Ringling’s “Out of this World” theater technology
Interview by Joe Kleiman
On 14 January 2017, Feld Entertainment announced the end of an iconic American tradition: Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus will perform its final shows in May in New York City. Attendance has continued to decline even though Ringling had ended elephant performances in light of changing public sentiment and stricter local legislation.
We bid farewell with regret – and encourage you to catch one of the final Ringling Bros. shows if you can. When Ringling made the decision in 2014 to retire its elephants, work began on “Out of This World,” a new show that is story driven and embraces new technologies. InPark’s Joe Kleiman saw “Out of This World” in Sacramento in September 2016, and reported, “It conveys very adult themes of friendship, betrayal, and redemption, while being true to the legacy of the American circus. Make no qualms about it, this is still very much a Ringling Bros show.”
Following the performance, Kleiman interviewed Ringling Bros.’ Lorelei Owens, electrician for Ringling Bros. Presents Out of This World. Owens started as a performer with other circus operations and in 2014 joined the crew of Ringling Bros. Presents LEGENDS. From start to finish, Owens is one of those responsible for over 15 miles of cabling, 250 light fixtures and the setup and load-out of the space-themed show, including the lighting cues and pyrotechnics.
Central to the show is the Grid, the 50-foot wide, 120foot long truss network suspended from the ceiling that houses everything from projectors to trapeze to pyrotechnics. Since not every arena is the same, does the Grid need to be modified when you travel?
The Grid does not change. The head rigger works with local riggers on hanging it. There are 32 points where it’s held up by two ton motors. Where it’s hung, we might adjust just a bit, but it really depends on the building steel. We do send someone out in advance to make sure everything will work perfectly, but ultimately, it’s all marked for the same place. Our new automation system uses six or seven grid winches and two floor winches, which provide for better aerials. As a result, this show has more aerials than before.
Ringling Bros. used to travel the country by train. Does that still happen and does the Grid move separately?
The majority of the show still travels by train. We have the longest private trains in operation, each one is 1.5 miles long. Most of the props and the grid travel in wagons on flat cars with the train. Some of the more delicate elements, such as projectors, motors, and some lights, are transported by semi.
Some of the technical innovations with the show include an ice floor, projection mapping, and the automated spotlights. How did the ice floor come about?
No elephants means we can have ice. The amount of floor space itself doesn’t change. It’s based in part on the Grid. Animals perform on grey rubber flooring and for some acts, we’ll put out big carpets. The lighter surface for the floor is also perfect for projection mapping, which our parent company Feld Entertainment used extensively on Marvel Universe Live.
There are seven projectors in the Grid. Four are used for ground mapping, using d3 software. Two project onto the portal at the back of the stage. The seventh is a 360 degree projection Puffersphere from Pufferfish.
Tell us about the lighting system and how it changes things.
Before the new system, we would need a spot caller, which was usually the ring master. We’d hire local spot operators in each city and provide them cues for each scene.
The new system is completely automated. We have a wireless DMX with an LED attached installed into props, floats, costumes, and even the ringmaster’s hat. The spots, along with tracking cameras, are not on the Grid itself. They’re on beams surrounding the Grid and located above the audience.
We triangulate the positions of the LED lights through at least two cameras. Beforehand, we create a map in the computer using infrared light so the cameras know what they’ll be looking for. Everything is mapped out in the system, the entire floor. We calibrate light and collect points.
Since the show includes animals, including dogs, horses, and big cats, how does the spotlight system work with them?
Animals don’t get spotlighted. Typically, an animal is close enough to a human being spotlighted, but we do a general lighting of the area, so it’s not necessary. Generally, spotlighting an animal is not beneficial to a live performance.
Did you have any problems with the new tech?
Our wireless DMX was getting interference from wi-fi networks. Fortunately, it had been used previously on Marvel and also on Frozen [Disney on Ice], so we were able to get in touch with our co-workers in the Marvel unit and learn how to fix it.
What are some of the control systems you have?
Martin M1 for lighting, d3 is playing DXV video, pyro is through FireOne, our LEDs for the DXV and M1 are Pax Blackjack, and we also have an audio console and an automation system for the front of the house.
You studied Political Science and International Conflict Studies in college. How did you end up an electrician in the circus?
I had previously been floor crew for another circus and then a performer and ring master. I went to visit my brother, who was with Ringling Bros. in Florida during their winter break and I fell in love with the way they were set up. I joined them as part of the crew moving props, then became part of the six-person electrical crew. It’s very much like a family. • • •