer supervisor, to do the research; he set up right in the vault to start looking at what was there. We didn't know if we had a show until we went in there.”
What they found was gold, according to Batwin. “It was from 1958-59, a variety show he had done for TV. Sinatra had used a 35mm camera and he also recorded the audio with four separate tracks. His voice was on one track, so his voice was separate from the instruments, which we couldn't believe. Knowing the whole idea of the show was to have a live 40-piece orchestra playing with Sinatra's voice, it was very exciting. We found 45 songs recorded this way.”
Once it was established that they had the source material necessary, the process of putting together the show began. “We transferred all the film to digital video just so we could look at everything. Then the editing process began: What were the best songs? What did we want to use?” The only issue was the narrow scope of time the footage covered in Sinatra's career; the team ended up having to use some video, but kept it to a minimum. Batwin explains, “Video was a little more of a challenge; it was 40 years old and the voice wasn't separated, so it was a harder to use.”
A request by video-savvy director Des McAnuff established Batwin's next step with the found film footage. “It was Des's vision to rotoscope. He wanted it all to be on a black background so it is timeless, and we aren't in a certain time period, so you feel like Frank is there with you. Later, during the design process, it was decided to add color to the backgrounds. At the beginning of the show it is black and white, then we add sepia next, and then we start to add other colors.” Guava and Alter Image were responsible for the rotoscoping, which involved over 60,000 frames used in 16 songs.
The transfer from film to digital format was left to an older technique as well. “We ended up using a liquid gate transfer, where actually it goes through a gate with liquid that cleans the film and then takes a digital image of each frame,” Batwin explains. “We made them 2K files. Then we dropped down to the HD because that is less then 2K, so we were in great shape.”
The end results were worth all the work, says Batwin, “Every step from cleaning the film, to how we transferred it, to the color grading, to the restoring, to looking at each step of the rotoscoping, to adding the background and keeping it as high-resolution as possible, to HD — it was so many steps to when you saw him really big, and it really held up. It had a film quality and I was really pleased with it.”
Batwin approached Josh Weisberg of Scharff Weisberg in the early stages of the design process to discuss control for the projection. There would end up being six video screens, two 19' × 19', two 25' × 35' and one rear projection 35' × 50' screen, as well as an 18' circular screen. The RP screen was Aeroview 100 from Stewart Filmscreens and the front projection screens were Stewart Ultramatte 130s, all of which were built for the show and track on stage horizontally, vertically, or even diagonally using screen-tracking automation provided by Scenic Technologies.
Early on, Batwin and Weisberg hoped to have the imagery appear to track along with the screens. “When Josh came back from NAB,” recalls Batwin, “he found a way to move the image on with the screens.” What Weisberg had found was the Montage switching system manufactured by Vista Systems. Montage is used to switch sources, size and crop display windows, and move those display windows across the image map, all while maintaining image quality. “The great thing about Montage is that it can handle just about any video signal there is,” Weisberg explains. “Typically with a display device, if you switch from sending out a VGA signal and then you change it to a XGA signal, the display is going to blink or glitch. We didn't get this with the Montage.”
“The biggest challenge of this project was to make the video windows move with the screens,” Weisberg continues. “It ended up being a manual programming coordination feat. What we had to work from was the dynamics of the screen movement, because obviously it is a lot easier to move electrons than it is to move these huge screens. The issue was that we didn't get to see these dynamics until we were in the theatre, and in the theatre we didn't have a lot of time to make this programming happen. It took us many overnight hours to dial it in accurately.” The extensive Scharff Weisberg team included production manager John Ackerman, video systems engineer Barry Grossman, projection engineer Bryan Dominick, Montage programmers Randall Briggs and Greg Byrnes, still images programmers Jon Kiphart and Lars Pederson, show control programmer John Sacrenty, and projection technician Juan Mateo.
Scharff Weisberg chose the Medialon Manager timeline-based show control system, programmed to control source decks, the Montage switcher, and all the projectors. In addition to the moving video there was a plethora of high-resolution still images. The Dataton Watchout system was used to format the still images and play them. “We have used Watchout before and I was so pleased with the quality of the high-resolution stills next to the HD,” says Batwin. “They worked beautifully together. We had the idea of Frank being taken out of his background, and we played with that in the stills and had the background moving separate from the foreground. Giving Watchout the elements to work with and it could program that way.”
With all the effort to maintain image quality, the choice of projectors was important. Scharff Weisberg provided Batwin with Digital Projection Lightning 28sx units as well as a couple of Digital Projection Thunder 10000sx and two Barco SLM RDM-10 units. Six of the 28sx units were used for front of house, in three pairs, left, center, and right, which were dual-converged. Two more pairs of 28sx units were focused on the house walls for sequences projecting 60' × 90' images. Onstage, for rear screen duty, the main RP sheet was a 50' × 35' sheet with triple stacked 28SXs using .62 lenses. The show's big finale is a rendition of “New York, New York” featuring a 3D Pepper's Ghost effect of Sinatra, in raincoat and hat, in a center stage box with the Manhattan skyline in the background, with was achieved with a pair Thunder 10000 DSX units. Lastly, two Barco R10s were used to hit a circular screen. “Essentially all seven projectors wanted to occupy the same physical space,” says Weisberg. “The three triple-stacked projectors had the first priority and then everything else had to move around them.”
