Forty large LED screens brought Pope Francis closer to audiences in Philadelphia.
Although event producers have successfully used digital media at large gatherings to enhance the audience experience, few have had the opportunity to organize the staging, entertainment and television coverage of a world leader whose charisma is a major attraction. Pope Francis visited the United States in late September. His historic trip was a memorable experience for thousands of people in the cities he visited, and millions more around the world who watched the televised coverage. Whether they viewed the events on digital billboards, smartphones or TVs, the telecasts had a major impact on viewers of all persuasions.
Event and concert producer Scott Mirkin and his company, ESM Productions, provided host TV coverage, staging and technical services for Pope Francis during the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. I spoke with Mirkin shortly after the event and asked him to share his insights on the challenges and high points of being responsible for an AV-IT project of this magnitude.
You have orchestrated several special events in Philadelphia, what were some of the production and operational differences involved in preparing for the visit of Pope Francis?
The overall scope in addition to the potential global audience made this project much different from other projects I have worked on in Philadelphia. We knew early on that we were going to deliver television coverage of multiple events at multiple locations to a worldwide audience. We ended up covering 10 events at four locations.
The largest difference was scale. We have done lots of events with six to 12 delay screen systems, but this one had 40 screens. Some of these outdoor displays were 10 feet high by 16 feet wide. Also, the large crowds and the NSSE [National Special Security Event] status made the event significantly different.
Typically, a tech company starts with a site survey, but when you have an entire city on your hands, what is the starting point?
We always start with the “where, when, what” to really understand the vision. And then there is the site plan to understand the physical scope of it. Although a first reaction is to visit the site, for the first time, we used Bentley Acute3D reality-modeling software, instead. We built a model of the city with thousands of photographs taken from a helicopter and ground level, as well. It was exported to CAD and we could view the physical spaces in 2D and 3D. We provided stakeholders on this project with logins to view the various spaces. It was a tremendous help in the physical planning, and provided a model to collaborate on.
Tell us about some of the key technical decisions that were made.
The overall plan included 40 LED video screens with sound, located around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Independence Mall. The initial thought was to link the screens together through a variety of RF microwave links but, after some thought, we determined that RF spectrum would be at a premium and it would be better for everyone if we stayed out of the way. We decided to run multi-strand tactical fiber to each screen. This decision allowed us to also provide IP networking to each screen location for audio delay control and for attendee WiFi.
When we learned that Pope Francis was going to do a parade loop in the Pope Mobile down the parkway and around City Hall, we had to figure out how to best cover the parade. Given the slow rate of travel expected, we didn’t think that the usual handheld camera on the back of a motorcycle was the right fit. We started looking at what we could do with a stake-bed truck. Our friends at VER recommended a gyro-stabilized HD camera from Cineflex, which proved to be the right tool for the job.
What aspects of the project increased your stress?
We had to manage a labor force of hundreds, building technical infrastructure throughout a major city. We didn’t get to all of the streets as early as we would have liked, so that was a big challenge. But, lo and behold, the hard work paid off and all 40 screens were up and running by the morning of the event.
How did the streaming aspects of this event differ from your previous productions?
Streaming has become an everyday part of broadcast. We treat it as such, and will only use the most robust, high-quality systems and solutions providers to partner with us on streaming. That is why we chose to partner with Tidal on the streaming of this historic event. They have a global reach, and their quality of delivery will always hold up to what we are sending to them. They have a great desktop solution, as well as a mobile app that is second to none.
Honestly, the streaming was no different for us than previous events. We worked with Tidal for the Made In America Festival earlier in September and this was set up pretty much the same.
What criteria did you use in the selection of other partner companies?
We looked at several factors, especially experience in scale of events. We made onsite visits and took a close look at their facilities, especially R&D and the warehouse. How a company maintains and stores its gear can tell you a lot about the company. We looked for local and diverse technology vendors who have the chops!
Who were your most important partners in this endeavor, and how did they contribute to the event’s success?
There were many partners involved, each playing a key role. First and foremost, Labor (the men and women of IATSE [Local 8, Local 600, Local 100], IBT, IBEW and Teamsters [Local 107]) all made this event a success.
Then, from a hardware or technology perspective, Upstage Video and Video WallTronics for the Jumbotrons, NEP for mobile production trucks, VER for the fiber infrastructure, Clair Brothers for the main PA system and 32 delay stacks on the BF Parkway. Maryland Sound provided the main PA and delays for Independence Mall. NCP, Light Action, PRG, Full Flood, Hargrove…the list goes on and on!
Specifically, what were the most rewarding aspects, from a technical or creative POV?
For me, our coverage of the Pope Mobile was probably the most rewarding. There are some pretty spectacular images from the entire weekend, but our video of the Pope Mobile in motion is not something you normally see on live television.
Serving as the Executive Producer, and the host broadcast entity, was a tremendous honor. We were able to see our designs come to life, and we were able to capture these moments and share them with the world via global broadcast and live stream to a gigantic audience.
What was the most interesting aspect of this project that would be of interest to our readers?
The 30 miles of cable, fully redundant, with local takeover, and a network of 40 giant video screens, with audio, data and WiFi, was a pretty amazing task. This system was designed in-house by our Engineer-in-Charge, Craig Mirkin, and executed by teams at nearly 100 companies. It went flawlessly, thanks to all of the partners listed earlier. We are also deeply satisfied with the outcome of the global broadcast that we were charged with producing. I am truly humbled with the opportunity to have served as producer of this content that was shared with millions of people worldwide.