Tour Exhibit Illustrates How Theatrics are Incorporated into Scientific Shows
“Space” isn't just the final frontier — it's also the title and subject of a new, touring multimedia exhibit presented by Clear Channel Exhibitions, San Antonio. SPACE: A Journey to Our Future, opened at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle this past November and will travel to several museums around the country over the next five years. The project is far more than a typical science exhibit — it's theatrical and interactive, typifying the ambition that drives the creative approaches and technology choices inherent in nonpermanent thematic exhibits these days.
“We wanted to make it unlike any other science exhibit that anyone had seen,” explains David Weiss, SPACE creative director. “I wanted it to be about the dream of space, and I wanted to use the exhibit as a way to inspire people to dream about what's possible in our future.”
As part of this approach, Weiss' team added the interactive element. “We decided to take our (museum) artifacts and interactives and put them into a themed environment,” he says.
SPACE is a 12,000ft. exhibit that required months of planning, but the most intensive period of design and fabrication took place 19 weeks before the exhibit opened. Weiss headed up the team delivering the scientific content and media to the exhibit, while Rick Goodwin, of Rick Goodwin Design, Oakland, provided design services, and Hunt Design, Pasadena, handled the graphics, using NASA as a primary resource.
Executive producer Jeff Wyatt (Clear Channel Exhibitions) and SPACE producer Nancy Seruto then assembled design and production elements and the staff needed to transform the concept into functioning reality. Wyatt and Seruto had worked together on themed exhibits and entertainment in the past, as well as theatrical events, so they were able to assemble an experienced team of people who knew what needed to be done.
SPACE consists of four themed sections: Dare to Dream, A Dream Come True, Living the Dream, and Dream of Tomorrow. Each follows Weiss' original concept: inspiring patrons to think about space and humanity's relationship with it. “I wanted to walk people through our history in space,” Weiss adds. The exhibit also features a pre-show area and a finale that takes place in the museum's Future Theater.
Patrons walking through the pre-show area find themselves in a theatrical facsimile of a forest clearing, created through the use of dimensional trees and a painted scrim. That pre-show sets the mood. Visitors then hear a narrator discuss “the awe and mystery and wonder of the stars,” in the words of Benjamin Lein, owner and lead show system integrator for Associates in Media Engineering (AME), Glendale, Calif., the company responsible for the exhibit's show control, audio, and projection systems.
Lighting is key to the illusion in this area. “When the sun sets, the horizon is transformed into a magnificent star-filled sky, and it was important that we create the effect without the intrusion of large theatrical fixtures,” explains SPACE lighting designer Lisa Passamonte Green of Visual Terrain, Van Nuys, Calif. Passamonte Green and her team turned to Juno Lighting's Studio II Par38 fixtures with amber and dark blue filters, as well as Altman Micro-Ellipse fixtures.
“The Altman Micro Ellipse fixtures, with abstract patterns, were used to further immerse the guests and cover them in the dappled light of the sunset,” Passamonte Green adds.
As the narration continues, the mood and time changes. “There's fiber-optic illumination, and as it changes from dusk to night, you see the stars come to life in front of you,” Lein explains. When night arrives, patrons find themselves in the middle of the Milky Way.
“The UV-painted fiber-optic drop was illuminated with a combination of Martin's Fibersource QFX150 and Wildfire's Effects Master Series, as front light from below to bring the stars to life, cause them to twinkle, and allow us to reveal a variety of starry looks throughout the sequence,” adds Passamonte Green.
The pre-show area is one of the more complicated parts of the exhibit, featuring lighting, sound, and narration, which means that show-control technology is also involved. “We have fairly sophisticated show-control systems in the pre-show theater and the finale theater,” Lein says. He relies on an Anitech Media Pro 4000 IMC 4020 Integrated Module Controller in the pre-show area, as well as a variety of audio gear.
“For audio reproduction, we used an Alcorn McBride 8Traxx — essentially a little one-rack, multi-channel MP3 server,” he notes. The Alcorn McBride gear fit the bill due to the unique requirements of the area, Lein adds. “It was an easy choice because we needed multiple audio tracks — it's a surround-sound space with multiple audio zones, and for that, the Alcorn 8 Traxx was a cost-effective solution.”
