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Staging the Pope

Pageant and Protocol for the Largest Multi-Screen Event in History

Big-ticket staging companies such as Washington, D.C. area-based CPR, Maryland-based Staging Dimensions, and Philadelphia-based Upstage Video are used to staging big names on the entertainment, corporate, and government side. But it’s not every year (or decade) that the Pope comes to town. And it’s not every big staged event that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security designates a “National Security Special Event (NSSE).” The papal visit to the U.S. in September was a staging phenomenon– with complex layers of logistics and security– and the largest multiple screen event in history.

What made the event the largest multiple screen event ever staged was its three-city and multiple-venue nature, combining official state visits to the White House and Congress, appearances at the U.N. in New York City, and the culminating event– the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia that was capped off by staged music performances and a huge outdoor mass.

Jeff Studley and his team at suburban Washington, D.C.-based CPR MultiMedia Solutions has staged some of the most important live events in the Washington, D.C. area, including presidential inaugurations and other high profile events. Their focus is on staging outdoors, with LED and other large video formats.

“Some days you need a cup of coffee to energize the day”, said Johnny Jan, Director of Creative Services & Marketing at CPR MultiMedia Solutions. “But when you get a request from a client for a project during the Pope’s Visit to the White House that energy blows the roof off and the wheels get rolling quickly.”

CPR was requested to provide, during the Pope’s visit to the White House South Lawn, an 8’ x 14’ LED screen supported on a riser. CPR has done quite a few events at the White House and CPR’s logistics manager, Sylvie Duverger, is no stranger to the process.  However, when you have such a high profile event as the Pope’s visit to Washington, D.C., you have added levels of security that involve many departments on federal, state and local levels.

“The margin of error to get things done is that much higher, and barriers to success multiply! It comes as a surprise to many that there are over 25 law enforcement agencies in D.C. alone,” said Duverger. “To the client, it’s comforting to know their vendor has been at the White House before and has gone through the vetting process.” 

Once the client finalized the order CPR started the process, immediately supplying the White House with their vendor order that included a detailed list of equipment and all the information on their technical crew, so they could begin the background checks. Working in and around D.C. crews need clearance to work in a lot of buildings, so the majority of the staff at CPR has previously been cleared.

“In D.C., we’re used to motorcades ferrying ambassadors, politicians, and the President in and around town and there’s a ripple effect to all forms of transportation,” explained Duverger. “Logistically, you have to be prepared for traffic delays, be cognizant of the times you can arrive at the venue, and the delays on site when Secret Service or HSA comb through every inch of the truck and all the contents inside. Our preparation begins at the warehouse by removing from the truck anything that can be construed as a weapon or explosive. The trucks go through routine maintenance, and are cleaned and washed before we load one piece of equipment.”

As with all projects, the Project Manager goes through with the team and also prepares a backup strategy for unforeseen problems. CPR was scheduled to set-up Friday, the day before the Pope’s visit to the White House. They were able to navigate the streets of D.C. and avoid any traffic delays to arrive on time and enter the designated checkpoint for all vendors. Once they passed the gates, they were always escorted as they unloaded all the gear to the point of installation.

“Inside the gates of the White House, its not hard to be distracted by all that is going on,” said Duverger. “And to see that you are in the center of attention, especially from those who are heavily armed from above and at ground level. It’s amazing the number of vendors that are utilized for such an event but once you are on location, it’s like any of our events we work hard as a team to get the job done and create an experience for our client that is stress free and positive.”

As both a rental and staging user of LED and a vendor for many LED manufacturers, CPR gets knowledge and hands-on experience of the latest technology. For this project the LED they recommended was Absen A7 tiles with 7.9mm pixel pitch. That product has according to CPR, great resolution for an IP65 rated product and provides brightness with low power consumption. Designed for fast and easy installation at 500mm x 500mm, they are ideal for this type of situation, where CPR staff needed to get in and out without much disturbance to the surroundings of the White House. CPR was provided with a pool video feed which enabled those at the back of the White House South Lawn to view the speeches as if they were right in front of the stage. 

At another venue during the Papal visit, CPR “flew” an Absen A7 LED wall for public  viewing at popular DC crossroads Dupont Circle, for the Dupont Festival. CPR provided an 8’ x 14’ screen on Genie Lifts for optimum viewing across the park.  Not many LED products are light enough for that application, so weight was a key consideration for CPR’s rental division when they looked for a versatile screen.   

In addition to the White House events, the Pope also said mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. And from D.C., the Pope of course moved on to New York City where he addressed the United Nations. The IMAG at the U.N. was nothing out of the ordinary. The bigger events lay ahead– at the apex of the papal visit in terms of public events. With 150 nations represented, the “World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015,” a six-day international event, brought together generations, different cultures and different socio-economic groups as well as families from multiple faith traditions. Sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family and the Philadelphia diocese, the World Meeting had its theme as “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” The Congress ran Tuesday, Sept. 22, through Friday, Sept. 25, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PACC) and provided participants with the opportunity to participate in cross-cultural dialogue and prayers during daily Mass, devotions and breakout sessions.

