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Gareth Conner Reflects on Ten Years of Automation Success

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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.

Teens Learn Scenic Automation at Detroit Country Day School

Although Jim Davis, TD at Detroit Country Day School, had approached Royal at USITT in March inquiring about a Revolver rental package, and companion training session for his students many weeks ahead of the date, it wasn’t until close to the event that we realized this would probably be the youngest audience we’d ever taught. Adding to the school’s already impressive performing arts program, Jim took it up a notch to offer a day of scenic automation education for both Middle and High School theatre students. The seminar was coordinated with the installation of a Revolver Kit rental to automate the school’s 16′ turntable for their May production of Seussical, Jr.

Revolver Machine with Seussical Jr. Turntable

Students During Seminar at Detroit Country Day School

In combining the rental package with a seminar Jim insured not only that he had on site assistance setting up the equipment, but also that the automation operator (a high school student) received direct training from us. And by the end of the seminar, the operator was indeed comfortable as he ran the cue to spin his classmates, and eventually ran 11 cues during the show’s 4 performances. And speaking of comfortable, this was our only seminar to date where the attendees were perfectly content to sit on the floor. Ah, to be young again.

In much the same way that Seussical Jr. is a simplified and shortened version of the colorful Seussical the Musical, automation education for teens also needed to be simplified and shortened. Typically our seminar attendees know what they want to move and are seeking technical instruction as to how to automate those movements, as well as a deeper understanding of the workings of available automation control systems. In this case, however, after introducing himself, Royal needed to introduce the concept of scenic automation in general.

Who is this Royal guy?
Automating a Turntable
What is a Hoist Used For?

The students seemed to engage in and enjoy the seminar, and we like to think it wasn’t just because it got them out of crew time for the day. Royal, getting out of his own crew time back at the office, likewise enjoyed his first solo seminar and was impressed with the caliber of the students, faculty / staff, and the commitment to arts education at the school. Through his own prepared presentation, and in answering student questions like, “What do people use turntables for?” and “Was the chandelier automated in Phantom?”, Royal opened their minds to the myriad possibilities that automation offers a production. “Oh, the thinks you can think…”

Many thanks to Jim Davis as well as the students and faculty of Detroit Country Day School who attended the seminar. Congratulations on a successful Seussical Jr. show!

Curtain Call Machines Automate Swags in Beauty and the Beast Tour

Disney's Beauty and the Beast at Bushnell Theatre, Hartford CT

This month we had the pleasure of seeing the NETworks tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when it arrived in nearby Hartford, CT. Of course we are fans of any fun musical, but we were particularly interested in seeing this fairytale brought to life as the production has been using two of our Curtain Call machines for almost a year. NETworks purchased the machines as a complete kit including Spikemark software running on a Lenova Yoga computer, Showstopper, and two Stagehands. Eager to see how the gear has been performing, we met with Production Carpenter Megan Parrish and Carpenter / Automation Operator Caitlin Madden before the show to take advantage of a backstage tour.

Megan Parrish and Caitlin Madden with CCI Gear

It was a pleasure to meet Megan and Caitlin who were very generous to show us around amid the hustle and bustle of pre-show activity, and even more generous with their compliments on the operation of the gear. As it turns out, it wasn’t Megan’s first introduction to Creative Conners: she had attended a 2011 automation seminar at University of South Dakota (where they are still getting great use out of our gear!). This is a pic for you, Megan, in case you need something for the next Throwback Thursday.

2011 Automation Seminar, University of South Dakota

 

In Beauty and the Beast, the Curtain Call machines automate the lateral motion of large fabric swags used to bring to life different locations in Beast’s castle. Combining the tracking seen in the video clip below with traditional hand operated line sets produces dramatic sweeping entrances and exits of the swags, mirroring the drama into which the audience (and Belle) are swept as they enter and experience Beast’s world. The production takes full advantage of the ease of movement of the swags, amassing forty five cues for them.

 

As the main operator of the system, it was quite helpful to hear Caitlin’s experience. She expressed noted satisfaction using Spikemark on the Lenova’s touchscreen when loading cues during maintenance and for manually moving the swags during any non-show moves. We asked Caitlin and Megan what they thought about the upcoming addition of a dead man’s (hold-to-operate) switch on the Showstopper 3. The dead man is a frequently requested feature, and is specified in the PLASA standards for theatrical hoists; however, in this case it did not surprise us to learn that it would be unnecessary to the point of being a hindrance. In Caitlin’s situation of tracking the swags, she would need the original configuration which will be an option when the Showstopper 3 is released. For all the automation operators reading this, here is the future Showstopper 3 button layout.

