October 2, 2015

Arm the Confetti

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:14 pm

We had a confetti drop at the end of Million Dollar Quartet. The process for activating the confetti had about as many safeguards as launching a nuclear weapon. This post is about how we did it and why.

Conveniently, the primary publicity photo for the show shows the exact moment when I called the cue:

It’s on the button of the show, Jerry Lee hits the floor just as the confetti triggers.

The first rule of confetti (and snow) is you pick a spot in the show to do it where it won’t create a hazard for the rest of the performance. In our show, there was only a split-second where the confetti would be both not-dangerous, and not-too-late-to-be-effective: the moment he lands on the floor. So that was a short discussion at the production meeting.

The second rule of confetti (and snow) is you don’t trigger it when you don’t mean to. Having the drop boxes (or snow machines) as a channel on the light board, it’s pretty easy to do that if you don’t take any precautions. A careless channel check, or bringing up “everything” could stray into the channel number assigned to the drop boxes, and then you have a mess on the floor, and the deck crew is pissed, and the electrics crew is also pissed, because they have to reload. And then the deck crew is pissed at the electricians for complaining about having to reload, when reloading isn’t as annoying as sweeping (or mopping). So you see where this is going.

The other issue of course, is if the confetti somehow gets triggered during a performance, you have a real disaster because there’s now slippery mylar all over the stage for the rest of the show, or until someone can sweep it up.

On Sister Act we had the exact same confetti drop, so when it was added to MDQ I was very familiar with the procedure. But because of the extreme physicality of the end of the show, the 1-second window between when it would be a huge safety hazard, and where the cue goes, and the fact that there’s no real way for the actors to be “careful” about the staging and choreography should the floor and/or piano be slippery, I was concerned more than usual with making sure the drop can’t happen early.

For Sister Act there was a submaster on the light board that inhibited the confetti until two cues prior to the drop (there’s also a way to program the uninhibit right into the cue, but then if you were checking the cues for some reason other than in performance, it would trigger).

Technical Mumbo-Jumbo

The situation on MDQ was complicated by the potential chaos unleashed by the previous cues. Let’s take a look:

Cue What it Does
339 Bump blinding light wall
340 Bump blinding light wall (1 second later)
341 Bump blinding light wall (1 second later)
342 Different pattern on light wall (1 second later)
343 Shit goes crazy
“Arm the confetti”
344 Button, Confetti Drop

Working backwards from the drop (344), the previous cue (343) is about 5 seconds prior, while Nat plays a few glisses on the piano with his foot, like you do. It’s during this time that I’d say “Arm the confetti.”

The real challenge of this situation is in the cues prior to 343. 339 through 342 are on successive words: WHOLE. LOTTA. SHAKIN. GOIN on. While I was feeling comfortable with it by the end of the first week, the odds of coming out of the sequence in the right cue are far lower than normal, and there’s almost no time to correct it.

I was given a lovely gift on Sister Act of a tablet mounted above the calling desk that shows the cue display from the light board. So theoretically I can glance up after 442 and make sure 443 is next, and this was helpful in the first couple days where I struggled with that sequence. But I know from experience that due to wifi issues, VNC issues, “update your Windows software” popup issues, and whatever else, sometimes I lose the ability to see the cues. There’s basically no time between 342 and 343 where it would be comfortable for me and/or the board op to be 1000% sure we’re in the right cue before arming the confetti. So the confetti drop had to have a safety built in for the possibility that we could land in 343, and when I called 343, 344 would be taken instead.

Now the inhibit fader would protect against the confetti triggering if 344 was taken in place of 343. But what happens when we’re sitting in 344, thinking it’s 343, and I say “arm the confetti” and the fader is brought up? The confetti would trigger as soon as the fader goes up, still about 3 seconds early, creating a dangerous situation just as Nat is about to jump. With more time all of this could be carefully verified, but you have to understand that the six cues, plus manually arming the confetti, happen in 10 seconds. So I challenged our programmer to create a method of cueing the confetti that accounted for the fact that we might not be in the right cue, and in the event of an error, would fail safe.

It became something of a group discussion among the lighting-minded, and here’s what we came up with:

1. A submaster inhibits the confetti box channel so it can’t ever be triggered unless the fader is manually put up.

2. The channel that unlocks the confetti boxes is on in cue 344. But only in the first second of 344, and then it’s turned off with a follow.

