Edutainment Show Control, Part 1

When tourists enter the Oldest Store Museum Experience, things begin to happen everywhere. 3/01/2012 6:43 AM Eastern

Edutainment Show Control, Part 1

Mar 1, 2012 11:43 AM, WIth Bennett Liles

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Editor’s note: For your convenience, this transcription of the podcast includes timestamps. If you are listening to the podcast and reading its accompanying transcription, you can use the timestamps to jump to any part of the audio podcast by simply dragging the slider on the podcast to the time indicated in the transcription.

When tourists in St. Augustine, Fla., enter the Oldest Store Museum Experience, things begin to happen everywhere. There’s shaking, bubbling, sound, video, and things coming down from the ceiling. Using high-tech gadgets to create an old-world illusion is the specialty of Ryan McCurdy, show controller for Historic Tours of America and he’s here with some of his secrets on that coming right up on the SVC Podcast.

SVC: Ryan, thanks for being with us on the SVC Podcast from Historic Tours of America, and we’re gonna be talking about the Oldest Store Museum Experience in St. Augustine, Fla.—the nation’s oldest city. And I know you’ve set up a lot of these types of exhibit, but one of the more interesting things about it to me is that you’re using some very high-tech show control techniques to create a decidedly old-world atmosphere. And you do quite a bit of that [being] in charge of show control for the company. So tell me about Historic Tours of America and all of the show control setups you do.

Absolutely. Well, Historic Tours of America (HTA) is a company that’s been successfully navigating America and doing edutainment around the country for many years. Our first operation was in Key West, Fla., and it’s expanded from there. They’ve got markets in San Diego, Boston, Washington D.C., etc., and they have a combination of tour-bus-driven models as well as some walking tours in their Ghost and Gravestones model, which is a very popular ghost tour that they’ve been doing in several of their cities. More recently they’ve been branching off into doing these museum attractions or experiences, as they like to call them, and their goal specifically is to do what they’ve always done with their tour buses so successfully, which is incorporate a live performer with any amount of technology or pre-recorded material that’s used. And I had started with them in Savannah, Ga., on their Ghost in Gravestones installation there. It’s called Perkins and Sons Chandlery, and it’s a combination of very high-tech special effects and good old fashioned story telling with a performer who stands center stage and controls all the stories as well as controlling all of the special effects in a subtle discreet way to make sure that none of the surprise is given away. And that went over so well they started wanting to do smaller installations of that nature in other cities and they had the idea to do this “Oldest Store” in St. Augustine. They had been sitting on a collection of really what was the oldest general store in the United States, which was in St. Augustine. They’ve been sitting on that stores collection for several decades without knowing what to do with it and they wanted to put in environment where it could be seen by a whole new generation. The iPod/PlayStation generation and be seen in a new way. [Timestamp: 3:02]

All right, and they did that in a big way. They called you in because you’ve had a good bit of freelance experience doing show control. So what did they need in the way of interactive elements on this? I know there’s a lot of interactive stuff when people walk in, so what did they want people to experience when they walk in here?

Well, it’s exactly like you said at the beginning. You hit the nail on the head. It’s things from the turn of the century, so things that are 112 years old that they wanted to completely reinterpret, and obviously a lot of those things don’t work anymore so we had to find new ways to make old things. The environment as soon as you step inside is incredible. They’ve actually got legs of ham hanging from the ceiling, and they’ve got actual a jellybean machine, which I don’t see anywhere else in America any more to this day. So you have smells, sights, and sounds. We have a beautiful sort of Wurlitzer record player that the exterior is still completely original, but years ago the guts stopped working, so they’ve actually replaced it with a MP3 player and trigger mechanisms so when the needle comes down music comes out. Which, of course, the kids, as you can imagine, love doing and in that first room there is a lot of things that are displayed. Some of the best, to be honest, are things that we didn’t do a single thing to. There is a coffee bean grinder that still works in its original condition and you put coffee beans in one side and seven and a half hard minutes of labor later you have a cup of coffee, and it’s amazing in this first room, which is set up to be like the front of a general store. It’s amazing to see kids realize that the simplicity that rules life now definitely should not be taken for granted. [Timestamp: 4:38]

And with all of this, the idea is that the people come in and they have the experience and they never think about all of the high-tech stuff going on in the background, but of course that’s why we’re here. So why did you decide to go with the Alcorn-McBride show control gear on this project? Had you used that before?

We had. It was recommended and then sourced for the Perkins and Sons installation, and we’ve since used it in a couple of other smaller installations with them as well. Simply, it’s reliable and it’s affordable. They pride themselves on making operating system-less hardware in such a way that there’s no bluescreen to def; there’s no hard drive failures. It’s all sitting there in a perfectly manufactured box and they say in their advertising, which of course can be hyperbole, that it will operate for years without a re-start. Well Perkins and Sons has been opened for two and a half years, running in upwards of 15 times a night, and as far as I know they have never pressed restart on that machine. [Timestamp: 5:33]

Well, that’s the best testament to the reliability of it. Now on the layout of this, the physical layout, where have you got the V4Pro control system and all of the other gear located behind the scenes?

