Written by Bryan Reesman
Thursday, 11 August 2011

It’s redundant to proclaim Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark as the largest, costliest and most ambitious production in the history of Broadway. But when one breaks it down on a technical level and in terms of numbers, it becomes really impressive.

A Powerful Rig

Lighting designer Don Holder worked with a powerful rig; not because of the budget, but out of necessity. He reveals the stats to PLSN: approximately 1,800 focusing fixtures of different kinds, including 1,000 various LED fixtures and 700 Source Fours and strip lights of every description; 157 moving lights, 554 LED fixtures; over a quarter-mile of linear LED fixtures; and 38 universes of DMX, along with two or three universes of wireless DMX.

Two consoles power the show: One an upgraded ETC Eos with 20,000 channels that drives all the conventional and LED fixtures, the other a PRG V676 console driving all the automated lighting. The set electrics budget was reportedly $3 million alone. And the video aspect was large too, with eight moving LED screens and a large projection screen displaying a wide array of images.

“The scope of the show was immense and overwhelming,” Holder recalls. “It took four months at the drafting table to design it all.” While most shows might take up to six months (with out-of-town tryouts) to get from pre-production through to opening night on Broadway, Spider-Man took four years.

No one expected that, including Holder, who spent a year alone at the Foxwoods Theatre and had to tackle many issues, including limited space for hanging lights given the large amount of scenery folded into various parts of the wing space and the stage. He also learned more about using LEDs than he ever had before.

High-Flying Spectacle

Regardless of how one feels about the quality of the story behind the show, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is admittedly an eye-popping spectacle rich with forced perspective design, dazzling lights, booming sound, colorful video and high-flying stunts. The show underwent a large overhaul when it was shut down for three weeks this past spring in order to retool what was viewed as a complex show into something more streamlined and easy to follow. Director Julie Taymor was out; Phil McKinley was in. (As it turns out, Holder and McKinley had worked together on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2003). Other new crew people were brought in.

Beyond a simplified storyline, the drive behind the Spider-Man reboot was to take the edgier, more ambitious tone of the original version and make it warmer and more cheerful. “The first version was really high contrast — stark white foreground sets against incredibly colorful comic book backgrounds; no broken or textured light because the texture is really in the costumes and in the line drawings of the scenery,” reports Holder, who admits to initially being resistant to the redesign. “I never considered imposing another layer of texture, for example, on top of what was already there. In this version, there was a real impetus to make it more traditional looking and take the high art out of the overall production and make it a little less — I don’t want to use the word pretentious because I don’t think it was; it’s a hard term to come up with — but I would say, in general, the physical production became more accessible and less precious than perhaps it was initially.”

Try, Try Again

Because a lot of the show was excised, new scenes were brought in (including Act Two’s opening number) and the story order was rearranged, the production went through an entire redesign. “We had eight weeks to do the first version of the show and eight days to do the second,” says Holder, “so it was quite a stressful, intense time.”

“I think Don had the hardest job of all on the second version,” states projections designer Howard Werner. “For me, the second version had a lot of reordering of things and using cues that existed in the first version; managing the transitions in and out of cues and creating some new stuff. But Don’s task was to basically relight the show, because I imagine almost every cue got changed. Either scenes were completely rewritten or re-staged or both.”

One of the new directives on the show was McKinley’s desire to have the villains revealed in an iconic color selected for each rather than in white light. Thus, during Act Two, when they all appear, “each villain is followed around with a large complement of lights that sculpt and reveal them and separate them from everyone else with a specific color,” says Holder. “The automated lighting for those sequences was unbelievably complicated. Every time they move, every one of the super villains is followed with moving lights that are all programmed to track their path, so they’re always sculpted and cut out of the landscape very specifically using a lot of moving lights that are constantly moving with them. Because of the timing and the overlapping moves, it was like having 10 followspots on stage all moving at the same time. I couldn’t have lit Spider-Man without automated lighting.”

Holder says that everything was illuminated internally or self-illuminated, from the show deck to most of the scenery, and it all had to be figured out, engineered and carefully planned. The whole design had to be specified, mocked up and tested, and there were a lot of difficult decisions that needed to be made.

Moving Targets

“The big challenges for me were how to deal with the flying — the fact that the show moves at 40 miles an hour all over the theater — and how to make that flying feel like an event larger than life,” Holder continues. “One of the biggest aesthetic considerations of Spider-Man, if you look at all the comic strips, is an extremely high contrast, graphic style in front of very, very bright blocks of color for the background. One concern I had was how to create those continuously bright, multicolored canvasses from one scene to the next without making the sky look realistic. Another big consideration was how to make it look like a comic strip.” Beyond those two large concerns, Holder also had to work and coordinate with all of the video technology and imagery and to deal with those aesthetic considerations.

Given that there was a plethora of show elements to deal with, particularly flying, rigging and transitions, Spider-Man did not get a traditional cue-to-cue tech rehearsal like other productions normally would. No pun intended, it was like teching on the fly. Holder had to face lighting a show generally out of sequence while other things were transpiring, and then making it feel unified and complete.

