Josh Chapman thought he had redundancy covered.
As the production manager at Fuzzy, organisers of the annual Parklife series of music festivals, it was Chapman who was called upon to ensure that radio broadcaster Triple J would have the bandwidth it needed to stream its live broadcast of the event.
Chapman had overseen the installation of two Telstra ISDN lines (one for redundancy, of course), as well as a microwave link and an ADSL wireless link. But when the location is the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, and the site has no electricity, phone lines or plumbing -- let alone broadband access -- the chances of things going wrong are high.
“We had three redundancies for Triple J that all went down on the morning of the show,” Chapman says. “Telstra’s ISDN lines went down at the very last moment, an hour before broadcast. Then the ABC brought out their microwave dish, and the last person to use it had pulled the cable out, so we couldn’t turn it on.
“So there you are, you’re in the middle of a park and you’ve gone to three redundancies, and nothing works.”
Fortunately the ISDN links came back up two minutes after the scheduled broadcast was due to begin. The experience is a metaphor for Chapman’s relationship with information technology.
“There is all this great technology, but nothing is 100 per cent.”
Lights! Camera! Network!
It’s a common story for senior IT executives in the live performance and festival industry. The last decade has seen IT -- particularly networking -- become more commonplace in an industry where analogue technology once dominated.
It started with requests from touring acts for Internet access backstage, and has snowballed into a proliferation of complex network technology deployed in venues that might only exist for a day. That often means stretching the limits of what the technology can do. IP networks, for instance, are now the preferred method for controlling stage elements like lighting, using a protocol called DMX512-A.
Few stage productions are bigger than those of the Austrian violinist Andre Rieu. His production manager, son Pierre Rieu, describes one performance last year as involving more than 600 moving lights, all networked together on two fibre optic networks running from either side of the stage using the Fiberfox system from German company Connex.
Productions on the scale of his father’s would simply not be possible without networked technology, Rieu says. “The network has grown so big that we are using fibre optic these days to keep the whole network online,” he says. “There are two people who are with us to build the network and maintain the network during the show.”
The Rieu production team switched over to Ethernet on category 5 cable about five years ago, and made the leap to fibre soon after. Lighting project manager Richard Bovee says the audio team is also now routing some of its audio through the fibre network and, during the northern summer, began running video signals for its LED screens.
“It was an experimental project, but it worked very well,” Bovee says. “The animations on the screens ran really well, and we’ll stay on this for upcoming projects because the result was perfect.”
Even comparatively smaller shows like the stage musical Wicked, currently playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, are placing new demands on production managers like Brian Downie.
According to Downie, Wicked requires two networks to control the production’s lighting, while another computer-based system controls the movement of stage elements. “It makes it possible for us to run a lot of queues through the lighting board at the same time,” he says. “We’ve got a rig of maybe 350 instruments, and they are all doing different things.
“People expect lighting effects like they would see watching a movie. You can’t do that without technology.”
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