Showstopper 3

From the other side of the proscenium, of course, all we thought about was how brilliantly the cast and crew transported the audience into the fairytale, and gave us two hours forty minutes of quality entertainment. Our fellow audience members loved the show as well, but I suspect would have loved it just a bit more if they had known Cookie Monster was hanging out backstage with the crew.

Cookie Monster Backstage

He will travel with the show next to Dayton OH for perfomances 5/27 – 6/1 then just three more cities before the tour wraps up in early June. Let’s hope he gets to continue his backstage career during the 2014 – 2015 tour. Or perhaps he will join a second production slated for an international tour opening in Istanbul this fall.

Special thanks to Megan and Caitlin for their time. And to my patient dog who desperately wanted attention during the editing of the swag video.

 

USITT 2014, Booth #1229 Made it Move!


Sometimes when we tell people in our every day lives that our business is theatrical automation, there is a blank inquisitive stare and a pause which we quickly fill with phrases like “we make scenery move” and “have you ever seen a show where something on stage revolves?”  Not that we mind.  We understand it’s a niche market, but it makes for a comfortable and exciting attendance at the annual USITT Conference & Stage Expo where not only does everyone know the term “theatrical automation” but an impressive number of attendees want to talk to us about how to automate, and how to do it well.  Our team (Gareth, Royal, and Ryan) couldn’t decide if they felt like rock stars or kids in a candy shop at last week’s Conference & Expo in Ft. Worth.  Probably a bit of both.

From Thursday morning’s mad running of the bulls, er…students, who charged the doors of the Expo eager to be first to swipe the swag to the final packing of crates Saturday evening, we didn’t stop talking , listening, and showcasing our equipment and our passion for automation. Expositions are in fact a grown-up Show & Tell, and we were happy to showcase the components of our tried and true system, adding a couple of newcomers to the line up.

Our Spotline hoist made its conference floor premiere with well deserved attention not just for the snazzy rig with orange rope, but also for its applications like flying chandeliers or rigging elevators without counterweights.  Plus, with the tensioner accessory, it can be used as a deck winch. (Take a bow, Spotline).

Also making their Stage Expo debut were the Stagehand Pro, Deck Chief, and Curtain Call, as well as new features in Spikemark that were lots of fun to play with live in the booth.

Enthusiastic technicians numbering over 100 convened to hear Gareth, Loren Schreiber, and Michael O’Nele talk about PID loops.  Loren Schrieber explained the wide use of PID’s in industry (ever use cruise control in your car?) and their essential existence in automated scenery if one is to achieve precision and speed regulation. But jumping into PID’s is not something to be taken lightly, and a little guidance can make all the difference. Michael spoke to this point, effectively relating his experience of Gareth guiding him through tuning a motor for the first time, and correctly configuring the drives in a Stagehand motor controller.  Using an oscilloscope, a motor, a PID controller, and a webcam, Gareth illustrated very clearly how the adjustments to the PID loop changed the electrical waveform while simultaneously observing change in the motor’s movement. It was very rewarding to hear that for some attendees this session solidified their previously piecemeal knowledge of PID’s and left them more confident to harness their use in future.

One of the most impressive moments at the conference came in the sheer volume of attendees to our Basic Machine Design session.  Over 200 people filled the room, with more turned away at the door when the room reached capacity. Adopting the role of true Southern Gentlemen, Gareth and Royal shuffled seats off the stage and into the audience to get attendees as comfortable as possible for the educational session. Although you can buy machines for theatrical purposes, and most theatres you work at will have some machines in stock, this audience clearly keyed into the fact that you still need to know how these machines work and how to build your own machine.  It’s not uncommon for your stock machine not to work with the design specs. Show of hands, who has been asked to build a very tiny deck winch?

Royal and Gareth’s session focused on the deck winch, the most common theatrical machine. They guided the audience through building one of these standard workhorses, slide by slide, from initial concept to sizing the motor and gear box, right through making the drum and frame.

Additionally, the audience got a good lesson in torque and horsepower as well as feedback sensors (after all, who wants motion you can’t control?)