Despite the massive amounts of technology used on Sinatra, Batwin says the emotional reaction from the audience was the big pay off. “People were crying after the show. Some of them remembered seeing Frank when he looked like that and he sounded like that, and they felt like they had just seen him again.”
It's Frank's World
When director Des McAnuff and the producers of Sinatra first approached lighting designer Howell Binkley about the show, he was intrigued by both the scope of the project and the venue in which it was to be staged. “I was overwhelmed by what they were challenging me to do,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘I have never done anything like this before, and I think I am ready.’” Of course, then he got into Radio City Music Hall. “It was my first time as a designer in Radio City, and I'll tell you, when I got to the tech table and started to turn stuff on I was like, oh, my gosh! It is huge! It was a reality check.”
Binkley's design approach was to always support the projection work. “I never wanted to interrupt the text of the show: Frank and the images. It is about sculpting the stage, allowing the media to have the whole realm, and never interrupting the media. It was just about me being able to cut through and around all the screen choreography, sculpting the light.”
His color pallete tended to follow the look of the rest of the production, starting in black and white, then gradually cross-fading into sepia tones, followed by blues and a variety of other color strokes. To achieve his design vision Binkley's plot relied heavily on moving lights. “It was a huge moving light-driven show. The conventional package was very moderate. I couldn't have done it without the moving lights, couldn't have done it with a conventional system.” The lighting gear included Vari*Lite VL-3000™ spots, Martin Mac 2000 profiles and wash units, ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, Wybron Coloram II scrol-lers, GAM Film FX, DHA Digital Light Curtains, City Theatrical accessories, Color Kinetics 12" iColor Coves, MDG hazers, and Morpheus Double Hung Flip Truss. Control was provided a Vari-Lite Virtuoso DX console and an ETC Obssession II.
Binkley credits his programmer, Tom Celner, for his invaluable help on the project. “I bring the programmer in very early, and I want the programmer to have his or her tool of choice. With a show the size of Sinatra — I mean, there were 14 universes in that board — Tom's board choice was the Virtuoso. It was the right choice, especially at the speed of which we had to work during the tech process.”
Time was the biggest obstacle for a show of this magnitude, and it required a schedule that made a long tech week look like a vacation, explains Binkley, “It was an intense schedule. They were very long days, 8am to midnight for three weeks, but we were dealing with technology that had never been done before. Sometimes we would hit a loophole and you would have to stop for three or four hours while stuff got rebooted, fixed, and this and that. With the team that was there, everybody was professional. We had some of the best stagehands in the world; Jim Eisner, the production electrician, he and his crew were fantastic.” Binkley was equally pleased by the support he got from InLight Gobos of Texas; he got black and white photographic images from Linda Batwin that InLight turned into hi-res gray scale glass gobos for the VL3000s. “They were right with us, 24 hours a day; whatever we needed, InLight would burn it and send it right back to us. They were phenomenal, hands down, absolutely great work.”
As for designing in Radio City, Binkley happily points out, “I think one of my favorite things in the show was my preset. I have the house lights at a glow and I lit the ceiling of the theater and it just bounced. It is the only place in the world you can get away with it.”
Not everything on a project of this magnitude is difficult. For costume designer Gregg Barnes of Tiny Inc. Costume Design, clothing Pizzerelli for “One For My Baby” was probably the easiest part of the show. Rather than recreating Sinatra's classic Burberry trench coat, he visited the famous fashion house and found that they still made the same model. Like Frank, some things never go out of fashion.
Sinatra's style was so classic that Barnes was often able to recreate his look without having to make drastic costume changes. He explains, “Frank a lot of times wore a gray suit, so we used the same suit and matched the tie and the pocket square and the hat.” Although there are eight different suits in the film footage, the designer managed to get away with using only two on the live actors.
Unfortunately the costume department was not immune from technological bugs. For the number, “I Won't Dance,” film footage of Frank with a bevy of beauties in ball gowns had been colorized, and Barnes had to recreate the dresses for the live action on stage. Problems arose when the colors showed slightly different on whatever computer or projection screen they were viewed. Barnes says “We layered a lot of tertiary color underneath the primary color on the top layer, so if we had a problem Howell could basically color correct us on the spot.”
Fortunately very few of the clips were colorized, and Barnes was able to frame the show in black and white and use color to differentiate between time periods in Frank's life. The designer felt this was especially fitting as Frank's career spanned the eras of black-and-white movies and Technicolor®. He says, “In the beginning, all the footage was in black and white, until the home movie when Nancy was a little girl, and so from that point on all the costumes are in color.” This is also true of the the band members, who exchange traditional tuxedos from the beginning of the show for white jackets that change mood with the lighting.
A big challenge to the designer was providing heightened glamour within the budget. One large production number for the song “I'm Going To Live ‘Til I Die” was originally designed with long red dresses for the Rockettes, but it became infeasible to make a new set of clothes for the number. Fortunately Barnes, who has been designing for the Rockettes for years, remembered a silver mini-dress covered in mirrors he had created several seasons before and which would work very well in the swinging sixties period of the show. He says, “It's a tap number and the short dress showed off their legs so in the end it worked out well.”
Though the run of Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way at Radio City was relatively brief, there is talk that it may yet find a permanent home on the Vegas Strip. No doubt Frank — not to mention Dino, Sammy, and the rest — would drink to that.