Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is a massive technological achievement that required both meticulous engineering and the development of new technologies to create unprecedented production effects. From the installation in the theatre, which required extensive renovation to receive the show, to intricate coordination between the lighting, video and automation systems, the technologies developed for Spider-Man will no doubt be utilized in future productions.
PRG supplied and integrated the lighting, audio, video and automation systems, as well as engineered and built the massive scenery and supervised the extensive renovations made to the theatre. Essential to the integration of the technologies were several PRG proprietary products, including the Mbox Extreme® v3 Media Server, the V676® Lighting Control Console, PRG’s Stage Command® System (SCS) and the Commander™ Motion Control Console as well as the Series 400® Power and Data Distribution system. In addition to the core features of these products, PRG developed new features, which have been permanently incorporated into the products for future productions.
For all of the technical departments, the scale of the systems was the primary challenge. “Spider-Man’s biggest challenge was really just sheer size,” said Production Sound Engineer Simon Matthews. “The audio system is 50% larger than any other Broadway show.” For the main audio control, PRG supplied a Meyer/LCS CueConsole 2, used in conjunction with Meyer/LCS D-Mitri Digital Audio processors. Three Avid Digidesign Profile consoles handle additional audio mixing and routing. The audio system sends SMPTE triggers to the PRG V676® lighting console to trigger the video system and it receives MIDI from the V676® as a DMX channel to trigger audio cues from lighting. The centerpiece of the sound system is the Meyer D-Mitri mixing system, which has a very large input/output set up, 144 in x 144 out. “We aren’t limited; each speaker can essentially get its own mix,” said Matthews.
Spider-Man also has Broadway’s largest wireless RF system, which runs 100 wireless frequencies on a daily basis. “This system includes RF microphones; god mics; in-ear monitors for the aerialists; walkie-talkies; wireless intercoms; and then a whole slew of 2.4 GHz for all of the standard access points for control networks,” explained Matthews. “Lighting uses quite a lot of wireless for control and there is wireless in some of the props.”
PRG also provided a closed circuit video (CCTV) package in conjunction with a redundant intercom system for all of the stage managers, automation operators, orchestral performers and anyone who needed to be able to see what was happening during the intricate production. The 45-camera system handles the cueing and coordination of the orchestra, housed in two separate rooms below the stage, as well as providing needed life-safety support for both the scenic automation system and performer flying rigs.
The task of lighting Spider-Man as he scales walls and flies through the air fell to Lighting Designer Don Holder. “When you go through the show scene by scene, there are about 58 individual scenic set ups. Nearly every piece of scenery had built-in lighting and then there were all the moving parts and all the performers flying above the stage, above the audience, all needed to be lit. It was very complicated to say the least,” said Holder. PRG provided a package that included more than 1,800 focusable fixtures, 157 automated fixtures, 554 LED fixtures and over ¼ mile of linear LEDs.
The control solution had to provide seamless integration of the lighting and video during programming and performances. Both the Video Programmer Phil Gilbert and the Automated Lighting Programmer Rich Tyndall used the PRG V676® Lighting Control Console and while each programmer had his own console, the consoles were networked together and utilized the same show file. The V676® has a feature called partitioning that allowed the two programmers to assign a specific set of channels of fixtures to each individual console, so they never interfered with each other. Gilbert used the V676® to control the Mbox media servers, and Tyndall used a second V676® to control all the automated lighting in the show.
For the power and data distribution needs of the automated lighting system, Production Electrician Randy Zaibek is using PRG’s Series 400 Power and Data Distribution System. “It has been invaluable over the long haul,” said Zaibek. “With the amount of changes and shifting that we had to do in terms of universes and power; I didn’t have to run any extra data lines to any position thanks to the flexibility of the Series 400 system. I could easily just go back and re-port any universe to any location.”
Essential to the lighting design was addressing the complication presented by the overhead flying. Holder and programmer Tyndall had to devise new methods of lighting performers who perform in mid-air literally anywhere in the theatre. The lighting rig is trimmed on stage at over 40’ because the fixtures must be positioned above the fly wires. The action takes place all over the theatre, upstage to downstage, left to right, from onstage to the balcony, so it is a completely three-dimensional environment. The traditional followspot positions in the theatre wouldn’t work because the followspots had to reach from one end of the theatre to the other, so new followspot perches were installed.