This means the only way to drop the confetti is if the inhibit sub is up at the moment 344 is taken. If 344 was taken early (in place of 343, or earlier), by the time I said “arm the confetti” and the fader is put up, the 1-second window of opportunity would have passed, and the confetti will never fall.

With this system there is only one small span of time in which human error could cause the confetti to fall early: if between 343 and 344, after the confetti is armed, 344 got taken early. This window is only about 2 or 3 seconds, and the only way it could happen is if I called it early, or the operator had some kind of hand spasm. That kind of human error is unlikely when you know how important the cue is, and at that point no amount of programming can prevent it.

What I did to mitigate it was
(1) I didn’t say “go” with “arm the confetti,” it’s just an instruction that’s taken immediately. This avoids the association in the op’s mind that “go” means push the button.
(2) I said “arm the confetti” at the last possible moment that gave me time to cleanly say “344” before Nat jumps (the “go” for 344 was while he’s in the air, basically right where the photo is taken, assuming he’s on his descent there).

I’m pleased to say we never had an accidental confetti discharge. The drop worked every night, except once when the channel was left captured off from preshow work. But other than that, the show was run by two different board ops, and we never experienced an error related to the programming of the cue, or what the op had to do to activate it. I highly recommend this strategy if you’re ever faced with a momentary cue that you absolutely, positively do not want triggered by accident.

January 7, 2014

We Need to Talk About RGB LEDs

I call this: tech — Posted by KP @ 2:55 pm

Recently I made an impulse buy: I found a great deal on a good length of RGB LED ropelight with associated color-changing controls. Essentially what this means is that it’s a length of ropelight that can make pretty much any color — within reason — it would depend on how many levels of control it has over the red, green and blue, whether it’s thousands of colors or millions. I’m guessing thousands. Let’s just say it’s a whole lot more options than going to Home Depot and buying a roll of, say, red ropelight. Which I did at one point.

And if you know how theatrical LED lighting works, well it’s basically like that. It’s not as pure of a color as a light going through a color filter (like a gel, or regular ropelight), because sometimes you can see the different shades that make up the overall color, but it’s still pretty cool. And I don’t have to call a show in my living room, thank God, because I have something of a love/hate relationship with LEDs on stage. Mostly due to watching them attempt to dim and brighten.

In my travels around the web, I found this deal on eBay, which is only a few dollars more than buying a single color of ropelight at Home Depot. (When the link stops working, the seller was dazzlewerllc.)

So I tore out the red ropelight that ran along the back edge of my desk and replaced it with the RGB strip. And I’m addicted. The controller I have comes with a bunch of preset colors, and six programmable buttons for whatever color you can invent. Here’s what I’ve come up with in a few days:

I really like this soothing yellow in the morning.

I made this deep orange to match the backlighting on my keyboard.

This purple is very calming, especially at night.

This blue matches the wallpaper on my computer (right now the default Mavericks wallpaper), which is apparently a popular thing to do, cause I guess it’s easy on the eyes when the color matches what you’re looking at on the screen. Some people even hook their LEDs up to their computer and have software that automatically adjusts the LED color to match the screen.

And this is just my favorite lighting color in general:

These were all taken during the daytime, obviously, but given that my apartment is always rather dark, I actually appreciate the accent lighting more during the day. It makes me feel like I have windows that let in light coming from somewhere other than the concrete wall across the street.

It’d also be pretty cool for lighting a road box without needing to do any fancy electrical work. You could have bright white light when you’re working, and then some dim blue (or red, or whatever) light during the show. Make it the color of your show logo, or the color of the set.

The possibilities for fun and practical uses are kind of endless, and it’s gotten much more affordable than I realized.

March 3, 2011

Cool Lighting Museum

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 8:16 pm

I sometimes refer to the Majestic Theatre as the Lighting Museum, because Phantom uses such old gear, but we found another one at our venue in Potsdam, NY.

Check out this awesome light board with analog faders — by analog I mean there’s a little window on each fader and when you move it a picture slides up and down showing what percentage the fader is at. I don’t think they actually use it for anything, but it’s in one of the booths, and it’s awesome. I wish it had been plugged in. It probably lights up in really fun ways, too.

