It takes a lot to put a show together. Having a theatre background, I know this better than most. You’ve got to get the actors, the techs, directors, choreographers, musicians, producers, the front of house crew, even sometimes live animals. I once worked with an interesting hen named Red Granny. All the parts must come together and work as a whole to make it happen. Despite common misconceptions, the theatre is not about stars. Sure there are famous actors, directors, etc. but the good ones know how to work as an ensemble. The theatre is a clock, gears all working together to turn the hands.
The Houston LIVE festival is the same. Any prepared event that has attractions, staff, and guests is a show, and needs a cast and a crew. So what does it take to pull off something as massive as creating the Houston LIVE festival at Super Bowl LI? I spoke with Bob Allen about what it really takes to pull something like this together, and as I suspected there are a lot of moving parts. “We began by talking about IDEAS’ unique creative process and how it was used to help develop Houston LIVE.”
Who’s The Audience?
“The first question that must be asked is, ‘Well, who’s the audience?’. We’ve gotta know who we’re talking to if we’re gonna know what to say. In the case of Houston LIVE there was a very diverse audience. Everyone from locals to corporate partners to the media. Once you know your audience the real work begins.”
What Story Do We Want To Tell?
IDEAS has always been all about story, so naturally the next pressing question is “Now that we have an audience, what story are we telling them?”. The company has developed a unique way of finding the answer to this question. IDEAS employs a proprietary process called StoryJam, and out of a StoryJam comes a design story which will become the heart of the project. For this particular project they needed to find Houston’s core story, which was going to relate to the city’s connection to not only space, but energy, culture, innovation and cutting edge healthcare, and then tell it through an immersive event. Instead of words and chapters there would be attractions and exhibits.
What Are The Constraints?
The next question is not quite as fun; it is “What are the constraints?”. As you can imagine there are tons of different limitations to be found on any project. They use a process called value engineering to determine what is worth doing, what the guests will really find engaging. Sometimes it can be annoying if there’s an idea that you think is really cool, but the data shows it is less likely to be a hit with the audience.
So now that we’ve got this event with all these elements coming together, I asked Bob to give me something a little bit more specific. “IDEAS is very skilled in creative work, writing, art, design, media, but we needed a more hands on production partner because this is a big and complicated project with a huge requirement for physical production on site.” They found GES through an old Disney colleague and the teams immediately clicked. With projects like these it is beyond important to have a team that works well together, and with GES the IDEAS team found a powerful chemistry. GES was exactly what they needed project wise too, since they specialize in the logistics and the physical production required to pull it off. “It’s also just great to have somebody else there to help when you hit a pothole. sometimes literally”, Bob said, “Since we are creating a lot of this event in a parking lot!”
Build a VR Drop Tower?
So we have a lot of plans and ideas but in order to make something like a cool VR based drop tower…you need to have the actual drop tower. To be honest, nobody at IDEAS has much experience constructing 87” tall drop towers. That’s where ARM comes in. They built the actual ride system. There are lots of companies out there who can build a ride, but ARM was amazing to work with. There is a rule I was taught in acting. They say “Never say no in improv, always yes or you’re holding the scene back”. The process of creating Future Flight was a bit like an improv game. There were always new ideas being bounced back and forth.
Working with ARM you might say “Hey, so how about we add some fog? Can we slow down the ride so we have more time for the video? Can we cover the whole thing with sparkly rhinestones that spell out the word ‘penguin’?” There answer was always yes. Well, maybe not that last one…. Just ignore that…
So now there was a plan for the tower structure, but they still needed the actual VR. IDEAS was in charge of this part. It was a bit tricky since they were unable to attach a system to the ride itself, but in the end a solution was reached using Samsung Galaxy phones that they synced to the ride with the help of long time strategic partners at HD Interactive. IDEAS’ Motion Graphics Designer, Greg Roux, made the actual content that would play on the screen. There were a lot of elements to pull together for the video. It had to be true to science, meeting NASA’s standards, and teach the guests something, but also be entertaining and light enough to make sure the non-scientist crowds would get the story.
As it all came together there was a person who was basically in charge of each element. If something was up with the ride it, belonged to the ride producer, Charles Moore and he diagnosed and got it to the right expert. If the NFL didn’t like the language used in something he sent it to the head writer, Duncan Kennedy. If it was a synch problem, it went to Sean Carey at HD. Casting issue for the voice over? That goes to Mary Anne Metaxas, IDEAS’ VP of Media. It worked because there was trust. Everyone knew that their teammates knew what they were doing. They functioned like individual pieces of a machine coming together to create a grand invention.
It is always remarkable with such a big project to take a step back from it and think “Yeah, we did that, we actually did that.” I recommend you go see it for yourself, and when you’re standing there looking at the Future Flight tower, or you’re immersed in a great hands-on demo at Houston Live, you’ll remember all the bits and pieces that came together to make it happen, and have a greater appreciation from what is more than an exciting event or an awesome looking drop tower.
…It is a pretty awesome looking drop tower though. Seriously. Awesome.