Moving through the Dare to Dream portion of the exhibit, visitors encounter Galileo, as well as a graphics-laden timeline that explores man's fascination with space. There are several interactive elements in the area, including one that illustrates Einstein's theory of gravity. As patrons move through the exhibit, they go through a portal and end up in the gantry of a Saturn V rocket. The gantry is a support structure housed around a replica of the rocket, and it was built to scale for the exhibit, with help from diagrams provided by NASA.
“We built a 20ft.-tall section of the Saturn rocket and a level of the gantry to give the illusion that you're standing right next to it, looking at the side of the rocket,” Seruto explains. “We take a very close-up view and put you right up against the rocket, instead of revealing it to you from 100ft. away.”
The exhibit's Saturn V rocket gantry isn't any quieter than one on a real launch pad would be — all part of the details put into the illusion. “The metal walls vibrate; the rocket is rumbling, and there's footage of the rocket liftoff suspended overhead,” says Lein.
To control the audio and video, Lein relies on customized, modular A/V “sleds” in each area (see “Touring Exhibits Do's and Don'ts,” page 34). “In the gantry area, we've got on Adtec Edje that's reproducing the (audio-free) video element on an LCD in a custom bezel suspended from the metal grid ceiling,” he says. Adtec Edje MPEG video players are deployed throughout the exhibit. “The Edje is very reliable, practically bulletproof,” Lein adds.
The Edje isn't the only gear on Lein's modular sled. “We also have a number of digital audio players from Eletech because we didn't need a lot of high fidelity — we just needed the ability to store digital audio and play it back reliably,” he says. The small, cost-effective Eletech units were used to reproduce the rocket's rumbling during takeoff.
One of the most theatrical and interactive parts of the gantry is the fact that it does, indeed, shake. “We put acoustical transducers — basically big acoustical motors — and vibrated the scenery so it actually feels like you're standing on an actual rocket gantry,” Lein explains. The acoustical transducers are driven by small Furman (SP-20) amplifiers, housed on one of Lein's modular sleds and integrated into the scenery.
Lighting in the gantry area, which is split into two levels, was a challenge, as well. “To accentuate the magnificent structure of the rocket, we selected Juno Lighting Studio II Par38 fixtures with spot lamps to uplight it,” notes Passamonte Green. “We also used architectural RLM fixtures by Spero Lighting that were surface-mounted to the ceiling grids to enhance the industrial feelings of the gantry and further play off the height of the rocket.”
After the Saturn V, the next major area of the exhibit is the interactive Living the Dream area, which is less theatrical and more interactive. “At this point, we really wanted people to be involved in the interactive (elements), so the design of that room is really the functionality of the interactives themselves,” Weiss explains.
Instead of themed lighting, the area uses colorful High End Studio Color 250s fixtures to give the area a sense of movement and energy. But interactive elements, created by Design and Production, Lorton, Va., are what make this part of the exhibit work.
“Our goal was to develop interactives that engage the audience, pulling the creative director's vision through, and meeting all the educational objectives set by our subject matter experts,” explains Dan Moalli, project executive at Design and Production. The interactive elements, he adds, also had to be fun for visitors. “We were constantly wrestling with that fine line between education and entertainment, and I think the exhibits not only get the message across, but their presentation style also helps kids retain some of the knowledge gained during their visit to the exhibition.”
A typical, somewhat amazing interactive element in this part of the exhibit is something geared for three participants. “We received a clipping from a science journal that outlined a futuristic exercise station for astronauts,” Moalli explains. That exercise station, called the Cyclitron, is something that Dennis Bartz, VP of design for Clear Channel, originally learned about in Popular Science magazine.
“When you pedal the Cyclitron, you rotate it 360 degrees, which creates artificial gravity,” Weiss explains. The article went to Moalli and his team of engineers to decipher. “The article contained a line sketch, lots of verbiage about the intent of the station, and nothing more,” Moalli admits. From that source, his team had the Cyclitron designed, engineered, and fabricated in less than eight weeks.
Another popular interactive element lets patrons design their own base camp on Mars. “We borrowed heavily from pop culture, and when we were asked to do an interactive about building habitats on Mars, we turned to popular games like The Sims for a baseline look and feel,” Moalli confides.
