Welcome to Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition, which is very much ready for prime time.
When the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1983, more than a few pundits suggested that such a memorial augured the death of the genre. Although it was only a few years after the record business had collapsed in 1979, in what many referred to as the Great Disco Disaster, it turned out that rock and roll had at least another three decades left in it (more or less). That looks also to be the case for NBC’s long-lived Saturday Night Live franchise, which wrapped its 40th season in 2015, now that it has its own archival repository. And this one’s not in Cleveland.
A somewhat anonymous entrance, on Fifth Avenue between East 37th and 38th Street in New York City, to what was once a 55,000-square-foot Duane Reade retail store, transforms into Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition, a tactile history of the iconic show, which first hit the airwaves on October 11, 1975. Founding Father Lorne Michaels approved the use of a massive amount of actual incunabula from the show—from molds of the Coneheads’ iconic crania to Mike Meyers’ Washburn guitar and Peavey amplifier from the “Wayne’s World” skits, which sit next to the couch he and his “guests” for his fictional Aurora IL-based public-access television cable TV show would sit on and that visitors to the exhibition are also welcome to flop down onto—that make Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition one of the more people-friendly historical venues.
“We wanted an immersive experience, one that people could reach out and touch,” said Mark Lach, the avuncular, energetic Creative Director of Premier Exhibitions (www.premierexhibitions.com) of Atlanta GA, which designed the 12,500-square-foot exhibition (as well as the King Tut exhibition that it shares the huge space with on the other side of the floor). “And it took a while to find this kind of, and this much, space in Midtown Manhattan, but we wanted it to be in the same city where the show comes from.” (A Las Vegas location was briefly considered but wisely discarded.) “It’s very close to Rockefeller Center.”
That’s where Studio 8H, the show’s home since its first season, is located, a 20-minute walk or 45-minute cab ride (in Manhattan traffic) away. But once you’re inside the exhibition, it would be hard to tell the difference, with familiar artifacts limning a linear journey through what has been a typical week for SNL’s staff, cast and crew for 40 years. In fact, the amount of authentic memorabilia from the program combined with the clever way the venue walks visitors through the “Monday morning till 11:30pm Saturday” routine of a typical show, you’d almost expect Tina Fey to be standing onstage when you walk into the exhibition’s recreation of Studio 8H.
It Is ‘Her’
Actually, that is Tina Fey onstage, standing on a note-for-note recreation of the SNL main stage in what the exhibition’s chronology calls The Finale. Fey, backed by the SNL Band, is actually a projection from a ceiling-mounted Barco F85 11,000 lumen, 1080p native 16:9, three-chip DLP projector on a rigid white screen pulled out as visitors enter. Fey performs a show intro recorded especially for the exhibition, recreated via projection on a full-scale replica of the studio, and the verisimilitude is engrossing. To the audience’s left, a music stage plays back classic performances on a 4×4 videowall comprised of 16 Samsung 46-inch, ultra-thin-bezel LCD screens; to their right, the same video configuration replays some of the more enduring iterations of SNL’s running Jeopardy parodies. A custom-programmed Crestron control system provides operators with a simple user interface to run the show and manage the video, sequencing from files stored on an Alcorn McBride AV binloop.
When the music plays, you’d also think you really were in Studio 8H: Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and others blare out through a pair of Bose RMU208 RoomMatch loudspeakers, coupled with a Bose MB4 subwoofer on either side of the music stage, a configuration mirrored for the Jeopardy stage. For the main stage, two Bose RoomMatch line arrays provide the left and right channels, combined with an RM9060 center, two RMU208s and a ceiling-hung RMS218 subwoofer for a fully discrete 5.1 array when the main stage is in use. In addition, a fourth zone of perimeter and ceiling RMU105 speakers creates a four-channel fill around the entire gallery, simulating audience applause and reverb from the actual studio, allowing for prerecorded crowd applause and ambient sounds to put the exhibition’s audience in the middle of the “studio audience.”
