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Scenic Automation Handbook

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Scenic Automation Handbook

We’ve literally written the book on scenic automation.

(It’s a lame joke but it’s true.)

Buy It Now

Woot!!! The book has landed!! #makeitmovecci #wewrotethebookonautomation

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Creative Conners’ founder & president, Gareth Conner, has partnered with Focal Press to release

Scenic Automation Handbook

Inside Gareth covers topics like:

  • The Pentagon of Power
  • Welcome to the Machines
  • Sensing and Measuring Motion
  • Motion Control with a PID Loop
  • Integrating with Other Systems
  • and a ton more

It is for any theater student, technician, technical director, or technophile. Whether you are starting from square one or knee deep in a tech rehearsal, this book is the perfect tool to make anything move on stage.

It’s available now at Grab you copy now for some good summer reading.


Buy It Now

Decisions, Decisions – Buying versus Renting: Part Duex

Often you don’t have a choice whether to buy or rent – those decisions are made by someone solely concerned with dollars and cents. Here are a few bits of advice to make sure your theatre is not being pennywise and dollar dumb.

coin stacks

If you are using your automation gear for a show that you do often (every year or even every few years), an outright purchase will usually save you money. You save on shipping and you ensure that you are never without the equipment you need when you need it. One of our customers recently realized that their annual rental of two Pushsticks  for the last 5 years would have paid for the purchase of the same equipment if they had seized the opportunity sooner.

If you are on the fence and are considering a purchase of Creative Conners’ equipment but need to test drive it first, we can apply a portion of a rental to your purchase of the same gear immediately after your rental period has ended. This way you are assured that the kit you rent is the one you want to own.

If you have the available capital or  a budget surplus – bite the bullet and buy the gear!  A budget surplus will be eaten up by some other department if you don’t claim it. Plus, Creative Conners’ gear can open up design possibilities that positively affect every element of every show. If you only rented when you could have easily bought, you’ll be kicking yourself by the start of your next show.

Lastly, because Creative Conners’ components are plug-and-play operable, consider at least owning a Stagehand controller and a Showstopper emergency stop. You can rent the winches, hoists, or other machinery on an as-needed basis. When you need a Pushstick, Revolver, Spotline or another one of our stock machines, a rental will still be necessary. You also open up opportunities to build your own home-brewed machinery and you won’t need to worry about the front-end control or software.


If you have a project that is on the fence about automating the scenery, give us a shout and talk through your options. If nothing else, you can pick our brains and chat us up for ideas on how to get it done and how to fit it into your budget. We love talking about all things automation and seeing what imaginative ideas are floating around in your heads.

Until next time… Make It Move!

Decisions, Decisions: Buying vs. Renting – Part One

Do you hate wasting money as much as we do? There is no feeling that irks most of us more than realizing that your budget is too tight and you have to start trimming effects from your show. Whether it’s lighting, sounds, scenic or (say-it-ain’t-so) automation, every show has a budget that is too small and artistic ideas that are too big. You have two obvious choices when it comes to automation gear: you can rent it or buy it (or you can also make it yourself, but that’s a blog post for another time).

Let’s examine a few pros and cons for both options…

Rent StampRenting


  • Lowest initial investment – A short term rental will always be less costly than an outright purchase.
  • Faster turnaround – A rental order can leave our doors in a few hours if you are in a jam and we have the gear available.
  • No maintenance needed – We prep, test, and maintain each component of our rental inventory so you always receive ready to use gear.


  • Freight costs are doubled – We have to ship it to you and ship it back. Twice the fun!
  • Less time to set up and experiment – If your rental arrives just before your load-in, you won’t have much time to play with it before it has to be ready for rehearsals.
  • Rental inventory availability – Our rental inventory is large but not infinite. There is always a slight chance that when you need a piece of equipment our shelves are bare. Make sure you call early to book the gear you need.



PFor Sale Stock Image Stamp [Converted]ros

  • Opportunity to train staff and students outside of show time – Owning a kit means your staff can become expert users and technicians.
  • Equipment is available for multiple shows every season & every year – Why not automate ALL your shows?
  • You can tweak, customize, adjust, or hack your gear to your heart’s content –  Push your gear to your creative limits.


  • Initial investment is higher
  • Longer lead-time – Plan on 3-4 week before your order ships.
  • Requires storage space when not in use – make sure you’ve thought about where to put this stuff once your show is over.
  • Maintenance – Dig into that manual or give us a call because you will need to make sure your gear is properly cared for.

