The success of the Rocket Power TV series meant that the live show had a built-in potential audience of millions of children but it also raised the creative stakes because those kids have a preconceived notion, reinforced two or three times each weekday, of how their favorite characters look and act.
Producers of live shows on multi-city, cross-country tours face incredible challenges every day. There are the logistics of setting up a complex stage set and breaking it down for transport to the next town, where the process starts again, often in a matter of hours. There are meals to coordinate, injuries to tend to, and egos to massage. And there is technology — often very sophisticated technology — that must be maintained and, sometimes, repaired or replaced. All on the non-stop torture-test that is the road. But when your show is based on a successful animated television series that millions of fans know and love, a whole new set of creative and technical challenges must be faced.
Rocket Power, an animated television series that launched on Nickelodeon in 1999 is one of the most popular programs on the air today, and ranks among the Top 10 highest rated TV shows for kids ages 6-11, including broadcast and cable. The program was the brainchild of the award-winning company Klasky-Csupo, creators of such other animated successes as Rugrats and Wild Thornberrys.
Rocket Power tells the story of four friends who are addicted to action and extreme sports. Otto Rocket, his sister Reggie, and their pals Twister and Sam are into just about every aggressive sport there is. Their hometown is Ocean Shores, California, a surfer's paradise, but surfing is not their only sport. They also excel at skating the half-pipe or blading on the boardwalk. And when the occasion presents itself they head to the mountains for snowboarding and ice hockey.
The success of the Rocket Power TV series meant that the live show had a built-in potential audience of millions of children, but it also raised the creative stakes because those kids have a preconceived notion, reinforced two or three times each weekday, of how their favorite characters look and act. But Clear Channel Entertainment, the company hired to produce Nickelodeon's Maximum Rocket Power Live! Presented by Jolly Rancher certainly had the necessary credentials. Clear Channel bills itself as the world's leading producer and marketer of live entertainment. The company has a network of more than 150 event venues including 44 amphitheaters in all of the top ten U.S. markets and major performance venues in 31 of the top 50 domestic markets overall. According to Clear Channel, an estimated 62 million people attend more than 26,000 of its events each year.
Steve Yaros, executive producer of Clear Channel's family division, was named to supervise the show. He recognized from the start that the potential audience came with pre-conceived ideas about what they would see. “The audience has pre-set expectations,” Yaros says. “They want [the characters] to look exactly like what they see every day. The biggest challenge in producing this kind of show is to hit those expectations without over producing.”
Yaros, who once worked for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, started pre-production on Rocket Power Live more than a year ago. The decision was made almost from the start to focus on sports, and everything flowed from that decision. Yaros says the show's writer, John Crane, helped things progress smoothly in large measure because Crane had written two episodes of the TV show as well as “Race Across New Zealand,” the feature film based on the series. “We had a big advantage with John Crane,” Yaros says. “John had a wealth of knowledge about the show and characters. Thanks to that we knew what might be red-flagged by either Nickelodeon or Klasky-Csupo.”
Crane says, “Most of the shows that are based on cartoons or animated series are revue shows. After brainstorming a few ideas for a live arena show, an athletic competition seemed like the natural thing for us to do. That's what the Rocket Power kids do — they compete — and it's just a very exciting thing to watch. Games are stories in and of themselves, so a sports competition is a great construct for the show. In both the animated Rocket Power show and now the live show there are four friends who learn important lessons through their shared extreme sports experiences.”
The set commanded an extraordinary amount of floor space and that posed a challenge for the technical people. There were twelve ramps, ranging in size from three-and-a-half feet high to ten feet high. They were made mostly from fibrous board and rolled steel frames so that they could be folded into trucks for touring.
Yaros says making the show about sports added to the creative and logistical challenge. “Most kids have inline skates,” he says. “They have a bike, they have a skateboard. They would know if we were cheating.“Although they tried to think of ways to include surfing — “We looked at wave machines,” Yaros says. — and at snowboarding, both had to be eliminated as too unwieldy and expensive. What was left was inline skating, BMX biking, and skateboarding.
The Role of Video
In addition to sports, Yaros knew the show would need video. “The first thing we thought about was how do we incorporate video,” he says. On the television show, Twister always carries a camcorder, as do many extreme athletes. “It's an integral part of the culture,” Yaros says. An early idea was to have the actor portraying Twister carry a camcorder and create a live video feed but that was dismissed as being both too cumbersome and not necessarily the best use of video. “What we really wanted was to enhance the show with a more animated feel,” he says. “That's what our video does. It reminds the audience that we're in this animated world.”
The task of creating the video was given to Mark Rosenthal, projection designer, producer, and head of Personal Creations in Los Angeles. “They wanted to do a lot with still images and simple animation,” he says. “The style of the animation was based on still images. We had a lot of fun with this. It's similar [to the TV series] but we really created our own world. We really had [a lot of] free reign with this.”
