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Multimedia Network at the National World War II Museum, Part 1

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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.

It's a total century emersion in World War II combat. The sights, sounds and even the feeling of the fighting comes alive at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Paul Parrie, director of information systems and technology at the museum, takes us backstage for a fascinating look at the complex AV system that makes it all come alive.

Paul, thanks for being with me on the SVC podcast. You have a great job: You're in charge of the technical elements of the National World War II Museum that's had a huge—something like a $300 million—upgrade lately.
Paul Parrie:
And actually I do have the greatest job in the world. I get to work with some great veterans and some awesome technology and we just went through—we're in the midst of—a $350 million expansion, actually. We just finished what we're calling "phase four," which contains three new venues for the museum: the Stage Door Canteen, the Solomon Victory Theater, and the American Sector restaurant. [Timestamp: 1:26]

 
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That's a lot of stuff to keep spinning in the right direction. So you've got the Stage Door Canteen, which is a performance venue; the Solomon Victory Theater, which is the main thing I want to talk to you about; and a pre-show area out in front of that. Now what kind of AV resources does the Stage Door Canteen have?
The Stage Door Canteen is equipped to do live performances whether it's—we've done lectures in the Stage Door Canteen, we've done big band music in the Stage Door Canteen, we've done dance music, and we have a live signature show with actors—eight actors—that sing and dance and tell jokes on stage. So we have a full complement of audio gear; we have stage monitors for the front of the stage; we have rear stage monitors. We also have a full lighting package that can be controlled manually or via our show control system, which is a Medialon system. [Timestamp: 2:18]

OK and we'll talk more about the Medialon system when we come to the Solomon Victory Theater, where it really gets a workout, but in the Stage Door Canteen, where is all the control stuff done? Where's the FOH audio and everything?
That's up on the second floor. This is a two-floor facility. The first floor is the ground floor that has the dance floor and the stage; the second floor is a mezzanine, and right back center stage of the mezzanine is the FOH position where the audio control is. Also the neon lighting control or the Ion lighting control is back there and we have access to the Medialon remotely from the FOH as well. [Timestamp: 2:57]

OK, so obviously you don't just have one guy running around there. What kind of a crew do you have for this stuff?
It depends what the production is. We will always have a stage manager who is working with the on-stage talent; working back-stage to ensure that movement back there is efficient and safe and then we will have, at a minimum, one technician working the FOH position. If it's a complex show, we will set another technician up there to either run audio or run Medialon as well as the lighting controls. [Timestamp: 3:29]

Yeah, you've got so much stuff in there as far as sights and sounds and all sorts of tactile sensations and so forth. I don't think you can come close to experiencing all of this in one day. It seems like you give it—you could spend several days just to see everything you have there.
It is very difficult to see everything in a day. It takes quite a while to get through, and we've just recently instituted a multiday pass so if you come in you can take your time, really experience everything that we have to offer and really absorb the story of World War II and the people who fought in World War II. So we have a multiday pass now so people don't feel that time pressure to rush through so they see everything. [Timestamp: 4:07]

That's great. The big attraction, as far as the technical elements and everything, you've got the Solomon Victory Theater with a show called Beyond All Boundaries, and that's probably the most appropriate title I can think of even from behind the scenes in describing the way it all works. You've got so many things going on there, not only sight and sound but all kinds of special effects and moving objects. What was the original concept for the Solomon Victory Theater?
What we wanted to do with the Solomon Victory Theater and with Beyond All Boundaries is we wanted to give a 35- to 45-minute experience the would encapsulate the war. And we knew when this was in scripting that there was no way you could tell a war of this magnitude; you couldn't tell that story in 45 minutes and you can't cover all the battles, you can't cover all the people. So we really—we designed this experience to be more about feeling, and it's told from the point of view of the veterans who fought it in the war. It's told from the point of view of the 17-year-old kids who actually went over there and did what they had to do and tried to come home alive. It's a very emotional experience. People walk out of there and they just—they're just amazed. It really gives them a different prospective on what the war was about and who was actually over there and how it affected those people. I always suggest to visitors when they come that they see Beyond All Boundaries before they go through the exhibit spaces so they have a point of reference as they're looking at the artifacts and are reading the stories that are in the exhibits. [Timestamp: 5:36]

And we're talking about not just a little minor-league thing; this is a major production with Tom Hanks. The things I've read about it say "A-list" actors narrating these things. But before you go in, you've got a pre-show area out front, right?
Yes, and actually what the pre-show does is that tells you the story of where the United States was prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. So it gives you an idea. We were coming out of the depression, there was still a lot of work to be done in getting the country back up on its feet. The country was very isolationist; they didn't want to get involved with the war. Congress was really having issues with this—what was going on. And so it just tells the story and it's actually the only time during the experience that you're going to see Tom Hanks on camera. He narrates the main movie, but he never is on camera during the main movie; he's only on camera during the pre-show. And the pre-show area has eight 72in. plasma screens that we actually put them on edge so they're vertical screens as opposed to horizontal screens. And they're multi-image so you don't see the same image on all the screens at the same time. And, of course, we have big sound in that room as well. [Timestamp: 6:44]