Another cool thing they do have in use is their patch panel. Our lighting director, Annie, took this picture:

Computers and modern electronics may be great, but early versions of inventions always look more badass. Gear that looks like it could either be used to initiate a performance of Shakespeare or launch nuclear missles is my absolute favorite.

August 17, 2009

Fun with the ETC Ion

I call this: mac,summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 11:12 am

Reagle’s regular light board is the ETC Microvision FX, an example of which is shown here.
It’s ancient. It usually works OK, when it doesn’t double-go, but for anything complicated, like color scrollers or moving lights, a newer console needs to be rented. La Cage is just that kind of show.

This time around we got the ETC Ion, shown here (except we don’t have the one with the row of faders on top):

It’s very cool. It saves the show onto a thumb drive instead of floppy disk, and so forth. I haven’t had much time to learn how to use it (I can barely bring a cue up), but while we were in tech our lighting designer invited me to play with the scrollers. It was definitely the highlight of tech. There are a couple different ways the board can help you choose color. There is sort of a color swatch screen that shows you the gel numbers and you click on the one you want. The dials at the top can also be spun to change color, saturation, etc. But the one I got to play with was the color wheel.

Since I’ve been doing a lot of web design and graphics lately, I have been kind of obsessed with color. So when I saw that the board had a color wheel, the same as you’d find in Photoshop or wherever, and you can click anywhere on it and it will put that color onstage, I thought that was incredibly cool. Of course the specificity of the color it can produce is limited by the variety of gels you have in your scroller, but even in my random clicking I was able to get it to look pretty much like I wanted.

I made a short video to demonstrate this feature. Unfortunately the color wheel got pretty much washed out on the video, so I didn’t spend any time looking at the intricate differences in color since you can’t see exactly what the mouse is pointing at, but you get the idea.

Also, as a side note, I shot this video with the iPhone 3GS, and edited it with iMovie ’09, which is the first time I’ve successfully created a movie with the new iMovie format without having to stop before I smashed my computer. Even with something so simple I was frustrated by stuff that I apparently couldn’t do, but it at least gives me hope that I don’t have to hang on to iMovie ’06 forever just to get anything done. Just the ability to upload to Youtube without worrying about formats was worth it.

February 11, 2009

St. Louis Day Off

I call this: On the Road Again,theatre — Posted by KP @ 12:07 pm

Bus.  And truck.

We left Poplar Bluff last night around 1:30AM. ¬†Load out was a little rough due to the fact that the theatre doesn’t have a loading dock, and getting heavy carts up a ramp to the truck (in the rain) is a lot harder than getting them down (in the not-rain). ¬†We also broke a castor on our plywood cart, which holds all the pieces of our floor. So after the cart was all packed and strapped down, we had to take it all off and load it by hand. ¬†Our pipe cart, which is the heaviest, scariest piece to move even on a level surface, was never even attempted to be loaded in one piece. ¬†The cart, and the metal box built into it that holds our cheeseboroughs, was loaded first, and then every piece of pipe loaded by hand. ¬†It was quite comical when a backlog was reached, and we had a line¬†of about 12 people stretching from the truck to the door of the theatre with these pipes. ¬† I was about halfway back in the line and took this picture.

After load out we went to a Huddle House nearby for dinner. ¬†Some of us didn’t get anything to eat before the show because we were rushing to get ready. ¬†I know Daniel and I didn’t. ¬†He had to adapt the lighting design for a venue with less than half of the instruments the plot requires. ¬†In each city, once everything is focused, the two of us sit down and flip through all the cues on stage and make sure they look like what they’re supposed to, and reprogram them as necessary. ¬†We were doing that right up through fight call, and then continued to make changes during fight call. There’s one bit of fight choreography which involves almost the entire cast running around with swords and poles and jumping on things in near-darkness followed by strobe lights, and I wanted to make sure they had a chance to do it in the cues we had built, to make sure we had given them enough light — of course we hadn’t, so good to know. ¬†This was our first true one-nighter, and it was exhausting, but kind of freeing in the sense that there was no time to get tired of being someplace. ¬†If there’s something not to like about the venue or the situation — the stage right door is dragging on the floor, the dressing room paging system isn’t great — ¬†who cares, we’ll be gone tomorrow! ¬†Two things basically made it hard in Poplar Bluff: the performance which had been contracted for 8pm ended up being at 7pm, which we found out the night before. ¬†If we’d had that extra hour it would have been perfectly relaxing. ¬†Also, if we’d had enough instruments (and interestingly, cable) to do the usual light plot, much less time would have been wasted redesigning the show as opposed to just putting it up like it always is.

