On Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI, the University of Michigan Wolverines squared off against the Fighting Irish from Notre Dame in the latest football matchup in a rivalry that dates back to Nov. 23, 1887. (After giving the Notre Dame students a few pointers about the new sport, Michigan won, 8-0).
The 2013 game was only the 41st between the two teams since then, and while the two teams are set to face off against each other in Indiana next year, Notre Dame has bowed out from any games at Michigan Stadium, a.k.a. the “Big House,” for the next several years.
So with all that going on, it wasn’t entirely surprising that the Sept. 7 game was highly anticipated — or that its live crowd set an all-time NCAA attendance record for a football game — 115,109 — which is a bit more than the population of the city of Ann Arbor itself.
With a captive audience of those proportions, there was an opportunity to go above and beyond with a memorable halftime show at the stadium, which had been recently refurbished with new skyboxes and a new $1.8 million house lighting system for the field and the stands. (The stadium’s first night game — another matchup between Notre Dame and U of M in 2010 — used rented lighting gear.)
This was also the first use of the new house lighting system for a nationally televised game, and the theme of the evening for the Michigan Marching Band and for the Stadium was “The Big House Under The Lights.” This year’s big U of M/Notre Dame game also marked the first stage production for a halftime show at Michigan Stadium.
Special guests for the pre-game and halftime festivities included actor Mark Harmon, who plays Special Agent Gibbs of TV’s NCIS. The son of Heisman Trophy winner, broadcaster and U of M alumnus Tom Harmon — and a former starter for the UCLA’s Bruins football team himself — Harmon presented his dad’s retired number 98 number to U of M quarterback Devin Gardner. The pregame show also included a jet flyover for the National Anthem and the game received aerial shots from the Goodyear Blimp.
During halftime, rapper Eminem appeared with Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger to promote his new album, and the Michigan Marching Band performed hits by Beyoncé, who did not appear in person but was seen by both the live audience and TV viewers in a prerecorded video that cheered on both the players on the field and in the marching band with a big “Go Blue!”
Athletic director Dave Brandon, along with marching band director John Pasquale and Ryan Duey, the university’s director of marketing and event presentation, all wanted the halftime show to be a memorable spectacle, and the planning for the event began as early as February. Duey relied upon Mike Gould of Illuminatus and Jon Robertson of DayStar Lasers for a visual assist with a laser system.
The first big challenge came in the form of the initial insistence by university officials concerned about the public safety ramifications of leaving a nighttime audience of more than 115,000 in the dark. Initial requirements — that absolutely no fog or other atmospheric effect could be used and that all of the lighting in the stadium should remain at normal game level during the halftime show — were at complete loggerheads with the mandate for memorable visible spectacle with light beams and lasers.
Eventually, a compromise on that stance was hammered out between the university officials and the creative design team, but it wasn’t an easy process. Preshow plans had to be made, stamped, and approved between the university, its athletic department, Homeland Security, stadium security, and the fire and rescue teams.
Even so, the new “Big House” stadium lighting system remained a formidable entity to have to overcome with theatrical lighting and lasers. Without the ability to totally darken the stadium, Robertson of DayStar Lasers, who served as creative director for the event, contacted Jimmy Page and Josh Henderson of Syncrolite for extra visual punch.
They opted for that company’s SXL fixtures equipped with Osram X Stage 7K – 1 Xenon light sources, each capable of emitting 300,000 to 350,000 lumens of output for the event. Similar fixtures added punch to the London Olympics and rock tours for artists including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, AC/DC and Toby Keith, among others.
Wilm Pierson of Complete Production systems handled the Syncrolite programming and lighting design, and Syncrolite sent their head technician, Josh Henderson, to hustle and wrangle the SXL fixtures. Henderson oversaw the logistics of getting the 200-plus pound fixtures — each nearly five feet tall — in, out and through some very tight spaces — all the while performing as well as they might on the SXL test bench at Syncrolite’s shop.
Although the initial contacts for the project were in February, the final “Go” from the university didn’t happen until late July, according to Pierson. That left an “extremely short time frame for design planning and logistical implementation for a show of this complexity,” Pierson notes. “Everyone involved had to be extremely sure to make the first decision the right decision, as there would be no time for retakes.”
The design called for the SXLs to be hustled from Michigan Stadium’s roof to awaiting scaffolding that had been constructed over the new skyboxes on both sides of the stadium, with enough space for eight SXL fixtures per side. The positioning, which was between the in house stadium lighting structures, proved beneficial, and the features of the fixtures themselves also contributed to the success of the show.
