Part 6: doing tech at Denvention

Part 1:   first leg to Hybridfest
Part 2:   local Wisconsin tourism and slightly beyond
Part 3:   South Dakota, Black Hills
Part 4:   bangin' around the Northwest
Part 5:   meandering east toward Denver
Part 6:   doing tech at Denvention (aka Worldcon)
Part 7:   the journey home

Readers looking for more roadtrip details can optionally skip this section, as there's almost no travel involved and it delves more into theatre tech in largish venues and some of the back-end activity that happens around a science fiction convention. Coming out to help with this was one of the major factors behind the surrounding trip, however! So now it was time for me to fulfill the whole reason for aiming toward Denver [however indirectly] in the first place.

My local host graciously offered to ferry me into town and drop me off at the hotel I'd be staying in, *and* back out later, while I could leave my car parked at his apartment building for free and with very few worries. That relieved me of one major unsolved worry about this trip -- where I was going to park the car for a week and have both it and my wallet intact afterward.

The convention took place in the big Denver convention center and a few surrounding hotels, as another in the ongoing series organized by the World Science Fiction Society. The big annual ones happen in the US every two years, with the alternate years held in other countries around the world. It is where the Hugos are awarded, the most prestigious award for works of the genre including full novels, short stories, art, and movies. There are many regional science fiction conventions throughout the year, but all generally smaller than the worldcons.

I hooked up with the other people in the hotel room to drop off my stuff, and headed for an ongoing meeting and then over to the convention center to find everyone else. It was nice to see a bunch of familiar faces after all that strange new scenery, and a bit of a reality hit as it began to sink in that I'd driven about 6000 miles just to be here!

After a bit of confab and picking up badges, word came in that there was a little present waiting for us in a particular loading dock.

We got to work. There was a truck of A/V gear to unload into some function rooms at the Sheraton, but someone had directed it to the wrong dock. The Sheraton spans two blocks in downtown Denver, connected by a second-floor bridge and several underground passages. It turned into a bit of a cluster as several people on the hotel staff appeared confused as to the best way to reach the ballroom we needed to find, and eventually we had to trundle all this gear through a maze of utility corridors over to the other building and then figure out how to get up to the correct function-space floor.

Once we finally arrived in the main ballroom [where most of it was *not* going to be deployed], there was a certain amount of standing around going "okay, now what?" Some of it went downstairs to set up a movie room, but we clearly had far too many crew onsite at this point to give everyone a task. The areas we would be using over at the convention center weren't ready for us to start in yet, so there really wasn't a whole lot to do at this early juncture.

So I drifted off and went exploring.

I have always loved poking around the nether regions of hotels and other facilities, because it really shows what makes the infrastructure work. Here are some chiller pumps near the HVAC intake air handlers; only one seems to be up and running as the middle one seems to be all torn apart and the lefthand one doesn't have a motor at all. Stuff like this is often in the midst of being serviced; that's why secondary pumps and backup equipment is often installed in such systems to allow for servicing without total shutdown.

And in the evenings, there are few if any workers around here who would object. The whole idea is to go in, see a bunch of stuff, and leave no hint that anyone has been there.

Here we're inside one of the main intake ducts for the whole building, looking straight upward about three stories back to street level against a strong blast of air headed into the huge circulation fans. The Sheraton has about four levels of basement, and is a rather interesting complex in general.

Upon finally popping back out into civilization through one of those "staff only" doors, I found where the rest of the tech group had gone but still no meaningful tasks to do. I gave up and went back to the convention center to see if anything needed doing over there. The advance answer was "unlikely" since we really didn't have the spaces to work in yet, but just getting my bearings in that big barn of a place couldn't hurt.

At the far end of the building lay the Wells Fargo theatre space, which this evening had at least one door open into it and appeared to be entirely deserted. Some of us were about to spend quite a lot of time in this room over the next few days, so this presented a fine opportunity for an unrestricted look-see around. I could see worklights on up above, and headed up one of the ladders at the back wall of the stage.

The grid over the Fargo stage, showing how lights are simply clamped to wherever's convenient and fired down through the grid wire. One convenient feature is that no safety cables are needed; the downside is losing a little bit of light on the grid. Fortunately that's not at a focal point in the beam, and generally doesn't make any funny shadows.

In the catwalks over the house, a more traditional rail mounting method is used. They have many five and ten-degree lens barrels here, what with the long distance to the stage, along with the expected batch of 19s. There are plenty of hardwired dimmer circuits available.