“I think of the followspots as the first layer of the flying lighting. They can follow the flying anywhere in the theatre and they were incredibly helpful,” explained Holder. “The second layer involved tracking the flights with automated lights using positioning data received from the flying system and finally we put in the infrastructure so that the entire space was illuminated. In the end most of the flying sequences use a combination of all three techniques and I think the results were pretty successful.”
“At one point PRG was sending trucks everyday to handle changes and adjustments being made in the theatre,” commented Holder. “PRG was really great about it. I think they were very supportive; I needed their backup and they gave it to me.”
Scenic Designer George Tsypin, a trained architect, is an opera designer whose inventive scenery has made him world-renowned. Spider-Man’s Technical Director Fred Gallo, also PRG President, Scenic Technologies, noted, “PRG worked with George for the longest time, coming up with ideas and different ways of doing things; we had to actually invent ways of automating and engineering scenery that had never been done before.”
Among the highly articulated scenic pieces PRG engineered, the Chrysler Building, which reaches out from the stage and unfolds into the audience, is particularly remarkable. In its hanging (stored) position, it is pointing vertically straight down and folded in half. As it flies in, it actuates and opens to a total length of 50’ in a horizontal position and it extends over the fourth row of the audience. Adding to the effect of the web-slinger’s bird’s-eye view, the stage floor rises up on an angle, revealing lightboxes built-in to the ramps that are digitally printed with stylized Art Deco building elements. Associate Scenic Designer Rob Bissinger explained, “That particular scene shifts the audience’s perspective so they view the stage as if they are standing on top of the Chrysler Building looking down onto the street, it is absolutely breathtaking.”
In Tsypin’s design, even scenery that at first-look seems straightforward is not what it appears. “For me, one of the most successful and magical elements, scenically, are the City Legs,” said Bissinger. “We have four sets of legs in the show, which are large panels with city graphics printed on the front that move in and out and also light up in different colors. Each panel moves independently and is able to not only track side to side but also tilt up to 45º, which gives us these sweeping cityscapes. The effortless way these legs move and the lightness in which they have been engineered to me is nothing short of a miracle.”
“We tried a lot of different techniques to varying levels of success and then finally the engineers at PRG came up with this kind of internal web-like structure, that would actually help keep the legs plumb and square even as they tilted and went off their center of gravity,” explained Bissinger. “As these web frames inside the legs catch little bits of light, they give them an internal life and an internal structure that is both Spider-Man-like and architectural. It was a really great thing to be able to work with an engineering team that also understands the beauty of the visuals, of the artistic impact of what their engineering is doing. And that was something that I found very unique to PRG.”
For the ‘Bouncing off the Walls’ scene, PRG determined that carbon fiber would be an ideal material. “We needed frames and support for scenic pieces that had to have high strength and low weight,” explained Mark Peterson, PRG Project Manager, Scenic Technologies. “We explored many different options and ended up working a lot with carbon fiber. It has the rigidity of steel, but is lighter than aluminum.” Scenic panels representing Peter’s bedroom walls, 18’Wx14’H, were fabricated using carbon fiber tubing and covered in spandex. For the Manhattan apartment, carbon fiber frames with rare earth magnets were used to quickly assemble the walls for the scene.
For the stage floor ramps that double as lightboxes, PRG designed custom LED fixtures. When not lit, the stage deck is black, but when lit and raised at an angle, the floor becomes part of the skyscrapers set. “The Plexiglas tops are digitally printed on the underside in blacks and grays,” noted Peterson. “There was no real depth to be able to diffuse incandescent lighting properly and there would be too much heat. So we decided to design our own version of a white LED board, which let us mount the boards into different configurations to fit the trapezoidal lightboxes. We provided 250 LED dimmers to deal with the enormous amount of circuits needed for the whole floor. All together, we have about 9,000 LED boards in the floor ramps.”
The ramp construction allowed for intricate articulation when they were raised up. The trapezoidal pieces are 37’ long and 12’ wide on the narrow, downstage side and approximately 16’ wide on the upstage end. All of the stage ramps are hinged on the downstage line. The center ramp has an additional ramp built into it that can go up another 14’. This added articulation reinforces the illusion of forced perspective that is used throughout the scenic design.
