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Pack Up Your Automation, This Is One for the Road

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Pack Up Your Automation, This Is One for the Road

Behind the scenes of our new road case, The Rhody.

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Royal and the first Rhody

Two years ago we decided that we would offer an ATA style road case to house our Pro Line gear for clients with touring and special event productions. It would be the icing on the cake. Well, more accurately the cake box, but a really nice indestructible box…on wheels.

Then we got busy completing more of that Pro Line: Stagehand Pro (11/2013), Spotline (4/2013), Stagehand Mini^2 (8/2014), and Showstopper 3 Consolette (11/2014). But we came back to designing the road case as time permitted. Our production engineer, Royal, advanced the project in a few bursts spread over an 18 month timeline, culminating  with the official launch of the Rhody this January.

The design began with the decision that the Rhody would house a complete automation system for a 4-axis show (although it has unlimited expandability and customizable components). Actually, for Royal, the designing began with some gummy bears and fresh batteries for his TI-83 Plus. Then he set to work fitting together the puzzle with the following pieces:

  • Showstopper Base
  • Power Distribution
  • Showstopper 3 Consolette
  • Touch Screen Monitor
  • Rack Mounted PC
  • Ethernet Switch
  • Uninterruptible Power Supply
  • 4 Stagehand Pro’s

Royal’s recent machine design hampered him only initially. “Designing the Rhody proved to be a challenge,” says Royal, “since I couldn’t use 3/8″ plate steel or machine it out of a huge block of aluminum. It was after those revelations that I decided to go out on a limb and use this new material called Plywood.”

Embracing his return to an organic building material, Royal drafted up the first iteration, but it proved too large. Something like the size of a queen bed.

too big

First Rhody Design, Too Big

So some rearranging was in order but Royal set to work in Solidworks and eventually configured the system in a more appealing 43″ x 57″ x 28″ size.

Drawing- Roadie - Sheet1
The final design of the Rhody not only includes robust hardware, coated plywood and aluminum construction, a slide out operator desk with touch screen monitor, and 3.5″ locking swivel casters…

PDF- Roadie Overview-crop2
…it also features lids with legs to become backstage work tables. Thanks to our friend Chris Moses for reminding us that, when not actively covering something, lids are infinitely more useful as tables.

rhody legs

Rhody Set Up

Originally Gareth planned to manufacture the Rhody in house, but a chance encounter with an old friend connected him with Case Craft. They build custom cases “for life on the road” and were eager to build our Rhody prototype. On working with Case Craft, Royal commented, “I wish ordering my gluten free meals at restaurants was as easy as ordering the Rhody from Case Craft.”

Our working title for the road case was The Roadie, but it became iresistible to change it to The Rhody given the quirkiness of our home state. We’re happy that somewhere in between the coffee milk and the quahogs there’s room for a small automation manufacturer. It also opened the door for naming our companion road case, the Li’l Rhody, each of which houses another 4 Stagehand Pro’s. Of course you can have as many Rhody’s and Li’l Rhody’s as you like, all run by a single automation operator.

Working towards making Rhode Island the scenic automation capital of the world inspires us to think about lots of new products. “The most exciting things on the not too distant horizon are the Stagehand Servo and Friction Drive,” says Gareth.

Gareth and Royal (and Sprocket) testing out motion control with servo motors.

Gareth and Royal (and Sprocket) testing out motion control with servo motors.

 

OSU’s City of Angels Puts Showstopper 3 Consolette to Work

automation control
Last fall OSU’s Department of Theatre didn’t just receive one of our first Showstopper 3 Consolettes, they put it to rigorous use right away. In their production of the Tony award winning jazz musical City of Angels  they bravely met the demands of 44 scenes in 26 locations with some slick automation. The resident Technical Director, Chris Zinkon, told us he used 6 winches, 2 double acting pneumatic cylinders, 15 wagons, 12 flying units, and a back wall rigged to move up and down as well as tilt left and right. It took roughly 80 cues to accomplish all of the scenic choreography, and it was all controlled with Stagehands, Spikemark software, and the new Showstopper 3 Consolette.

OSU has been a customer of ours since 2007 so we were eager to hear how our brand new Consolette served them on such a formidable scenic production. Chris praised the pusling go button, backlit keys, and jog joystick of the Consolette, summing it up with “Your controls, machinery, and Spikemark interface were instrumental in helping us successfully pull off a massive production.”

We offer many congratulations to Chris and his crew on a great production, and much gratitude for the kind words. We are thrilled that our gear helped to make the show a success.

