Learning the Ropes on the Stage

in Features

Full Sail LiveThere are no shortages of schools, for-profit and otherwise, that offer professional audio education programs. The most recent listing by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) includes more than 600 educational organizations. They range from international multi-location ones such as SAE, which has outlets in cities including New York, Miami, London and Paris, to those based in community colleges in small-town America.

Full Sail Live, with students using a grandMA console and a 48-by-14-foot LED video wallBut while audio programs can be taught in small classrooms using laptop computers and headphones, that’s not the case for the other stage and live-event arts. Classrooms are where students start out, learning software and programming for lighting, projection video, LED and staging, but within weeks they will need to be working on the scale that event production requires. And that’s made the educational landscape for everything but audio a harder proposition.

Full Sail LiveEducation across the various staging disciplines is often scattered between educational facilities and, in some cases, between departments at colleges and universities. At Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, a suburb of Nashville, lighting is taught in the school’s theatrical arts department while video, including broadcast and live-event video, is covered through the school’s electronic media communications department.

Full Sail Live FOHBilly Pittard, the chair of that department, says its roots are based in broadcast, but that the 350 students in that program are spending more time applying video to live events. “The school’s proximity to Nashville, which has become more important to the live-event and entertainment event industry, is compelling us to focus more on how video is used for live events,” he explains.

Full Sail Live control roomStudents are developing programming skills to create the content that is used on projection and LED video screens, and a new mobile video lab equipped with a Sony video switcher that was acquired two years ago is having some of its time allocated to live-event video production.

The department has also added a new faculty position dedicated to further developing live video applications. “One of our adjunct professors spent five years on the road with major country acts doing their [projected] video,” says Pittard.

But the school is still limited in the kind of scale it can attain with its campus infrastructure, so Pittard says the department is increasingly using relationships with commercial video providers.

One of these is DWP Live, a video provider based in the Nashville and Los Angeles areas. DWP Live’s portfolio includes the 2012 Super Bowl XLVI halftime show, and that has proven to be instructive to MTSU students studying large-format projection, such as the kind animating the sides of tall buildings, with an assist from the 3D projection-mapping capabilities of tools like Pandoras Box media and show control software from coolux.

The video production students created the projected overlays in tandem with students working in the department’s graphics arts program. “Cross-collateralization between departments, and between the school and [commercial] companies that we partner with, are key ways that a school can achieve the scale needed to teach live-event production,” Pittard explains.

Wind In Their Sails

Some for-profit schools have recognized the growth in live-event production and have adjusted their offerings accordingly. Full Sail, the largest of them, has an average of about 300 students a year going through their Show Production B.A. program. Part of Full Sail Live, the Orlando-area school’s 2.2-acre, five-venue live-production facility, interest in the parts of the program that focus on lighting, video and projection has grown considerably, says Shawn McKeown, department chair for lighting and visual productions. But the telling indicator, he points out, is that the number of students choosing to focus on lighting, video and projection from the beginning, versus students who enter with other aspirations and then discover those disciplines — the vast majority of Full Sail’s 18,000-plus onsite and online students come intending to pursue degrees in audio arts — has been steadily increasing over the last five years.

“I have more students coming onboard now that are specifically pursuing video as a course of study, instead of being turned on to it after being exposed to as part of another set of courses,” he explains. “I think they’re seeing technology platforms like media servers now being used for video-mapping very high-profile events like the Super Bowl halftime shows. These students are growing up with this kind of technology now.”

Dana Roun, the school’s director of audio arts, points out that in little more than that amount of time, the technology focus for students at music concerts has shifted from the sound system to the video systems. “It used to be that lights and video were secondary to sound, but now that’s completely turned around,” he says.