Rosenthal had worked with the creative team before and says the spirit of collaboration on this show was outstanding. There were many shared ideas. In the show, cheerleaders rally the athletes and, in keeping with the extreme theme, they carry spirit sticks with bandanas on them instead of traditional pom poms. “So for the video, we created our own bandanas to echo that visual,” Rosenthal says. Similarly, Rosenthal and his team created a graphic of a turtle. The costume designer liked it so much that he put turtles on the athlete's jackets.
“The bulk of the video is in support of the show,” Rosenthal says. “The video screen is an active participant in the show.” The video carries a running score of the contests and serves as the time clock. There is a joke commercial — a used car salesman — and, reminiscent of the Batman TV series from the Sixties, there are cartoon bubbles with words like Yeah! and Way Cool! and Awesome! The video is projected on a circular screen 18-feet in diameter.
The performers were chosen for their athletic ability and did the stunts themselves. The producers determined that it was easier to take an athlete and teach them some acting than vice-versa.
For technical support Rosenthal turned to Mike Halper, vice president of Scharf-Weisberg, New York.
“They created an 18-foot circle,” Halper says. “And we filled that circle with an 18-by-24-foot video image.” The image could have been created with a single projector but it would have been a very large and bulky one and would have been placed far away. Halper and Rosenthal elected instead to use four smaller projectors to increase the quality of the image and reduce the throw distance. They incorporated Dataton WatchOut software to marry the four images into one. “By going with WatchOut we could improve picture quality and resolution,” Halper says. “It gave the folks at Clear Channel a much larger canvas to work with.” It also saved space and that is always at a premium on the road.
The native resolution of each of the four projectors is 1024×768. Ganging four of them together creates an actual resolution of 1800×1300. The projectors were stacked two projectors high and two wide. Halper chose NEC's XT5100 projector because “it's compact and it's very durable. It's one of the most durable we have available for rental.” Joe Azzarello, product manager, Hi-Lite Output Projection Systems, for NEC, agreed and says the XT5100 is “the most reliable projector we make.” In all, more than $300,00 worth of hardware was used to run the video presentation. While acknowledging WatchOut's virtues as a presentation tool, Rosenthal says it is also useful as a production tool in that it “allows a tremendous amount of fluidity in design. You can make changes at the last minute.”
Costume and Set Design
In addition to the challenges created by the video portion of the show, creating the costumes, lighting, and set for the show offered challenges of their own.
“The biggest challenge is taking cartoon characters and bringing them to life, without doing a walk-about [foam or fibreglass character heads],” says costume designer Garland Riddle. “You can't veer too far from the television show because the kids know how they want to view these characters.”
Knowing that his actors would be putting their costumes through more than normal wear and tear, Riddle used cotton and cotton twill, materials known for their pliancy, durability and ability to breathe. He adds, “As much as possible, we use silk-screening as opposed to iron-on or painted letters because it lasts longer.” Costuming all seventeen characters took more than three months. While he adhered to what fans of the TV series might expect, Riddle added a touch of his own for the live show. To distinguish the “good guys” of Otto's Shore Shack Sharks from their nemesis, Lars's Raging Rip Tides, Riddle designed team jackets — neon lime green trimmed in black for the Rip Tides, neon orange trimmed in white for the sharks.
The video screen carried a running score of the contests and served as the time clock. There was a joke commercial and there were cartoon bubbles with words like Yeah! and Way Cool! and Awesome! Projected on the 18-foot circular screen.
“In production meetings, the creative team talked about how in terms of the scenery and costumes, we have to stay relatively faithful to the television series,” says lighting designer Brian Gale. “But the rules don't really apply to lighting. From a lighting perspective, we're doing the Super Bowl, rock-n-roll version of Rocket Power. The marriage of extreme sports with a rock-n-roll music background is a very interesting mix.” A key challenge for Gale was to ensure that his lighting design didn't intrude upon the athlete's lines of sight or become obtrusive during the show's jumps and landings.
“The set was absolutely one of the major stars of the show,” says director Marilyn Magness. “The vision for the show was always to see the Rocket Power gang in action,” she says. “That creative decision dictated the shape of the set from the beginning.” She says that trying to do the show without ramps and half-pipes would be like trying to produce a Western without a horse. “This world was so much more fun to design than a traditional background,” says set designer John Iacovelli. “Here's an arena show that's truly an arena show. We played with both the height and depth.”
In pre-production, Iacovelli worked closely with action sports consultant Jill Schulz of All Wheel Sports, Inc. “The first thing they did was give me an extreme sports primer: here's what a ramp is; here's what a launch pipe is; here's what a half pipe is; here's what a quarter pipe is,” he says. “Then we had to bring some science into it to get the curves and distances right. In other words, there came a point in the design process where the question was no longer, ‘How pretty can this be?’ but ‘Can the performers make this turn?’”
