Teenage angst and powerhouse vocal talent — that's what Disney put on the road this winter with High School Musical: The Concert, a showcase of performers based on the Emmy Award-winning Disney Channel original movie High School Musical. Directed by Kenny Ortega, who also directed the movie, the visual elements for the tour were created by set and video designer Michael Cotten and lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe.
But angst was not limited to the teens for this tour that was “confirmed very late,” according to Woodroffe, so the creative team had to hustle, with only a couple of months from its inception to get this show on the road. “Our brief was to make a spectacular, exciting, and dynamic musical show that would knock the socks off the younger audience, but we also wanted to achieve this with some finesse and style,” says the lighting designer, who also notes they were going for a “bright, poppy, exciting, cool, modern, slick” feel.
“High School Musical onstage was more like a rock concert than a Broadway show,” adds lighting programmer Patrick Dierson. “There was a lot of choreography, set piece moves, pyro, CO2 jets, and big video projection screens.”
A curving ramp built by B and R Scenery, Barco video screens, and flanking red drapery by Sew What? Inc. dominated the sleek and straightforward set. Cotten, whose background includes being a member of the band, The Tubes, and experimenting with film and video as early as the 1970s, took his lead from Ortega (the two have a long history of collaboration), who knew right away this was not going to be a stage version of the movie. At the same time, however, they wanted to honor the film version. “I decided on the all-purpose ramp around which we could create many looks,” says Cotten.
For each performer, a theme was created — drums for Corbin, pop imagery for Ashley, diamonds for Vanessa, for example — and each segment became like its own scene, using both new content and footage from the film for some sequences where the live performance integrates with the one onscreen. Each performer also had his or her prop identifier, including an enormous flying “V” covered in faux diamonds for Vanessa, designed by Cotten and built by Accurate Staging, who also built the band platforms.
“Other than footage from the film, we wanted to do a feature segment for each of the performers — not rock videos and not canned content,” says Cotten. “I would do a storyboard, get Kenny to approve it, and then send it to Robb [Wagner of Stimulated]. I basically did storyboards to create a world for the character. We had to decide what color was right for Ashley, for example. They're not rock videos, but they are important for the identity.” Gary Lanvy, who Cotten credits with actually “making it all happen,” was the tour's supervising producer.
With little time, planning was crucial, and Cotten's team created both computer and 3D models of the set. “There was no time to do it, but we did it, before anyone saw anything,” Cotten says. He used Strata software for computer renderings and then created scale drawings in VectorWorks.
For the young performers, many of whom had little touring experience, Cotten was careful to check and recheck the set design, even after it was built, to ensure there would be no safety issues. “We even worked out what sort of choreography there would be so there would be no issues,” he says. “That modified the ramp structure quite a bit to accommodate the routines.” And to limit the amount of running around required and keep costume and other changes relatively simple, all traditional backstage areas were created right under the stage. Tait Towers built the stage floor and under-stage areas, including some mechanical elements.
According to Wagner, who created the tour's video content, a fully produced screen show was required in three weeks from the time he was contacted. “Cotten sent me a number of style frames, which gave us a great head start on nailing the design concepts for many of the performances,” says Wagner. “We also received a digital beta cam master of the tele-film from Disney, music videos, and movies featuring the cast, and a number of DVD dailies directly from the briefcase of director Kenny Ortega.”
Content was cut using Final Cut Pro, then working in Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Cinema 4D by a team of editors Wagner assembled. The team also recreated the “HSM” logo in Cinema 4D instead of waiting for artwork from Disney to expedite the process. All content was created for full SDI resolution, 10-bit, uncompressed video. “Meeting this standard added to render time and made for huge files, but we understand the importance of brand identity and integrity, even on a low-resolution LED screen,” says Wagner. “Since we are primarily a television production company, adhering to these rigid standards is part of our everyday routine. We ended up outputting approximately 50 separate digital beta cam masters at Sony, which were loaded into a Doremi drive.”