From a staging standpoint, the big events were the closing events of the Eighth World Meeting of Families that took place on Saturday, Sept. 26, and Sunday, Sept. 27, in Philadelphia– all culminating in a papal Mass that was held during the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 27. And following the mass, actor Mark Wahlberg hosted the Festival of Families with Pope Francis. Aretha Franklin, The Fray, Marie Miller, Andrea Bocelli, Jim Gaffigan, Juanes, and the Philadelphia Orchestra also performed. The staging for those events was provided by New Castle, Del.-based Staging Dimensions and Light Action Productions– both owned and directed by Scott Humphrey. Humphrey, who started his staging career at an early age doing staging and production for the school drama club while still a student at Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., has come a long way. Humphrey’s two Delaware companies (along with Applied Electronics, a Virginia-based manufacturer of trussing, crank lifts, lighting controllers, and power distribution systems that Humphrey purchased in the 90’s) were hired to supply all the staging for the pope’s public appearances at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, and also for the World Meeting of Families events on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on Sept. 27. And in addition to the staging for the on-stage events, Humphrey’s companies Light Action Productions and Staging Dimensions also provided the hand rails, metal stairs, press risers and more than 30 video and sound towers for the outdoor events in both cities. (Humphrey told Philadelphia media that he put the value of the two rental contracts for the papal events that Light Action won in June at more than $1 million.) The two events used 3,000 4’x8’ decks to create the stages. 

But the events in Philly went farther, to providing IMAG for the huge crowds– and it was the responsibility of separately owned staging company, Upstage Video, to extend the weekend’s activities to the overflowing crowds that stretched along the Parkway. As Pope Francis took the stage in front of 1 million people to talk about faith, hope, and prayer, attendees gathered along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and surrounding areas that extended from City Hall to The Philadelphia Art Museum, LED screens played an important role in delivering an intimate experience from blocks away.

Upstage Video, well known for their expertise in designing and delivering video systems to some of the world’s most demanding live events, was up for the challenge of displaying the most important moments. From the Pope’s arrival at Philadelphia International Airport, to the musical performances featuring Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli, to a gigantic open air mass on Sunday, the 31 LED screens were key to the event. Upstage Video also provided screens for Papal events that took place in Washington, D.C., and New York City.

“We assemble the most experienced team in the world to tackle these mega events,” said Doug Murray, president of Upstage Video. “In addition to our own in-house tech leads, Geza Divenyi, Christian Matthews, and Greg Brown, we called upon Pieter Lambert of the Belgian firm, Photonics. Pieter is a world-renowned live events video systems designer. When we put together our technical footprint his insight was invaluable.”

Upstage Video utilized a combination of Liantronics and ROE LED products for the event in Philadelphia. Over 160 square meters of brand new ROE MC-7 (7mm indoor/outdoor LED) panels were used along the parkway while Liantronics RK-6 (6mm indoor/outdoor LED) panels flanked the stage. Each screen was 10’x17’ width X height. And it was not just IMAG– there were lots of event messaging screens, social media, and schedule information.

“We were responsible for the set up and tear down,” said Murray, “as well as the operation of the screens during the show. We were onsite from day one through load out. When you turn on 31 unique screens and let them run 24/7, in the great outdoors, they can need some tending to. Obviously, with the complexity of the fiber distribution network, the delay/sync challenges that arise with a setup like this number of screens are going to need some attention. With a combination of our Quality Control department and the fact that we inventory the best stuff money can buy, in the entire week we only had to replace a few modules. When you think about the number of pixels that were firing 24/7, two modules is minuscule– and thankfully those misbehaving units called us to their attention on set-up days.”

Upstage video had a processing rack for each screen, a main system, as well as a redundant. In most racks they had NovaStar LED processors. They used a combination of Folsom Image Pro 2’s and the new RGB Link. The IMAG feed was handled by Network via an NEP Production Truck. The feed was distributed via individual fiber runs. VER handled this part of the show. Upstage Video had homers for each screen in case they needed to communicate location-specific information to a particular screen, or group of screens. The entire infrastructure was also backed up by a VER-provided wireless video distribution system. So fiber was the main, and wireless was the backup.

“The RGB Link units were really great to work with,” said Murray. “The image that came to us via fiber was turned into HD-SDI via some AJA boxes provided by VER. We delivered a flawless show to an audience of over 1 million people on an urban site that stretched over three miles and 30 city blocks, a tall order by anyone’s standards. To say we are proud of our crew would be an understatement.”

How did Upstage staff deal with the complex security issues? 

“Well, we have provided our services to the last two presidential inaugurations, a few events on The White House lawn, numerous events at the UN in NYC, and this was the most security-intensive event we’ve ever done, hands down,” explained Murray. “There was the obvious challenge of just getting our entire crew used to the idea that they would be going through multiple security check points throughout their work day. We knew that an event of this magnitude might not have consistent directives across all agencies, which can be really frustrating, but we just gave everyone a heads up, and we rolled with whatever came our way. With regards to the actual layout of the site, it stretched over three miles. Some of our screens were on the inside of the security perimeter, a few weren’t. It took an immense amount of planning to choreograph the load in, our show presence and the load-out efforts.”

During the show, the organizers knew the Upstage Video staff were going to have to move about the site frequently– on foot, on gators, golf carts, and bikes. They had a series of barricaded chutes setup for production and security movement. That worked very well, according to Upstage.

“We had a nice advantage with our shop being located less than an hour from the site,” said Murray. “We had each screen staged in our shop, with all necessary components. The guys in our warehouse came up with a pretty ingenious system. The trucks would shuttle gear and empties back and forth. The build took about a week, and on any typical day, we might have five or six screens staged in our warehouse in the morning, and they would be up and lit by mid afternoon. A lot of thought, a lot of planning, and we were able to turn it into a pretty calm systematic load-in.”

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