When it comes to experiencing the latest in lighting, a good rule of thumb is to follow that car. The new gear displayed at LDI often gets its first real workout at the North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit not long after New Year's Day. (Between that two-week extravaganza and the illumination spectacle of Super Bowl XL, 2006 has already been a glittering year for the Motor City.) Less visible to the public, but no less enlightening, are the dealer meetings held by the major manufacturers. A large-scale event in its own right, encompassing the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas, the National GM Dealer Business Conference flipped on the high beams and indicated just where the industry is headed.

The three-day event, held last October, was designed “to get General Motors dealers, manager-level and above, onboard with corporate goals with an exciting, dynamic show,” says John Featherstone, principal of the Chicago office of Lightswitch, which illuminated the conference. Lightswitch has worked on numerous GM dealer meetings, national and regional, with producer Jack Morton Worldwide in Troy, MI.

Preparation begins not long after the prior year's event is concluded, with a design charette that outlines the status of each brand. “There are, of course, cars to consider,” Featherstone deadpans. “But some will be foam or clay mockups that won't be running, and they'll be on wagons or turntables, or there's some sort of reveal, and we have to get them on and off with some theatricality. All ideas are embraced.” Key Jack Morton personnel for the 2005 show were executive producer Elizabeth Krato, creative director John Howard, and senior design director Michael Downs, “who took the sometimes wacky ideas we had in the charette and smoothed them into a cohesive blend of lighting, video, and scenic, like a concert tour,” Featherstone says. The senior technical director was Steve Swanson, of Weed, CA-based Big Springs Enterprises. Steve Enger of Vegas-based Rigging Technologies was tasked with rigging, with PRG providing the lighting and rigging gear.

Two video vendors, who provided what proved to be the essential contribution, were tapped. XL Video provided a record quantity of Barco MiPIX LED blocks for the larger of the two stages, with Creative Technology Chicago making a different impression on the second, smaller stage, with other equipment including Element Labs' VersaTILE LEDs. All of the vendors are veterans of the car show circuit.

To accommodate a total of 9,000 attendees, the Vegas conference was held in two successive waves of about 4,500 participants each. “The meeting began with a keynote by GM CEO Rick Wagner,” says Featherstone. “It then split into the two stages, the larger for the bigger brands (Chevy, Buick, Pontiac, GMC, and Cadillac), each with its own show, and the smaller for the boutique brands (Saab, Saturn, and Hummer), which have smaller dealer networks. Everyone made his way through their respective stream, followed by a general meeting. In between meetings, participants spent time in three other discrete areas on separate levels in the center of the convention center: an expo area with GM-related exhibits; hospitality areas for each brand; and a salon area where the vehicles, many new or in prototype, were displayed after each presentation for up-close-and-personal viewing. These central areas were gradually made over into party spaces for post-conference relaxation at the end of each day.

“It's the largest project we run out of this office in terms of equipment,” says Featherstone, “a truly gargantuan show we throw a lot of resources at. In comparison to the North American auto show, which has a load-in period of weeks, this one is measured in days.” Twenty Lightswitch personnel split the workload, with Featherstone leading the charge on Stage 1. Equipment was centralized so spares and consumables could be easily sourced by different teams.

For Stage 1, the LD relied heavily on a moving lights package designed for flexibility as the scripted part of the program came together. He used 122 Martin MAC 2000s (Profile, Performance, and Wash) and 84 VARI*LITE VL1000 Arcs, controlled via a Martin Maxxyz console. Eight X&Y Systèmes/ZAP Technology BigLite 4.5, 4.5kW HMI units (distributed in North America by Martin Professional), punched up the Pontiac presentation (which played off a TV commercial that was laden with automated fixtures) with a strong beam of downlight. “A week before the load-in starts, we have a long cueing meeting for each of the two stages, using Matchbox cars, where we block it all through,” says Featherstone. “A show like this could not be done without Prelite previsualization. Using pre-vis to blend the lighting and the video elements was especially valuable this year.”

In a coup de business theatre, Stage 1 was essentially a vast wall of MiPIX. While stunning to look at, the reasoning behind it was practical, explains Downs. “Changing over scenery between presentations is both costly and stressful, so we, as a team, concluded that it would be beneficial to look into ‘intelligent scenery.’ We looked into LED technologies, including MiPIX, VersaTILE, and others to simplify the changeover. It was sort of like electronically changing the wallpaper in the room between visits from the inhabitants. John Featherstone made sure that the animation of the imagery became just as important and supported the intelligence of the scenic, almost as if the entire space itself was alive.”