Well, when they rebuilt this museum, they took the façade of a building from that time period that still existed in St. Augustine, built a major extension, which was then painted and made to look like an extension of the building itself, and they had prepared for having electronics components to this new museum by having a control room that is in the very center on the special mezzanine level, which is behind lock and key and of course completely inaccessible or even visible from the general for the general public. It looks kind of like a widows walk would on a house from that time period, but it’s a small room that is well-ventilated—has a HVAC on one side and then an entire wall of electronics on the other. That was the perfect place to do it because obviously cabling is going out in both directions and down to the first floor and we were able to, with electrician’s permission, of course, make our entry points into the walls, run through all our conduit, and we really laid out the show control cabling. As we were laying out the electric cabling, it was designed to be run hand in hand so that the museum was completely preprepared and it was not just running things along the ground inside of a already built building. [Timestamp: 8:54]

Edutainment Show Control, Part 1

Mar 1, 2012 11:43 AM, WIth Bennett Liles

OK, and you’ve got the audio playback in a number of spots that’s triggered by various means and how does all that work. Where did you hide the speakers?

Well, it’s actually fun. All of the different sounds; there’s only one—actually two—live actors. [There’s] one primary live actor in each tour and so obviously to make it seem as though you’re having a richer human experience without actually the humans, we’ve done some facsimiles of humans. The owner of the store is seen snoring in the corner at one point obviously hard at work. We have an audio animatronic butcher. They all need to have sound effects obviously. The snoring man has his dulcetones and the butcher has about a two-minute monolog that he is just rattling off about prices of meats in St. Augustine while he’s hitting a slab on the table, and we were able to conceal a lot of the speakers as body speakers into the crevices of the audio animatronics and then all the other speakers we just actually bought specialty Bose speakers that are desk-top size or smaller, and we were able to conceal them; they’re the width of a book and we were able to conceal one into a bookshelf that was then fauxed out. We have one placed in a specially built chamber under a shelf. None of the speakers inside of the installation are visible. [Timestamp: 8:03]

I guess you didn’t have too much of a problem with having to get in and out real fast. So how long did the installation go? How long did it take for you to get all of the stuff in, the holes drilled, the cables run, and speakers mounted, or was there a degree of experimentation to it?

There was a little bit of both; there was a sightseeing and scope out trip that happened last year and that was actually just a long weekend. All of the department heads as well as all the people on the tech end all met for a long weekend in St. Augustine when the building was still going up and the shelves was still prevalent and we were able to, at that point, see where everything was going to go. I then took a two-week sabbatical down there at the beginning of last year. The two weeks was simply to get the cabling done. And we really, I think, we may have been, in retrospect, a little too careful with it and maybe took a little too much time, but we definitely did not want to have any problems with it. So we took a solid two weeks for that and I went down about a month and a half later after the construction had been finished and then we plugged in on both ends. I did the programming, and we did about three or four days of major show testing with the actors before I flew back up to New York and that was another two-week trip. So I would say as far as business days goes, it was about a 17-day installation on my end; obviously [it was] several months on their end since they were dealing with the creation of a new building. [Timestamp: 9:23]

Well, with as many things as you have going in there and as reliable as it has to be, I would say that’s a pretty quick job to do all of that. You’ve got a lot of experience with this type of stuff with your freelance at What would you say is the most challenging aspect of creating a show like this? Is it the reliability or ironing out all the kinks in the interactivity? What’s the toughest part?

Absolutely. I think the two things that stick out whenever I’m working with Historic Tours of America is the first thing that has to be done is making sure that once the technician is gone, there is not a day-to-day catastrophe. That things are reliable. So that means having shutdown sequences, having reliable start-up sequences, and Alcorn’s software allows for very intelligent error maintenance, and it can basically send errors to my email address that I can debug remotely—simple things like that which take the pressure off of every time something crashes. Granted, we’ve never had a catastrophe, but we definitely want to put that framework into play. And the second thing which is actually fairly unique to HTA—the hardest part of designing—is incorporating the fact that there will be a live actor who is often different every day of the week because they employ a large number of cast members. And it’s an integrating and technological experience that the actor can feel comfortable with, but it’s giving the actor very subtle cues as to the length of time that their supposed to be doing in a certain room or letting them know when an effect is about to happen without letting the audience know the effect’s about to happen. It’s a very give-and-take relationship, and I started doing my career in doing lighting and sound design for a theater specifically where you have a live board op, and so I really have just moved over with HTA into thinking of it from the term of designing it like a live board op would and then turning it over to a very sympathetic computer system. I believe I’ve spoken to all the actors that work at Oldest Store and Perkins & Sons and Savannah, and I think they enjoy playing with technology and basically having it at their fingertips. [Timestamps: 11:36]

Yeah, I would think that once they get used to stepping on pressure pads and things like that at the right time, that would actually give them more of a sense of command and control over the whole show.

Absolutely. I think it was—to be honest—I think a financial decision years ago when they decided to do Perkins & Son, it was strictly a financial choice to preprogram it as show control rather than having a board op in a separate room. But it has turned out to, in giving the actor that amount of control, I think has empowered them in a very good way and I think it’s brought a lot to their performances. The best thing in a lot of the comment cards that come in praise the actors, which is great. This is definitely a situation where if the technology, especially the Oldest Store, if the technology is the star, then we’ve done something wrong. [Timestamp: 12:07]

That’s a very intriguing thing when you get all the show elements together and you have the actors themselves triggering events that in more traditional theater environment are being handled by tech people backstage that gets to be a very different animal as far as the whole feeling of it. Ryan, thanks so much for being here for part one from Historic Tours of America and the Oldest Store Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. And in part 2 we’ll get into the show setup and how the video system works and the animatronic butcher and some other things, so we’ll see you again in part 2.

Absolutely. I appreciate being here. Thanks.

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