Art Imitates Life
The bald eagle needed a few minutes to practice; his handler asked for quiet from the gathering crowd. A crush of tourists, locals, and journalists had assembled for opening day of the Newseum — a $450-million addition to the iconic buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue. The eagle's gig was pretty simple: lift off from the glass-and-steel portico and head for the Capitol, the White House at his back. I guess the symbolism was the essential relationship between a free press and a democratic government; I caught myself thinking about the crazed eagle in The Colbert Report open. The crowd settled down, the rehearsal went smoothly, and — at the key moment — the confetti cannons went off with a mighty bang.
Incredibly, the eagle was the only thing that visibly malfunctioned that day — and really, he did OK. More significantly, the thousands of speakers, display devices, audio channels, video sources, and control components within the 250,000-square-foot building worked as designed. So did the broadcast equipment (the Newseum is both a museum and an enormous studio). Virtually the entire building and property is wired for broadcast and presentation; it's both a repository and a resource for the daily work of the news media. That's part of the Newseum aesthetic, but this multipurpose role also helps insure its financial future. Much is made, for example, that the main theater can seat a dual session of Congress — whether or not it ever will is beside the point. Already, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave their April 10 press conference from the Newseum's central studio, and ABC's George Stephanopoulos has committed to the east studio for a multi-year deal.
This well-conceived masterplan in part drove the AV design of the building and created the financial justification for an AV playground, born from the mind of Jim Updike, VP of technology for the Newseum's parent The Freedom Forum. A veteran NBC Worldwide news techie and someone who understands the necessary relationship between gear, content, and culture, he is a man whose dreams come true as intercom and RF systems — just ask him. The Newseum had an architect (Polshek and Partners) and a renowned museum designer (Ralph Appelbaum), but for my purposes, Updike is the man who matters.
It's hard to imagine how he had time for a multi-hour tour of the rack rooms, exhibits halls, and theaters on opening day — what with Sandra Day O'Connor due in the afternoon and a catered gala scheduled for the evening. Some 2,000 visitors were streaming through the halls as we slipped down back staircases and hallways, doors yielding to Updike's security card. Updike greeted everyone from Executive Director Joe Urschel (counting heads) to a bunch of remarkably relaxed AV techs in the lab. There was gear literally everywhere — there is AV on every one of the museum's seven levels — most of it wired neatly into rack after rack after rack in one of two central control rooms or mounted into soaring displays or master-control desks. But I couldn't help notice that a good scavenger could build a small installation just on spares and the odd leftover Wohler monitor.
In his role as head kid in the candy store, Updike unfolded a tale of signal processing that careens from portable AV carts to banks of Peavey Media Matrix Nions to Crestron control panels hot-wired with custom playlist software. (Euphonix gets a special affectionate mention as we pass one of its techs in the hall.) Thomson Grass Valley K2 switcher processing and Kalypso server — some for broadcast, some serving as interchangeable sources for the building's many theaters — share the racks with Doremi Nugget HDs and Adtec edjes for SD. Signals run over Opticomm fiber and CobraNet to 800 loudspeakers, an array of Christie HD and JVC projectors, Sony CRTs, Toshiba flatscreen monitors, Stewart screens, and a gorgeous 40'×22', 1920×1100-pixel Barco LED screen that presides over the acoustical triumph of the main lobby (SH Acoustics), visible from Pennsylvania Avenue through the great glass walls that front the building.
Updike delegated his vision to two main technology partners — Electrosonic for the AV, Communications Engineering (CEI) for the broadcast systems. There was some crossover — CEI built the systems for the Big Screen Theater news video-wall, for example. Because Updike and his right-hand guy Bud O'Conner were both engineers, the experience was really a partnership, says Dan Laspa, who ran the project for Electrosonic.
There are 14 exhibits and 15 theaters, and Updike tirelessly shows off all of them, as well as the two rack rooms, master control, the studios, and the postproduction facility. Here are just a few highlights:
Electrosonic's key technology was its own renowned control system ESCAN, a flexible platform that could be customized for the Newseum's unique needs. Nowhere was that more evident than in the interactive gallery that allows visitors to record their own newscast and get a downloadable video of their performance. In each of the eight stations, visitors stand in front of bluescreen (actually gray — it's Reflecmedia's remarkable LiteRing technology), choose a background, and read for the JVC camera from a teleprompter. Electrosonic's Mark Hogan wrote the software layer that allowed ESCAN to initiate from bar-code information (from the visitor's ticket), and support the entire visitor experience.