The Living the Dream interactive area also features a satellite exhibit that makes use of Jestertek “Jestpoint” technology, a gesture-recognition product that essentially allows patrons to use hand gestures to replace computer mouse control. This area permits visitors to easily access satellite information and pack for a fictional trip to Mars.
Speaking of Mars, the Dream of Tomorrow section takes visitors to the Red Planet. “When we built a Mars landscape, it wasn't because we thought it would be cool — it was because it makes people realize what their future might be like,” Weiss says. The exhibit's version of Mars includes two major scenic areas: an exterior landscape and the interior of a Mars base camp. “Mars is the most themed environment because it's based on imagination, (because no Martian space station currently exists, obviously),” Weiss explains. “The landscapes are based on a great deal of scientific research — we looked at several areas on the planet and tried to be as accurate as we could in our depiction of the landing area we chose.”(Weiss added that, at press time, new video was being added to this section from the recent Mars rover expeditions to enhance the realism for visitors.)
The red and dramatic landscape area posed a particular challenge for the design team, according to Seruto. “Trying to create a sense of sweeping landscape in a limited footprint was challenging,” she admits. So she turned once again to the world of theater for an answer. “We used a lot of traditional theater tricks to do that, most notably a painted drop to give a sense of perspective, and a foreground diorama, as well.”
Another part of the landscape invites patrons into the set itself. “We wanted to let kids walk on Mars, instead of looking at it through a piece of glass,” Seruto says. In this area, kids can even jump on the Mars rocks, which are actually made of fiberglass combined with textured concrete. There's also an “astronaut” on hand in a space suit and an actual meteorite from Mars.
Visual Terrain's lighting in this area completes the Martian picture. “Altman PAR46 fixtures with amber filters, hidden over the guest's shoulders, are used to illuminate the drop and the general pathways, creating a dramatic view of Mars,” explains Passamonte Green.
From the red dirt of the Mars landscape, patrons move into another highly themed area — the base camp's interior. Here, visitors can climb into a bunk bed and listen to, apparently, a Mars' explorer singing in the shower module close by. “We have several Edje's in there to reproduce the video you see in the bunk bed, as well as some Eletechs for the background ambiance portion of the soundscape,” Lein says.
Lighting is also key to the illusion inside the base camp. Gone is the warmth of the surface of Mars — the feeling now is cool and futuristic.
“All of the base-camp lighting is created by architectural fixtures that are integrated into the scenery,” Passamonte Green says. Among other things, this area relies on Lithonia T5 fluorescent strips with color sleeves that are integrated into the ceiling, and LED light buttons from Bruck Lighting, which highlight workspaces and framed entrances. “These sources were not only energy efficient, but guest friendly to the touch.”
The exhibit ends at the Future Theater, a modern, 360-degree, in-the-round theater with three surround-sound channels, using (UPM-1P and USW-1P) Meyer loudspeakers. “They're self-amplified, so rather than having to build a rack for that space, we could simply source all the audio as line level and distribute it with small cables out to the loudspeakers, where it's easier to pick up (power),” Lein says. From an audio standpoint, the space plays back four separate channels of audio: three discrete tracks and a sub-channel.
The theater also makes use of surround video, as well as surround sound. “We use six NEC MT 1060 projectors to project an almost seamless visual environment all around the viewer,” explains Lein. This area is also home to three Plasma displays, and all of the elements in the Future Theater are controlled by an Anitech controller and two standalone, industrialized PCs
Space will be entertaining visitors in Seattle until May, when the exhibit will move to St. Louis. Following that stay, it will tour the country, with stops in several cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. See the website, www.spacexhibit.com, for a complete tour schedule.
Sharon Stancavage is contributing editor for Lighting Dimensions magazine, and has penned articles on a variety of topics for numerous trade publications over the years. Email her at email@example.com.
Touring Exhibits: Do's and Don'ts
With themed and theatrical elements combined, SPACE: A Journey to Our Future is essentially a hybrid project that Clear Channel Exhibitions is planning to bring to several different museums over the next five years. Such touring is de rigueur for theatrical events and the concert industry, but it's less common in scientific exhibits.
“Many of the science centers have not been designed to be touring spaces — they've taken galleries and other available architectural spaces and transformed them into touring spaces,” explains SPACE producer Nancy Seruto. Therefore, ambitious touring exhibits like SPACE pose a host of challenges for the people producing them.