Chris was also kind enough to send along video clips of the scene changes which we edited into the short video below. A few clips are a bit rough, but you can still appreciate the incredible scenic choreography. We highlighted it with some 1940’s detective jazz music. Enjoy!

This production of City of Angels was a collaboration between the School of Music and the Department of Theatre at Ohio State University, and played at the Thurber Theatre in November 2014. Directed by A. Scott Parry. Scenic Design by Shane Cinal.

New Show Control Consolette Has Arrived!

We have officially launched the long anticipated Showstopper 3 Consolette!

Showstopper 3 Consolette

 

At the outset we didn’t know it would take quite so many months, or that it would take quite so many Venti Quad Lattes, but we think it was worth the wait. And worth feeding our caffeine addiction.

The first Consolettes have already arrived for those customers who have been eagerly awaiting the backorder. We’d like to extend a huge thanks for their patience. Among them was a very pleased Chris Zinkon, Resident Technical Director for OSU’s Department of Theatre. We were thrilled to hear of Chris’ positive experience,

The new consolette performed beautifully last night. The pulsing ‘Go’ button and backlit keys were a great addition in the low light backstage conditions. [And] I can’t say enough nice things about the jog joystick. This is a super slick design.”

Grazie, Chris!

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Showstopper 3 Consolettes, Hot Off the Press

The Consolette is a significant addition to our scenic automation arsenal, and offers many powerful , dare we say enviable, features over the previous emergency stop & show control system:

  • Front of House Portability
  • Motor Jog Joystick & Positioning Wheel
  • Four Line Display including Current Cues, Motor Position and System Faults
  • Optional Hold-to-Run
  • Backlit Keys and Adjustable Illumination
  • Improved Key Location and Size
  • Green and Red Indicator Lights
  • Easier Redundant Computer Transfer
  • Ethernet Connection to Spikemark Software

With just two cables to connect we think you’ll find the new E-stop system even more modular than the old Showstopper. Plus the Consolette is ideal to use with Spikemark on a touch screen computer during the running of a show.

And what about the old Showstopper? Well, it will be phased out. Because the new Showstopper system splits into two components (base and consolette) what was previously one (consolette), the old and new systems are necessarily incompatible. However, older Showstoppers will still work with all Stagehands, as well as Spikemark but will not interoperate with Showstopper 3 Hubs or Remotes. Likewise, the new Showstopper 3 Consolette will not work with older Hubs or Remotes.

Showstopper 3 system diagram

Showstopper 3 system diagram


 
The Showstopper 3 Consolette is part of the four product emergency system & show control lineup comprised also of the Base (a required unit), Hub, and Remote E-stops. It connects to 8 axes of motion via the Base, plus 8 additional axes via each Hub as well as unlimited Remote E-stops. Its inclusion in the Showstopper family completes the foundation of our Pro Line, designed to meet the automation challenges of the most demanding productions. It is available for purchase ($2500) or rental ($50 / week plus one week prep fee). The next shipment could be yours…

Tom, Kody, and Gareth Shipping the First Showstopper 3 Consolettes

The entire Showtopper lineup will be presented at Creative Conners’ LDI Booth #2587. Stop by if you’re attending the show, and of course get in touch anytime via phone or email to ask questions or let us know what you think about the product. We’re always happy to hear from you!

 

Rigging the HP Discover Flip Door with a Pushstick Winch

For most who attended HP Discover in Las Vegas this year the appreciation was on the technology showcased for business and government customers. But let’s not forget that a dramatic entrance, such as the flip door used by  HP CEO Meg Whitman, had some fun technology of its own.

Our friends at Production Plus built the door and tasked us with rigging the automation for it. Much like the progressively detailed studies an artist develops before the final painting is created, the flip door rigging saw its share of iterations, three to be precise. You can see each one in this video, and read more about them below. And yes, that’s Herbie Hancock’s 1983 “Rockit” in the background, just for fun.

The first wooden mock-up came together quickly and established the core design to meet the criteria. In that design we decided to use a Pushstick winch to raise and lower the door, rather than mounting a motor at the hinge which would have required a custom machine. By using the winch and rigging the door exclusively to the surrounding wall they built, we saved both time and money.

Built and rigged in a day, the wooden mock-up showed that a winch line would nicely raise and lower the door, even if the orientation did give it a rather drawbridge like quality.

The second mock-up, also built in a day,  grew to full size, sported a steel frame, and brought into the design two critically placed sheaves. Our Turnaround Sheave took the lines from the winch and guided them each to a custom sheave which changed the line in two directions. These three turns of each line precisely positioned them to lift the door with as little friction as possible.

