Ragtime
Penn State University
by Curtis Craig

Sixty-one cast members, twenty-five orchestra members, and twenty-five crew: clearly not a musical for the faint of heart. Three rear projection screens, three digital projectors, three serial controlled DVD players conveying time and place for a musical that is notoriously hard to grasp. Sounds like a challenge.

Early in the design process, projections became an integral part of the production -- it became clear that they would need to be powerful, flexible, and dynamic. The projections would need to seamlessly blend video with still images, and somehow keep the entire effect from becoming too static. Some images would be isolated on one of the three screens, but the ability to have images span the three connected screens was intriguing.

The technology to do this ‘live’ exists, but not at a price point that would be feasible for this production. Based on my experience with the combination of SFX Pro Audio/Show Control and the Tascam DV-D6500 serial controllable DVD player, I decided that by using three of the DVD players we could accomplish the production’s goals. By developing each of the player’s content with the whole picture in mind, we could create a seamless stream of images that were not simply three separate static frames. By using the Tascam DVD players, we could develop and modify the content quickly during the production process, making the images and their manipulation flexible. By using SFX Pro Audio/Show Control as the control for the system, we could keep the show as consistent as possible and provide an operator with an easy to operate system that ensured that.

DEVELOPMENT

Part of the development of this playback system meant needing some way of accessing the transport controls of all three decks from the desktop -- enabling the operator (or programmer) to start or stop all of the decks simultaneously from one central control panel. This would be used extensively during the programming and tech processes. A software control panel for the Tascam DV-D6500s, developed by Brian Cummings in association with Stage Research, was the answer here. It allowed "manual" control of each deck’s transport individually, as well as the control of the three decks as a group. It proved very valuable during the programming process when starting and stopping the three decks together. The panel provided the means to test-fire sequences without fully programming them first.

To Douse...or Not To

We developed a mechanical dousing system based on the FootSim four channel MIDI switchbox triggering an Allen-Bradley Programmable Logic Controller (PLC). The individual switch outs of the FootSim triggered the logic switch input of the PLC and the PLC’s programming took over from there. After developing the idea and even pre-programming the dousing system, we found that it really wasn’t needed. About 90% of the show there was an image on the screens; when there was not, it turned out that we really liked the soft blue glow of the projectors. But we will get to use it someday......

PREPRODUCTION

The scenic designer, Daniel Robinson, and the director, Cary Libkin, combed through an immense amount of research for the show and developed the imagery that we would use for the projections. From these images came a general "flow" of the cues -- where one slide faded into another slide, or where it simply faded to black.The images were then loaded into Sony’s Vegas, and the cutting began. Each individual image had three envelope components: an up time, a dwell time, and a decay time. By modulating these envelope times with each image we achieved a look less like slide imagery and much more like responsive video.

A Timeline from Vegas Video:
Note how the first two pictures UP and DWELL times are similar, yet the third is much longer. The third is a dynamic pan through the crowd on the street, maintaining the energy of the scene on a crowded street.

Since this was a musical, the timing and motion of the cues was edited by using the tempos of the individual songs and music interludes as a guide track. By loading rehearsal recordings into the video editor, the timing could be checked against the musical director’s tempos to assure that the transitions would work. After these sequences were roughed in, they were rendered to MPEG2 format files for burning onto DVD+RWs. Each sequence was burned as an individual title on the DVD, assuring that if a cue played out, the DVD would simply return to the main menu. This also simplified moving between cues, since the DVD player could quickly skip to another title.

TECH

Technical rehearsals started by programming independent cue lists for each of the three individual decks -- allowing us to fine tune the timings and the transitions for each screen individually. The screens were coordinated by using one master cue list to target the individual cues by number; this allowed the flexibility of adjusting timings in one list without affecting the timing of another. There was still some timing instability, since the adjustment of a timing in a single list’s sequence would affect the subsequent timings in that list; but by methodically working through a sequence from beginning to end, the timings could be perfected.

Certain images were static --SFX PLAYed the DVD track, the image faded up, SFX PAUSEd the DVD player (creating a static background), and, at the end of the scene, SFX continued to PLAY the DVD, fading the image out. After the image faded from view, SFX PAUSEd the DVD and moved it to the next track. Other images (stills) were animated using camera pans (affectionately referred to as a "Ken Burns" effect); the same sequence of events occurred, only the WAIT command between the initial PLAY and the first PAUSE was longer to accommodate the slide’s motion.

The other components of the sequences were the video clips -- they fit into the timelines just as the stills and the animated stills did, they just required even longer WAITs. Since a cue sequence could easily combine all three types of images, the screens could alternately feature static images or video which allowed focus to be drawn to a specific image or area on the stage.

WHAT WE LEARNED

1.) Travis DeCastro, who heads the stage management program at Penn State, had the idea to load the individual images into Excel cells, and thereby created a storyboard for the project. This proved invaluable as a visual reference for everyone involved, from the director to the operator. The storyboard also made the cutting of the sequences move much smoother; it was easy to see the order of images without having to cross-reference filenames.

2.) Programming the master cue list was greatly simplified by creating parallel subcue numbers for each deck. For example, projection cue 520 consisted of subcues A510 and C510; projection cue 525 consisted only of subcue B525.This made the master cue list both easy to build and very informative to the operator; the operator could easily see exactly which decks were moving with each cue.

3.) The single most difficult aspect of the system in tech was that it was difficult and time consuming to move backward to work a sequence. By using chapter markers (per cue) inside the cue progressions it would be easier to move backwards inside a cue progression.

 

CONCLUSION

Cary Libkin, the show’s director, paid the highest compliment in saying that never did the technology of what we were doing get in the way of the artistry, design, or the message of the production. The goals of the show were met – the seamless transitions from still imagery to video clips to panned stills provided both a backdrop and a historical anchor for the show. All the while, SFX Pro Audio/Show Control kept it all in sync and under control.
THE TECH

Software
SFX Pro Audio/Show Control 5.6 build 12
Vegas Video 4.0
TMPGEnc DVD Author
Adobe Photoshop 7.0

Hardware
(3) Tascam DV-D6500 DVD Players
(3) Epson Powerlight 74c Projectors
Dell GX1
4 Output serial card
THE PEOPLE

Ragtime: The Musical
Penn State University

Director: Cary Libkin
Scenic Design: Daniel Robinson
Lighting Design: John Cumisky
Costume Design: Barbara Pope
Sound & Media Design: Curtis Craig

Special Thanks to:
Tascam, Patrick Killianey, Brian Cummings,
Ryan McGinty, David Horowitz, Sarah
Baum, Joseph Zupko, Justin Niessner