Working within the physical parameters of museum venues, many of which were built in the 60s and 70s, is one of the biggest challenges in mounting and touring a major exhibit. “You may need to reconfigure the exhibits to fit into spaces that have a lot of columns and obstacles as far as ceilings and ducts, loading doors that are narrow, and so on,” Seru-to explains. “There's a network of science centers that can accept these larger shows, so you have an idea of the possible venues, but there's a huge challenge there, since the venues don't always have accurate information about their facilities (logistics) on paper.”
The way to work around this obstacle is to design the exhibit as a one-size-fits-all show, with flexible modules that can be resized and reconfigured to work in different spaces. “We have to apply a design and engineering philosophy wherein the system that we design and build for these projects are extremely modular and very reliable — essentially bulletproof,” explains Benjamin Lein, Associates in Media Engineering (AME), the lead system integrator on SPACE.
The modular philosophy behind the design of SPACE's A/V systems has turned the exhibit into a series of sophisticated plug-and-play systems. “We modularized all the playback systems and produced what we call re-producer ‘sleds,’ which were engineered metal backplanes upon which all of the components were integrated,” Lein explains. “The sleds were pre-wired, tested, and then mounted scenically. So, essentially, it's like a standalone unit that can either remain fastened to a scenic element, or can be easily removed and stored in ATA-compliant flight cases and then be re-erected at the next location.”
Modularity wasn't the only thing AME did to ensure that its systems could withstand the rigors of the road for the exhibit, Lein adds. “The challenge in these types of projects is to design a system that will function reliably and repeatedly, time and time again.” The Future Theater, for example, can run one show every five minutes, so it's crucial that all systems are reliable on an ongoing basis.
“We've refined the complement of tools that we use based on our experience, because in the end, we're the ones that service all the gear,” Lein says. Reliable equipment also makes the project more economical in the long run. “We try and build in reliability both to make the project cost-effective, and to maintain integrity over the course of the tour.”
Lein's sleds also usedreadily available equipment whenever possible. Dan Moalli, designer of the exhibit's interactive elements, used a similar approach. “We try and establish common, easy-to-find hardware for all of the assemblies, so that the supplies of bolts, nuts, bulbs, knobs, etc, can be kept to a minimum and can be readily sourced in any market,” Moalli explains. Moalli's PCs are also standardized as well, with slavish devotion paid to detail.
“We're fastidious about labeling parts and documenting not only the exhibit, but the assembly instructions, preventative maintenance guidelines, and owner/operator manuals,” Moalli adds. “This not only helps in the set up and tear down; it also makes the museum/clients more self-reliant.”
Flexibility is the other key element that makes a touring exhibit run smoothly. “If you're trying to tell a story, you can't lock in the method of telling the story so tightly that if one room moves 4ft. to the right, the exhibit falls apart,” Seruto points out. “What we try to do is break the exhibit into chapters, so that each physical space is a chapter in the story, and that they're not too linked, so if you go through one space, it tells you a story and it ends.”
“You have to build in a flexible height and size into the major scenic pieces,” Seruto continues. “If you have a 20ft. ceiling, you can take advantage of it, but if you have a 12ft. ceiling, you have to make sure the scenery can break down, so you have another version of it.”
Integration of technical elements, like Lein's sleds and the predominantly architectural style of lighting used on the exhibit, into scenic elements is crucial to this flexible approach. “We made a strong effort to integrate the lighting into the scenic walls and structures whenever possible,” notes Lisa Passamonte Green, the exhibit's lighting designer. Because lighting, like the sleds, was an integrated design unit, fixtures were given the same flexibility and modularity as the sets. “If the scenes move into a different configuration, the lighting literally moves with them,” she points out.
In summary, Seruto offers three pieces of advice for exhibits touring at different scientific venues. First, know your venues and visit them in advance, if possible. Second, build your exhibit to be completely ground-supported. “Don't count on any structural support from the ceiling,” she says. “They may not have trussing or fly systems you can use.”And finally, build a self-contained exhibit, and bring along as much of your own equipment as you might need. “The facility may not have power, cables, or dimming,” Seruto says.
— Sharon Stancavage