Since there are always more questions than can be answered in a 1 hour 15 minute session, Gareth and Royal left the audience with information on suppliers, a reminder to make use of Alan Hendrickson’s Mechanical Design for the Stage, the link to our own motor calculator, and an invitation to keep in touch with Creative Conners.

As the Stage Expo ended and the dismantling of the booths began, a silent round of applause could be felt in Creative Conners Booth #1229.  To the attendees who took the time to connect with us, thank you.  You made us feel like rock stars. We hope to see you again soon.

Might we suggest May 12 in Chicago for USITT Presents, “Moving on Cue, Automation with Creative Conners.” This will be another opportunity to share our knowledge and passion about theatrical automation.  And we won’t have to explain what we do for a living.  Bonus!

Top Ten Reasons to Find Us at USITT This Week

 

Here’s why you should hightail it on over to  USITT’s Conference and Stage Expo in Fort Worth and see our automation team.

10. Get SWAG.

9. Learn all you’ve ever wanted to know about PID Loops Wednesday at 1pm.  Don’t worry, they will start with explaining the acronym and work right up to applying this knowledge to unmanned space flight (or for lack of time maybe just to your automated scenery).  Click here for the full schedule and location.

 

Stagehand Pro

8. See our usually reserved and hidden-in-the-wings Stagehand Pro handle the glare of the spotlight on Friday 4:40pm on USITT’s Innovation Stage.

 

7. See Ryan’s new haircut. And ask him about his addiction to Samoas®, a.k.a Caramel Delites®.

 

6. Ride on the 3′ mini-spinner powered by the Revolver.

5. Cozy up to words like speed reducer, horsepower, torque, output gearing, drum size, unmanned space flight and more at the Basic Machine Design Session Thursday 2:45pm.  Click right here for the full schedule and location.

Vegan?

4. Find out if these three popular desserts are Vegan: Thin Mints®, Swedish Fish®, Oreos®. (Hint: Ask Royal, it’s a topic near and dear to his heart. Kind of like the Samoas® are to Ryan.)

3. Lose yourself in the acreage of our biggest booth space to date, complete with four machines to monkey around with, and take the quiz to find out which machine you are.

2. Experience wireless automation control from a tablet. Then ask if you can try to beat their score on Three’s.

And the top reason to visit our brilliant Creative Conners team at Booth 1229 in USITT’s 2014 Stage Expo and Conference at the dazzling Fort Worth Convention Center is…

1. MORE SWAG! After all, we brought it just for you.

 

Automation Gear in Action, March 6 – 8 at SETC Convention

We love automation.

We love sharing our expertise in automation.

We’ve even written a limerick about our scenic automation.  (ya srsly. read on.)

We’ll be sharing this enthusiasm in just TEN DAYS at the 65th Annual Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention  March 5-9 at the state-of-the-art Mobile Convention Center in Mobile, AL .

Visit us at our booth for hands-on experience with our gear during exhibition hours March 6th & 7th 10am – 6pm, as well as March 8th 10am – 1pm.

If you aren’t already registered, you can download the onsite registration form which will admit you to all workshops, festival performances, keynotes, exhibits and general social events. Top on your list, however, should be our “Diary of an Automation Junkie” session 9am – 10:15am on Friday March 7.

Why should you attend our one hour session?

In case the limerick alone doesn’t convince you, consider that along the humorous and educational tour of Gareth Conner’s largest blunders in automation, you will learn the principles of automation beginning with “How do I make this thing move?” right through basic explanations of torque, horsepower, a winch system, AC vs. DC motors, PLC’s, and ending with a full overview of the architecture of our popular motion control system.

Illustration of 1/4 Horsepower

You’ll find yourself picking up knowledge critical to the implementation of scenic automation in your productions, and also practical tips such as:

•Grounding matters.

•Don’t buy everything that you can build.

•PLC’s are better than knobs, but not as good as you wish they were.

•Limit switches are better than spike tape, but not as good as you wish they were.

We encourage you to peruse the full schedule of events via SETC’s interactive schedule maker which allows you to customize your own schedule and sync it to your phone or calendar. And brace yourself for some powerful networking opportunities as the convention will gather more than 4,000 actors, design and technical professionals, theatre educators, students, university representatives, and commercial exhibitors.

We look forward to seeing you there.  And now, as promised, our automation limerick.

There once was a stagehand named Gareth,

Whose automation received goodly merits.

Attending his session

Does give the impression

To ignore his sage words would be careless.

