A spider is an eight-legged creature. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has as many moving parts, and keeping them fully functional is the job of Fred Gallo, Production Resource Group founder and president of PRG's Scenic Technologies division.
“The hardest thing about this production was that the rehearsal period for the flying took as much time as it takes to rehearse a show,” Gallo says. “Both camps fought for the same real estate, using separate systems for the scenic automation and the flying. Just getting the time was difficult.”
Nothing came easy once the time was found, however. “Engineering the lighting was as hard as engineering and building the scenery,” he says. “Just about every piece in the show is internally lit. The eight â€˜legs' of the city [there are four pair] travel on and off stage, fly in and out, and pivot 45 degrees on and off stage. We built prototype after prototype, at least six, with George [Tsypin] and Don [Holder], trying to figure out how to get them as â€˜kite-like' as George wanted and then how to light them from within, which intrigued Don. We went through a number of iterations to find the right type of LED lights bouncing off the right bounce at the right angle. Don also wanted to backlight the legs, so they had to be somewhat translucent so he could backlight them off a standard lightpipe.”
Using carbon fiber, the material used in racecar shells and jet fighters, made it possible to achieve these goals. “It's strong, light enough to be lifted, and stiff enough so it won't deflect. We had to learn about it, then build with it—and not many shows can pay for that,” Gallo says. “Expensive beyond your imagination.”
The show has about two dozen motorized effects for the flying and 145 motorized effects for the show, or about three times more than a typical large-scale musical, Gallo says. While the systems are separate they are in communication, via encoders in PRG's Stage Command, so Fisher Technical knows exactly where the scenery is as the Spider-Men take to the air.
[caption id="attachment_247" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Scenic model shot courtesy of George Tsypin"][/caption]
On the ground, a particularly difficult sequence pops up, literally, early in the show, as a high school opens up like a picture book around the characters. “Picture books work because the paper is so thin,” Gallo says. “The carbon fiber that we used is full of mechanics and linkages so that all the desks can pop out of it as it opens. Similarly the row houses that Peter and Mary Jane walk past have nine to 12 scenes that keep unfolding. It's great that no one thinks they're difficult when they look at them, but it took months of investigation to get them to work. The show took us a year to build.”
Tsypin's unusual design process proved useful. “He builds model after model after model, builds one he likes, and then he draws it, which is the opposite of most scenic designers,” Gallo says. “But he's figured out how he thinks it might work, and that gave us some good ideas.”
Some of the most inspired involve the climactic battle of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin atop the Chrysler Building, which combines flying with vertigo-inducing spectacle. “The stage never stops working at the end of the show, and it's working at high speeds,” Gallo says. “The building is in three separate layers that open up. George's concept was that the layers and the internal lighting would create the perspective, which seemed like a terrifying engineering problem. But his models and our 3D modeling in AutoCAD allowed us to convince ourselves that we could build this and it could work. We knew what it would weigh and the loads it had to pull and we'd figured out the rigging. And, surrounded as it is by the stage ramps that come up to create the cityscape, our taxi drop with the roads that comes in, and all the little taxis that go back and forth that you seem to be looking down on—it worked the first time, and has continued to work.”
Simply readying the Foxwoods for load-in of the production was a major task. “We had to remove the landmark proscenium arch and front vaulted ceiling, and worked with many groups and consultants to make that happen. That took us six months,” says Gallo, who adds, “We took it apart and stored it in such a way that all you have to do to put it back together is follow our instructions, which hopefully someone will know how to do 30 years from now.”
Click here for a link to some shots of the Spider-Man load-in.
Partial Technical Crew Credits:
Hillary Blanken (Production Manager- Juniper Street)
Mark Peterson (Project Manager- PRG)
Ben Lampman (Assistant Project Manager- PRG)
Forrest Hoffnar (Engineer-PRG)
Jim Kempf (Engineer- PRG)
Sam Pierce (Foreman- PRG)
Lisa Cline (Production Manager- PRG)