It can be difficult to see a clear winner when considering performance automation. While you may only need the equipment for one show, you may be better off investing in a system to use in more shows and as a training tool for your staff or students. Imagine how impractical and wasteful it would be if you rented your entire lighting kit for every show. For the very same reasons you may want to build up stock of lighting gear, many theater are building up stock of automation gear. But our rental option means you don’t have to forgo automation entirely if the funds aren’t in your budget this year (or next).

In the next post find out how you can stretch every budget dollar as far as possible regardless of if you rent or buy.

Until next time … Make It Move!


How Do I Even Get Started? Grow Your Scenic Automation Muscle

One of our driving goals at Creative Conners is to help theaters and event producers of all shapes and sizes get their hands on the same automation gear that helps create the most amazing shows in entertainment.

We try to remove the budget barrier – you shouldn’t have to sell your theater’s naming rights to afford a turntable. We also want to remove the knowledge barrier – even if you’ve never been formally trained on automation equipment, you can get started with us. You might be a carpenter with 30 years of experience or an enthusiastic freshman in high school – but for many of you, scenery automation is something you know exists but have never had the pleasure of playing with.

Photo credit: ToddonFlickr / / CC BY

Photo credit: ToddonFlickr / / CC BY

Here are 5 ways we can help you gain knowledge, build your skill set, and start playing with automation…

  1. Check out our podcast – Circuit and Gear. We started podcasting over the summer and it’s a perfect time to jump into the conversation. We talk about recent projects we’ve worked on and give you an inside peek at the working of our shop.
  2. Reach out to us about a seminar or workshop. We love talking to students and faculty at schools and colleges. We’ve done everything from short master’s classes to full-blown multi-day workshops. Undergrad students often don’t see any automation until they are out in the professional world. We can help your school’s theater program give them a head start.
  3. We’ve made our control software, Spikemark, free because it is an excellent way to start experimenting with your moving scenery ideas. The visualizer that’s baked into Spikemark provides a way to play in a virtual sandbox and get a grasp of what’s possible. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn just by programming.
  4. If you’ve got a project or an idea that has been kicking around and you want to talk it through – give us a shout. We can help you clarify your idea to achieve a practical solution. We can also partner with you to provide off-the-shelf or custom equipment to make your idea a reality.
  5. Download our white paper on stage automation. This is a quick overview of the components and different types of machines in any automation system. It is a great place to start. It’s not too long and not too deep but still has enough info to make it worth the read.

Like any newer technology, there is a learning curve with scenic automation. But like with many tools in entertainment, sometimes you just need to jump in and start playing. Find a show or a project on which you can  use a turntable or a deck winch. Once you, your director, and your audience have seen how your stationary scenery is brought to life, a new world of creative possibilities will open.

Don’t be nervous – come to the dark side… I mean the automation side .

Until next time… Make it Move!

Quiet on the Set! Pushsticks and Tek-12 Pair for Low Noise on Geffen Stage

Even scenery in small spaces can be adeptly automated, and it is particularly essential in those spaces to have quiet gear.  Noting our recommended use of Tek-12 rope in the last blogpost, Matthew Carleton, TD at The Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, shared their experience achieving quiet automation using the rope along with one of our Pushstick winches for their current production of Slowgirl.  The show, with sets designed by Takeshi Kata, is previewing now in Geffen’s 149 seat Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.  Slowgirl opens March 12, and continues with an extended run through April 27.

Video credit to Tom Watson,  ATD at The Geffen Playhouse:

And while I have your attention, might I suggest you admire other slick automation Geffen has treated it’s patrons to over the years using the Creative Conners system:

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?”


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.


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.












Spikemark and WATCHOUT: Step by Step

Back in August, we introduced Spikemark’s WATCHOUT integration which makes it easy to synchronize projection with the motion of automated scenery.  Several theatres have used this new feature to great effect, but I wanted to take a little time today and show how everyone can take advantage of this fun capability. 

DISCLAIMER:  I am not an expert in WATCHOUT, so this small tutorial is written from the perspective of an automation operator, not a projection wizard.

Alright, let’s get started.

Assume that we have a little show with an automated wall panel attached to a traveler track.  On cue, the wall panel will track from Stage Right to Stage Left.  As the panel tracks across the stage, we need to project a graphic onto the panel and have the image move along as if it were glued to the panel.  Here’s a screen shot of the Spikemark cue:


In order for WATCHOUT’s projectors to track an image synchronously with the motorized panel, we need to send the position of the panel to WATCHOUT.  Spikemark will communicate with WATCHOUT over the Ethernet network,so both the Spikemark automation computer and the WATCHOUT production computer need to be plugged into the same physical network.  In addition, the two computers need to have compatible IP Addresses that share the first three segments of the address with unique fourth segments.  I have the addresses assigned as such:

Spikemark computer is


And the WATCHOUT computer is


With both computers addressed properly, we need to tell Spikemark where to send the position data.  In Spikemark select Show Control –> Watchout from the menu.