 

 

 

Scenic Automation Seminar: Lives Were Changed in Austin, TX

Gareth and Royal took their automation show on the road this month as they traveled to the wild landscape of my home state, Texas.  The USITT Southwest Regional Symposium graciously invited the Creative Conners team to Austin to hold a seminar teaching the ways of scenic automation in general, and getting the most out of our Spikemark system in particular.  Seeing an opportunity for spring thaw from our record breaking New England winter, the guys were all too eager to polish their cowboy boots, dust off the Power Point slides, and jump on a plane.

--USITT SW Automation Seminar. Photo credit: Greg Andrews--

After setting up gear for the seminar (huge thanks to Paul Flint and Alexis Tucker from the Zach Theatre for the equipment), more than twenty students greeted Gareth and Royal at the January 18 morning session.  These brave automation thrill seekers were assured of bringing something new back to their theaters, having a good laugh at Gareth’s recollections of all his mistakes leading up to the solid success of his automation line, and troubleshooting their own experiences with automation.

The “Diary of an Automation Junkie” presentation segued into a discussion on the importance of motor size and component selection.  If only we could stuff our scenic plans into the equivalent of a Brannock Device and get just the right size motor.

--Brannock Device / Shoe Sizer--

Well, Gareth insists, it really can be that easy.  As explained in the seminar, one can use the Creative Conners Motor Calc to work out specifications for your gearing and capacities (it’s free, you have no excuse not to try it).  This tool was created to further our principle that this shouldn’t be the hard part for you.  More of your time should be spent on your custom mechanical design, not the motor selection.  Size it up quickly with something like Motor Calc.  Get a good fit from AA narrow to 2E wide.  Bunions and all (ew).

Another great tip came up with regard to the ease of flipping motor direction using a simple crossover cable, a great solution for getting encoder values to accurately reflect positive / negative or upstage / downstage movement.  We highly recommend our Estore for convenient purchases of essential items like the crossover cable.

And if the morning participants came away remembering only one thing it would have to be don’t use two dogs on a curved track.  Unlike two furry dogs on one leash that, with enough training, could move in sync, two mechanical dogs on one curved track will jam up with friction faster than you can say, “How many days ’til first dress?”

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For attendees already familiar with the system who were ready to roll up their sleeves and wrap their brains around some of the finer points in automation, an afternoon “Spikemark Intensive” got underway after lunch.  Key features of the free Spikemark software were highlighted but not before a reveal of what’s inside a Stagehand.

--Stagehand Innards--

--Bionic Stagehand Innards (Smithsonian Channel)--

After identifying the name and purpose of each interior component, the conversation honed in on motor tuning.  Although it’s a critical component of smooth automation, tuning all too often takes more time than it should.  Biggest pitfall?  Not getting the proportional gain completely adjusted before moving on to other parameters.

The most important take aways from the discussion:

1.  Look at our Motor Tuning Flow Chart, from page 84 of the Spikemark manual.  In fact don’t just have a look.

Print it.

Laminate it.

Staple it to your operator’s arm.

--Motor Tuning Flow Chart--

2.  If half an hour goes by and you’re not getting anywhere, look for mechanical problems.

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Did people come away with a better understand of scenic automation equipment?  Yes.  Are these technicians now better equipped to achieve their automation goals? Absolutely.  Was cholesterol lowered?  Well, let’s not get carried away.  Taking the magic and mystery out of automation, and laying it out simply for anyone to utilize is our goal.  We believe these seminars are an important step in building the skill set of any theatre technician.

Many thanks to the good folks who attended the seminar, and of course our gratitude to Rusty Cloyes and Dave Vieira from UT Austin for their organizing efforts and warm reception.

 

Our team, however, is not done educating the world about scenic automation equipment.  March will usher in two more opportunities for them to change lives. Check us out at the Southeastern Theatre Conference March 6 – 8 in Mobile, AL.  And keep your suitcase handy for traveling to the USITT Annual Conference and Stage Expo March 26 – 29 in Fort Worth.  We’ll be there at Booth #1229  changing lives the best way we know how.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gareth Heads to Actors Theatre of Louisville

Gareth is heading down to Kentucky at the end of this week for a two-day seminar at The Actors Theatre Of Louisville. For anyone interested in hosting a seminar, you can visit our new Seminars page on our website to see a great list of topics covered. If you’d like more information, email me at ian@creativeconners.com.

 

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