The Madison Square Garden Company’s latest show, The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, merged tradition and technology with new projections and stunning fresh content from Obscura Digital.
The Christmas Spectacular has been bringing the spirit of the holidays to New York City since 1933. Presented by Chase, it stars precision dancing troupe the Radio City Rockettes. However, although the show itself epitomises tradition, the technology behind it is brand spanking new.
This last season, Obscura Digital provided new content to reimagine the show using immersive technology and effects. Technical innovations included an 8K LED wall alongside digital projections.
Blooloop spoke to Larry Sedwick , Senior Vice President of Production at the Madison Square Garden Company and to Anna Le Breton, producer at Obscura Digital about keeping the magic alive and growing.
Technology enhances rather than takes centre-stage
Sedwick (right) has been responsible for mounting and operating the iconic show since 2008. “The show is all about the joy of Christmas,” he said. “This is my tenth Christmas here in New York. We used to have road companies every year. I did those for ten years before I came here, so this is my twentieth year of doing Christmas shows.”
Nevertheless, the shine has yet to wear off. Sedwick said: “What I truly love about it is watching the audience. I often stand at the back of the theatre while the show is running, and just look at the people and the children, and the smiles on their face. When they walk out, they are just so happy and full of Christmas. It is just wonderful.”
Sedwick calls the show “the most immersive theatre-going experience available in New York and beyond.” However he is keen to point out that the technology is there to enhance the show and to facilitate the effects. It isn’t there to take centre-stage.
“Like all shows, technology has affected ours,” he said. “We are very careful to make sure that we use the technology to enhance our show, to enhance the performance, and not to overpower it.”
The Christmas Spectacular is no stranger to technical innovation. “We need to stay relevant, we need to stay spectacular, so we have introduced a number of innovations over the years,” said Sedwick. “Ten years ago, we introduced our bus, a double-decker, full-sized battery-operated, wirelessly controlled vehicle. However it was all about the production number: it wasn’t about the bus.
“Five years ago, when drones were just starting, we introduced our snowflakes. We put a mini GPS system in our theatre. One metre helium-filled snowflakes fly out of the pit. They perform a pre-programmed flight pattern and then fly back into the pit. Again, nowhere else could you see something like that except here on the great stage. And, again, it was all about enhancing the performance, not replacing it.”
Digital projections over all eight arches
Audiences are being immersed in the show in an unprecedented way through the use of ground-breaking tech. Sedwick told Blooloop: “Years ago, we started projecting over the first four rings of our ceiling. Then, with the push into the world of immersion, we decided to go for it. We blew out all the systems we had in, and put in a brand-new system where we can project over 34,000 ft sq of our ceiling.
“We also upgraded our house LED wall which is a small feed 45 feet high by 90 feet wide. This took it from a 10mm screen to a 3.4. If you truly do the math it’s an 8K resolution screen.
“With that, we then had to go back and recreate all the content. Then we had to create some new content in order for it to work with new systems. Again we were very careful about how and when we could blow it out, and do an exciting light show moment, and when we had to settle in so that the audience would calm down.
“You have to pace it, taking it from high excitement, and then shrinking it back down. So you’re doing the Nutcracker scene where you’re looking at the dancing bears, and you’re surrounded by a snowy Dickens scene from the proscenium to the back of the theatre.”
14K digital mapping technology
Using the most cutting-edge 14K digital mapping technology, digital projections now extend right out to all eight of the hall’s spectacular arches. It makes the audience feels they are participants rather than simply spectators.
The 3DLP® projectors are specifically designed for high-impact events, providing 30,000 lumens of brightness at 4K resolution, built-in warp and blend functionality and omnidirectional installation capability for flexible system design. The Boxer 4K30s feature Christie TruLife electronics ensuring the projectors have stunning colour reproduction and the processing power for 4K content. “There are over a hundred terabytes of data in our show at this point,” said Sedwick. “The files are just so huge.”
Creative studio Obscura Digital, which is now part of The Madison Square Garden Company, created content for both the LED screen and the digital projections. The studio visually transformed numerous of the production’s scenes, immersing the entire audience in the show. Meanwhile, NY-based multimedia design studio Batwin + Robin Productions recreated the existing video projection and LED content to use the spectacular new projection system.
Award-winning media serving comnpany 7thSense Design has worked with Radio City since 2011. The British company provided updated video technology for the 2017 Christmas Spectacular. This involved ground breaking 12G-SDI fibre content delivery to an 8K x 4K LED wall and 14K x 14K projection mapping to immerse the audiences in the Winter Wonderland. The projection mapping was powered by an expanded 36-channel bank of double-stacked Christie Boxer 4K30 projectors.
Every production number now includes updated graphics. Some scenes, including Twelve Days of Christmas (an energy-packed tap number in which the Rockettes wear microphones in their shoes), Here Comes Santa Claus and the finale, have been visually transformed.
“Obscura Digital is a fantastic group. They specialise in this immersive work. So it was a real treat to work with them. They came in with their creative team, and some crazy wild fun ideas,” Sedwick said.
He added: “I kind of call it the magic of theatre. The audience really feels like it’s a whole new experience, without actually changing much of the show. We are really surrounding them now with these environments. From the first row to the last seat, which is 200+ feet and three levels up, you are totally surrounded, sometimes in a snowstorm, sometimes in a starry night, sometimes in a fun Dickens street scene.”