The bumblebee-tape tracks on the floor show where airwalls can close, to split the entire venue into as many as three separate halls. There are corresponding hard walls at catwalk level above the airwall tracks, with doors that can close for noise isolation [dimly visible in the right-hand picture]. Unfortunately the pockets at floor level that guide the airwall bottom have klunky steel plate covers that stick up a bit, necessating safety-taping them when the whole house is open.

Looks like someone didn't safety-clip the non-hung units to the rail here, which would be prudent if anyone is likely to walk by in the dark. Source Fours sitting on their snoots have a certain tendency to fall over when bumped. The folks who work here also appear to espouse that nasty methodology of tying a knot in the doubled-up power tail instead of just wrapping it gently around the light.

An extensive maze of conduit starts on the upstage wall and feeds out to circuits all around the place. The dimmer room is probably close to here, but I never found where it is.

There are storage and work areas at either side of the over-stage grid, which seem fairly neatly maintained. The units hanging up are those horrid Source Four zooms that I've never heard anything but complaints about.

After a good look around I wandered back to the one room the convention was able to use at this point -- our operations/finance room, now that I knew how to find it. We had a quick meeting to discuss tasks for the next day, when our setup would begin in earnest.

Part of the work needed would be a large lighting hang in that very same Wells Fargo space, except that none of our crew would be physically doing it. David, the designer, would just be calling the shots from the ground and not even until everything was hung and working. It's an IATSE union house, and almost everything from a setup standpoint had to be handled by the in-house personnel or their immediately-known vendor staff. While this was a little frustrating on one hand, on the other it would save our own crew a heck of a lot of work. The bulk of audio and video cable-running would also be out of our hands; about all we would get to do would be direct and run the shows.

I poked my head briefly into Fargo that morning; they already had a crew of five or six up in the overhead slammin' away to hang David's plot. From the sounds, they were obviously slinging pipes and truss around to create a few new hang points in the process. I ducked quietly out and left them to it.

There was other work to do over in the nearby Korbel ballroom, yes, named after the champagne producer. There's a generous lobby area outside, with a big company logo looming over it. The ballroom itself can split into eight or ten separate areas with airwalls.

The con's "secondary tent" would be in this space, and needed some nominal amount of lighting but nothing fancy. The room already has a couple of pipes hung with a dozen or so instruments per, needing only to be refocused onto whatever stage areas an event needs lit.

The union guys were in the air and in theory, David only had to be the "squint" and guide them where to aim stuff.

But even though there are plenty of separate dimmers to power the lights in here, they're apparently ganged together in a really strange way that the building staff can't reprogram from the primitive interface they've been given. So to get the separation of full-stage vs. center that David needed, they had to cross-wire a bunch of jumpers between the two sides. A whole lot of extra make-work, especially with only one scissorlift, for something that should have been a five-minute fix in software.
You would think the convention-center techs would have run into situations like this often enough that they would have raised high holy hell with the lighting vendor and demanded much more versatility in the setup. On the other hand, the more klunky half-ass fixes wired up for clients and taken down afterward, the more hours worked per event.

Checking out the "long lens" video shot from the back of the room. The lens is so heavy it needs additional support from underneath to avoid ripping the mount out of the camera. Someone a bit taller must have set up this tripod, but of course the idea is to get over everyone's heads and see the stage.

We got a fairly good load into the room for the con's Opening Ceremonies that night.

The next day, it was time to get started for real in the Fargo and do lighting focus. This would be David's big job. Here he's doing the "flying" thing looking at lighting angles to figure out how far upstage the instruments on a given catwalk could "see" and thus throw useful light.

This is how the Fargo electricians create more points to put lights -- just drop a piece of truss on the grid and attach the units on top. Others are simply clamped to the existing or added pipes. Here are some of the many red/green/blue/amber clusters to throw saturate color mixes on the stage.

This would be our little world for the next three days -- an ETC Expression 3 with the PC-based "Emphasis" package wrapped around it. A whole theatre's worth of several hundred dimmers, all controlled from here. One nice thing about the Expression boards over the more typical Express is the wheels; you can just type [CHANNEL] X and then just spin the level wheel slowly to start bringing it up, much more gently than just typing [FULL] and suddenly shocking a cold filament.

It was a fairly confusing welter of numbers at first, especially given our unfamiliarity with where all the circuit numbers physically go in the place. The union folks had marked all the as-hung circuits on a big copy of the plot, but we had to do a lot of translation while working through it.

