There are many challenges in lighting on a cruise ship, but it really depends on your perspective. We encounter the usual problems and challenges you would find with a rep theatre as well as with a touring production. The upside is that we don't load into new venues; the venue just seems to relocate itself every day. To keep things interesting, though, throw in a constant vibration and bouncing around in the occasional 30' waves. It can also be a bit weird the first time you see a PAR become a moving light due to rough weather.

Our guests' expectations are continually increasing. They want Broadway/Las Vegas caliber productions nightly. With that go systems capable of meeting those expectations, but when something fails, the key is knowing who to call to get it up and running again. It's one thing to lose your DMX network on Saturday in Des Moines; it's quite another when you're in Martinique and then in the Dominican Republic on Sunday.

Flexibility is extremely important to us. With a different show every night of the cruise (our annual world cruise is more than 100 days), we have to be ready for anything. Our new Vista class ships have over 80 VARI*LITE® VL2000 fixtures and nearly 200 ETC Source Four conventional units, most of which have a Wybron Coloram II. It can be tough to make sure everyone gets what they want, having to keep in mind versatility and the dependability of the gear, as well as the additional functionality of the room. Besides two performances nightly, the room may host many other activities. These include cocktail parties, lectures, presentations regarding the ports and excursions available, movies, game shows with guest participation, and the always-popular bingo.

Thankfully, we have some great relationships with our vendors, contractors, and technicians. It's nice to know that when we do have a system failure, I can get in touch with the right people and usually get the shows back up and running with minimal impact.

Last year, Holland America had Tommy Tune produce a show on our newest ship, the ms Oosterdam. The show had extensive video elements. Peter Scharff and his staff at SchaffWeisberg came through with a system that met all the production requirements. David Girgenti worked with us throughout the production process making sure that the playback system changed as the production requirements dictated, and the end result was a system that worked perfectly.

Specifications for the new ship or class of ship can be written years in advance, and it's not uncommon for multiple pieces of gear to be out of production by delivery time. We try to ensure that the infrastructure is solid with proven industry-standard gear, still watching the trends and trying to mix in enough bells and whistles to keep the systems exciting and open to expansion.

There are also sometimes subtle architectural changes that happen, like the architect extending a ceiling that suddenly covers both FOH lighting positions. We have to keep our options open to possibly change our original vision.

So, next time you're loading in and think the ceilings are too low or that the doors aren't wide enough, just think: you could be on a cruise ship.

Ken Albano is the Entertainment Manager-Operations for Holland America Line.


The cruise industry, perhaps along with some of the high-end Las Vegas casinos, are actually driving the technological frontier of live production. The first widespread appearance of automated theatrical lights was aboard cruise ships, and the industry was a couple of years ahead of the current fascination with multimedia and projection components of design. All of the Holland America ships have major multimedia presence onstage and off. Large scale use of scenic automation and incredibly advanced rigging systems are absolutely the norm. It's a great sandbox for designers to play in!

Holland America (HAL) has made a huge commitment to implementing the new Vista ship class. The last year has been an opportunity to evaluate what the fleet already had in place in terms of media display and delivery systems. Then we could find a more unified solution to be implemented fleet-wide, allowing all of the repertory of HAL's shows to travel between ships and showrooms with little to no tech time.

One decision that we all agreed on was to forgo using tape- or disk-based deck arrays with extensive broadcast switching and show control and install multi-display capable computer-based media streaming instead. We've had a stable and excellent experience working with Dataton's Watchout system, so, at our suggestion, Holland America worked with ScharffWeisberg to identify the right hardware configuration and to deliver that consistently across facilities.

It is critical to have complete delivery of working systems. Technical rehearsals aboard ship often happen during 10-day trans-oceanic crossings, without the resources of land-based tech support or replacement. To ensure that everything works, ScharffWeisberg sends out an ‘A’ team of people, like programmers Jon Kiphart and Randy Briggs, project manager David Girgenti, or even Peter Scharff or Josh Weisberg themselves. As designers, having these people working with us is an enormous comfort.

The Watchout gives the showrooms more flexibility in terms of multi-screen playback configurations. For instance, for Paparazzi, there are three Barco R10 projectors on their sides and placed immediately adjacent to each other in order to form an image 3072 pixels wide by 1280 pixels high (essentially three widescreen aspect ratios turned sideways and butted up against each other). For Stage & Screen, there is an elliptical array of seven 50" plasma screens that sometimes work as a unified image, other times individually. For Rockin Road, there are four plasmas onstage.

With the Watchout system matrixed to these various display sources, we have a system that can hold all of the show's individual media and switch configurations literally at a keystroke. Show revisions can be completed offsite, reprogrammed at our studio on the Watchout software, and then burned to an external firewire hard-drive for delivery to the show computers. We can even perform certain revisions over internal satellite networking with the ships. This will probably be pursued more vigorously as global sat-based broadband becomes more common. We'll be able to dynamically move new media to the shipboard installations, perform cue changes, and record them onto the ship systems, all from the studio.

The Watchout also has provisions for accepting live camera inputs or mirroring Powerpoint presentations, which offers a lot of flexibility for onboard personnel to show new presentations or accomplish incidental IMAG (image magnification).

On the content design side of the equation, the key is to be responsive and to stay flexible. From pre-production through programming and ultimately to presentation, the shows usually go through lineup changes with musical numbers, pacing reworking, substitutions, etc. This invariably affects the show's timecode base and necessitates adjustment of media and cues. We create all of the media either with footage that we shoot or create in-house utilizing programs like Adobe Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Softimage XSI for animating. Every Holland America project gets its own external large-capacity firewire hard drive.

As we (the grand we: Colleen and Bob with Julie Strong, Marina Fish, Tommy Hague, Allen Stein — our amazing assistants) finish parts of the shows, we archive them on a master drive. This really helps us to stay rapid with asset management. With so much material, so many clips across so many shows, it becomes easy to spend 50% of your time wading through various iterations of show media looking for that clip. When we save to the master drive, our naming conventions allow us to sort media files quickly to find specific versions. We can also sort by individual work, by people here at the studio, by show, etc. We can't readily put an empirical value on it, but we would have to say that the time spent on project organization and media management has declined measurably.

Bill Prince guides all the creative decisions, and, as a director, he is very sure of what he wants and how it will fit in. This really makes our process efficient. Our timeline begins by meeting with Bill. Then, we generate storyboards that give a general aesthetic approval, begin to comp video images at a simple level to approve edit, motion, elements, etc., and, then, do a final third stage look.

The foundation for all of this — the easy and flexible media playback systems, the tight communications and oversight in pre-production and production — is the ability for things to move fast. The experience of moving the productions between ships is meant to be plug-and-play: load in the physical production, pop in the disk, and go.

Bob and Colleen Bonniol of Seattle's MODE Studios are past recipients of the ETS-DI Projection Designer of the Year Award (2003). They are also regular contributors to Entertainment Design.


Lighting Designer
Brian Monahan

Master Electrician
Eric Hager

Vari*Lite® Tech/Hog II Programmer
David Horner

ETC Expression III Programmer/ Hog & ETC Board OP (primary)
Michael Gallardo

Board Op 2 (secondary)
Scott Dugdale

Production Electricians
Angus Wood, Nicole Sirois

Production Manager
Scott “Scooter” Pulman