Have you ever wondered what it might be like to live and work on a cruise ship? I'm about to take you on a journey through a unique sector of our business: cruise ship lighting. In almost six years on ships, I have worked with everything from the “latest and greatest” technology right down to some of the most basic setups I have ever seen.
Typically, most cruise ship tech contracts are written for six months on, six weeks off. When I say six months on, I mean just that. We work seven days a week, up to 70 hours per week and averaging around 60 to 65 hours per week (and you're only a phone call or page away if you're needed during “off” hours). When those six weeks off come around, trust me — you are ready for it. Still sound exciting? Well, step inside, and enjoy the ride.
The first day is always embarkation day, when all guests from the last cruise depart the ship and over 2,000 new guests come aboard. For the entertainment department, this is usually the lightest day of the week. It's a great day for maintenance and larger projects in the theatre that can't be done while guests are aboard.
That night is the first chance to shine for the new guests. In our Welcome Aboard variety show, there is usually a comedian or juggler and a short number by the singers and dancers in the production cast. This is often the easiest night because the show is basically formulaic, and we merely have to plug in the act that will be appearing. On most of our ships, we are using WholeHog® II and WholeHog® III consoles for moving light control, so I generally lay the console out with everything on separate playback faders and just use comment macros to tie all of the lists together into a show. This way, if the cruise director wants to change format, I can seamlessly add new acts or change the body of the show without disrupting the individual elements.
The next show is typically a revue. This is when we really pull out all stops to show off what the theatre can truly do. All of our revues run off a click-track coming from either Tascam DA-98 or MX2424 machines and controlled by Richmond Showman software. Using MIDI show control and SMPTE allows us to give the guests the same show week after week, year after year. This is essential, as there is typically only a week handover between techs, and most of that time is utilized learning the peculiarities of the room and the venues around the ship. This also gives the designer greater freedom in cueing, with the ability to generate much more complex and tighter cueing than in a conventional show where a ‘go’ is called, and the button is pressed.
In the case of the last ship I worked, there was a WholeHog III handling the moving lights and an ETC Obsession II handling the conventionals and set practicals. During one of the revues, there is a song with approximately 150 SMPTE events on the Obsession II alone, just to handle bumps in a ropelight element on the set. This doesn't include all of the other events firing for the moving lights on the WholeHog III.
Luckily, there is always a tech run-through, and this is the time to iron out problems. The most common issues we encounter are certain elements in the SMPTE or MSC chain not talking to each other, moving lights acting up, or failures in the rigging system. All of these have to be ironed out before show time, and it can be a little tight sometimes.
For the next couple of nights, we have headliner and variety acts. These are truly the most important nights, when one person plays designer, programmer, operator, and tech all rolled into one. Did I mention we typically have about two hours to write a 45-minute show!? Sometimes, though, we get an act for which we've built a previous show, and we get a chance to build upon it and make it even better.
When I build a show for a new act I have never seen, I am fairly formulaic. I'll start a song with a wash, add in some gobos for texture, move, move, move, ending move and fade or bump, and then fade to a generic “talk” wash. It sounds generic, but it is actually customized to each song. Typically, for a 45-minute show, I'll end up with between 80 and 100 moving light cues. Using this basic layout for a song, I can expand on it by adding a couple of moves and variations of chases and effects to suit the particular song.
To date, I don't think I have ever copied a look from one show to another. I like to keep things fresh and unique. In order to do this, I really must put in the time to set up the console, which has proven to be one of my keys to speed in programming. I also spend a lot of free time playing with the rig to see exactly what it can give me. I've even been known to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a particular song or lighting look, go upstairs, and power up the rig to play around.
Going back to the point about having only two hours to program a 45-minute show…remember, we're not the only people using the facility. The accompanying band is usually present during the rehearsal, and I am usually too busy paying attention to the music and making notes to program during band rehearsal. This typically leaves me with only a couple of hours before the doors open, but trust me — it's a rush. I think it actually makes me a more creative designer, as I don't have time to over-analyze the moment, which can sometimes ruin the effect. When the curtain finally goes up, there's got to be a show, and you can't disappoint the audience.
Later in the week, there is another revue with all the bells, whistles, and sets of a Vegas-style show, or at least as much as can fit onto the stage. The final night of the cruise is our farewell show. This is another variety show, usually starring another comedian or juggler-type act (sometimes multiple), a farewell production number by the singers and dancers, as well as several other cruise classics, including the cruise director's top ten (a la David Letterman), a cruise memories video, and, on some ships, the staff gets together for a classic vaudeville skit. Again, this show is based on a number of cue lists linked together through comment macros to allow for easy insertion of show formats and entertainers.
When we are not busy writing and running all these shows, there is always a ton of maintenance to be done. There is usually only one lighting tech on the ship and plenty of work. In addition to shows in the theater, most ships have a nightclub (or two) packed with moving lights, secondary lounges for more live music, and other smaller venues throughout. It makes for a packed schedule, and there are days when the phone rings off the hook, but it's really satisfying when it all comes together and works as planned.
On our next ship (which we are just finishing as of this writing), we have 20 Martin Mac 550s, 26 Mac 600NTs, six Mac 2000 Profiles, two Mac 2000 Perfomances, 10 Mac 250 Entours, 12 QFX 150s, six Atomic 3000s, four Wildfire 252s, and four Wildfire 402s. I'll also have a full complement of over 120 ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs with Wybron Coloram II scrollers, L&E ministrips, three-cell Broad-Cycs for cyc and drop washes, atmospheric systems including Jem Glaciator low foggers and MDG Atmosphere APS hazers, and a WholeHog III. It's a big rig for one person to maintain, but, with good planning and diligent maintenance, it's manageable.
Working on cruise ships is definitely not for everyone, but for the energetic, talented, and hardworking out there, it's a great way to see the world and work with some great gear.
If you're thinking this sounds like the life for you, then get out there!
Chuck Dillingham is a veteran cruiser who has spent nearly six years bringing light to the stage on Royal Caribbean International's fleet of cruise ships.