After a somewhat grueling focus session that left David pretty shagged, I offered to take the paperwork and turn it into a fairly concise "magic sheet" that shows where everything lands *on the stage*, rather than where it comes from, and grouped by function. This makes it much easier to call up a bunch of channels based on what's needed. I wrote down both David's channels and the house circuit numbers, so that after I banged in the softpatch we could refer to things either way and have the electricians find the right units by the numbers they could read upstairs.

Look closer for WHY they don't care
The cyc units that the house has are designed to be hung from a pipe, not used as a groundrow, but for whatever reason the decision had been made to use them as a groundrow. Some types of units can serve either way, but it's pretty clear that these are not that type because once the asymmetric reflectors are oriented the right way and they've got a good shot on the backdrop, they wind up sitting *right* on the clamp fitting where the wires come into the case. Not particularly good for the cables. The venue folks didn't seem to care, though.

Note that not only do we have a cyc here, there's a black scrim in front of the whole mess.

Having the cyc lights on the ground did make coloring and debugging easier, as they chased a few nonfunctional lamps and light-leaks in the process of getting it right. It also kept the most intensity down low to the deck where the talent would actually be in front of.

The scrim was good to have, as it helped hide bits of dirt on the cyc, evened out the color and smoothed out minor variations in light throw. It all got to looking fairly nice as we started masquerade rehearsals.

The masquerade rehearsal table, with folks from video and sound as well as the show director frantically taking notes. Entrant sound tracks were digitized onto the Mac and played back from it, for instant access. David is at the light board way back in the middle of the house.

Video, meanwhile, was setting up and testing IMAG projectors and a five-camera live shoot for the whole thing.

Video control nest, backstage. Lots of switching and five CCUs for the shader to juggle. If you think sound and lighting gear is idiotically expensive, try video! $35K or more for a single camera is commonplace, especially in the newer HD world.

Masquerade greenroom off stage right, crowded with contestants as the event opening drew near.

Most of the masquerade props were fairly simple, but one group had a pair of elaborately done raptors. Getting people in and out of these was a very involved process involving two helpers and a specially-built stool, and of course once inside they basically couldn't see a thing and needed guide people to navigate. But they garnered thunderous applause for their presentation.

I got no pictures of the masquerade itself, mostly because I was backstage helping the video director sort out cue-sheets. I'm sure plenty of other people were out front snappin' away, some results of which may be lurking in the many sets other people have placed on the web. Here are just a few:

some of which are also included in various efforts among contributors to group them and point to repositories via LJ and Flickr: and more can be found with a little creative searching.

The traditional tech party happened after the Masquerade, which usually involves consumption of good single-malt and a whole lot of geeking.

Scenes from around the con

Hall D: dealers' room and art show. The art show part toward the right has all the extra light bulbs hung over the panel arrays.

In the hall next door, they had just gotten done with a big farm equipment show. This actually looked pretty interesting, except that it was over and they were scrambling to move all this stuff out.

Edible Arrangements provided some of the con-suite food.

In the evenings, attendees thronged into the Sheraton for the bid parties, and there were many accompanying bits of silliness and far too much alcohol. I wound up talking to the Reno folks a bit about their area, having just recently passed through it.

But mostly it was wicked crowded and loud in the hallways and party rooms, and I took refuge in the slightly more quiet Arisia party.

Scenes from around the city

A couple of shots west and north from the hotel's "concierge level" breakfast lounge thingy, and a rather bad stitch-together attempt. The perspective of the street at the bottom just doesn't match up, and the bright, excessively cyan sky over the mountains suggests that I really need to find a polarization filter for this thing.

A somewhat artsy arrangement of cranes over the several bits of ongoing construction.

Not too bad for a city night shot handheld and just braced against window glass, since I didn't have the tripod with me at the time.

The 16th street pedestrian mall. Note the DNC signs. Obama's convention was about to roll in and bring the city to a standstill shortly after we would leave. Yeah, that's american freedom, all right. Politicians take over your town to indulge in their expensive and showy excess, and you can't do anything or go anywhere near the event until it's over and you're likely to be arrested under some dubious excuse of "security" if you object.

This was apparently another part of DNC prep; the bucket truck was parked here constantly over the course of three days, as the video-wall was hung in several vertical strips off the convention center facade and connected together. It's almost like that structure is *designed* for hanging large banners and such from, as it stands off from the building wall itself about two feet and provides plenty of attachment points. We were amused to see the huge copy of someone mousing around on the computer driving this and getting it configured.