Pushstick Winch, Turnaround Sheave, and Custom Sheave on the Flip Door Steel Mock-Up

Custom sheave (left) and Turnaround Sheave (right) guide the winch lines on HP FlipDoor.

 

With testing complete at our shop, it was time to pack Royal and the rig for Production Plus’ shop outside of Chicago to test it once more on the actual flip door. By automation rigging standards, it was a relatively simple packing list: Stagehand ACTurnaround Sheave, custom sheave, cables, power distro, showstopper, turnbuckles, toothbrush, toothpaste, and PLSN to read on the plane.

A similar process took place outside of Chicago. And when we say outside, we really do mean al fresco. The flip door and its companion wall outgrew the shop space and required set up in the parking lot. Once the wall was built, only fifteen minutes was necessary to mount the sheaves, run the cables, adjust the turnbuckles, and connect the winch & electronics. With a beautiful Midwest sunset for a backdrop and a fork lift bracing the wall, the flip door rigging looked good. Time to pack for Las Vegas.

Construction of HP Flip Door Frame by Production Plus in Burr Ridge IL

HP Flip Door & Wall Frame with Forklift and Sheaves in Sunset Silhouette at Production Plus

Stunningly vast and cavernous, the Venetian Palazzo auditorium was transformed into a dynamic and inviting space for thousands to celebrate all things HP and IT. As in the previous shop set ups, Royal attached the pulleys while the wall flat, then rigged the rest after the wall was up. Flip door opened smoothly. Flip door closed smoothly. No problems.

Venetian Palazzo Auditorium During Load-In for HP Discover, Las Vegas 2014

Placement of Sheaves on HP Flip Door Wall at Venetian Palazzo Auditorium, Las Vegas 2014

Royal remained on site to run the automation during the show and was able to offer advice on a mobilator giving Production Plus some problems. He adjusted it to run more smoothly and also operated it during the show. It’s handy to have an automation tech in the house.

Many thanks to Doug, Duane and Jacob at Production Plus. We were happy to be involved in bringing the HP Discover event to life. Let’s keep makin’ it move.

Gareth Conner Reflects on Ten Years of Automation Success

If there were a “2014 Theater Technician’s 365 Day Desk Calendar”, June 28 would surely mention Creative Conners. We imagine it would say something like “On this day 10 years ago a new business was incorporated with the mission to provide affordable, accessible and high quality automation equipment to the theatrical industry.” And there’d be a picture of our beloved Gear Guy from our logo, and maybe a mention of turntables or the evolution of computer controlled motion. We’d take it as a reminder that the years do add up, success doesn’t come without patience, and there are important times to stop and reflect.

Celebrating this anniversary had us first thinking about numbers. Initially it was novelty numbers like how many times do we think  Gareth has said the word “Stagehand”, then practical numbers like how much food to cater for the 10 year anniversary party today. But gradually we got a bit more introspective which resulted in this interview with our fearless leader and company founder.

Q: We know it’s been 10 years since the company was founded, but how many years since you first began creating the system?

Gareth: Yes, it was a few years prior. My initial experiment developing a Stagehand control board was in January 2001. I know it was January because it was a New Year’s Resolution I got to right away.

Q: Is automation always on your resolution list?

Gareth: Well, yes frankly it is, although there are other resolutions that sneak in there. This year for instance I made a resolution to run a half-marathon. I guess you could say I like motion of one sort or another (we’ll see how that half-marathon goes!).

Q: In these first ten years of business operations, how many control systems have you sold?

Gareth: It surprised me a bit when I checked the records on this, but the tally of just the Stagehands sold [each Stagehand corresponding to one axis of motion on stage] is approaching 1000.

Q: So there could be, on any one day of performances around the country, almost 1000 pieces of scenery moving under the control of a Creative Conners system?

Gareth: Yeah, isn’t that cool! Also it would include other countries like Korea, Australia, and this fall our gear will premiere in Istanbul. And that doesn’t include the customers using just our machines with their own control system.

Q: How many machines have you sold?

Gareth: We’ve got 130 machines out there moving scenery. We are very excited to have expanded both the number and robustness of our machine line in recent years.

Q: Looking back, what years brought the most changes for the business?

Gareth: I would have to say 2006 and 2011 were quite significant. In 2006 we introduced our Revolver machine, prototyped the hardware for our Stagehand FX, began offering a rental option for our gear, and evolved the Stagehand in important areas like battery back up, the ability to update firmware over the network, and modified it to work with hydraulics which we appreciate on a regular basis. Just this week we got an order for a hydraulic powered lift control to be used on an Eminem / Rhianna concert.

Q: And 2011?

