Behind the Lighting and Recording Scenes at Austin City Limits, Part 2

Curtis Kasefang of Theatre Consultants Collaborative in Chapel Hill, N.C.
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Behind the Lighting and Recording Scenes at Austin City Limits, Part 2

Aug 31, 2011 10:38 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.

The long-running PBS hit show Austin City Limits has settled into its new digs at Austin’s Moody Theater and senior consultant Curtis Kasefang is back to wrap up his chat about how the big show was lit and recorded. Coming up right now on the SVC podcast.
Hi Curtis, thanks for being back with me on the SVC podcast to talk about recording the Austin City Limits Show. Now maybe the most recognizable visual element on Austin City Limits is the Austin skyline backdrop. How do they do that? Is there any part of that new one that’s part of the original or did you have to start over and do sort of a convincing re-do on that?
The spirit of the original’s there but that’s about all that’s there from the original. The original was pretty much Christmas lights and indicator lamps stuck through flats and hung in a very static fashion in the room because of the way one loads into the venue, which is through the upstage wall. We had to fly the skyline to get it out of the way for load in and load out as well as when they went to some show that didn’t want to see Austin city skyline upstage—we needed to be able to fly that out. So it’s winched to fly out and the new version is a steel frame version that uses Barco LEDs and Rosco Litepads to illuminate that skyline and to…if you know Austin or if you compare the upcoming season that you’ll see broadcast with the current season you’re seeing broadcast and before you’ll notice that there are actually some new buildings added to the Austin skyline to bring it up to today. The skyline that we know from Austin City Limits is one from about 20 years ago. [Timestamp: 2:09]

I’m sure the local folks…that’ll keep them happy and they’ll notice things like that.
Oh absolutely. And it seems like…I believe we were told by the show that about 50 percent of the people think it’s actually filmed on a hilltop outside of Austin and we didn’t want to change that. [Timestamp: 2:25]

That’s really something when you’re using much more high-tech stuff than they had when the show started and using a lot of that stuff just to maintain the traditional look is kind of an interesting task to deal with.
Well, also it helps with maintenance. When you’re looking at all those Christmas lights and the old…and they’re spending their whole life replacing lamps and making things work and the LED’s have a nice long life. It will hopefully cut down on that. [Timestamp: 2:5]

So what sort of things do they have in the venue if you’re a performer that are things that would make you want to come back and perform there again?
Well the feedback we’re getting from performers is they love the venue because the audience is right there the audience and the performers can feed off of each other and frankly that’s the mark of really good theater when the audience of the performers feel a real sense of connection. In this venue even at the rear of the balcony you’re within 80ft. of the stage so there is real proximity in this venue and when they do, do IMAG in the venue it’s because people expect it, not because you really need it. Beyond that it’s the usual dressing rooms and performers lounge but being attached to the W Hotel they’re a lot nicer than what you’d find in your typical road venue even for a larger band. [Timestamp: 3:39]

Well, I think even the big-time acts would put up with a lot less comfort just to be on that show.
Well, one of the neat parts about the show is that the live component of the venue and there’s the two things for all these considerations in parallel…Austin City Limits the TV show attracted performers who would come into a film and then move on and in this scenario they can come in and load into the venue for a filming and shoot the show and then perform one or two or more live performances in subsequent nights and everybody wins in terms of easier tourist stop and a really cool room frankly. It’s a neat thing. [Timestamp: 4:21]

Well, one of the big things that can get in the way of intimacy with the audience is, of course, all the technical stuff—all the cameras and the fact that you’ve got this TV show going on at least when the ACL taping is going on. How close do they move the cameras in and how TVish does it get to look when the acts are performing for the show?
Well, it’s a remarkable thing to watch them tape an episode. When we took on this project one of the things we did early on was actually attend multiple tapings just to see how they worked and to look at how people flowed around the room and how the audience related to the cameras, and those cameras are mixed right in there with the audience. It’s a very beautifully choreographed situation there where they just scoot audience out of the way if the crane needs to move and there's no area about this that's reserved for cameras specifically. It’s remarkable how intermixed…it’s something that’s hard to describe, and part of that is enabled by the fact that the crew has been working together for–I think the newbie came on 20 years ago—they all know each other very well and the director is hot cut in the show as they’re blowing through their show. So when they’re done at the end of a taping they’ve got a pretty darn good rough cut episode that requires a little bit of tweaking but not much at all. Really in all those visits I had watching them tape I never saw them run over an audience member, which is remarkable to me because they’re right there. [Timestamp: 5:53]