A dialog pops up with some configuration details that determine what data is sent to WATCHOUT.


From the top the options are:

  1. Server Address:  The IP Address of the WATCHOUT production computer
  2. Server Port:  The port where WATCHOUT listens for incoming data.  By default, WATCHOUT listens on 3040.
  3. Motor List:  Each motor in your show is listed.  If the Active box is checked, that motor’s position information will be sent to WATCHOUT.  In the Watchout Name text box you can enter a name that will be used inside WATCHOUT to identify the motor’s position.  The Spikemark motor name and the WATCHOUT name can map however you like.  For example, we could have called it “Logo Winch” in Spikemark and “fuzzy pink rabbit” in Watchout.
  4. Sending Position Data:  Indicates whether Spikemark is currently sending UDP packets to the address indicated in Server Address.
  5. Update Interval (ms):  The frequency with which Spikemark will send position updates to WATCHOUT.  The number entered here will determine how many milliseconds should elapse between updates, so higher numbers will result in a slower update cycle.  In practice, 30ms is about the fastest rate consistently possible without adversely affecting Spikemark’s performance.
  6. Messages/second:  The number of position updates that are actually being sent to WATCHOUT each second.  This number will often bounce around by 1 or 2 messages.
  7. Include transition rate in messages:  If checked, Spikemark will send WATCHOUT the number of milliseconds that have elapsed since the last position update.  WATCHOUT can use this information to smooth the animation of the image as it tracks with the motor.  This generally results in a smoother visual result, but can be slightly inaccurate.  Feel free to experiment with either setting to get the most appropriate result for your show.
  8. Send Output:  This is a toggle button to turn on/off the data stream from Spikemark.  The data is sent via UDP, which is a connectionless protocol, so there is no harm sending out the packets even if WATCHOUT is disconnected from the network.  UDP packets will blissfully fall into oblivion if the server is not around to receive them so you can start the output stream before WATCHOUT is running.

With Spikemark configured and the Send Output button depressed, we are ready to fire up the WATCHOUT production machine.  Start WATCHOUT and give your show file a name.  As I mentioned when we started, I need an image to be projected on the traveller panel, so our first step in WATCHOUT is to import an image.


I selected a Creative Conners Logo image, which shows up in the Media list.


Now drag the image from the Media list into the Stage window.  You can see the image displayed in the center of the Stage view and it also shows up in the Main Timeline.


With the image on our virtual stage, we need start configuring WATCHOUT to listen for data from Spikemark.  We have to enable an  external source (Spikemark in this case) to control the image position.  Double-click on the image in the Media List and select More Effects and Capabilities.


Then, in the Main Timeline, double-click on the image layer to bring up the Media Cue properties window.  Select the Advanced tab and check External Control of Position, Scale & Rotation.


Our next step is to create a Generic Input in WATCHOUT that has a name that matches the Watchout Name we entered into Spikemark.  We will use the data received from that Generic Input to move the image around.  To add a Generic Input select Input from the Window menu.


From the Input window, click on the little triangle in the upper right corner.  From the menu that appears, select Add Generic Input.


A dialog is presented where you can enter the Name of the input and the Limit of the input value.  This step is important to get correct.  The Name needs to match the name entered in the Spikemark Watchout Output window… exactly, same case, same spelling, etc.  The Limit should match the highest value expected to come from Spikemark.  In this case, our traveler has a maximum forward position of 360”, so we can enter 360.


Press the OK button and then the new Generic Input will be listed in the Input list with its current value set to 0.00.


Now, the next step is to connect the value of the Generic Input to the x-axis of the Image so that the Image will move as the Generic Input value changes.  To link the image position to the Generic Input value we will create a formula in the Main Timeline.  Select the image layer in the Main Timeline, and then from the Tween menu select Position.


This adds a Position tween track below Layer 1 in the Main Timeline.  This is the good part.  Now that we have a tween for Position, on the left side of the track there is a little round button with an “f” inside.  That allows us to write a formula that will link the position of the image to the value of the Generic Input, the value of the Generic Input will be connected to the data stream from Spikemark, the data stream from Spikemark is driven by the position of the scenery.  The knee bone is connected to the leg bone… still with me?  Great, click the little “f”unction button.


