Scharff Weisberg Opens Up Pandoras Box for “Memphis: The Musical

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When "Memphis: The Musical" opened on Broadway October 19 at the Shubert Theatre, the scenic projection design was supported by innovative technology provided by Scharff Weisberg, Inc. (SWI). SWI provided two Christie Roadster HD18K 1080 HD 18,000-lumen 3-chip DLP digital projectors plus two Coolux Pandoras Box Media Server PROs, two Coolux MediaManager PRO machines, and a Coolux Widget Designer PRO advanced control surface-creation framework.

"Memphis" takes place in Tennessee during the 1950s and the story revolves around a white R & B DJ who falls in love with a black singer he has introduced to his audience. The show depicts the changing society of the time and captures the decade's R&B, gospel, and early rock 'n roll sounds with a score by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan.

Video projection is primarily used in "Memphis" to identify locations from scene to scene as the set pieces move and venues change. Video designer Shawn Sagady, who co-designed the projections with David Gallo, has been with the show in its run up to Broadway. "Initially we used a lot more realistic photos, then when we went to Seattle we got a little more abstract and evocative," says Sagady. "We went for bringing bits and pieces of where you are to identify the locations and create a sense of the time period. For instance, every time we go to the radio station, a key location, we have projections of vintage RCA mics and other studio equipment. The elements become more angled and out of whack as the show progresses."

Crucial to the design was the ability to track the scenic elements as the set moves, he reports. "It's like we were painting imagery on the set. As the set pieces move, the video changes scenes slowly. As parts of the set rotate, images track the turning pieces and display a new face on the other side. In addition, all through Act 2 we have four live cameras, two built into props on the stage, activated by the actors to show what people watching TV would be seeing."

SWI's Lars Pedersen agrees that successfully tracking the automation system with the video was essential to the projection concept. "In collaboration with the Coolux team (US reps for the Pandora's Box media system), we took a different approach to automation tracking, compared to earlier methods," he says. "Coolux has been very focused on enhancing their product line to allow sophisticated communications with the outside world. The outcome of this is technologies such as multi-touch interactivity, screen tracking, and database access that are much more powerful and capable.

"In the past we relied on the scenic automation system to provide movement data for the scenery, but the information was never fast enough, accurate enough, or resolute enough," Pedersen points out. "This sometimes had an adverse effect resulting in lag time and a 'stepping' of the image as it tried to track. For 'Memphis', we took a somewhat different tack. We established a hardware connection by adding high-resolution shaft encoders to the various set winches and motors via gears and belts. As the set pieces moved, the shaft encoders tracked the position of the scenic pieces, feeding the resultant information to the Coolux system, which in turn controlled the video, positioning it and rotating it in three dimensions at any speed. It does this all in real time in a three dimensional environment. It's a unique approach that works brilliantly and looks fantastic."

SWI also furnished two Christie Roadster HD18K projectors, each receiving the same image from the two Media server PROs. "We wanted to dual-converge the projectors in order to gain maximum brightness on the stage, but because we had various screen surfaces from downstage to upstage we knew image convergence would be difficult to maintain," continues Pedersen. "However, due to the fact that the Pandoras Box workspace is a 3D environment, we were able to program one of the servers, copy this program to the second server, and then simply change the camera perspective slightly on the second server to dynamically re-converge the images. Thus, the projections maintained their alignment throughout. This worked better than we could have imagined"

According to Pedersen, "I think we'll see more and more designers insisting on precision screen tracking as part of their overall design. The system employed on Memphis has proven that we can confidently meet that requirement without extensive, expensive programming thanks to the capabilities of Pandora's. "

Sagady, who has worked with SWI before, gives kudos to the company's problem-solving abilities. "I can throw a problem at them, and they come back with five or more solutions," he reports. "I love working with Scharff Weisberg. They're very intelligent, some of the best people in the industry."

Scharff Weisberg and Video Applications, firms with extensive histories in the presentation and staging markets, recently announced a co-ownership agreement. While continuing to operate independently the two companies work together strategically to provide clients with state-of-the-art audio, video and lighting equipment and services. With a strong presence on both coasts Scharff Weisberg and Video Applications are able to deliver a large array of cost-effective services on a national level. For more information, call 212-582-2345 or visit our website at

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