Gareth: Yes, a lot of changes in 2011. We finally made the leap into a commercial space, which we outgrew in a year and moved up to our current space. Prior to that we had a basement / garage based business and collaborated with two other commercial shops for machine fabrication and inventory housing. Setting up shop in our own commercial space afforded the opportunity to increase staff, bring almost all fabrication in house, and do more R&D on all aspects of our gear simultaneously (mechanical, software, and electrical). Plus, in our current 6800sf shop, we have room to do things like rent arcade games for our anniversary party.

Q: How many new products have you introduced since the ramp up in 2011?

Gareth: The company was launched offering one complete automation system consisting of four products. We now offer about a hundred products and services, which include things like stage hardware and education seminars, as well as the core variety of machines and motion controllers. Most of that increase has happened since 2011.

Q: This may be a painful question to answer, but how many units have ever been returned?

Gareth: Not painful at all. We have had our share of units that have to get repaired or replaced whether it’s been damaged in shipping, has a faulty bit that escaped our quality control, or just components that wear out over time, but it’s a small number and we work tremendously hard to rectify the situation immediately.

Q: Any products returned due to customer dissatisfaction?

Gareth: None. We’ve never had a customer tell us they didn’t like the product and ask for their money back. Although our system is designed to be plug and play, without on site supervision from us, we have always offered 24/7 customer support to make sure it all goes well, and we encourage our customers to stay in touch.

Q: How many lines of code were in Avista? Spikemark?

Gareth: Hmmm…it’s been I while since I checked those stats. I think Avista had about 30,000 lines and Spikemark, at least the first version, had significantly less. Spikemark is a bit more effecient 😉

Q: What’s on the horizon in the coming years?

Gareth: Specifially we’ve got our new Showstopper 3 just about to launch, we’re experimenting with servo motors, wireless control, and developing more machines like a turtle and a friction drive. Also, to accommodate our increase in demand for touring productions we are developing our own road box (aka “The Roadie”) to house the control gear backstage and in the trucks.

Q: What’s the biggest change for the company?

Gareth: Our initial system provided a way for smaller budgeted theatres to begin doing quality automation. Since then we’ve evolved, along with these customers’ needs, to offer more sophisticated products. As theaters are reaching for more and more complex motion, we’ve pushed to raise the bar on our product line to be ready for them, and also to serve the needs of others who are already there. Because of this we’ve expanded the breadth of our customer base. We initially focused on regional and academic theatres, who are still the backbone of our business, but now we’ve got a range of clients from a two week gear rental to a middle school to a year long national rock ‘n roll tour.

Q: What kind of complex motion do you see evolving?

Gareth: A lot of theatres are interested in synchronizing many elements at once. I think we will continue to see an increase in syncing projection and scenic motion specifically. For this reason we are focusing on more intricate software. There is a need to have more devices on the network sharing position information to achieve this complex motion.

Q: Lastly, is there anyone you’d like to thank for these first 10 successful years?

Gareth: The theatres and production shops creatively integrating scenic motion into their shows are top on the list. It is always fun to see what’s moving on their stages, and we thank them for putting their trust in us to provide their automation equipment. Beyond that, if I were to list everyone individually you would see a comprehensive mesh from early influences in high school technical theatre right up to the incredible collaborators surrounding me in my shop everyday. Among the most humorous to thank would be family like my mother who, to this day, does not understand what I do for a living but offers support nonetheless. After 15 years of calling me a set designer she finally asked just last year, “What do you mean when you say ‘automation’?”

Gareth and Royal (& Sprocket) testing out a wireless friction drive prototype in April 2014.

Deck Chief Clicks the Shutter for “Love and Information” Rapid Scene Change

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"Love & Information" (Note: Back wall is closed during performances.)

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Mule Sheaves Offer 4:1 Advantage, Reduce Machine Travel.

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New Spot Block 3D Interactive

Creative Conners Spot Block rigging sheave

We’ve just updated the Spot Block page of our website to show off our latest 3D interactive. We made it using Keyshot and you can use your mouse to orbit the rendering in any direction. Check it out at the bottom of the Spot Block page and take it for a spin.

 

Check Out the Spotline 3D Interactive

New 3D interactive for our Spotline hoist.

We’ve been experimenting with a new rendering software suite called Keyshot, and one of the very cool features is their “VR” output. It creates .PNG files of the product from every angle and packages them up with some HTML and Javascript so you can drop the whole thing into your website. We used it last month on the Stagehand Pro page, and we just put one up for the Spotline. You can go straight to the VR by clicking here, or you can go to our Spotline page and click the link.

