Behind the scenes at NBC’s “The Wiz Live!,” a stunning new television production of the now-classic musical, d3 played a key role in bringing Dorothy’s journey to Oz to life for a new generation of viewers.
Photo Credit: Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Directed by Kenny Leon and Matthew Diamond, “The Wiz Live!” followed “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music” in NBC’s continuing series of live theatrical productions. “The Wiz” revamps the classic story of “The Wizard of Oz” with an African-American cast as audiences watch young Dorothy swept up in a tornado, following the yellow brick road to Oz then finding her way home to Kansas.
Taking a different approach from NBC’s previous live productions, which used multiple sets on multiple soundstages, “The Wiz Live!” had a stage-box setting. An LED back wall formed the scenic backdrop; three LED portals opened and closed and an extensive amount of automated scenery tracked in and out.
“Production designer Derek McLane wanted a fixed location, like a traditional single stage. For this show, the use of LEDs was not a stunt or trick: They were the scenics,” explains Ben Nicholson, creative director for the screen content. “One of Broadway’s top production designers had the flexibility to replace painted scenic backdrops with LEDs and add motion where he wanted it. And he was really pleased with the results.”
Unlike most productions, “The Wiz Live!” offered the luxury of time to its creatives. “We spent one month programming the show and another month rehearsing at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, Long Island,” says Nicholson. “d3 was selected for its ability to move and change where we were in a scene and render out a very large canvas. d3 was also essential for the great deal of live compositing we did.”
“d3’s support of alpha video files and large resolution files was extremely helpful,” notes J.T. Rooney, technical producer and assistant creative director for content and a longtime d3 user and programmer. “It was nice to be able to use d3 for more than programming a show: d3 was part of the content workflow from the earliest discussions for the show.”
The screens team deployed three d3 4x4pros from vendor VER for the show: one as master, one as display and one as understudy. In addition, they had two d3 Editor licenses for Windows computers. One was set up FOH and the other was in the content creation studio.
“We could take our d3 Editors and update the show live independently of the master running on stage – that was pretty fantastic,” says screens programmer Ben Keightley, who worked FOH most of the time. “I could make adjustments to the show on an Editor looking five minutes ahead of the production without interrupting the action onstage.”
“The Editors were live connected and live updated at all times,” notes Rooney. “They were a huge part of the workflow and added another layer of communications. Ben Nicholson and I could go to the Editor in the content creation studio and scrub around in the timeline and show the animators what was going on without taking up Ben Keightley’s time. We also used that Editor for creative review sessions with Derek McLane. The Editors saved us a lot of time.”
The screens team also took full advantage of the Content Management feature in d3’s new r12 software release, which introduces faster workflows with built-in version management and the ability to create file proxies. This speeds the workflow for getting new content into the system on site for complex shows.
“We always wanted to keep an image up on stage,” says Keightley. “Content would push new versions of media to me and r12’s Content Management would automatically update it on stage. If a file was bad or if Ben preferred another version, I could roll back to the previous version in seconds.”
“Content Management in r12 is aptly named: It made content management much easier for us and took a lot of guesswork out of things,” adds Rooney.
Keightley finds d3 to be “a pretty deep piece of software” and says the screens team “really gave it a workout. The way it can take content and warp it and color correct it, its ability to do live compositing – I had never done as much with d3 as we did for ‘The Wiz Live!’”
The tornado sequence, for example, evolved during the course of production. Late in the process the screens team was asked to show Dorothy’s house falling down. “The animators made six or seven 3D models of the house, and Ben and I animated the motion, added smoke layers and adjusted their intensity, added motion blur, crushed the white levels of the house and flipped it 180º. Everything was done in d3; there was no time to pull it back into content,” says Keightley.
“Every scene in the show was custom mapped,” he adds. “We were able to do that on stage in real time, on the fly, without having to re-render. We would have been sunk without d3.”
Rooney notes that d3 “made it quick and easy to repurpose content. That meant we didn’t have to create things a hundred times. We could render something once, give it to Ben Keightley and he could repurpose it in a lot of different ways. That was a huge timesaver for us.”
d3’s timeline-based operation was also invaluable to the screens team. For numbers such as “Brand New Day,” individual scenic elements and lighting elements were rendered as separate animations “so if they changed a beat, changed the timing, changed a light everything was available live in the box, and we could see the results immediately,” says Nicholson.
“At its heart d3 understands time in beats and bars, which makes it easy to program musical numbers,” says Keightley. “That sped up our work dramatically.”
“d3 continues to evolve into a more and more useful tool,” Nicholson concludes. “And it’s rock solid. During the two months of programming and rehearsal and during the show itself we didn’t experience a single d3 problem.”