One thing I want to share about our lighting situation for educational purposes: the lack of cable actually presented a greater obstacle than the lack of instruments. ¬†We don’t travel with a full lighting package, but we do carry some strips and broad cycs. ¬†Unfortunately, due to the short cable supply at the venue, we couldn’t use them. ¬†The Henry design depends a lot on powerful silhouette images of blue and red created on our RP screen/black scrim combo, and we needed a way to preserve that. ¬†When I saw the solution I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: three par cans, hung side by side dead center upstage of the RP. ¬†One blue, one red, one no-color, or something similar. ¬†Behind the RP was hung the house’s cyc, to use as a bounce. ¬†I thought, “we can’t seriously expect this to work!” ¬†Well let me tell you, it worked! ¬†It wasn’t beautiful. ¬†It would make a lighting designer cringe. ¬†But it told the story just as well as the full design does, and if you weren’t a lighting designer, you’d never know or care that the coverage wasn’t quite as even as it should be. ¬† For all the effort designers put into lighting cycs — fighting for the right number of strips, and just the right angles, we lit the damn thing with one instrument! ¬†It may not be elegant, but when your plot requires 132 instruments and you’ve got 60-something (40 channels), it’s nothing short of a miracle. ¬†Towards the end of the show I actually forgot I was calling something we had just thrown together a half hour before the house opened. ¬†It really did look close enough to the real thing, and Daniel set up a bunch of submasters so he could fill in gaps when our thrown-together design needed a little extra something. ¬†As he was right next to me, I knew he was using them a lot, but most of the time I couldn’t even tell by looking at the stage. ¬†He said it was like running a 2-scene preset board. ¬†One of the interesting things about this tour is that there’s an understanding that we will play venues that can’t satisfy the technical needs of the production. ¬†It’s part of the deal of bringing professional theatre to communities that don’t normally get it. ¬†Our bosses back in New York understand that we will have to cut corners some places, and me, Joel, Ian and the supervisors are expected to make any changes needed to do the best show we can with what we’ve got in each venue. ¬†This was the first time we’ve really had to think on our feet, and I think we did a really good job.

This was our first audience that seemed to be made up of people who don’t get much exposure to Shakespeare. ¬†They were a very quiet audience, but they livened up a bit in the second act, and were very appreciative at the end. ¬†A number of people seemed to have left at intermission, which we assumed meant they didn’t like it, but one of the local guys believed they may not have known the show was over. ¬†It’s really fun to perform for an audience that’s familiar with the show and follows it easily, but really the mission of the Acting Company is to perform for audiences like those we had last night. ¬†If we’re the most professional theatre performance that comes through that venue, then we’ve accomplished our goal, and hopefully they got something educational and enjoyable out of seeing Shakespeare performed live by professional actors.

Nick and the cast stayed behind and performed the 1-hour Henry this morning for about 500 students, which apparently went well according to his report, except that the door on their bus broke in the morning and they had to take cabs! ¬†It’s fixed now, and they are currently en route to join us in St. Louis.

As for me and the crew, after eating at Huddle House in a downpour and tornado warning, we got back on the bus and hit the road for the 2-hour drive to St. Louis. ¬†I don’t know how long it actually took because I was exhausted and malnourished and damp and disgusting and went immediately to bed. ¬†The drive was pretty scary. ¬†The rain was ridiculous, first of all, but I could feel the wind pushing the bus to and fro, drifting all over the place. ¬†It felt like we were going really fast, but I think that may have simply been the fact that we were driving into the wind so it felt like more resistance. ¬†Not being able to see anything from the bunk, it’s sort of like a trust exercise. ¬†You lie down in the dark and close your eyes, and no matter what you feel or hear, just trust that Bart’s not going to drive us into a tree or off a cliff, or get us sucked up into a tornado. ¬†I don’t spend that much time in tornado country, and I’ve never seen one, but the idea of a tornado warning at night is very scary to me. ¬†I mean, seeing a tornado is bad. ¬†I figure not being able to see a tornado is worse!