McKeown says that Full Sail maintains relationships with many leading video, projection and lighting manufacturers, including Martin Professional, Sony, Barco, ETC, Vari-Lite and High End Systems. Students train on platforms including Green Hippo servers, grandMA2 lighting consoles and software such as Vectorworks and ESP Vision visualization systems. The latter help students gets a sense of what large-scale video productions will look like when they’re rolled out onto screens and other backdrops, but both McKeown and Roun acknowledge that they need to be able to see the outcome of lighting designs and video projection programming on a one-to-one basis to get the full effect of what they’re doing. That’s why, says McKeown, students cannot earn diplomas via online study as they might for other courses, such as audio. “They can use the visualization software to a very large degree, for both teaching and for homework,” he says. “But nothing can take the place of actually doing it in a huge event space like we have here.”

The In-Between Solution

The Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas was founded in 2006 as an alternative to both academic and for-profit education environments for the teaching of live-event technology.

“Students who choose not to go to college have no place to turn for training that would make them employable in state-of-the-art live entertainment technology,” the school’s website states. “The financial and time cost of attending four years of college to learn a skill set… prevents many talented young people from pursuing a career in the entertainment industry. Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas strives to fill a need that traditional schools cannot provide.”

Operating as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Stagecraft Institute divides its eight-week syllabus across key verticals, including CAD, rigging, special effects, automation, audio, lighting technology and previsualization. What makes the program unique is that it utilizes Las Vegas itself as its campus, settling into a different production or facility each week, such as Solotech, and often using their equipment and sometimes its operators as their teaching lab and instructors. As a result, students are able to transition from basic instruction to getting hands on advanced platforms such as MA Lighting grandMA, Eos, Strand and High End Systems Hog lighting consoles over the course of the program, doing so in the same environments in which the systems are practically applied.

The teachers are working professionals, with a student-teacher ratio of four to one. Class sizes vary; there were 15 students enrolled in the eight-week-long 2013 summer program, and another 62 students have taken one of more of the one-week modules. The school is not accredited — though their contact hours have sometimes translated into credits at certain colleges — but it represents a unique middle ground between the academic and for-profit in this educational sphere.

Looking Ahead

The schools we contacted expect that the demand for entry-level workers in the live-event production sector will only continue to increase. Full Sail’s Dana Roun says there may be as many as 800 jobs waiting for the 300 or so graduates from the Show Production program each year, and that some of the overage will be filled by audio-program graduates who recognize the opportunities that are opening up in the live-event industry. He says that’s particularly the case in the house-of-worship sector, where many of the graduates of all programs are headed as larger and mid-sized churches outpace the ability of their mostly volunteer AV workers, and as churches head into complex IT-based paradigms. “Corporate and amusement parks are other areas that also need these kinds of skills,” says Shawn McKeown.

Costs vary considerably. Stagecraft Institute charges about $9,000 for its 8-week course, including housing, transportation and two meals a day, though students can take individual focus weeks for lesser amounts. About 95 percent of students enrolled are receiving scholarships provided by various industry sources, says director Jane Childs.

A bachelor’s degree from MTSU will cost in-state students about $25,000 while non-Tennessee residents will pay about three times that amount; students at state schools that have theater-arts programs can expect similar tuition costs. A B.A. in Show Production at Full Sail costs about $75,000, according to the school’s website.

MTSU’s Billy Pittard says prospective students need to weigh the relative benefits of for-profit schools versus more traditional academic ones. He admires what many of the for-profit schools can achieve in less than the usual four years it takes to get a bachelor’s degree (Full Sail’s Show Production bachelor’s degree requires 5.25 semesters, which can be accomplished in less than two years). On the other hand, he says the additional time spent in traditional schools and the unrelated learning that takes place there alongside the technology focus can offer greater career rewards in the long run. “I think the enhanced ability to think things through with greater depth and context is the big advantage of the more rounded [academic] degree,” he says. “Here, you’re learning how to think, not just learning how to operate. You’re being exposed to critical thinking.”

However, all students will have to weigh the costs of student loans against the potential for future career earnings. Fortunately, the prospects for employment look better in this sector than in many others. At least, for the moment.