Pay-per-view events fed live to public destinations is not a new phenomenon, but with advances in digital technology, there has been incredible growth in this sector of entertainment. It is now possible to beam, via satellite, a signal from a venue directly to a movie theatre, bar, or other entertainment facility that is equipped, either permanently or not, to downlink the signal and broadcast it to a local audience in attendance. Regal Cinemas has outfitted its theatres with digital projectors, surround sound, and downlink capability.
This marketplace brims with potential and has important connotations for those of us who benefit from the increasing numbers of shows produced. There is a compelling need for content to fill the theatres' schedules. The theatres are highly motivated to initiate productions and events that can be used to create one-night, you-are-there occasions. The producers are similarly inclined to invent such shows to create work for themselves. For all of us in the technical and creative support industry, jobs are created.
When Jimmy Buffett prepared to release his third book, A Salty Piece of Land, an opportunity arose to produce an evening with Jimmy, up close and personal. Jimmy would read from his book in an intimate setting and play songs from his repertoire that connected most strongly with the sentiments in the novel. He would be backed up by a smaller band than he uses on tour.
The show was planned to be satellite broadcast to approximately 50 Regal Cinema theatres nationwide in 5.1 Dolby® Surround Sound and would include a Q&A session from any of those theatres, in real time. The questions from remote theatres would be heard in all the venues.
The Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center in New Orleans had great significance for Jimmy, since he spent a considerable amount of time during his youth with family in New Orleans. Another advantage the city offered was visual style and personality, which could be utilized amply as inspiration for the simple setting the show required.
The production was to be shot in high definition on seven cameras. Jimmy's touring LD for the last 12 years has been Sid Strong. I met Sid 20 years ago when he was getting much deserved attention for his gorgeous designs for The Manhattan Transfer. Sid is the LD's LD — a pioneer in the business. My job was to take Sid's design and make the necessary adjustments for television. That included help in guiding the design toward the optimum angles for good close-ups on the performers, assuring the cues had intensity balance for good video pictures, lighting the audience and the architecture of the theatre, and balancing the follow spots for color and intensity.
Sid warmly welcomed me to the project, which is more than half the battle. It is not unusual for me to encounter a range of negative reactions and emotions from tour LDs when they learn of my participation in a television project being undertaken by their artist. Sid, fortunately, looked forward to a fun collaboration. He knew that I neither wanted to steal his artist nor his thunder.
Since Jimmy planned to do a scaled down, more acoustic version of his tour show, this design was to be original and unique. So, rather than adapting or adjusting an existing show, we were free to create a design that worked for the theatre audience as well as the television viewers. With Sid's intimate knowledge of Jimmy's style, likes, and dislikes, we were well ahead of the game.
The band consisted of Jimmy at center stage, flanked by two guitarists on one side and an upright piano on the other. Two background vocalists and two percussionists completed the group. It was a tight setup, with an overall footprint, dictated by Jimmy, of only 30' wide by 20' deep. What made this somewhat crowded was the addition of lots of fabulous set decorations and New Orleans artifacts researched and assembled by local designer Nan Parati. There were stand-up louvered screen panels, tables, easy chairs, lamps, and plants everywhere, which we all loved, but it also meant we had to be very surgical with our focus to avoid set lights spilling on the band and vice versa.
There was also a large rear-projection video screen upstage as the main background, with a faux wrought iron frame around it. The budget did not allow for an extremely high lumen output projector, and we suspected our lighting would have to be balanced that much less intensely to allow the screen to maintain its proper priority in the visual picture.
With a fairly frugal budget, Sid and I decided initially to use a combination of automated fixtures by a manufacturer to be chosen later, combined with PAR washes. We began to realize we could get what we needed from a smaller assortment of only automated lights. Martin MAC 500s and 600s fit our wallet and also gave us confidence of a reliable result. We worked out an arrangement of good keylight and backlight for each performer and a few lights left over for stage and set washes. A Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 was chosen since Sid can also program it. The first choice for both of us was to have a dedicated programmer, but the budget was prohibitive. Bandit Lites of Knoxville is Jimmy's usual tour vendor, and they were the obvious choice for this show.
We had more scenery added every day, and we were spreading our package thinly to cover band and stage. The performers were to stay stationary for the show, except for Jimmy, on whom we could use a followspot. The house had only carbon arc spots, so we rented a Lycian 2500W M2 to be placed in the booth on the second balcony.
We had to start combining some conventional fixtures back into the design to provide keylight for the band. With the help of the New Orleans Ballet, we were able to rent lekos that would be in use at the theatre the night before our load-in. This allowed me to keylight each band member with their own light to gain control over the variations in skin and hair color, without wasting precious automated lights for this task. For the furthest downstage part of the band, we used lekos in the house coves to achieve the correct angles. The first and second electrics worked fine for the upstage musicians.
The audience lighting was another design issue altogether. The producers did not want the audience blinded by lights coming directly from the stage. There were no other positions available, so I took advantage of a very wide stage apron to mount a large vertical boom on each side to cross light the audience in two colors. This angle would adequately illuminate them and would also give them a nice modeled quality.
The colors were selected to make the audience look like they were mainly being lit by stage lighting ambience. I did add one set of lights in no color from the first electric — to be used only during the audience Q&A session — to give them a more standard and pleasing quality for close-ups. Finally, I added a medium blue wash from the balcony rail to achieve two purposes: to give the reverse shots seeing the audience a bit of enjoyable sparkle and to backlight the first 20 rows.
The stage lighting design needed a bit of filling out. A show like this utilized a large number of shots from cameras widely spaced just in front of the stage. The background, therefore, is the wings. Since we had no scenery there, I took advantage of some high pipe and base booms from house to create some sidelight that the camera would see for some glisten. We were also able to tone the backup band from time to time from these positions.
Finally, the theatre itself needed some good lighting to show off its beautiful wood-paneled walls. I decided to simply uplight the panels to give the space some majesty and texture, as well as some scale for the wide shots. The theatre's aisles were just wide enough to do this without creating a fire lane problem.
During the setup, more and more props and relics were added to the stage. We were really running out of lights, and the house had very limited equipment. Little by little, we were repurposing lots of our spares and floorlights to cover the growing assortment of chotchkes. We resorted to blowing the dust off some of the house's antique 2K Fresnels.
I decided to run the show at 4000K to strike a happy balance with the video image. The projector was capable of being set to any temperature we wanted but outputs brightest at 5600K. I felt that would force me into too blue a look for the performers' keylights for this kind of show. Straight 3200K would make the screen images a bit unnaturally warm, so 4000K was a perfect compromise.
Sid knows Jimmy's music and laid in the cues during programming and rehearsal sessions. I made some level or color suggestions, and between us, we assembled a show that had style, orchestration, mood, and drama. Jimmy's readings from the book were extremely enjoyable, and the audiences from the venues around the country asked a multitude of questions ranging from the completely serious to totally silly. All in all, this was a successful collaboration between designers and proof that a show can work well for the live audiences as well as the TV viewers.
Jeff Ravitz is a lighting designer currently specializing in televised projects and select tours. He is the recipient of a 2001 Emmy Award for lighting and is a founding partner of Visual Terrain, Inc. (www.visualterrain.net)