Edutainment Show Control, Part 2

Visitors at the Oldest Store Museum Experience in St. Augustine, Fla., are greeted by a sound, video, real actors, and animatronic figures. 3/29/2012 10:11 AM Eastern

Edutainment Show Control, Part 2

Mar 29, 2012 2:11 PM, With Bennett Liles

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Visitors at the Oldest Store Museum Experience in St. Augustine, Fla., are greeted by a sound, video, real actors, and animatronic figures as they slip back into a turn-of-the-century store environment. The man behind the curtain with all the knobs and levers is show control expert Ryan McCurdy and he’s back to tell us about how it all works, next up on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Ryan McCurdy, thanks for being back with us for part 2 on the SVC Podcast from Historic Tours of America and the Oldest Store Museum Experience down in St. Augustine. You put together a lot of technical elements on this with live actors and mechanically triggered video and sound events. You used all this modern show control technology to create just the opposite sort of old world atmosphere. Describe for me the general show setup for anybody who may not have been with us on part 1.

Ryan McCurdy: Absolutely, well, the show itself is a series of sequences some of which are motion censored some of which are actor controlled and some of which are on intrinsic loops. WinScript, which is Alcorn McBride’s show design software, is versatile as far as the number of ways that you can have things triggered. It also to use as a really detailed logic language to do if-then’s, which is also really good for safety that there are over-rides built in; there are buttons in the facility that will override the cues the reason being is that we do have safety issues. We have at one point washing machines that are starting to rattle and shake and blow bubbles, and they are at a distance from the audience, but there is an override should someone need to go turn them off immediately. We have things dropping from the ceiling in the midst of the guests to be seen; we have a large bike that comes down so building all that into Alcorn McBride’s software was definitely part of the show. The show itself is 12 major sequences, all of which are independently being triggered or cued by the software. [Timestamp: 2:16]

And the actors have a degree of control over this. You’ve got a real actor or two involved in this and they actually trigger events by stepping in various places.

The snake oil salesman is the character that the audience really gets to spend a lot of time with in the main part of the museum, and they have a stage from which they’re pitching their wares and concealed into the stage are several buttons, which bring objects up and down from the ceiling, trigger audio animatronics as well who are in the ceiling, and it gives the actor great versatility to react specifically to the type of people that are in each group and how they are responding to the experience. [Timestamp: 2:52]

And of course it’s not just live actors it’s got video playback in the presentation, too so how does the video system work? How do they trigger the video to play?

Well, video playback, actually we went with the old-school approach of having a motion sensor. The guests are on a self-guided portion when they get to the video playback section, and so we have built in a delayed motion sensor, which starts what we are considering a talking portrait set up. We decided to honor the original owner of the store, C.F. Hamlin, and found an actor and were able to completely to redo his office from paintings of the time and built that into a talking portrait that is done up like an oil portrait on the wall. When the guests trigger it, there is a delay at which point he starts to do very subtle things; he moves his arm up a little bit, fixes his glasses, he looks in a different direction. Things that the guests may notice, but not necessarily think that they saw or may convince themselves they didn’t see, and then out of nowhere he starts to speak to the guests. So in that last room, which is the self-guided portion of the museum, we decided that although there was no actor, we would have a storytelling presence, which is this painting on the wall that tells you the story of Hamlin from the horse’s mouth literally. [Timestamp: 4:07]

Now, where do you get all of the sound and video inserts produced? Does it all come from the same place for all these different shows that you do?
Well, on the design end, as far as set dressing, set design, properties, and so forth, there is a team that is HTA employed. We use different video and audio studios for each individual experience and for the St. Augustine build we did choose local video and audio studios to obtain the talking portrait as well as several voice-over narrations that have been elsewhere in the museum. [Timestamp: 4:36]

OK, now that you’ve got the video beginning to play triggered by the presence of the audience, what sort of video monitoring do you use there and is it a high-def video format that’s used for the monitor feed?