Holder wanted to reveal the flying in an exciting way and also use light to give that action a larger-than-life feeling. He came up with three approaches to this challenge, especially as he had never tackled 3D flying before. “One approach was to create a zone of light through which the fliers could move; in other words, light the entire theater 360° so they could move through the light,” he explains. “The second idea that I had was creating followspot positions so that basically one followspot could track the flight all the way from the back wall of the rear balcony all the way to the back wall of the theater upstage, which required engineering and putting in new followspot positions. And then the third idea was to have moving lights and automated fixtures follow the flights, so there were a lot of custom positions rigged off of balcony boxes where we put fairly low-profile, small saddle moving lights in positions where they could light the flying without blinding the audience; lights that focused upward as opposed to down. I did that because I knew it would be the most attractive way to reveal flying, but also, from my work in the circus, I knew that flyers don’t like to have lights right in their eyes, right at eye level, because it blinds them and they can’t see their landing platforms.”

With light shining up from below, the focus turned to how to program everything. They contemplated an autopilot system, but that was eliminated due to “the difficulty in always having an unbroken line of sight from the flier to the receivers, because with all of the scenery moving, that didn’t seem practical,” says Holder. “We wound up using quite an old-fashioned but extremely successful approach, which was getting all of the flier information from the Fisher systems people and calculating acceleration, deceleration and height above the orchestra floor at all key points along the path of travel.”

Holder and crew then went to a party store, purchased a lot of helium balloons and flew them to the various points of the path so they could focus the moving lights to all those points and create a series of cues. “Then we got the flight people to use sandbags and were able to finesse timing, and eventually when we got into previews we could finesse it more by watching the actual flights with real people.”

During the Spider-Man/Green Goblin fights, Holder used all three of his approaches simultaneously, because the two fliers were moving all over the theater. “In that sequence of events, we’re lighting the whole theater using that first approach with the followspots and using automated fixtures following them around. So it feels very bright and open, as opposed to cavernous and dark. Part of that is that Julie always thought first and foremost that the show was a circus event. Spider-Man always flies suspended from a web or a web line, and it wasn’t always about hiding everything, but creating this circus environment.”

Video Content

Along with lighting, another key visual design component of Spider-Man was video. The initial conversations focused on the use of 3-D and holographic video and effects in the show, and the “Sinistereo” section with the villain rampage was conceived as the three-dimensional world that Spider-Man was part of. “Over and above that, from a scenic point-of-view the design was more realistic scenery in the first act and more dependence on video in the second act,” explains Werner. “That’s where we wound up.”

The projections, which ranged from creepy close-ups of the ranting Green Goblin to semi-animated segments of the rampaging villains generating urban carnage, came from a wide variety of techniques: computer-generated imagery, green screen shoots, chroma key shoots and compositing. The creation of that content began around spring 2010 and was finished up in December. “The evolution of the design evolved with the show itself,” notes Werner, “so the video had to remain fluid in the way that the show was somewhat fluid.”

The projections appeared on eight LED legs that are 10 meters tall by 3 meters wide, plus one larger projection screen used during a couple of scenes. The LED screens are usually in motion and often glide across the stage. What’s interesting about the LED projections is the way that they were programmed. While traditionally pixels on an LED screen would follow that screen, Werner took a different approach.

“We developed this feature in the [PRG] Mbox software where you could tell the Mbox server that the entire stage space is a big raster map of pixels,” he explains, “and there is an encoder feedback system that tells the media server where the screens are any given moment within that big raster. So it can appear that the image is coming onto the screen in relation to the position that the screen is in space. It’s a pretty interesting effect, and we used it a couple of different times in the show. It’s like having a projector at the front of the stage, and the scenery moves to that image. It only picks up the projection where the screen is.”

In terms of synching up the video with the lighting, Werner says coordination was very critical. “First of all, all of the video cues are in fact triggered by lighting cues, so there’s a MIDI trigger from the lighting console that triggers the video console to trigger all the cues,” he says. “Just on execution of the cues alone, we had to be in complete coordination. If Don changed the cue number that had a video effect on it, I needed to know about that so we could change our cue numbers. But creatively, there are many moments within the show on the LED screens that need to coordinate color, timing, movement and feel with the lighting.”

After all the hard work, the grueling hours, meeting after meeting, spontaneous tech adjustments, backstage upheaval and a lightning-fast redesign, Holder feels really good about the final results. “I felt like the work got better,” he declares. “From my perspective — because I had a second chance to look at a lot of it, so I feel I was able to fix things that I always wanted to fix but never had time — it was an incredible opportunity to work on such a big canvas and on such a large-scale. I feel like getting through it, surviving the whole thing and feeling good about the results is something I’m proud of. I’m grateful to everybody who worked on it so hard for so long with me. We worked together. I walk away from the whole thing with a positive feeling. I feel bad about all the difficult times and things that happened, particularly what happened with Julie, because she’s a very close friend, and that was very painful to be in the middle of all that. But that’s show business, I guess. I learned a lot about the politics of theater.”

“I think we’re all pretty pleased with the way it turned out,” concurs Werner. “There are certainly things that everyone would like to change and make better, but I think at this point we’re very pleased with it. I think if the show has a life after this production, there will be things to change certainly, but given the amount of time that we had and the budget that was put in front of us, I’m pleased.”