Well before the audience members reach the installation’s crescendo, they are introduced to the show’s inner workings, which haven’t changed much since 1975. The installation takes visitors through a warren of spaces, each representing a day and stage of the process that culminates in a Saturday 11:30pm (eastern) downbeat, including a raucous writers’ room, hair and makeup, props and a faux control room that lets visitors sit in the director’s chair and get a sense of what it’s like to manage the comedy chaos. Along the way, visitors are reminded of the historical depth of the cast, from Gilda Radner to Kristen Wiig, with headshots from the artists’ auditions, and the comedy bits with costumes like the absurdist bees sketches and the Jaws parody Landshark.
But it all starts with a joke and the recreation of the writers’ table, which occupies the “Wednesday” part of the timeline countdown to Saturday night (big wall clocks tick away in every gallery, reminding visitors of the pressure the show is under each week), and is a marvel of what happens when pastrami meets punch line. It’s also one of the more impressive accomplishments of Design Electronics, the Niagara Falls, Ontario, AV systems integrator that Premier Exhibitions recruited for Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition’s entire AV systems design, integration and programming.
Recorded Actual Writers’ Session
Cortina Productions (www.cortinaproductions.com) of McLean VA, which created most of the Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition’s media content, used six GoPro cameras to record an actual writers’ session, with cast and writers around a 14’x19′ recreation of the actual table, with virtual sandwiches and script pages sprawled across it, projected by a ceiling-mounted Barco F50 WQXGA projector with Sims color wheel, and sourced from a 7thSense Delta Duo media player. Voices of writers and cast (Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong recorded narration for the exhibit) seem to come from where they sit or stand around the table, with eight Bose FreeSpace DS 16F and 100F loudspeakers set at various height levels to simulate a multi-point cacophony of competitive comedy.
“Cortina enlisted Ott House Audio (www.otthouseaudio.com) to mix live in the room and, working in partnership with Bose on the initial speaker layout, we were able to accurately locate and create varying levels of SPL using Bose’s Modeler software to create distinct coverage areas,” explained Khalil Williams, General Manager of Design Electronics. “Ott House fully leveraged this to create a complete immersion experience, beyond anything I’ve heard mastered offsite. Given the distance to the equipment racks and the necessity to have the sound engineers in the room, we were able to provide a Dante interface into the ControlSpace ESP-00 DSP over the AV network to manage the playback to create highly localized audio. This way, Ott House had complete control over eight channels of discrete audio, and by placing the FreeSpace Pendant speakers at different heights, there is a surround-sound effect from anywhere in the room.”
Projection Required Special Care
The projection for this gallery required special care. “With design requirements to create a virtual environment over a large screen surface—while circumventing minimal throw distance, and the need to conceal the projector—we chose this particular projector and color wheel combination to achieve both brightness and color intensity for realism,” Williams explained. “This combination of Barco and 7thSense media player components provided excellent image quality at lower than average pixel densities. Once the projector was perfectly aligned from edge to edge of the table, Cortina Productions pixel-mapped the surface and produced content that blanked out the corners, so not a single pixel of light bleeds onto to the floor.”
That’s important because this exhibit’s payoff, to use comedy-biz parlance, is a flurry of virtual script pages flying off the table and onto the floor at the end of the session, where show-control timing built into the 7thSense media players cues the lighting control system to run a sequence of moving lights, as the tired but triumphant cast and writing staff do at the end of real writing sessions.
At less than eight inches of clearance, concealing the projector in an open architecture ceiling presented a potential challenge, due to low airflow and potentially high temperatures around it. Williams said it’s well within the manufacturer’s spec; however, he added, “This is why it’s important to actually read spec sheets and use commercial-grade equipment capable of the operating environment.”
Multiple Screens, Less Money
Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition uses plenty of advanced systems and products but, like all museum-type exhibitions, there are always budget considerations. That led to the use of consumer digital picture frames for an exhibit in which a wall of 40 Nixplay 12-inch TFT displays roll the many commercial parodies SNL has been famous for over the years, such as the Bass-O-Matic fish blender and Colon-Blow cereal. Viewing angles close up are limited to a small cluster of screens in roughly any quadrant of the 40-screen matrix, but Williams said it serves its purpose cost effectively, as do the individual 4GB thumb drives used to supply content to each screen.