It is, well, Alcorn McBride; it was as if they were planning it for us, which I thought was great. They released an HD version of their very popular video player just in the middle of last year, actually, right when we needed it. I think now that we’re in 2012, it was the middle of 2010 that they came out with the product and we needed it in fairly early 2011. The product uses an HDMI out, which was definitely exactly what we needed. We had experimented with using even a more specific higher end output than that, but realized that for the distance we were traveling HDMI was sending a very clean, very sharp signal. It is HDMI on both ends, which travels through the walls on twisted pair. On one end we have the high-def player, which is being triggered by the Alcorn McBride show controller, the V4 Pro, and on the other end, we are using a very high end 40in. Panasonic monitor, which is embedded into the wall with its own venting capabilities and then is framed out both with a faux artistic frame and a veneer, which was designed by our artistic director. If you were to go up and “touch the monitor,” you would feel what feels like an oil painting, but directly behind it of course is the glass. [Timestamp: 5:56]

That’s what I really love about this particular project because you’ve got all of these modern flatscreen monitors in there and everything is done to make them look old.

Yes, in fact one of the nicest things in the entire museum, I think in part 1 we discussed the Whirlitzer in the front, and another thing in the last room that you’re in, it was so simple and yet a really brilliant idea is we have party line telephones, which is something that I think most generations that are coming up in the last 30, 40 years don’t even necessarily know what a party line was, let alone have ever experienced one. They are phones that have had the wires gutted from the inside and now are attached to small audio playback devices inside of the phone box, and when you pick up the handle, you are listening to a six-minute prerecorded conversation of a party line with various members of the St. Augustine community arguing, trying to get everyone else off the line so they can have their own private communications. A doctor is yelling at a potential patient who’s been drinking too much. It’s a really fun thing and there are no signs; there’s no obvious directing to the audience to go over and pick this up, but when they do you see people really light up. It’s a great surprise and almost like a technological Easter egg. [Timestamp: 7:06]

Edutainment Show Control, Part 2

Mar 29, 2012 2:11 PM, With Bennett Liles

Now there’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes here to be wired up and maintained. Who keeps all of this running and what happens if say there’s a power outage? How does it all get back up and running?

Well, on the plus side, everything that we bought hardware wise auto restarts. Everything immediately boots itself back up and goes. We tested that out with Perkins and Sons in Savannah, Ga., in that installation up there. The V4 is able to immediately restart and start running it’s opening sequences, which in both cases is a diagnostic self-start and then allows for the cues to start back immediately—the actor triggered and the other cues as well. To be honest, there is a facilities manager in each individual city of HTA who takes care of the day-to-day operations and at such a point that there is an actual programming issue or a show control issue they contact me in New York and I am able to remote into our devices and look at it from that end. To use a high-end low brow approach, we’ve also been using Tango video software for the iPhone to videoconference between New York and St. Augustine, and it’s a very quick, very dirty efficient way to look at what the actual cue is triggering inside of the warehouse so I can see something coming down from the ceiling or I can see the washing machines operating from 1,200 miles away. [Timestamp: 8:21]

OK, shaking washing machines, blowing bubbles, things coming down from the ceiling and an audio animatronic butcher?

I think when we asked life LifeFormations to build it, I think there was a question of, “Why do you want that exactly?” But part of the collection was the butcher shop of this oldest store and again, it’s a lot people a lot of this younger generation don’t realize that if you ordered meat, it was a man standing in the store would cut to your specifications, wrap it up, and have delivered on ice before it got over heated and so the butcher was an enormous component of these turn-of-the-century general stores—we wanted to honor that. But because it’s a very small room that is simply a passthrough from one larger narrative room to the other, we didn’t want to have an actor who’s only job is to stand with his back to the audience and pound away at a piece of meat on a cutting board—that just didn’t seem like a fair thing to ask someone to do so we had an audio animatronics figure built. The face is not visible by the audience. It is a finished face, but the mouth does not move because it’s not visible from the audiences prospective, so the monolog that he’s reciting is coming out of a speaker which has built in and embedded into his chest. Sounds very naturalistic inside of the room and the rotors on his arm are built to basically bring his arm up and down on a cutting board, which is built with a receiving track so that he doesn’t ever cut through anything or, heaven forbid, cut through the table itself. [Timestamp: 9:46]

And the visitors go from that to the video kiosks. So what do they see at the video kiosks?