Anyway, we apparently made it without tornado interference, as when I woke up we were in the parking lot of our hotel in St. Louis.  We arrived sometime overnight and Bart went to his room to sleep and left the rest of us sleeping in the bus, to check in whenever we felt like waking up.  I was desperate for a shower so I got up around 11AM, dressed and ran around in the rain trying to figure out which cargo bay my luggage wound up in.  Then I checked in and took the best shower ever.  Any shower would have been the best shower ever, but the water pressure was especially good, too.  I unpacked a bit, gathered up my dirty laundry to do tonight, bought a Mountain Dew from the vending machine, but having not bothered to bring my computer bag from the bus, eventually ran out of things to do, so I have returned.

By the time I got back, Daniel was up and at the desk in the front lounge, no doubt working on a light plot for some venue in the future. ¬†That’s basically all he does. ¬†I feel like at this point in the tour, there are many people whose jobs suck more than mine. ¬†I’m not really used to that. ¬†Anyway, I counted the number of closed curtains in the bunks (not counting Nick, who is traveling with the actors on this trip, and whose job also currently sucks more than mine), and determined that the back lounge would be unoccupied. ¬†I was very pleased to find that the case, so here I sit, feet up on the leather couch. ¬†The wind is still blowing the bus side to side. ¬† Now people are starting to wake up and come visit me. ¬†Our plan for the day is that when Bart has had enough sleep, he will come back to the bus and take us to see the St. Louis arch. ¬†I’ve never been here, so I’m excited about that, because it’s pretty much the only thing I know about St. Louis. ¬† Our plan to go go-carting has been squashed by the fact that the track we planned to visit has apparently shut down! ¬†We were so excited, we even invited the cast to come with us tomorrow, and they were really looking forward to it, too.

Our schedule here is kind of nice. ¬†We have the day off today, then load in at 8AM tomorrow (for Henry), but then have no show or anything else at night. ¬†Friday Nick and the cast have a 1-hour Henry, which I suppose I’ll drag myself out of bed for if there’s no reason not to, ¬†and then we do Big Henry at night. ¬†Then Saturday at 8AM is the changeover to The Spy, and a performance that night, then we hit the road for Glenn Ellyn, IL.

August 7, 2007

The Glittering Desk Lamps of Broadway

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 10:08 pm

As promised, here is a picture of our electrical stand-ins for the 42nd Street marquees. I didn’t get a chance to take a photo of them in the scene, as I wound up rather hastily calling the run from the booth tonight. By hastily, I mean that as soon as the Overture started we realized that even literally screaming into our headsets we wouldn’t be able to hear each other over the blaring trumpets and tapping feet, and after about 32 bars, I gathered up my calling script, pencil, God mic, headset, and cup of soda from the tech table and ran up the aisle to the booth, calling cues as I went. We often have this problem of the orchestra sound getting into the headsets and drowning everyone out, but for some reason thought that on this show of all things I could get away with calling from the house. We realized our stupidity right away.

So when we got to the ballet I realized too late that I didn’t have my camera with me to get a shot of the “marquees,” and anyway I would have been too far away to get a good picture. After the run Steph turned them back on for a photo op. She also corrected my earlier post which assumed they were taped to the pipe. Oh, no. The desk lamp is actually lashed to the pipe by its cord. And of course the clip light is attached by its clip. And I forgot to mention my personal favorite part of the whole display, the extension cord with the end that glows orange when it’s powered, adding a nice third light source to the mix. I’m going to miss all of them when the real marquees go up tomorrow.

Fun Things in the Shop

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 1:58 pm

Just five minutes ago I was dragged skipping into the shop by our master electrician, Steph, and knew immediately what I was going to see.

Here Nick, Steph and Justin show off their creation. It’s been a long and complicated process to turn the giant marquees from the national tour (this is the smallest one) into something that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars in bulbs, and require more power and counterweights than anybody should really need. A bulk order of Christmas lights arrived in the morning, and even up close they look quite a bit like real marquee lights. They won’t be hung until all the marquees are done tomorrow, but for now we have an empty pipe with — I kid you not — an upside-down desk lamp and a clip light taped to it to represent the marquees for lighting purposes. It’s hysterical. I’ll try to get a picture of it.