It’s a very cool way to show our customers what the products really look like without clogging up the website with a lot of tiled images. You should check it out, it’s pretty cool. We’re planning to give a lot of our products the VR treatment, and we’ll let you know when there’s a new one.

 

Trouble-Free Ethernet

Trouble free ethernet for your Creative Conners motor controllers

The tech-support department here at Creative Conners occasionally gets calls about connection problems between Spikemark and the Stagehand. Recently, we heard from a customer running a show with 19 axes and they were having 3-4 network failures per show. We got their log and show files and started looking into how Spikemark was handling the demands of the show, the firmware in their Stagehands and the quality of their network hardware. Gareth headed out to check out the situation himself and after a solid look-through of the whole setup, they decided that a good first step was to replace all of the ethernet cables with brand-new cables. The problems went away, and they ran the last week of their show without a single network connection issue.

Through all of this, we learned a few new things about network communications, confirmed some existing assumptions and found an awesome new tool, so we decided a blog post was in order to share what we know.

The first step of diagnosing and fixing network issues is to look at the quality of the cable. We found a great tool for this, the Fluke Networks MicroScanner 2. You just plug your ethernet into the tester and it will tell you the length of the cable (surprisingly handy!), whether there are any faults in the cable, and whether the cable is properly installed. In last week’s problem, the cables were made in the theatre’s scene shop, and were replaced by molded, shielded cable. With the cables that were bad, the only problem was the physical connection at the connector, and these faults were all caught right away with the MicroScanner, so we’re pretty excited to have that tool in our tool box. Here’s picture of the MicroScanner at work:

Trouble free ethernet for your Creative Conners cue control system

Another problem we look for in cables is electrical interference. The less expensive cables are not shielded, but shielding can help remove another possible culprit, especially if your cables are running in bundles with power cables, and as a bonus, the shielding makes the cables a bit more robust, which can extend their lifespan. However, if you use shielded cables you need to use a shielded network switch also (more on that later). Our recommendation is to purchase nice, shielded cables  and replace them as necessary.

Switches are the next piece of the puzzle to look into. For a basic switch, we recommend this one from Cisco, and it’s the one we include with our kits. Most switches in this price range are not shielded, so if you’re going shielded, this one is a good choice, or if you’re installing the switch in your own enclosure, this one from Phoenix Contact is a good choice. Please note that both of these switches need to be grounded in order for the shielding to be effective. If you’ve already got a switch, and you’re trying to figure out if it’s shielded, look for a metal grounding strip on the inside walls of the jacks:

Trouble free ethernet for your Creative Conners cue control system

Another point about switches is the data transfer speed specification. The maximum data speed on our Stagehands is 10Mb, so if you’re looking for switches and you see a spec like 1Gb, that’s great but you won’t be able to leverage that speed with your automation, so it’s better to spend the money on shielding or more robust connections (like EtherCon).

If you want to take your network communication to the next level, we recommend EtherCON connectors for your cables, which we ship with our kits. These are XLR-type hoods that mount over the ethernet connector on the cable and click into an EtherCON connector on your switch or any of our Stagehands. It’s very robust and a positive lock. The connectors are very affordable, so it’s a great first step for improving your setup. If you’re looking for pre-made EtherCON cables, try Lex Products. A great part about the EtherCON connectors is that you can purchase them and apply them on top of your existing cable. Just make sure you have non-booted Ethernet cables, since the strain relief of the EtherCON shell replaces the boot. Here’s what the EtherCON looks like on the face of our Stagehand:

Finally, if you want the best of the best, we recommend the Chroma-Q Magic BoxTM EtherSwitch 7. This switch has a metal rack-mountable enclosure, shielded operation, and it’s made for the entertainment industry. It also comes with a captured-nut mount on top for Mega-Clamp mounting to your truss or pipe. It’s widely used by the lighting industry, and all the qualities that make it a go-to product for those guys make it the best switch for your automation.

A.C. Lighting Chroma-Q Magic Box Etherswitch 7 image

That’s a lot, but please let us know if you have anything to add from your experiences or if you have any questions about the world of ethernet.

 

New Deck Dog And A Lower Price!

New deck track dog

Exciting news today – we’ve just finished our new dog design and we’ve cut the price by $255!  Using our fancy 4-axis CNC mill to machine the Delrin, we’ve dramatically reduced the labor required and we’re passing that savings on to our customers, for a new low price of $195.

Our new dog is mostly similar to the previous dog, but now it’s 4″ shorter, for a total length of 8″. As with our previous design, the cable passes through the dog and is secured with set screws.

You can read all about the dog here, or view a dimensioned drawing here.

 

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