XL Video put up the wall. Account executive Chris Inch says the firm supplied all the equipment required to run the 65,000 20mm SMD MiPIX blocks used, plus the standard and custom structures provided for holding them in place. It was a formidable achievement. “This was the single largest MiPIX project completed by XL Video, and possibly the largest completed by any LED rental company,” says Inch, adding that the company had done 20,000 to 45,000 MiPIX block projects previously.

The blocks were set in flat and curved structures. “Set structures included a moving cylinder wall with MiPIX blocks on the inside and outside, which opened to reveal a car on a turntable,” Inch relates. “The blocks allowed Jack Morton to change easily the scenery for a particular brand meeting by displaying different media images versus having to make actual physical set changes. The look of the blocks varied dramatically from Cadillac to Pontiac to GMC, giving the designers a lot of flexibility when differentiating the GM brands.”

Adds Downs, “The introduction of the video elements to the scenic structure solved the problem of changing out physical pieces to alter the look for each brand, but anytime you have the potential for that much moving imagery, it can overwhelm the space, the audience, and the product. John Howard and his team had to find and choose the right imagery, and John Featherstone and his team had to use it in a way that would overwhelm when it needed to and support when it had to.”

“The big challenge was the density of the program — all eight vehicle divisions within GM, as well as various other business partners, XM Radio, OnStar, and others,” says Howard. “The main creative goal was to ensure that all those elements supported the overall intent of the program, while maintaining their own distinct brand identities and messages. The logistics of an event this size change the way you employ creativity — instead of using creative for just ‘flash and flare,’ you need to apply it in a way that enhances efficiency and modularity.”

The wall was driven by two Green Hippo Hippotizer media servers, a first for a GM dealer meeting, with imagery appropriate for each brand. “What we're seeing with media servers is the transition from icing to cake,” Featherstone says. “They're firmly rooted in the creative process of the show, much like moving lights. It's not just the new cool thing.”

Swanson was tasked to keep the show's scenic components moving over the course of the 19 different meetings and two huge parties. “Communication was so vital,” he says. “Video and audio edit suites located in remote locations were connected via temporary LANs to their respective control areas on the show floor. And the size and complexity of the many shows on two stages dictated that we automate all aspects of the reveal scenery wherever possible. Stage 1 had a total of nine reveal effects including turntables, entrance doors, and the bi-parting MiPIX turret wall. These effects were in constant motion, either revealing product or entertainment or positioning for the entrance and exit of as many as 23 vehicles per general session. Rigging was extremely important; we installed more than 1,300 chain hoists and more than 20,000' of truss. The weight calculations were triple checked for safety, with particular consideration given to the area over the Stage 1 center area, which was desired by all the design departments. The use of MiPIX as our single scenic element was a great departure and presented the team with the challenge of using digital images delivered to large surfaces via pixel mapping and the integration of graphic and lighting design.”

The VersaTILE panels used in the smaller room had visual drive of their own. “We found that the MiPIX allowed for focused imagery that increased the standard visual impact of normal-sized presentation screens into sculptural, room-sized, animated billboards, which gave the new ad campaigns GM was introducing the power and stature they deserved,” Downs says. “The VersaTILE panels produced more of a graphic clarity than I expected and allowed for transitions and movement that were refreshing and unexpected.”

“Car shows used to use a lot of projections,” says Jeff Meyer, who worked closely with Featherstone on the video aspect of the conference. He is the account executive of Creative Technology Chicago, which supplied the additional video equipment and has been working with GM since 1994. “But the projections bounce all over the cars, and reflections off the screens are a real problem. With MiPIX and VersaTILE — which has a more muted, pastel color, good for mosaic-type effects and patterning — you get more control over your imagery (which was provided by Detroit area-based Kinetic Creations). When a client sees what video can do and how smoothly it can do it, they never go back. People want to go to a more all-media canvas, with no hard props that need to be moved.”

At some future date, when video LED is thoroughly ensconced in the business theatre market, the 2005 GM dealer meeting may be viewed as a milestone, a test drive of a technology that subsequently became dominant. “LED building blocks continue to get smaller and smaller,” says Inch. “A 2"×2" pixel block, by nature of its smaller size, gives you a little more flexibility than some of the larger, more conventional LED building blocks. These smaller LED building blocks allow corporate customers to further customize the look and feel of their event, helping them communicate the message they are most critically looking to communicate. In a nutshell, these smaller LED building blocks are reshaping the corporate events market toward an all-digital set, one that is a flexible and open canvas for event producers to fill in with the media images of their choice.”

Downs hopes the next dealer meeting goes much farther in its use of video LED. “I would push hard to get the same kind of movement of light and imagery into sections of the stage floor itself…or even create areas of textural or color variation on the deck treatment.” From the perspective of car shows, the technology has its eye on the driver's seat.

Robert Cashill writes on arts and entertainment from New York.