Competing with the marquee builders for my attention is head painter, Matt, who is refurbishing the fabric on the Regency hotel unit.

The third and final project currently underway in the shop involved Scott, Tim and Ross climbing around on top of the “Buffalo” cars.

When I inquired what exactly they were doing, I was told, “attaching mirrors,” with the express instructions that it was to be pronounced “murrrs.” There’s murrrs all over this set, most of which are in need of something between cleaning and replacement. With a lot of the big fixes done, a lot of the little projects in the next two days will involve making all the murrrs look respectable.

June 3, 2007

Yay Dimmers!

I call this: summer stock,theatre — Posted by KP @ 7:46 pm

I had heard through the grapevine that we were renting enough dimmers for this show that there wouldn’t need to be any patches during the performance. At the production meeting yesterday we actually got approval to buy the dimmers, and a multicable to the catwalk that will apparently alleviate some kind of lack-of-circuits problem that’s always an issue up there. That’s exciting — any decent design at this theatre has required a dimmer rental, so it’s a great investment in something that always winds up being rented anyway. Even with renting more dimmers, we usually wind up with a few patches during the show, which is never fun, and I’m never 100% sure I trust that it’s been done.

For those who don’t know, briefly, patching is done when you have more lighting instruments than dimmers, like you have two lights that you want to do different things (say one’s red and one’s blue), but you only have one dimmer available to control them. If you use the red light in scene 1 and the blue light in scene 3, then during scene 2 you can unplug the red one and plug the blue one into its dimmer. At the light board it looks like it’s bringing up the same light, but a different one is physically plugged in (or in many cases a switch box is used for the same effect — sending the current out to a different light depending on which way the switch is thrown).

    Favorite patching story: Two years ago we were doing Sound of Music. In the scene at the end where the von Trapp Family is performing for the Nazis, there were these ominous swastika gobos that appeared over the family’s house at the end of the scene where the Nazi officer demands that they perform at the event, and as the family steps downstage and the red velvet curtain falls behind them, the gobos came into focus and created the effect of Nazi flags at the concert hall. It was quite effective. So while we’re teching, the lighting designer says something to our deck electrician about making sure he’s done the patch for the swastikas. Now, having had a less than perfect rate of success with patches being done properly before, I asked, somewhat hesitantly,

    “So the swastikas are part of a patch?”
    “And what’s the other side of the patch? When should I be expecting to see swastikas if the patch isn’t done correctly?”
    “Oh, it’s not used much. It’s the stained-glass windows in the church.”
    “So you’re telling me if the patch isn’t done, I’m going to see swastikas in the church!?
    “Well theoretically, but the church scenes are first, so if the patch wasn’t done you would see the church windows in the Nazi scene — you would only see the swastikas in the church if they forgot to reset before the next performance, which is much less likely.”
    “Okay… You’re right. I just wanted to be warned.”

    Cut to a few hours later. We finish teching Act II, and quickly reset for a run of Act I. The show starts — the nuns are holding candles, singing a hymn behind a black scrim. It’s all very dark and mysterious. Next cue, the stage brightens up and we’re in the…. SWASTIKAS! The nuns can see this because there’s a scrim in front of them catching the light. Several scream. I turn to the lighting designer and say, “That’s why I wanted to know!” Of course she was right about how unlikely it was, it only happened because we did the rather unusual process of starting the day with Act II and going back to Act I.

That’s one of the reasons I worry about patches. During some patch-heavy shows at Reagle, I started referring to the process as “patchy-patchy.” I think it was because I had trouble remembering to confirm that a patch had been done at intermission of a certain show, and kept writing the reminder bigger and bigger at the top of the first page of Act II, and eventually wrote “PATCHY PATCHY!!” across the entire top margin. The head electrician saw my note, and it became a verbal term as well. By the end of last season, it was a well-understood technical term. When a patch came up, I would say, “Patchy-patchy?” and if it was complete the deck electrician would reply, “Patchy-patchy.” Since that came into use we’ve had a lot more success — I think because it’s so much fun to say that you don’t forget. I’ll kind of miss it if we don’t need to do any this year.