With an IP54 rating, the crew did not need to spend precious time crafting weatherproof enclosures for the fixtures, and their built-in OmniColor dichroic color mixing system was lauded for faithfully presenting U of M’s Maize and Blue colors to the crowd. The fixtures also ably handled dichroic color crossfading and were noted for producing a flat beam field as well. Their copious luminous output, along with the zoom range from a tight pencil thin beam to a 20° spread at long distance, also meant that the halftime show could be lit with far fewer fixtures than what might otherwise have been required.
One of the requirements from Homeland Security was a prohibition against the use of any kind of pyro or flame effects on or around the field. Along with their role as field wash fixtures and for specials, the Syncrolite fixtures filled the special effects void by shooting beams, instead of fireworks, skyward at key moments during the show and game.
For control, Pierson used a Leprecon LP-X 48 console, chosen for its features and functions, reliability and compact size. Small as they are, the console ably handled the Syncrolite SXLs, which only require 14 DMX Channels for all of their various functions; there was no need for a much bigger, mega-universe handling console.
For preprogramming, Pierson used ESP Vision 2.3 coupled with Vectorworks 2013 to feed the LP-X 48. He credits ESP Vision for helping him tackle a key challenge posed by the scale of the stadium — making sure that every fixture was able to be focused exactly where it was needed to be.
Another major obstacle was the truncated rehearsal schedule. The marching band, according to one of the band members, was only given the formations by band director John Pasquale on the Monday of the Stadium load in, less than a week before the Saturday game, Pierson notes. (The band typically has only about three hours of rehearsal time during the week to learn the formations.) This meant only one full rehearsal — on Friday evening — with both the lighting systems and marching band. This also meant that there would be no possibility of a true cue-to-cue rehearsal for Pierson, with the band actually doing the formations.
To compensate for the minimal time for rehearsing in the dark, the effects generator on the Leprecon LP-X 48 console proved to be very helpful. It can create patterns using its built-in and user-definable focus, beam, and color effects. “I have been using this console since I started programming, and I am very familiar with its functions,” Pierson notes, crediting the touch screen for putting fixtures, labels, palettes, effects, and timing parameters at the operator’s fingertips. “Many of the lighting notes were taken in the daylight, and then the changes had to be made virtually, in ESP Vision, and then retouched within the limited time allowed to run the lighting system after dark.”
The Laser System
DayStar Lasers’ Robertson managed to locate eight high power lasers all around the stadium along with the Crisler Center Basketball Athletic complex. For visualization, Robertson used Sketchup, Photoshop and Bryce, with laser show control via Pangolin LD-2000, Showtime/Live!, and QuickShow. Video-to-laser sequences were achieved with Nautilus Integration’s Laser Cam and ILD-SOS. Artwork creation was via Deneba Canvas, Adobe Illustrator, OSLS Full Auto, and 3D StudioMax.
Along with the need to ensure that the laser projection units worked as planned — and kept operating properly in the midst of 115,000 curious fans — Robertson had to make absolutely sure that all FAA regulations were strictly adhered to. This included the need to file for approval of an HID (High Intensity Discharge) Light Notice for the Syncrolites from the FAA as well. Using lasers as the source for “On Field” graphics with the live and in-action U of M Marching Band moving on and covering most parts of the field at different times proved to be another unique challenge.
DayStar Lasers deployed three Kvant 30W RGB Spectrums for the scrolling text on the facings above the skyboxes to announce song titles during the halftime show, and also for touchdowns, scoring, and the on-field graphics. They also used two additional Kvant 20W RGB Spectrums to project images on the outside of the scoreboards on the North and South ends of the Stadium for pregame, game time and post-game images. Three more of the Kvant 20W RGB Spectrums were used around the Crisler Center Basketball Complex for the same purpose as the units on the outside scoreboards.
Inside the stadium, two of DayStar Laser’s BlueFlame 40-foot 40W Blues were placed at either end of the field underneath the score boards for laser beam matrixes in the air during the halftime show. These units were run and controlled by an ETC Smartfade DMX 24/48 console along with Enttec ODE Boxes to enable DMX to be run over Cat-5 wire to accommodate the need for long runs throughout the stadium; it took more 1,500 feet of cables to reach from one side of the stadium to the other.
Another feature of the event, implemented for safety purposes, ended up having a dramatic visual impact: the distribution of more than 10,000 blue LED bracelets, donated by Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Michigan, that made the stands twinkle like a sky of blue stars. Along with an astonishing lighting effect, it helped the crowd feel as though they were part of the halftime show.