Changing with the times
The production has changed with the times to remain current but it still includes numbers recognisable its original 1930s audience.
“It has evolved over the years,” Sedwick said. “Certainly when it first started, we had, and still have today, the wooden soldiers’ scene, and the nativity scene. However we are trying to stay current and relevant for our audience. When you get a new director, there is a new creative vision which takes the show in a new direction. So yes, it has grown over time but we keep a few of the old traditional numbers. It is very important we maintain that same feeling even though we may change a scene. We want to keep that same Christmas spirit.”
Even in a world where immersive experiences are becoming the norm, the Christmas spectacular contrives to be magical.
“We try and lead the way, rather than reacting to technological trends. We know that immersion is an up-and-coming experience, so we try and get ahead of that, and create this excitement. I don’t think customers come expecting it: we like to surprise them,” said Sedwick.
Obscura Digital enhanced seven scenes
Anna Le Breton (right), producer at Obscura Digital, has been working for the company for three years. She described the creative process behind the technologically transformed show elements.
“The Spectacular has been happening at Radio City for a very long time now, and every year or two they change it a little bit,” she said. “Originally this would have been in terms of choreography; now it is through adding new technology to make it more immersive.”
Obscura Digital worked on seven scenes. “The Overture is the first scene of the entire show,” Le Breton said. “The idea here is to draw the audience directly into the Christmas mood. We made this piece extremely Christmassy. It’s red, it’s green; it has sparkles and it’s moving, following the music.
“It’s the first time the audience actually gets to see the entire projection on the ceiling of Radio City. We wanted to enhance the architectural elegance of the theatre, and demonstrate the scale and richness of the projection right away.”
Next came The Twelve Days of Christmas. “In this scene, we tried to reference the twelve gifts of the lyrical content, and symbolise them as ornaments on the tree that is displayed on the 8K LED screen,” she told Blooloop. “We grew that tree into the ceiling, so it branches out throughout the room, with the lights enhancing the music and the tapping of the Rockettes.”
Here Comes Santa Claus
The next scene Obscura Digital was responsible for is Here Comes Santa Claus. It boasts a host of Santa Clauses dancing on stage. Le Breton said: “Half way through that scene, they light up the LED screen, and you can see a myriad of Santas dancing in sync with the actual dancers on stage. We call that Infinity Santas: it just goes on until you can’t see it any more.
“Our idea here was to create the exact same thing on the ceiling with the perspective of having Santa in different positions depending on where you’re looking. So when you look close to the stage, Santa is physically standing upright. When you are looking all the way in the back, he is kind of leaning back, because we played with that perspective.
“In order to achieve this we had to do a motion capture shoot of one of the dancers, whom we put in a studio with captures covering the body, and we captured the dance routine.”
They then took the data and used it to generate the same Santa any number of times, and from any angle, on the ceiling.
A Victorian Christmas village scene
“The next one we worked on was Nutcracker,” said Le Breton. “Here there is a lot happening on the stage; a lot of dancing, a lot of stage elements. So our idea was not to detract from that, but to enhance, by transporting the audience into a Victorian Christmas village scene.
“It’s a slow-paced piece, as if you were transported into a dream. The village comes to life, snow falls from the roof. Then, gradually, it stops snowing. The gas streetlamps start fading out, the light goes off, and the scene dissolves. This is the end of the dream, and the end of the scene.”
Obscura Digital worked on a scene called Snow next, helping to present the Rockettes as snowflakes. “Our idea here was to enclose the Rockettes into a snow globe,” Le Breton explained. “Then, throughout the scene, the snow globe grows. All of a sudden, the entire audience and the Rockettes find themselves inside.”
The last two scenes, Joy to the World and Curtain Call, blend together. “They have the same vibe,” Le Breton said. “We are celebrating the magic of the holidays; the show; the Rockettes, the cast, and the architecture of Radio City. Physically, it’s really elegant fireworks.
“A fascinating creative process”
Using masking and architectural mapping of the seven proscenium arches, Obscura were able to display media on each individually or all of them as a whole image, with all the projectors blended together.
“It was a fascinating creative process,” said Le Breton. “We had to work really closely with Radio City. For me, at least, it was the first time working with a full existing theatrical show.
“We didn’t want to disrupt the process; we wanted to add on to it. The Rockettes were the focus of the show. We were there to complement everything else, and to wow the audience without taking away from what happens on the stage.”
The close collaboration with Radio City entailed learning about the show and individual scenes. “We had to establish the creative vision for each particular piece,” Le Breton said. “And work out how we could integrate in terms of colouring, elements, tying it all together. It needed to become a full experience, not just disconnected elements.
“We were involved from the very beginning, from talking about which scene we would be taking on, until the very end. There we were looking at tiny details – ‘This small element on the side should be more like this, so it matches the Rockettes’ dress’. I think it was very successful.”
The time frame was very tight. Le Breton said: “It was a 14K x 14K space on the ceiling, and that asked for a tremendous amount of data to be created. We actually created 130 terabytes of data, and delivered 40 of it. As a point of reference, the printed collection of the US Library of Congress is only 10 terabytes. We delivered four times that.
“We had artists working night and day, relaying each other, sleeping in the studio, (they were being fed!). It was a great effort that required a great deal of coordination from all sides, internally and externally, and it paid off. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s an awesome celebration of Christmas.”
All images courtesy of MSG.