Schulz, a former gold medal skater and Ice Follies performer, says, “The entertainment value of just the extreme sports gets a huge crowd reaction — even before you attach them to well known characters and a theatrical storyline and heighten them with lights and costumes and music. Most other family-oriented shows are about kids just seeing the characters. So, if it's an ice show, for example, and the skater is in a big costume, that's going to limit the type of movement they'll be able to do. Here, the performers are doing the sports as they're actually done, not simulating them. They're doing those tricks for real. These are skills you can't teach overnight. It's easier to take an athlete and teach them some acting than vice-versa.”
The set commanded an extraordinary amount of floor space and that posed a challenge for the technical people. In its finished form, the set features twelve ramps, ranging in size from three-and-a-half feet high to ten feet high. They were made mostly from fibrous board and rolled steel frames so that they could be folded into trucks for touring. “This is the first arena-sized show I've done which uses as much space as it does,” says production supervisor John Paull. “Normally, one is confined to the stage in a proscenium show. Even in most arena shows, we'll still set up a proscenium. Maximum Rocket Power Live! Uses the entire arena, 100 by 200 feet. That's a lot of real estate for a show.”
The Ocean Shores set took about twelve hours to assemble and five to break down. The crew included eleven stagehands and two wardrobe assistants. It took six 53-foot tractor-trailers to transport all of the equipment and rigging.
The set's surface featured a new kind of material. Paull says, “There's a new surface floor product called Skatelight made especially for inline skating and skateboarding. It creates a smooth surface, takes a lot of wear and tear and is resistant to getting torn up by the wheels. Skatelight is used in all the Gravity Games and X-Games. The athletes are comfortable and familiar with the surface, so it was really ideal for the show.”
Finally, of course, there's the people. Keeping the athletes comfortable and happy was a key goal from the start, says executive producer Steve Yaros, because everyone was constantly aware that these people were jocks first and actors second.
“We spent a tremendous amount of time in rehearsal getting those athletes to be bigger, to act like cartoon characters,” he says. Another trick to make the show run smoothly and to stay on time, he says, was to choreograph the entire production to the music. It's a trick idea that was born in the circus.
“We commissioned an hour of original music,” Yaros says. “Everything was choreographed to the music. That's what keeps the show from being 55 minutes one night and an hour and ten minutes the next night.” Brothers Josh and Jason Freese composed the music for the show. “This is a rock-n-roll based show,” says Josh Freese. “This isn't Barney.” Jason agrees. “The material is a lot hipper and more cutting edge than other shows of its type,” he says. “So, instead of doing cartoon music, seeing that this is a huge show inside of an arena, we wanted an epic feel, like a rock concert. And that means lots of big guitars and fat drum loops. We wanted to rock people out of the stadium.”
Nickelodeon's Maximum Rocket Power Live! Presented by Jolly Rancher opened March 26 in Columbus, Ohio. For his part, Yaros is proud of the production. “It's just a huge show,” he says.
Nick Dager is a freelance writer based in Nyack, NY.
THE END OF THE ROAD
Sometimes, despite the best laid plans, things don't always work out like you expect. That has certainly been the case for the folks involved in Nickelodeon's Maximum Rocket Power Live! Presented by Jolly Rancher. As SRO was going to press, word came that the show closed after four performances. Following the premiere in Columbus it travelled to Chicago, Illinois, then Cleveland, Ohio and, finally, Auburn Hills, Michigan.
“Obviously we weren't selling enough tickets,” says producer Steve Yaros in retrospect, but he is hard pressed to explain exactly why. “I think we accomplished all the goals we set out to,” he says, and that included promoting the show aggressively. “We spent a fortune on advertising,” he says, although he declined to answer specific budget questions.
Yaros says the four audiences who saw the live show all gave it a standing ovation. His best guess as to why this production didn't take off is that perhaps it is too early in the life of the Rocket Power brand to attract the kind of attention needed to draw people out of their homes to a live event. He did not blame the current slow economy and, in fact, pointed to other similar Clear Channel productions for Blues Clues and Scooby Doo that are currently touring and doing well.
For Josh Weisberg, president of Scharf Weisberg, New York, the staging and rental company that supplied projectors and other technical equipment to the show, enduring the disppointment associated with the closing of the show is just one of those things that comes with being in the staging and rental business. “It's part of the realities of this business,” he says.
“Sometimes shows will go out for a year and everything will be fine and then, the second year, it just doesn't work,” he says. Weisberg gives the example of a touring show based on the Rugrats cartoon series. In its first year the show was a success. The next year the show had to compete with the release of the second feature film based on the Rugrats and the live show failed.
Yaros remains hopeful that down the road some version of a live Rocket Power can succeed. He and his team are studying ways of retooling the show, of perhaps scaling back, and touring again. “We're trying to decide what we can do with the assets we have,” Yaros says.