Judge Piers Morgan watched, rather impatiently, until he’d decided that he’d seen enough and buzzed the Vikings. When the Vikings’ performance ended, Morgan said he didn’t get it, and even called the troupe “overgrown school children in robot costumes.”
Morgan’s words may have been harsh, but they were also very telling. No, the Vikings are not professional entertainers. They’re electricians, plumbers, hairdressers and truck drivers. They’re also hometown heroes who march in elaborate costumes — outlandish disguises akin to Elton John’s 1970s wardrobe excesses — for Philadelphia’s historic New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, the city’s answer to The Big Easy’s binge-happy blowout on Mardi Gras.
The Vikings’ performance may have been alien to Morgan (pun intended), but not to the people of Philadelphia, who recognize that the Vikings, and other Mummers organizations, known as Fancy Brigades, carry on a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. “I once signed an autograph at the parade,” says South Philly Vikings’ captain Pete “Petey” D’Amato. “You’re a star for a day.”
The Vikings do more than march: they engage in an annual performance competition with other members of various clubs (typically called New Year’s associations) that participate in the annual folk festival. The resulting competition, called the Mummers Fancy Brigade Finale — dubbed by some to be the “Super Bowl of American parades” — is held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Jan. 1 every year.
These Brigades work all year long, spending an exorbitant amount of money on building costumes and floats (sometimes in excess of $100,000 dollars) for two 4.5-minute performances. The competition starts at noon, and the performances are repeated at 5 pm for the judges.
Those who are part of the victorious Brigade win nothing of monetary value, but they can lay claim to a year’s worth of bragging rights as the baddest social club in South Philly, and that, apparently, is enough motivation for participants to compete against each other, and to try to top what they have achieved in years gone by.
“People say we’re crazy,” says Jim Julia, president of the Philadelphia Mummers Fancy Brigade Association. “But we continue to do it, every year.”
Let There Be Light (Action)
Lighting is intricately intertwined with the history of the Mummers, stretching back to New Year’s Day 1901, when a parade was organized in conjunction with the lighting of Philadelphia City Hall. The intermingling of the Fancy Brigades and Light Action Productions — a company that’s indulged the Brigades for over 12 years — mirrors this tradition. As Light Action has developed technology to present ever-more-stunning visuals, the Brigades, in turn, have dreamed up new ways to tap Light Action’s production resources. Pulley systems, 20-foot animatronic monsters and intricate feats of engineering are common sights on the Convention Center floor.
“Back in 2000, we were brought in just to do lighting for television,” says Scott Humphrey, president and owner of Light Action Productions. “Over time, we’ve gotten more involved with these groups, to the point that they come to our shop in Delaware to discuss lighting and scenic structure.”
“It seems to get a little bit more technical and more involved each year,” says set builder Tex Varney.
And the partnership continues to grow — 2012 marked the first time the Fancys used moving lights. “All the Brigades pooled their cash and put it toward a lighting rig everyone could use,” says veteran lighting designer/programmer Patrick Dierson. “It keeps that aspect of the production balanced in terms of judging.”
Being Boxed Up
Though Light Action provided show support for six Brigades (and general lighting for all), the company worked most closely with The Vikings on their routine, “Ka‘Light’oscope: Harness the Power of the Spectrum.”
For 2012, The Vikings wanted to incorporate LED tape into 56 custom costumes and to program these LED suits to change colors individually at different times to embody a specific concept: a computer hard drive being attacked by a software virus. “We knew that you could change the lights if they were wired,” says Phil Miller, who’s been a member of the Vikings for over a decade. “But to do it wirelessly?”
Competition rules dictate that all the lighting and video equipment must fit within a 60-by-120-foot area allocated for each group’s performance. As a result, generator-powered laptops, lighting and video consoles often need to be buried in moving floats. This unusual circumstance led Light Action to consider wireless DMX as a solution to control the LED suits.
“These guys wanted the ability to have control over RGB for the left arm, right arm, left leg, right leg, chest and head, or helmet,” says Jon Lenard, electronics division manager at Applied Electronics, a sister company to Light Action.