I’m sure that all adds to the exciting effect of it for the crowd and everything just knowing that they’re part of that. I know in your area that the lighting gear of course two things that it does is generate heat and in some cases the fans can cause some noise, so were there any particular considerations for controlling that?
Well, the system is a somewhat traditional system. All the two-way power for the moving lights are running up through motorized breakers so if there’s a problem with something or if they need to stage what they’re turning on they can remotely turn on and off things in groups. As far as any kind noise control situation on the fan on the units, there really isn’t any. It’s a pretty high volume room—they’re physically relatively high up. The trims are in the 34ft. range usually so they’re away from the microphones enough that for the taping it’s not so much an issue and 2,700 people…2,300 people make a lot of noise just sitting there so they tend to mask the noise floor that we have from the equipment. [Timestamp: 6:59]

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Behind the Lighting and Recording Scenes at Austin City Limits, Part 2

Aug 31, 2011 10:38 AM, with Bennett Liles

And just like the performers, once the audience gets in the swing of things they tend to relax and just get into it.
If you’ve ever watched the Austin City Limits show, the sound is marvelous and part of that is the close mic’ing, but when you’re in their venue itself the sound is pretty wonderful too because the audience is really engaged and paying attention to the show and that tends to make a quieter audience even with the preponderance of beer and well the bars available around the venue it’s all a very benevolent environment. [Timestamp: 7:31]

You were talking before about all the different lighting control points that you have obviously for the TV taping an important thing for the lighting people is to have a good, accurate video monitoring setup. So is that all part of one package that moves around?
Well actually when they’re taping generally there are two lighting consoles positioned. One is more of a conventional console…a Strand Light Palette VL300 and that is usually sitting in the broadcast control room with the lighting director and then the second console, the moving light console—Whole Hog Full Boar–is often setting out either on the mezzanine level or at house mix depending on square footage availability. So the Hog—generally they’re just looking at the room and the conventional console is looking at the video image and that’s what they’re concentrating on and that works out very, very well for them. [Timestamp: 8:31]

Yeah, Austin City Limits has that traditional look. Is there more to the lighting in terms of moving lights and changes than there used to be?
Well they’re more and more getting into lots of moving stuff. At this point there are 40 high-end XT-1 intelliaspots up there in their world moving around as well as a lot more conventional lights and there were quite a number of Wybron Cygnus fixtures there, LED fixtures. So there’s actually a lot going on in there and as times have past the show has gotten more and more moving light oriented. There’s actually a lot going on, a lot to watch, but again the wonderful part is that everybody has been doing the show for so long that they know what to expect of each other and the communication between the conventional light person who is the lighting director, Walter Olden, and the moving light console operator is direct. They’ve got their own intercom and they can adjust accordingly. By the by, you had said a lot of the tweaking with the video shouldn’t happen during rehearsals—there is not a lot of rehearsals. The band comes in, they step through their set with the director, they mark through a number or two but when they come out and play—they’re playing. That all is a very live thing that you’re seeing taped so some of what happens that they manage to capture with all of the cameras is what is very unique for that day and that venue. [Timestamp: 10:2]

Well, I guess if it were well rehearsed it would looked too rehearsed so the spontaneity is part of the whole effect.
Exactly, and the director and his camera guys are, again, they’ve worked together, again, for a very long time and it’s a rather brilliant operation to have there where they know what each other wants and they know what to expect from each other so they’re able to capture a lot and then also having 7 cameras to spend to cover it—because there is a lot of cameras around there. [Timestamp: 10: 27]

Well, Austin City Limits is obviously a big feather in your cap, but what other projects has Theatre Consultants Collaborative done or do you have coming up?
We’ve got a lot of projects behind us and in front of us, but highlights that have been opened in the relatively recent past: the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, Ruby Diamond Concert Hall at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Temple University Event Center in Philadelphia, and Dock Street Theater down in Charleston, S.C. for some reason want openings that are pretty darn cool. Coming up we’ve got the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, in Wilmington, N.C. a really cool 1,500 seat space for the Cape Fear Community College, in Florence, South Carolina for Frances Marion University a really funky proscenium theater is opening up this fall and then in Austin also we’ve got the Zachary Scott Theater opening there and then down in San Marcos, Texas, Texas State University has a new multi-theater facility opening and then there are probably about 60 other projects in design at the moment, so lots going on. [Timestamp: 11:42]

Well, it’s going to be interesting next time we all see Austin City Limits we’ll know a little bit more about what’s going on behind the scenes with lighting and the TV tapings, so it’s going to make the show even more interesting than it was before.
It’s a very cool show. No wonder it’s lasted as long as it has and I hope everybody enjoys the new room—we certainly are very proud of it. [Timestamp: 12:01]

All right, Curtis Kasefang from Theatre Consultants Collaborative thanks for taking the time to tell us about the new venue at Austin City Limits and some other things that you are doing—thanks for being here.

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