I'm certainly not the only one to see ruined barns and rural buildings as a pictorial theme. This was on the video that runs in the Hyatt elevators and shows an assortment of placid scenes -- not just still pictures, either, it's actual running video of whatever is shown.

Interestingly textured carpet in the convention center. Suitable as a wallpaper, perhaps.

Oddly iridescent tiles scattered into the restroom floor.

I suppose my picture-taking does tend toward the relatively nonstandard, such as intake ducts and lighting galleries and bathroom floors. But really, so many terabytes' worth of pictures get taken daily of Those Things People Always Take Pictures Of that there's really no point in doing any more of it. For example, I flatly refused to take any of the big blue bear artwork outside the convention center, because simply googling for "blue bear" and "denver" will return more shots than you'd ever want to see. There were some in the sets from other people listed above; a couple more relatively coherent entries are
the latter of which details some of what went into creating the project.

Back to work!

Our next major event in the Wells Fargo was the Hugo awards; David more or less turned over the lighting helm to me for this one, and I spent a little while that morning trying to shout over all the other people running around the room to get the union electricians overhead to refocus a few lights for the lectern and stairway. With the star-gobos and some cool night-blue washes, it got to looking sufficiently space-themed for the purpose.

There isn't much to actually running lighting for the Hugos -- have the followspots pick up winners in the audience if possible and then bring up the stairway as they come up to stage. Our spot-ops were some of the union folks who are used to the somewhat funny angles of the place relative to the spot booths, and they did a really nice job.

At the end, all the winners got together on stage and far too many pictures were taken of them. More gigabytes of redundant data that will likely never see the light of anyone's monitor again... except this shot, which is now out on the net for all to see.

The Hugo award bases are designed by a different person every year, and this time around seemed inordinately large and heavy.

By the end of the con, our task and personnel assignment boards had gotten pretty busy. But now, none of it mattered!

Overall the con seemed to go reasonably well. There was almost no load-out work we needed to do at the Fargo -- other than one or two personal items, all the gear was rental and would be dealt with by the vendors and in-house staff. Our technical director declared all the lighting color "expendable" which would entail refunding what David had spent on it, and we basically just turned our backs on the place and walked out at the end. Besides, another big show was due to start loading in very soon after us.

Somewhat ironically, the next gig coming in was Dolly Parton, and I was sure the technical requirements for that would be very different from ours. In fact I was really curious about it, and how they would deal with the venue, and wandered over that way the next morning to see if I could get a glimpse of their load-in.

I expected to meet up with all kinds of locked doors and security goons, but as I headed down the "secret stairwell" we had been using all week to get in and out of the space, not only was it open and empty, I could already smell the lingering dope smoke from, uh, roadies taking a break.

Still encountering no resistance, I stuck my head in the same side entrance I used three days ago to check up on the house electricians, and found quite the extensive setup going on. Dolly's crew had been at this since 6am or so, and already seemed fairly far along with it. Two large line-arrays were dangling in the air, so they clearly were not using the in-house sound.

They wouldn't be using much of the house lighting rig either, if any at all, having brought their own forest of moving-heads. I ducked out and walked around to the back entrances and found the doors not only unlocked but standing wide open, and walked in and chatted with their lighting guy a little. The venue's Emphasis rig was now nowhere to be seen; he was sitting there at the same table which was now occupied by a GrandMA from which he was fooling around with some of the lights already up and running on the stage.

This was likely a crew that's done this a hundred times, knows exactly what they need to do when, and probably relegated the in-house people to strictly secondary tasks since I'm sure Dolly's production managers weren't about to spend time arguing over who got to do which jobs. In this set of pictures I count at least sixteen chain-hoist motors and an awful lot of heavy kit in the air, and that's not something you try to delegate to people who don't already intimately know your rig and assume it will all to go up right.

On the other hand, would you as a high-profile performer trust your well-being under thousands of pounds of gear rigged by roadies who had been out tokin' mary-jee-wanna in the fire stairs just minutes earlier? Makes ya think, doesn't it.

We eventually checked out of the hotel and my gracious Denver-area host hauled all the way back into town to pick me up -- I never had to deal with the public transit picture around there, which is generally regarded as inferior to that of other cities. Soon I would get back on the road, with two more thirds of the country's width still ahead of me and probably harboring many more fun little ratholes I could dive down, but I was starting to feel like it was time to just get my wandering butt back home.

Go to Part 7:   the journey home

_H*   081130