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Twenty Years Later

Brad Schiller • Feeding the MachinesSeptember 2020 • September 11, 2020

Brad at the 2000 Olympics

September 15, 2000 is a date that I will always remember. This was the day of the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremonies, and I was fortunate to be on the lighting team as a programmer. I was honored to be a part of this fabulous production that we were told aired live to over 4 billion people. The year also marked the first time the ceremonies were held completely in darkness after the sun had set.

The lighting team was led by lighting designer John Rayment along with his assistants and colleagues Rohan Thornton, Trudy Daegleish, Jo Elliot and Dave Wilkinson. Lighting programmers were plentiful and included myself and Vickie Claiborne, Jason McKinnon, Robert Bell, Megan McGahan, Jason Fripp, Mark Hammer, Dean Price, Ian Blackburn, Rohan Harrison and Brendon West. The consoles were Wholehog II’s and a Strand 550i.

‡‡         The Experience

I will never forget attending the first production meeting and hearing John Rayment explain the various scenes of the Opening Ceremonies. Each moment was filled with fantastical concepts that seemed way over-the-top. Then the next scene he described would top the previous one! I was blown away by the sheer scope of the production we were about to light.

Over the course of several weeks, we worked in a previz suite that consisted of seven consoles and large monitors (no-flat screens back then). We spent a considerable amount of time working out how seven programmers could simultaneously respond to a request from the LD and produce a coordinated look on stage. Several other programmers worked on other aspects of the production without visualization.

Once we moved into the stadium, the show became much more real, and the work continued late into the nights. The actual show was incredible and exceeded the explanations and expectations of that first production meeting. After a week-long break, we gathered again to begin programming the Closing Ceremonies.

Luckily, I kept a daily diary of my experience, which is printed in its entirety in my book, The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook. In the first appendix, you can follow along as I describe the day-to-day programming process for these monumental shows.

Author’s note: The title of my column here in PLSN for the past 18 years, “Feeding the Machines,” was derived from programming the Sydney Olympics when John Rayment would explain a cue and then say, “Feed the machines cue 14” as a prompt for us to begin programming and storing his concepts.

‡‡         Now and Then

I find it very interesting to mark the 20-year anniversary of this show by exploring the changes to our industry since then. As would be expected, many things have changed, but also many have remained the same.

Automated lighting fixtures have evolved to utilize LED sources and network or wireless protocols, but overall, they function very much in the same manner as before. However, console technologies have grown and changed wildly.

In 2000, we utilized multiple consoles and programmers for a number of reasons. First, the processing power of the desks simply did not allow for reliable control of large numbers of complex fixtures. Second, networking of consoles did not exist, and thus multi-programmer environments were not available. It seems odd now to imagine breaking a rig into sections and having multiple consoles/programmers independently controlling all the various elements. Now, consoles provide simple methodologies for networking consoles together and allowing multiple programmers to log into the same show file.

The technology of the day also necessitated the use of floppy disks to save our console data. The saving process required minutes to write the data, and thus, we stopped programming often to save our precious work. Each programmer was also responsible for maintaining and organizing these backups. At the end of each programming session, I would back up all the various desk saves to my laptop. Now, backups are achieved quickly via hard drives, USB sticks, networked systems and direct internet uploads.

Today, the software on lighting consoles typically allows for color-coding, layout views, complex color mixing systems, gobo imagery and many more standard features. Back in 2000, we would have loved to made use of a layout view and these other new features to better organize our fixtures and allow quick selection.

‡‡         Looking Back

I recently spoke with several members of the team regarding our time together 20 years ago. I was pleased to learn that we are all still working in the lighting field, with most still programming or designing. Of course, we each have fond memories of our time together in Sydney and are grateful for the opportunity to have worked on such a prominent production.