In the dialog box that appears, we enter in a formula in the X axis text box.  Since this is a traveler track, we want to manipulate the lateral position of the image, but if it was a flying piece of scenery we could instead control the Y axis of the image.  To use the value of the Generic Input, we simply type the name of the input.  In this case, I’m multiplying the value of the input by 10 to get the image to track the correct number of pixels across the stage.  The multiplier you use can be adjusted to fit the specific show.


We are almost there.  Before flipping the last switch to connect Spikemark to Watchout, try clicking around in the Value column of the Input list.  This will manually adjust the value of the Generic Input and if everything is correct so far, as you alter the Generic Input Value the image should jump to a new X position in the Stage window.


Alright, let’s get the WATCHOUT computer listening to the Spikemark computer.  From the File menu select Preferences.  Then from the Control tab, check the UDP box next to Production Computer Control.


As soon as you click OK, WATCHOUT will start picking up the position data stream from Spikemark (assuming you depressed the Send Output button in Spikemark) and the image will snap back to match its X position with the motor position.  Also, the Generic Input Value should track with the motor position.

Let’s load up cue #2 in Spikemark.  Notice that the current motor position is 0.18” in Spikemark, and that the Generic Input Value in WATCHOUT is 0.175 showing that the two systems are communicating.



Now, let’s run cue #2 in Spikemark.  When it completes, we can see that the image tracked across the stage in WATCHOUT, matching the motor position!



I hope this gives you a little inspiration to create some stunning stage effects.  This tutorial is just a taste of what can be achieved when Spikemark and WATCHOUT are used together in live theatre.  As you start using this feature in production, please let us know how it works for you and send us some video.  We love to see this stuff in action.

Spikemark Tip: Turntable positioning

We often get questions from people who are having a hard time getting their turntable to hit a position, so we want to go over the quickest way of positioning a turntable and maybe clear up some of the confusion.

Every machine has an encoder that sends information to Spikemark as counts. In Spikemark, the user can choose to cue that piece of scenery using those counts, or translate them into inches, feet or degrees using a position scale. Inches and feet are great for linear movement, but for a turntable, the best way to represent the encoder counts is by having Spikemark translate them into degrees. Let’s look at how we do that.

Once you’ve connected the turntable machine to Spikemark, take a look at the Positioning Window in the Motor Editing Pane. Make sure that the Position Units is ‘counts’, Position Scale is set to ‘1’, and then reset the Position to ‘0’.

STOTM-turntable positioning_1

On the turntable, make a physical mark that lines up with a fixed mark on the stage. Then, using the manual control, move the turntable four complete turns until the mark once again lines up with the fixed mark. Note: You can rotate any number of complete turns- the more turns, the more accurate your result.

Next look at the motor in the cue grid and you will see a big number followed by ‘cts’.

STOTM-turntable positioning_2

That’s the number of counts that the encoder sent to Spikemark during four full revolutions of your turntable. Now  we need to determine a position scale with a little math. Let’s say you moved 2,983,996.8 counts in 1440 degrees (360 degrees * 4 turns). 2,983,996.8 / 1440 = 2072.22. That’s your position scale. Go back to the Position Window of the Motor Editing Pane, enter your position scale and change the Units to ‘Degrees’.

Now you’re done. If you want to move the turntable one full revolution, just set the target to 360 degrees more (or less) than where it currently is. Half a revolution is 180 degrees, 720 degrees will revolve the turntable twice, etc…

That’s it for the December Spikemark Tip of the Month. If you have an idea for something that you think could use a little explaining just leave us a comment or send me an email at

Quick Tip–Synchronizing Motors

A question that comes up frequently is, “How can I pull a piece of scenery with multiple motors and make sure that they are synchronized?”

It’s a great question.  A common scenario is a full-stage (or mostly full-stage) wagon that needs to track upstage/downstage.  Driving large turntables with multiple motors is another instance where you may want to use multiple motors to act as a single motor.  Using multiple motors in either situation lets you distribute your horsepower more evenly across the load.  Could you do it mechanically?  Sure, but using a piece of cable is a lot easier than building a bunch of mechanical linkages.

The answer is simple.  As long as you are using a variable frequency drive with AC motors, just two-fer the motor into the drive.  A couple of points to be aware of:

1.  You are still limited to the total horsepower of the drive.  A 5HP freq drive will only push 5HP worth of motors (maybe 2 @ 2HP).

2.  You should protect each motor individually from overload current.  If you have two 2HP motors powered by a single 5HP inverter, there’s the chance that one motor will draw 5HP worth of current.  Using a motor starter in series with each motor, that is appropriately rated, will protect each motor from overload.  Though I confess, I have be known to skip this step on quick-hit shows, YMMV.

3.  While you two-fer the motor and brake lines, you still only use one set of limit switches and one encoder.

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