“Ideally, we’d centrally manage the content and use commercial-grade [displays],” said Williams, “but given the cost consideration, scale and number of screens, and the increasing performance of consumer grade products, the Nixplay frames with local media provided a cost-effective solution to meet the design requirements.”
Another exhibit that could almost pass for the real thing is the broadcast control room. A 4×2 videowall comprised of eight Samsung 55-inch LCDs plays various camera shots that a director would see, with two banks of console desks fitted with realistic-looking panels of systems, such as intercoms and video switchers, but which are actually transparent slides illuminated from within the console. But in keeping with the highly tactile intent of the installation, Herman Miller-like chairs let visitors sit down at small screens that dot the consoles (those TFT displays again) playing back an array of SNL skits, with sound audible through a telephone handset next to the screen. The individual, synchronized audio comes through a separate 3.5-mm jack from the picture frame to the phone. Other than that, all of the AV here, including ambient background control-room chatter that’s playing through Bose RoomMatch and FreeSpace speakers and an MB12 modular bass speaker, is sourced through an Alcorn McBride binloop and 32GB CompactFlash cards.
A Crestron control system manages the sequence of the room’s AV and lighting (a typical broadcast truss filled with Lekos and Par 4s that are seen throughout the installation and lend subtle authenticity, and in some cases were installed by SNL’s own gaffers), so the visitor experience is eventually corralled toward a pair of actuator-activated doors that lead through a runway of last-minute hair and make-up stations and into the Studio 8H re-creation. Hello, Tina.
Audio throughout the installation plays a crucial role in creating an immersive environment. The Bose RoomMatch speakers fill the studio environment with high SPL that creates excitement for the SNL Band and music-performance segments, and those and the FreeSpace speakers are used liberally throughout the rest of the venue for combinations of music and dialog. For instance, a pair of FreeSpace Pendant speakers keep dialog for both “Wayne’s World” and the “Church Lady” articulate and isolated from each other when in close quarters in one gallery.
Brown Innovations SB-47 high-focus speakers are hung in areas, such as a video interview with Lorne Michaels or in the facemask fabrication area, where very tight-patterned audio is required to avoid any bleed into adjacent exhibitions. Bose Modeler software was key in maintaining intelligibility among so many adjacent zones, Williams stressed.
“Tight-focus speakers are great for intelligible speech in limited areas, but they also tend to be tinny and have no bottom end,” he said. “The Brown speakers were chosen for this role because they have a decent mid-range for speech but also give good sound in the upper and lower ranges. We put them pretty much wherever there are wall-hung video screens and have them time-aligned so there are no lip-sync issues.
“The Bose speakers are great for when we have music, which we have a lot of, and when we need combinations of music and speech, which is often here,” he continued. “We have multiple audio zones in the museum, and the RoomMatch gives us a lot of dispersion and coverage options that we can use to fit each space perfectly.”
Overt & Subliminal Sound
Williams noted that sound is used overtly and subliminally to direct the audience’s attention as the show progresses. In the Studio 8H space, audio comes at the audience from 90º angles, drawing them from the IMAG image of Tina Fey in front to a Paul McCartney performance to the left and a Jeopardy gag to the right, all while keeping a 5.1 mix discrete from the center stage. He credits the ControlSpace ESP-00 DSP for auto-mixing and managing 38 channels of music there. One final touch: A Dante interface for the DSP allows a third-party FOH console to be wheeled in for when the room is rented out for private events.
“We can give that console full control over the theater sound system for live events from a single Cat5 cable because the DSP is Dante-enabled,” Williams said.
Museums that take on current topics run the risk of rapid-onset irrelevancy, but, like the show it captures, Saturday Night Live: The Exhibition uses AV to keep the installation fresh. New content can be integrated easily as new cast members arrive and the next classic faux commercial materializes from the imagination of writers who like to throw paper around. As Mark Lach said, “We can change as the show changes, but we’ll always have the essence of what it’s always been.”