The next step was to construct 56 lightweight, portable power supply and wireless receiver units (along with two backup units) that would recognize DMX signals. (Nine suits were static.)
Printed circuit boards, manufactured by Shenzhen Rita Lighting Technology Ltd. in Shenzhen City, China, as well as OEM receiver cards and antennas, were fitted inside the plastic enclosures (measuring about 9 by 6 by 4 inches), along with 12V 1600mAH nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries to power the 6,400-plus feet of SMD5050 LED tape.
“We do a lot of custom fabrication in both of our facilities,” says Humphrey. “Our three companies — Light Action, Applied Electronics and Staging Dimensions — work together on a project like this.”
“The Vikings had about eight people soldering to get all of those LED tapes soldered together and connected to the driver boxes that we provided,” adds Lenard.
By the end of December 2011, The Vikings were streamlining their dance moves. With the carefully choreographed moves that might have rivaled a highly coordinated collegiate marching band, the Vikings worked on their portrayal of a slow infiltration of a software virus into a computer’s hard drive.
After days of unsuccessful attempts to sync LED changes with the fast-paced electronica music (which included snippets of the Black Eyed Peas and LMFAO), Dierson suggested to lighting programmer/electrician Chris Paterson that Vikings choreographer Andrea Hendri, a former Philadelphia 76ers dancer, should pre-record the 120 light-triggered cues on Light Action’s grandMA 1 console. Once Hendri did that, the cue stack was ready to be executed at the touch of a button. “I hit the record button in the MA’s time code function, and the choreographer hit the ‘go’ button for each of the cues,” says Paterson.
Among other synchronized lighting events, the “viruses” (i.e., Vikings performers dressed in human-sized spider outfits lit in red LEDs, supported by backpieces made of everything from wire and wood to plastic) turn all of the LED lights on the floor red, including the anti-virus performers (in yellow LED lights). “The idea was to change all of the lights in time, like a wave,” says Paterson, “leaving a trail of red lights behind them.”
By way of the grandMA, two City Theatrical ShoW DMX transmitter modules were capable of broadcasting 1,008 DMX wireless signals across two universes (504 DMX channels per universes) — and, fortunately, nothing was disrupted by malware.
“We needed a stable system,” says Lenard. “Given the number of channels in use and the fact that there was other wireless data already being used for the main lighting rig, we didn’t want to risk crosstalk or interference.”
The LED lighting would not have the same visual impact without various rolling props. The Vikings took advantage of Applied Electronics’ extensive truss inventory to create mobile grids featuring multiple load-bearing ductile steel casters. Set builder Tex Varney led a team in constructing, among other set pieces, a captain’s float, dubbed the “Spaceship,” which featured grated decking and curved Plexiglas windows, along with an eight-foot-tall Antivirus grid with a bi-fold garage door. “Due to the casters, two guys, conceivably, could move an entire grid,” says Varney.
One of the most inventive aspects of the show was the use of two giant 23-foot-high mobile thresholds, or rappelling grids, decorated with swaths of retraction paper (picking up on the secondary spectral theme), on either side of the stage, which supported double-depth video screens. From the top of these rappelling grids, red LED virus spiders, who perform a maneuver called an Australian Rappel, are safely lowered onto the floor via a roping system, devised by Varney, which utilizes a figure-eight anchor device, common to rock climbers.
“There’s an internal aluminum platform that I built into those structures for those guys to take off from,” says Varney. “They were hooked up in a full-body harness and lowered themselves down. The tighter their grip on the rope, the less distance they rappelled. When they hit the ground, off they went.”
Another impressive visual aspect of the show was the video component. In order to project video onto four mobile screens (including the two double-depth screens), video designer/programmer Charles Luyt used five MacBook Pros hooked up to seven Folsom/Barco ImagePRO-3G video scalers/switchers and five different D’san PerfectCues controlled by a single handheld remote. “Every computer has a different processing [system], so they all trigger a little faster or slower,” says Luyt. “We had to have different starting times, split seconds difference, for each computer to sync video content with the performances and music.”