Customized ESCAN work also supports the theaters, allowing a digital cinema-style playlist interface for operators, and allowing programming to be routed to various theaters, and it was ESCAN again that gave Updike the CobraNet overlay he imagined that allowed his AV carts to access each of the Newseum's 80-some PA zones independently.
Electrosonic was also responsible for the extensive system integration for the Annenberg Theater, which serves the 4D film installation and doubles as a flexible live performance/meeting space.
CEI's most significant achievements at the Newseum are the Master Control Center and two HD broadcast studios. These facilities are integrated into the exhibitions to allow visitors to watch these facilities at work — they are at once exhibits and working environments. Operators monitor Newseum's more-than-40 incoming and outgoing terrestrial and satellite feeds, as well all the internal kiosks, galleries, and theaters on 70 LCD screens, with support coming from some 50 locations throughout the Newseum; Telecast Viper II transmitters and receivers pass live HD camera feeds from anywhere in the building. Master control also includes a radio-control room, QC monitoring and routing for all transmissions, and the control station for the 100ft.-long Big Screen Theater, which shows a montage of news history, but can also show breaking news.
Both Knight Studios are served by two interchangeable HD multiformat control rooms (as Switzerland for the news media, the Newseum is heavily switchable between 720p and 1080i). Both studios can send live programs by satellite and fiber-optic cable to any place on Earth. (For more, see NEWSEUM FACILITY shows news as it happens.)
Three hours after we began, Updike was ready for lunch and the prep he would have to do to make sure the Newseum would be ready to receive thousands of guests, dignitaries, and (of course) media in a few hours. I wouldn't see him again until the evening as the Wolfgang Puck-catered opening gala sprawled all over the building and onto the spectacular terraces that look upon the Capitol in one direction and the Newseum's remote POV camera atop the National Gallery in the other. Guests congregated in the giant glass elevator/bars, roamed the labyrinth of galleries, and clustered in small groups around the twisted dignity of TV antenna from the West Tower — one of the Newseum's most affecting artifacts. Updike's three AV carts were on the job somewhere in the building — Shure audio mixer, Peavey CAB, CD player, and three wireless mic receivers talking over CobraNet via ESCAN — each one distinguished by the glow of its red, blue, or green LED strip, as news was being consumed and made on the same night in the same place.
In addition to inhouse content, including an affecting Sept. 11 documentary Running Toward Danger, the Newseum is distinguished by 44 video productions — more than 5 hours of documentary content, including content created by other producers. The presentations include intimate viewing spaces integrated into the galleries, as well as standalone theaters. This content is in addition to the hours of archival video and audio content interspersed throughout the museum displays.
Besides making the documentary What's News?, Cortina Productions made the marquee film I-Witness: A 4D Time Travel Adventure that shows on a 60ft. screen in the museum's largest theater, the 4D Annenberg Theater (4D indicating a 3D movie that is enhanced with physical effects such as moving seats).
The live-action stereoscopic time-travel piece dramatizes important historical events from early journalistic history, including Nellie Bly's pioneering work of investigative journalism and Edward R. Murrow's initiation of live war coverage from the London Blitz. U2 3D's Steve Schklair of 3ality Digital shot the 13-minute film over a 10-day period with a two-camera rig (one for each eye) made up of Sony HDC-950s (4:4:4). The production is heavy with blue- and greenscreen and an array of 3D animation effects created by Creative Director Arish Fyzee and Effects Supervisor Gregor Lakner of Prana studios, with consulting from well-known 3D DP Peter Anderson. The Newseum's Senior VP Jack Hurley served as executive producer, and Jessica Biggs did producer duties for Cortina Productions.
Cortina Productions specializes in making location-based films that are often shown in unique environments that pose many nontraditional cinematic challenges. Therefore, they have a collaborative relationship with the technology vendor — in this case Electrosonic — on sight lines, lensing, projection, and show control.
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