John Rayment (the LD) remembers the unique challenges due to the multiple console setup: “Four of the consoles were assigned to the run of Cyberlight Turbos on the long Eastern and Western roofs (150 on each side). The control allocation had two consoles per side with a leap-frog arrangement along the entire array, if you will, such that if any one console went down, we lost alternate banks of fixtures rather than half of that array. There was a session in the stadium where it was just not all coming together. It turned out that one of those particular programmers was physically watching the wrong set of lanterns and assuming what he was doing was correct. So he wasn’t fixing notable errors, assuming they were coming from the console next to him. The console next to him wasn’t fixing them because, quite understandably, they weren’t theirs to fix!”

Robert Bell, who programmed a console for field-placed fixtures and maintained the WYSIWYG systems, recalls the “new” features of WYSIWYG that we utilized at the time: “Since 1996, WYSIWYG was much more aware of what the lights were doing than the Hogs. It was then we introduced AutoFocus to ‘direct’ the Hog to patch the lights, move them in unison and other things like touch-to-highlight or Buddy-Focus.” These features proved invaluable when working with the large rig in Sydney.

Megan McGann programmed a range of fixtures in the stadium from a Strand 550i console. She particularly remembers a situation unique to large spectaculars such as the Olympics. “One of my favorite programming moments was during nights of focusing automated lights in the stadium and having to keep my lights focused away from ‘heavily armed security’ situated on the roof and around the stadium.”

‡‡         The Programming Paradigm

In talking with the team, it seems that everyone feels that the role of the programmer has not really changed, although it has been better defined. However, the basic principles, procedures and workflow remain very similar now in 2020 as they were back in 2000.

Jason Fripp explains, “A programmer’s role is to convert the designer’s ideas and thoughts into reality onstage. I do think designers are far more knowledgeable about the consoles used these days, which can be good and bad. And, of course, the GUI is a lot better now than it used to be.”

Jason McKinnon feels that the programmer must now have a better understanding of the entire system. “Now you have to be way more knowledgeable about the system and network; the syntax on the console is no longer the only important skill set. In Sydney, I had no idea how the data was getting from my Hog to the lights; I just knew that guy in the corner at a computer who looked nervous all the time was who I went to if something wasn’t working.”

Mark Hammer agrees that the programming principles have remained the same, but also sees some major improvements in terms of the equipment. “The role of the programmer seems to be the same. However the technology that the programmer works with and needs to know has changed immensely, and continues to change. For example, consoles can now output to more fixtures and types of fixtures and can communicate through Ethernet and tools like RDM. Additionally, consoles now control fixtures in greater detail, with easier-to-control parameter options and a variety of shortcuts.”

Of course, the technology in the consoles has changed, and the multitude of new features that programmers are faced with are important to continue to learn. Vickie Claiborne is very fond of these improvements and explains, “From multi-console networking to media server integration, lighting consoles today can do so much more than our Hog2 could back then. I’ve adapted to new workflows that now include things like macros, multi-faceted effects and media integration.”

‡‡         Looking Forward

Twenty years has resulted in many changes to programming and automated lighting, however there have been very little fundamental changes that have impacted the role of the programmer immensely. I hope that in the next 20 years we will see some major changes that result in real transformations within the industry.

We are starting to see more integration with 3D positional data along with continued (albeit slow) merging of video and lighting. However, I hope that programming will change in major ways through the usage of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, improved interoperability and communication and other emerging technologies. My dream is that programming becomes more focused on the creative output than the technical manipulations of the console syntax and operations.

‡‡         Time Flies

The last two decades have been filled with many different productions for each of us that were involved in the Sydney Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies. While a few of the Australian members of the original team have worked together since then, the full team has never assembled together for a show since that magical time. Everyone has expressed great fondness for the teamwork that was achieved as we all shared in the lighting duties of this memorable production. Due to advances in technology, there will likely never be another show with so many programmers working simultaneously to achieve a combined stage picture.

Like each of us, John Rayment looks back with fondness and insight. I think he best summarized the experience when he said, “The Sydney Olympics were a great time and a great project with a grand bunch of people to do it with. Throughout the process we all, I think, felt wonderfully out of our comfort zone.”

To view the 2000 Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremonies, go to www.plsn.me/Sydney.

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