And I probably should have mentioned by now that Electrosonic did a lot of the installation on this and they've got some Electrosonic media players that show on the flatscreens out in the pre-show area.
Electrosonic, yes. We have the Electrosonic [now Extron Electronics] ES 9500 players that provide the audio and video and we have one player that feeds each one of those eight monitors so we have eight players, ES 9500s, that feed the pre-show. [Timestamp: 7:09]

OK, and once you get inside, you've got a really unique mix of multilayered projection and real stage objects, things that move. How does all that work? You've all obviously got it on a central timeline where everything rolls and happens at the right time, but it's really a marvel the way it all comes together.
Yes, it is quite amazing. There are four networks, four different networks, that are operating at the same time that are all controlled by one main controller, which is the Medialon application that runs these four networks and tells them when they need to do what they need to do. So there's an audio network that feeds the audio into the systems, tells it when it needs to fire; there's a lighting network that runs all the show lights that are either up in the ceiling, in the pit, backstage, in the audience, everything to the lighting for the doors, the exit doors, the entrance doors and the exit doors. Then there's also a show action equipment network and the show action equipment network controls the moving parts of the experience; the set pieces that move, the things that come up out of the pit where there's a 25ft. German guard tower that comes up out of the pit at one point. Then there's also the video network and that's feeding the video to the different projectors. There are nine projectors in the series—in the experience—and each one is fed independently with a signal depending on what is going on with the experience. [Timestamp: 8:31]

And you've got a really tough setup in there as far as just the initial set up in getting this right because you're using multilayered projection and edge blending on different surfaces. You're looking through the first projection surface during part of the show. How far back behind that is the rear-projection surface?
The rear-projection surface is about 30ft. behind the initial scrim and that scrim is about 25ft. tall and it's 120ft. wide. It has blackout drapes—there are five blackout drapes that can completely cover the back edge of the scrim so that you cannot see through it at all. Periodically through the experience, we raised one or all of the blackout drapes and turned on the projectors that are behind the scrim so that you can see through the scrim and you'll see an image behind it, behind the scrim, so you're looking at two images at the same time and it gives you a really layered, three-dimensional looking effect without having to wear glasses. [Timestamp: 9:26]

And you're about super-bright projection; these are Christie Roadsters?
The three main projectors are Christie Roadsters, 20K projectors. The shoot distance on those is—we're about 60ft. away, so it's not a long distance. This is not a gigantic theater from the standpoint of physical size. It's a very intimate theater; it holds 244 people very comfortably. So the main projectors are the 20K Christies, and then backstage, the ones that shoot the back screen, are—there are five 10K projectors, and those are the [HD10K-M] Christies. [Timestamp: 10:00]

And the Electrosonic people came in and they started simple with a single-projector mockup on this just to see how it would look on the scrim and then built out from there into the system that you have now.
That's correct. We actually had a mockup when we were working on the media. There was a mock up that we would use in Burbank, [Calif.]; we would go out there. And that mockup—the screen, I think the total screen width was probably 2.5ft., so it was a very, very scaled-down version—just enough to where one person could really sit in there and get the experience. And then we built out, did our edge blending, did the twist blending, spent a lot of time on making sure the linearity of the image was correct. Because the screen is curved—it's not a flat 120ft., it's a curved 120ft. [Timestamp: 10:44]

Right and what kind of video format are you using on the video signals to get to those projectors from the media players?
The main players, they're hard-drive players and they're projecting moving JPEGs. We're sending HD-SDI to the main projectors, and that goes straight out of the players into the projectors. The other projectors are all being fed DVI that's transported via fiber-optic cables, and we have media converters on both ends. [Timestamp: 11:09]

OK, so maximum video quality. And you've actually got captions that operate during the show. How does that work?
We do have captions. We put name supers on all the veterans when they speak and we locate—we do location identifiers as well. There are three pit screens, we call them. There's a pit that's about 25ft. deep that goes below the floor, and there are set pieces and moving objects in that pit as well as lights. There are three large pit screens that move up and down periodically throughout the show, the middle pit screen will come up about a third of the way so it's not blocking the main scrim, and we shoot our name supers onto that screen from a projector, a 10K projector, that's located in the catwalk up above the projection booth. [Timestamp: 11:57]

So you've got a whole lot of things in there that all have to operate in perfect sync, and I can imagine what all this looks like behind the scenes with cabling and so many critical connections that have to work right. In part 2, we're going to get into how the audio system works, but I really thank you for being here, Paul, to give us a taste of how the Solomon Victory Theater works. And we'll get together for vibrating seats and moving set pieces and things in part two.
My pleasure.