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Dancing Girls and David Sedaris: 'This American Life' Goes Live with Satellite Event

6/21/2012 8:41 AM Eastern

Fans of Public Radio International’s This American Life crowded into more than 500 movie theaters around the United States and Canada last month to see and participate in a live (or almost live in the western half of the continent) version of the beloved radio program. The event endeavored to capture the feeling of the stage shows Ira Glass and TAL regulars such as David Sedaris and David Rakoff put on in venues throughout the country—but by partnering with alternative theatrical content network Fathom, they could reach tens of thousands of moviegoers simultaneously and “appear” in locations that couldn’t support their touring show.

Glass’ inspiration for the show was seeing a dance performance by Monica Bill Barnes & Company. He felt that their sensibility matched the radio show and started building the live show around the idea “things you can’t do on the radio.” Here, Anna Bass, Christina Robson and Monica Bill Barnes watch rehearsal.

When they last did an event like this, in 2009, they sold about 50,000 tickets, but Glass had held off on doing another one until he felt he had the content to justify it. Seeing a performance of the very unusual Monica Bill Barnes dance troupe provided the spark. He knew he wanted a forum to present their work. From there, he and his staff developed other pieces and concepts for the presentation that would be highly visual and make the most of the big screen and live audience.

This event, called The Invisible Made Visible, was performed on May 10 at New York’s Skirball Center of the Performing Arts near New York University at 8 p.m. and sent out live via satellite to theaters in the Eastern and Central time zones (and tape delayed for Mountain and Pacific time zones). Seth Lind, production manager for the radio show, was a producer of this live event. All Mobile Video (AMV) in New York handled the production, providing gear, crew, equipment and a full-service truck for live switching, playback of the large number of graphic elements used in the show and everything else needed to turn the event into a cinematic viewing experience.

Inside All Mobile Video’s 70-foot mobile production truck Resolution. Technical manager Marc Bauman is in the foreground.

“Everything we did was specifically designed to be seen on a big screen,” says Lind. “We worked with animators who normally work on features to make the opening credit sequence. We had illustrations and graphics based on the content of each of the stories, and we projected those onto a large screen during the event. The band OK Go developed an app for audience members to download before the show that let them use their iPhone or Android device as a musical instrument to play along with the band’s performance. The most important thing we tried to do is make people feel like they’re seeing the show in person, especially in places we could never bring a live show.”

AMV’s 70-foot HD mobile production truck, called Resolution, housed a director (David Stern) and a technical director, who switched the show live with a Sony MVS-8000 switcher, and an audio mixer on the Studer Vista 8 audio console. AMV’s crew of 40 also included a lighting director, assistant director, camera operators and an engineer to shade the cameras, as well as catering, editorial facilities and satellite uplink.

Ira Glass told a story that took advantage of his ability to show visuals. It was about a photographer named Vivian Maier who shot rolls of film every day for dozens of years—brilliant shots of street life—but never showed the photos to anyone. John Maloof discovered the negatives and put out a book of Maier’s photos.

They configured the venue with seven Sony HDC-1000s and HDC-1500s with an assortment of Fujinon lenses, and operators had access to rigs such as Steadicams and jibs. But, Lind notes, “We were pretty restrained during shooting. You can go too far with swooping jib shots and a lot of cutting when the content doesn’t dictate it. The excitement in these events isn’t just about the visuals—it’s about gathering together with like-minded fans and experiencing the narrative flow of the show.”

“The jib and Steadicam don’t get much use for these shows,” echoes AMV’s Lenny Laxer, who served as technical producer for this and TAL’s 2009 theatrical event. “All Mobile owns a fabrication department that created a custom rig to mount one camera on the lip of the stage, but the approach to covering the action for these shows is generally pretty straightforward.”

Although the camera work itself isn’t flashy, the choreography of all the elements in the show is quite complex. “This isn’t just Ira on a stage,” says Laxer. “It’s Ira on a stage with a 27-foot screen that is constantly presenting graphics and other elements that help tell the story.”

The projections, graphics and short film pieces were preloaded into a six-channel EVS XT server (every element also played back on tape via HDCAM SR VTR for redundancy) and played out at the appropriate cues.

Everything was captured in 16:9 aspect ratio at 1080i/59.94 in 5.1 audio. An AC3 encoder added the AC3 wrapper to the audio signal, which was necessary to accommodate the movie theaters’ projection systems. “That is always a potential challenge,” Laxer notes. “If you get a break in the AC3, you get nothing on the soundtrack but a horrible crackling noise.”

The band OK Go plays one last song.

In fact, he continues, audio is one of the most delicate challenges. “Before we start, it’s very important to test lip sync. There can be a problem at the uplink truck or at Fathom’s facility, where they use the EchoStar network. It isn’t that complicated to fix, but you really don’t want to find out it’s happening live. Especially on a movie theater-sized screen, if you’re off by half a frame, it’s a very big deal.”

For Fathom senior vice president Dan Diamond, these TAL shows are a perfect proof of concept for the idea that people will embrace alternative content in theaters if it’s the right content. The company, the content division of Colorado-based National CineMedia, has distributed events for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, sporting events, and concerts for the Rolling Stones, Metallica and others.

“There’s nothing like sitting in a movie theater with 300 or 400 like-minded fans,” Diamond says. “It’s such an immersive experience. We see fans cheering and there are standing ovations for opera. This isn’t something [TAL fans] can get on the radio and it’s not something they could get watching something on TV or a tablet or cell phone.”

Asked if the production team brought any lessons from the 2009 event to this one, Lind replies, “This one was way more ambitious. We added so many more visual components and all the cues, the dancing, the app... I think the lesson we learned was, Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But,” he laughs, “we didn’t follow that lesson at all.”

Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz