Elmo's World Live
by Shaun Stabler, Sesame Place

In the world of the diminishing theme park/ entertainment world in the fourth quarter 2001 to the first quarter 2002, it has become obviously clear that productions need to be carried out in the highest quality with the fewest amount of technical staff possible.  Since, in many cases, the skilled technical staff is more expensive then the live entertainment, it is critical to try to do more with less.  This equates to the world of show control.  If it is possible to control all aspects of the show with only one or a few people then this is the ideal scenario in a constrained budget.  For many people, this will make or break a show.  In the advent of show control and SMPTE/ MIDI/ Computer/ ASCII based show control, it has become possible to fully automate a show production in a human controlled fashion.  The scenario below will exemplify the Stage Research Show Control system in action.

In 2001 we were faced with a scenario that offered us a stout challenge, to correct a trend of diminishing show ratings and create a successful venue in our five-year running “chromakey” show.  We possessed a show that had sunken in satisfaction down to a paltry 71% (percentages of guests randomly surveyed who attended this show who found the production very good or excellent).  This area, located in our studio building, which happens to be a prime location, needed to be renovated from the ground up.  The new concept was that of the live production of the Sesame Workshop (the producer of “Sesame Street”) “Elmo’s World” segment; slated to be called “Elmo’s World Live.” 

The technical requirements of the show required three activities to be simultaneously carried out by the technical staff.  Let me first preface that the staffing of these shows is carried out by a single technician from a pool of eight employees.  Technical experience is minimal and mostly absent in this area.  All activities to be carried out needs to be simple and efficient as well as easily disseminated to the staff in the least amount of time.

The first necessity is to have audio files be triggered on cue by a technician.  The cues take the form of the tech waiting for a live Elmo to carry out some activity or Mr. Noodle, the human accessory to the show, to do the same.  The tech needs to visually on stage see this trigger happen as well as to have a reminder in the booth when to activate this event.  SFX 5.4 show control, like all versions of the software, has cue lists and generated notes for each cue event. 
Cues can be triggered with a right mouse click by a technician without actually looking at the monitor once the cue is highlighted, though a sequentially triggered show will already highlight the following cues. 
The second show requirement is to play video sequences through a LCD projected system as well as through four monitors.  This also needs to be carried out by the same technician.  The video cues are triggered immediately after audio cues, so playback initiation needs to be automated into the wav file playback method.  This is a show control function.  The video has been converted from DVD format (VOB file) into a MPEG2 for playback from a Hollywood Magic (Sigma Designs) encoder card that outputs video into SVHS (or composite).  This particular card accepts and operates through Microsoft MCI commands. 

SFX 5.4 Show Control triggers these commands normally fed by the Hollywood Magic software in a normal application.  Through the use of the MCI command in SFX, one can use standard MCI language to load the file, cue to the exact millisecond where you want to play, trigger the movie, and stop the movie at cue.  The best feature is that this happens in the background.  One could play a wave file triggered by a technician.  While this is playing, SFX will cue the video into memory, play the video after the wave stops, close the video from memory after the movie ends.  The only thing the technician needs to do is drop the projection screen for the video (electric). 



The final activity of the technical side is lighting automation.  In 2001 the same technician triggered the lighting manually.  Unfortunately this led to error due to the difficulty in playing audio, dropping a screen, and then turning off the stage lighting.  In 2002 the lighting dimmer is linked by serial connection to the computer through a standard RS 232 port (serial port).  Utilizing the RS 232 plug in for SFX show control, we are able to send standard ASCII commands to the dimmer triggered by SFX.  This  greatly enhances the tech’s ability to carry out his tasks.  These commands actually allow the computer to dim X channels, Y% in Z seconds or minutes.  This eliminates the potential need for a lighting technician in a large production (certain assumptions being made).

The bottom line of this production is that automation leads to efficient success.  This new show went from the aforementioned 71% to over 94%.  This was carried out by the utilization of only one technician.  The technical equipment costs were the same as with having a separate video/ lighting technician minus the labor, except a lighting controller would be utilized rather then a RS232 interface.  With the addition of computer automation of the lighting, I expect similar results or a possible ratings improvement.  This show is an excellent example of how the use of SFX Show Control can automate a production as well as carry this out with a single employee with minimal training requirements.

(In July of 2002 the show hit a park record of 99.5%!)