The video kiosks, we were wanting to show off the actual look of the store from its time period and we couldn’t figure out how to make a mural of those work inside of the Oldest Store because we were trying to promote the step back in time featurette of it so we knew that if we showed you pictures early in the museum of what it had looked like you would realize that you were simply in a recreation and we wanted people to have the experience that they were transported. So the last room you see, which you are allowed to spend as much time in it as you want, is made up as a produce room with fake fruit and vegetables of all varieties hanging from the ceiling, spilling out as a cornucopia and on three synchronized monitors in that room—high def, I think they’re 42in. monitors—we’re showing different slide shows of the pictures from the era—actual people shopping in Hamlin’s, the railway being designed—and they are all synchronized to and led by a voice-over narration, who, again, rather than hiring a live actor to narrate that room, we have it as a triggered cue which is on a loop throughout the day. [Timestamp: 10:53]

A lot to getting all of that in and working right. You were talking earlier about the testing. What does the initial testing of a show control project like this involve? Do you have to go through and make a lot of tweaks on the timing of it when you walk through and have the events sequenced?

When you add the actor component absolutely. To be honest, that was the longest period of time that we spent on any facet of this installation was going back in and fixing down to the frame—to be very honest. The talking portrait we had people coming in on a regular basis coming in on a regular basis who had not experienced it before and we’re asking them to walk into the room and wait for something to happen, and we then would trigger the amounts of time between each talking portrait speech as well as his motions. We were building them very specifically around people’s independent interpretation of them as well as making sure the actors were able to use the technology without feeling overwhelmed by the technology. So absolutely. I would say there were at least 500-600 minute changes—a frame here, a frame there—inside of the code language to make sure that it’s absolutely perfect. [Timestamp: 11:59]

OK and there’s no substitute for bringing a lot of experience to a job like this, so what’s coming up for Historic Tours of America? What have you got in the works?

Well, there is an extraordinarily exciting project going on right now, which actually just wrapped up show control design down in Key West for the Yankee Freedom Interpretive Center as you get onboard or right before you get on board a ship to head out and see old Fort Jefferson. We’ve had a commissioned model made of beautiful Fort Jefferson and there’s a small show that happens in a kiosk there that teaches you about the Fort and about some of the wildlife and sea life before you go to the Fort. Again that’s an Alcorn McBride system, which is again meant to evoke an older period of time using high technology for the oldest tradition possible, which of course is storytelling. Then opening this summer in Boston on the HTA, one of their flagships up there, is an extraordinary museum the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, which not only features completely hand-built tall ships that are completely tourable and are recreations of tall ships from that era, but it also has a very, very high-end technological museum component again with a live actor who is your narrator and takes you through but it involves not only holographic projections in a style of Musion Eyeliner technology but it also has a film in a sit down theater which is a first for the HTA operations and also it takes our talking portrait concept another step forward and has talking portraits from the era that argue with each other from across a crowded room, argue with each other, argue with the audience, argue with a live actor. That’s going to be incredible and that’s opening in the middle of this summer 2012. [Timestamp: 13:42]

All right. Ryan McCurdy from Historic Tours of America in charge of show control and that sounds like a really fun job. You freelance with this at your website Next time you have one of these show control projects we’ll get together again on it.

Absolutely, I tell you what, we have a blast bringing history to life and I couldn’t take vote on a more fun way to spend time. [Timestamp: 14:02]

All right. Great having you here.> Thank you, sir.

Thanks for joining us for the SVC Podcast with Ryan McCurdy of Historic Tours of America. Show notes can be found on the website of Sound & Video Contractor Magazine at Join us again next time on the SVC Podcast.

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