Luyt used Apple’s presentation software, Keynote, which exported to QuickTime HD for playback (with H.264 video compression) and tapped Apple’s Motion 3 and Graphic Designer’s Toolkit by Digital Juice to present imagery such as prismatic color spectrums, spiral shapes and a silhouette of the Philadelphia skyline.
“In addition, there were a couple of bright flashes in the video, and the generators, which powered the screens and lighting and video equipment, just shut down,” says Luyt. “They could only handle so much white [light]. I could never have more than 50 percent of white light on each screen. It didn’t matter — it was best not to detract from the LED lighting.”
A Viking Victory
On the day of the competition, there was some discussion as to whether the judges would appreciate the technological slant of The Vikings’ show. “Then the music starts and the suits light up,” says Paterson. “People go nuts. Lights are changing, and the virus guys are duking it out with antivirus guys.”
It was over, there and then. The South Philly Vikings wowed the judges (all six of them) and took home the trophy. “We wanted to show that we could try something different and challenging, and win,” says D’Amato.
“A great quote from Scott Humphrey was, ‘Light Action has grown as a company because the Mummers have grown,’” says Lenard. “Light Action and all of the production elements exist because of the Mummers. Not the other way around.”
Philadelphia Mummers Parade
Lighting/Video/Rigging/Truss Supplier: Light Action Productions (New Castle, DE)
Audio supplier: RiverFront Audio Visual (Wilmington, DE)
Lighting Design: Scott Humphrey,
Lead Programmer: Patrick Dierson
Master Electrician: Chris Paterson
(Programmer for LED Suits)
Lead Riggers: Brian Barolo, Tex Varney
Light Techs: Jason Olson, Ryan Ward, Patrick Thompson
South Philly Vikings Video Content/
Playback: Charles Luyt
Gear (partial list)
Main Rig (overhead lighting for all clubs)
AE = Applied Electronics
6 8’ AE double hung truss
37 AE 16” x 16” x 10’ spigoted box truss
36 AE Six-circuit lamp bars with ETC Source Four PARs (12” double hung truss, 24 individual bars)
24 Vari*Lite VL3500 Wash
24 Vari*Lite VL3500 Wash FX
18 Vari*Lite VL300 Spot
12 Clay Paky Sharpy
4 ETC 48x2, 4K Dimmer Rack
4 AE power distro (2 w/ 4 208V 19pin, 2 w/ 4 208V, & 4 110V 19pin)
6 LSC Lighting Systems five-port
Delta DMX splitters
2 grandMA 1 consoles
2 MA Network signal processors
37 Columbus McKinnon 1-ton motors
12 CM 1/2 ton motors
4 CM 1/4 ton Prostar chain motors
1 AE 32-channel hoist controller
4 AE eight-channel hoist controller
2 HazeBase base-hazer-pro units
South Philly Vikings Equipment:
(Including ground rolling truss for “rappelling grids,” “kid box,” “anti-virus box,” “back wall” and “center wall”)
AE = Applied Electronics
24 AE 20.5” X 20.5” x 10’ truss
8 AE 20.5” x 20.5” x 8’ truss
8 AE 20.5” x 20.5” x 5’ truss
4 AE 20.5” X 20.5” X 2’ truss
16 AE 20.5” five-way corner block
18 AE 12” x 12” x 10’ truss
8 AE 12” X 12” X 8’ truss
8 AE 12” x 12” X 6’ truss
15 AE 12” x 12” X 5’ truss
12 AE 12” x 12” x 4’truss
6 AE 12” x 12” x 2’ truss
22 AE 12” five-way corner block
8 Staging Dimensions 4’ x 8’ decks
LED Suit Gear
56 LED boxes (LED 18-channel DMX driver printed circuit board and City Theatrical SHoW DMX NEO OEM receiver card)
56 Tenergy 12V 1600mAh NiMH Flat Battery Pack
1 grandMA 1
2 City Theatrical SHoW DMX transmitters
1,008 ch DMX (for 56 DMX-controlled suits and 9 “non-dim” rigs)
400 SMD 5050 LED tape units (6,430 feet total)
1,500’ ribbon wire connecting LED tape to driver boxes (each suit required 8 hours of soldering; a total 520 man-hours for the 65 suits)
6 9,000W generators
8 5,600W generators