For accompanying film footage and other content, the main video setup included a 30'×30' (20×20-module) SACO V9 LED screen by Nocturne Productions, two VIx2 Doremi Labs dual-video channel disk recorders for wall content and playback, and cameras and additional video gear from Pete's Big Screen TV. According to Peter Daniel, owner of Pete's Big Screen TV, the system was based on a Pinnacle Systems PDS 9000i SDI switcher, complemented with a Sierra 64×32 SDI router. Other video gear included four additional 10.5'×14' screens, two trays (20 cards) of AJA Video SDI encoders and decoders (from composite or component analog to SDI and back), and four Sony D35 3/4 aspect ratio cameras (two with super long custom Canon lenses with 25mm to 1,000mm focal length for use in large venues). An additional camera sat on a 24' jib, while the last was a handheld. The video content from Stimulated was synched with an Avid Pro Tools rig triggering the show.
“It was a very fast-paced show with a lot of multiple screen changes from live I-Mag to content rolls,” says video director Kevin Carswell. “Having a 30'×30' upstage wall as your backdrop, one would think it would take over the show, but we followed one simple rule of thumb: keep the pace and capture the moments. The kids on stage were the stars of the show; we were just one small part of the big picture.”
Moving set pieces, including a large disco ball and the “V,” are lowered from the grid at center stage. Stage Rigging provided two CM variable-speed hoists for the “V,” as well as a variety of motors and hoists for the mirror ball and other moving set elements, with a total of 55 CM hoists for the production.
When it came to lighting the set, the goal of creating a concert tour from an existing TV film made little difference to Woodroffe's seasoned eye — except for the requisite use of signature theme colors red and white — but having the existing footage “helped us enormously when it came to the programming, as there was a map for us to follow that was already in place,” he says.
Woodroffe and Cotten worked to create a seamless integration of lighting and video, as expected, “to make sure that our two different disciplines were comfortably meshed together in the design,” Woodroffe says. “This flowed on in the programming process, where we carefully followed colors and textures from the film.”
The key was for lighting and video to avoid competing for intensity, so both departments had to work out levels during programming. “Really, what it ended up being was that we let video set a comfortable intensity level for their wall, and we adjusted the lighting around that,” says Dierson of the lighting versus video programming. “It was much easier for us to concede lighting levels than it was for video to deal with riding it up and down throughout the show.”
The lighting rig primarily revolved around a center circular truss and a downstage 180° truss that spanned the entire width of the stage. The moving light package, provided by Upstaging, included 28 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Profiles, 39 MAC 2000 Washes, 10 MAC 700 Profiles, and 24 MAC 700 Washes. Some of the Martin units were built into the set. Additional fixtures included 8-lite Molefays with scrollers for audience lighting, Martin Atomic Strobes, ETC Source Four PARs, Wybron CXI Scrollers, Color Kinetics ColorBlasts, and two Lycian M2 followspots, with four Le Maitre Radiance hazers and two High End Systems F-100 Foggers for effects. Confetti blowers, provided by Artistry In Motion, were in the truss and on the floor. Pyrotechnics were by Pyrotek Special Effects Inc. All truss for the lighting rig — 60' semicircle truss, 22' silver circle truss, 30' rear truss, and two 24' angled trusses — was by Tomcat.
While lighting director Calvin “Mac” Mosier set up silhouette looks throughout the show with lights and smoke, video director Carswell responded with color backgrounds on the video wall. “Technically, we discussed what the day presented in the way of spots and dialed the look accordingly to the foot candles,” says Carswell.
“There were a lot of spot pickups that ran with some tight cueing,” adds Woodroffe, “but Mac Mosier picked this up pretty quickly as the show developed, and he was pretty much cue-perfect by the time we opened in San Diego.”
For programming the lighting, there were two goals to keep in mind, according to Dierson. “First, I wanted to work at the extremely efficient pace to which Patrick Woodroffe has become accustomed, as well as to make sure that Mac Mosier would be able to pick up on playback and followspot cueing easily,” he says. “In both regards, the layout of the console was of premier importance, so everything had to be laid out in an efficient fashion for both programming and playback.” And Dierson must have kept up with the lighting designer's demands, because when asked what piece of equipment was his workhorse, Woodroffe replies only, “Patrick Dierson.” Interestingly, when Dierson is asked what his biggest challenge was on this production, he replies only, “Woodroffe.”