Gallo is particularly proud of the solution PRG engineered to meet the challenge of the speed required when moving the ramps. The stage ramps actuate up and down; going up to a maximum height of 14’ with a speed capacity from 0’ to 14’ in under four seconds. Said Gallo, “Since the ramps had to move really fast, a hydraulic system was deemed the only sensible way to go. We put in a hydraulic pump room specifically for this show and then plumbed it all with steel pipe rather than hoses, because of the amount of oil that had to be pumped around the building. This is the largest hydraulic automation system on Broadway.”
Tsypin’s design called for three scenic elevators downstage, where the theatre’s orchestra pit was located. However, the pit wasn’t deep enough to accommodate the scenic lifts. “To put in the three elevators, we had to dig out the pit another seven feet,” said Gallo. “The problem was that we were on New York City granite; bedrock.
It took six weeks with heavy machinery to excavate deep enough. We started with jack hammers; then we brought in a specialty hydraulic robot that jack hammered on its own; when the rock got too hard, we brought in crews trained in digging subways, who drilled holes and used a hydraulic splitter. Then we poured concrete to create a sub-base to put in the three lifts.”
Two PRG Commander consoles are used to control the automation effects, one for scenery in the air and one for deck effects. They control 145 different automation effects in the production, including PRG’s proprietary Stage Command System (SCS) winches and other automation devices. To put this in perspective, a typical Broadway musical has 15-20 automation effects with the largest musicals topping out at about 50 effects.
Media Designer Howard Werner believed that it was crucial that the projections be seamlessly integrated with the scenery and lighting. He specified a video system that provided the maximum flexibility in manipulating content. PRG met the demands of the specification with a mix of proprietary products, new software features and a new 15mm LED video product.
Mbox Extreme media servers, controlled by the V676® lighting control console, were used for content management. For Gilbert, the V676’s® Media Window, which displays all the video clips graphically on touchscreens, made programming easier. “The console interface really gives us a ton of geography to lay out palettes and presets and all the things a programmer uses to manipulate servers,” said Gilbert.
There are eight LED panels, each 8’w x 33’h, that are configured as four pairs of legs, which track on and off stage. The LED panels are completely covered with a 15mm SMD LED video product that was provided by PRG, and the legs were covered with black rear projection screen to soften and blend the LED imagery. In addition, they were covered with black sharkstooth scrim material so that when there was no video being displayed, they disappeared. If lit, they look like standard black fabric legs. Each leg weighs 1,300 lbs., has 100 video tiles and can track back and forth on stage to put video just about anywhere the creative team wished to underscore a scene.
“Since the legs are fed by the Mboxes, we have a myriad of specialized layer and fixture controls that allow us to discreetly address each individual leg and gives us a lot of control on a layer by layer basis for how those LED screens are mapped,” explained Production Video Electrician Jason Lindahl. “The best part about working with PRG was the response that we got with developing these new features for this show. We had a pretty tall order for this show, especially for the media servers but nobody at PRG batted an eye.”
One of the biggest challenges for PRG involved the requirement for the video content to track with the LED legs as they moved on and off stage. To ensure the accuracy of the video mapping, the video system received positioning information from the automation system that drove the LED walls. Encoders were added to the SCS winches which feedback the video panel position to the Mbox. Both the automation and the projection systems know exactly where the LED legs are at any time, allowing quick and accurate mapping of video content while the LED legs are moving.
PRG developed two modes for the video output from the Mbox—Discrete mapping and Projected mapping. In Discrete mode, the video projection tracks with the LED leg as it moves, with the image appearing to be attached to the individual leg. Essentially, a single pixel of video output from the Mbox is mapped to a single pixel on the LED output and tracks with the screen. In Projected mode, the output appears to be projected onto the stage, not attached to the individual leg, but simply allowing the legs to move through the projection. The PRG Mbox allows the Discreet or Projected mode to be set for each individual LED leg.
Looking at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, it is easy to see how new products, features, materials and techniques created for this groundbreaking musical will affect theatre technology moving forward and will become standard for future productions and for the live entertainment industry as a whole. Perhaps the unprecedented level of integration among all the production systems is the true technical legacy of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.