Without preprogramming the lighting, Dierson used MA Lighting's grandMA On PC software to prep the show disk before rehearsals, creating presets for the various types of lighting fixtures. The lighting and video setup was networked with two MA Lighting grandMA consoles and three MA NSP units. During rehearsals, the consoles ran in a multi-user configuration, allowing Mosier to run the show and make changes to individual instruments and cues while Dierson programmed and updated cues. Once on the road, the configuration was changed to be Full Tracking Backup. The lighting console was also used to set up group master intensities to inhibit certain lights and create a more hospitable environment for live camera and I-Mag aspects of the show, as well as to run effects such as confetti blowers.
This was lighting director Mosier's second outing with a grandMA system, according to Dierson, the first being Madonna's recent Confessions tour (“Material Whirl,” July 2006). “He was very receptive toward seeing how I lay out the console and how it might fit into his style of playback and programming,” the programmer says. “Troy Eckerman [co-programmer for Madonna with Cory FitzGerald] had left him with a great layout on Madonna, and Mac eventually ended up with a hybrid of our two styles of console views.
“For programming, the layout was very ergonomic,” continues Dierson. “Presets were laid out in a very linear fashion that leads your hands instinctively from one screen to the next. This allows for some extremely rapid data input. For playback, we ran a single, main cue list because our set list of songs didn't change. The show was extremely well choreographed and flowed so smoothly that we decided early on that using separate pages for songs was simply unnecessary.”
Potentially messy or dangerous effects triggered from the lighting console via DMX channels were parked and un-parked on a cue-to-cue basis via macros, and having inhibitive intensity sub-mastering of those channels acted as a double safety. This allowed programming to occur at a relatively rapid pace without accidental triggering of effects. “Just like a gun, all we had to remember to do was take the safety off when it was time to start the show,” says Dierson.
As for the programming on the grandMA, Dierson says two particular features stood out. “The first was the implementation of Movement Fade Paths,” he says. “This feature allows you to adjust the fade curve of DMX channels. MA has added this feature directly within the cue list, and they've gone as far as separating dimming curves from movement curves.” This assisted in doing flyaway cues where fixture beams slowly moved from the stage out to the audience. Because the lighting rig included large and small fixtures with considerable differences in mass, the various fixture models can look quite different when they move. “Being able to ramp down their movements at the end of a cue fade really added finesse to each of the cue transitions,” Dierson adds.
And it seems like the lighting team has created a recipe for success, at least according to one participant. “When working with Patrick Woodroffe, the biggest challenge is usually what we're going to order for dinner,” jokes Dierson. “He's got an extremely clear vision of what he wants to see on stage. He's also extremely lenient and open to the suggestions of everyone around him. Once you pick up on his train of thought, the only limitation is how rapidly you can enter data into the lighting console. We were doing so much programming in real time during rehearsals that we were finding ourselves caught up with very few notes at the end of each run-through.”
The tour wrapped in January, but Disney is currently in pre-production for its second installment for TV, High School Musical 2: Sing It All or Nothing!, so we may see this crew on the road again.
|Show director:||Kenny Ortega|
|Scenic/video designer:||Michael Cotten|
|Lighting designer:||Patrick Woodroffe|
|Lighting programmer:||Patrick Dierson|
|Lighting director:||Calvin ”Mac” Mosier|
|Video director:||Kevin Carswell|
|Video engineer:||Jody Lane|
|Video boom operator:||David Alexander|
|Handheld camera operator:||Josh Clark|
|Lighting crew chief:||Joey Chardukian|
|Master rigger:||Marty Cohen, Jr. (Stage Rigging)|
|Rigger:||Steve Woodward, Brendan Langard (Stage Rigging)|
|Moving lights tech:||Wyatt Earp|
|FOH lighting techs:||Fitz Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tilke|
|Dimmer tech:||Dino Thomsic|
|LED tech:||Steve Burkeholder (Nocturne Productions)|
|Asst. LED tech/camera operator:||Nick Weldon (Nocturne Productions)|
|Pyro tech:||Rob Liscio|
|Carpenters:||Jack Tempe, Joe Rogers, Jerry Fox|
|Video:||Nocturne Productions, Pete's Big Screen TV|
|Stage fabrication:||Tait Towers|
|Scenic fabrication:||Accurate Staging, B and R Scenery Inc.|
|Pyrotechnics:||Pyrotek Special Effects, Inc.|
|Rigging:||Stage Rigging, Inc.|
|Soft goods fabrication:||Sew What? Inc.|
|Special effects:||Artistry In Motion|