Automation (Scenic)

[photo above: The Lord of the Rings, Theatre Royal Drury Lane]

Scenic automation is at the forefront of the largest most complex productions in the world, ensuring that the most mind-numbingly complex sequences of scene changes can happen at the touch of a button right in front of the audiences’ eyes.
Rather than having stage crew / stagehands moving scenery manually, automated scenery is computer-controlled, and ensures a highly repeatable and safe set of moves on every performance. 

Relevant pages at Theatrecrafts.com

History of Automation

NEW SECTION – UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Mechanised Scenery
Mechanised scenery has been part of theatre for many hundreds of years. 
The stage bridges at Theatre Royal Drury Lane could lift sets loaded with performers into view from under the stage, while tilting them to simulate disasters / shipwrecks etc. They were operated with water under pressure, but were very hand-operated – huge skill was required to move a pair of levers simultaneously to keep the two hydraulic rams level, and at the correct speed. 

Electric control of stage lifts and revolves arrived next, which provided on / off & speed control. Again, it was manual, but required a less-manually-skilled operator. 

Re-Configurable Venues

COMING SOON

Computer-Control of Automation
The onset of computer-control was the start of the current era of truly automated scenery and flying effects.

COMING SOON

Automation Timeline

Random Glossary Entry

LIMIT SWITCH
Part of a scenic automation or powered flying system - a switch positioned to send a signal to the controller when it's reached the end of it's travel.

  • 1963 110 in the ShadeGeorge Van Buren designed and built four motorized console-controlled stage winches to run the scenery on stage. 
  • 1965 Fiddler on the RoofGeorge Van Buren conceived the concentric revolve design
  • 1980 (approx) – Hudson Scenic formed
  • 1981Cats makes use of the revolving stage (and front of the auditorium) built into The New London Theatre [Kimpton Walker]
  • 1984Starlight Express used a large bridge piece (which was flown, and was able to rotate) and motorised barriers which rose around the tracks during each race. 
  • 1984 – PRG Scenic Technologies formed [ref]
  • 1985Les Miserables built a revolving stage and motorised barricades at the Barbican and then at the Palace Theatre, but ‘automation’ is not mentioned and no operators are specifically mentioned in the programme, other than stage management. [Mike Barnett / PE Kemp Engineers]
  • 1986Time – use of hydraulic platforms 
  • 1986Phantom of the Opera – chandelier and various automated set pieces, including the motorised candles and the boat. [Delstar Engineering]
  • 1988 – PRG Scenic’s StageCommand system first used on Phantom of the Opera [ref]
  • 1989Miss Saigon – Hydraulically controlled helicopter lands on stage and lifts off again [Kimpton Walker]
  • 1993Sunset Boulevard – a number of mechanical effects and a huge mansion house set which was lifted on towers in its’ corners. NB: The term ‘automation’ is only used once in the programme, to credit Electrolite – the automation team are credited as ‘Hydraulics Operators’. John Hastie (who founded Stage Technologies the next year) is credited as Hydraulics System Designer. 
  • 1994 – Stage Technologies founded 
  • 1995EFX at the MGM Grand
  • 1997The Lion King – Hudson Scenic engineered the incredible Pride Rock set piece which assembled itself as it rose and rotated out of the stage floor. [Delstar Engineering, JD Automation]
  • 1997Beauty and the Beast (London) had a number of automated pieces, including the Beasts’ Balcony truck, which was able to rotate and maintain the correct amount of tilt as it moved around the raked stage of the Dominion Theatre. This section also contained a lift mechanism for the Beast/Prince transformation at the end of the show. Howard Eaton built the exquisite Rose prop, which used integrated lighting and small motors and chains to control the falling rose petals precisely. 
  • 2002Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – the flying car was a huge achievement and was a stunning effect. [Stage Technologies and Delstar Engineering]
  • 2002We Will Rock You (Dominion Theatre, London)
  • 2002 – Our House – AVW Controls
  • 2004KA (Cirque du Soleil) at the MGM Grand [Stage Technologies]
  • 2004 – Mary Poppins (West End & Tour) Design by Bob Crowley – Big Vision Group [UK Tour – Delstar Engineering]
  • 2005Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre used a metal framed structure for Billy’s house to great effect. [AVW Controls and Delstar Engineering] 
  • 2006The Lord of the Rings – The Musical had a total of 99 axes of automation, including a giant revolving stage with lifts built onto it.  [Silicon Theatre Scenery and Delstar Engineering]
  • 2006 – Wicked (London) – Stage Technologies and Delstar Engineering. PRG Scenic Technologies provided the engineering solution on Broadway. 
  • 2006 –  Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular (Las Vegas, USA) [Fisher Technical Services]
  • 2006 – Spamalot – Delstar Engineering
  • 2006 – The Sound of Music – Stage Technologies
  • 2008 – Shrek the Musical – PRG (Broadway)
  • 2009 – Legally Blonde (Savoy, London)
  • 2009 – Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Palace Theatre, London) 
  • 2010Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark used complex multi-dimensional performer flying systems to bring stunt performers into the auditorium, as well as a large amount of automated scenery, totalling 145 axes of automation. [Fisher Technical Services]
  • 2010Matilda Desks as lifts, pop-up bathroom front built into floor [Stage Technologies]
  • 2010 – The House of Dancing Water (Macau and Belgium) – [Stage Technologies]
  • 2010Love Never Dies [Stage Technologies]
  • 2011 – Wizard of Oz (London, 2011)
  • 2012 – Newsies (Broadway & Tour) – Design by Tobin Ost – Hudson Scenic
  • 2013Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – a plethora of automated scenery, including laser-guided independently-moving trucks, and the showstopping (literally, unfortunately) Great Glass Elevator.  [Stage Technologies / Tait Towers]
  • 2014 – Aladdin – Trucks that more around the set autonomously, many trap doors and lifts, and an incredible magic flying carpet effect [Hudson Motion Control]
  • 2015 – Hamilton [Hudson Motion Control]
  • 2016 – Groundhog Day (Old Vic, London) Quintuple Revolve [AVW Controls and Weldfab Stage]

Safety

Modern automation systems have a high degree of safety systems built-in.The automation operator has easy access to an E-Stop (emergency stop) button, enabling the system to stop moving in the event of a problem. There are also E-Stop buttons in locations where problems might occur, such as in the theatre basement where an actor may get onto a platform lift, or at high level if performer flying is used. The automation operator has a number of closed-circuit TV monitors to enable her/him to see all parts of the system.

This video shows a ‘safe edge’ on a lift for a production of The Bodyguard. As soon as something gets in the way of the scissor lift, it stops moving instantly, preventing what could be a serious injury.

Demonstration of Creative Connors products at Denver

PRG Scenic Technologies History

Automation Companies

  • Creative Conners – USA, started by Gareth Conner in 1992
  • Delstar 
  • Kimpton Walker – founded by Charles Kimpton and Alan Walker. Set design and construction company. Dissolved in 2001.
  • Kinesys – Vector control system, now part of Tait Technologies
  • PRG Scenic Technologies – founded in 1984 as East Coast Theatre Supply (or 1986) (see above)
  • Stage Technologies – founded in 1994 by Mark Ager and John Hastie. Now part of Tait Technologies, based in the USA

MORE COMING SOON

Books

2018
2015
2009
2008
2008
2007

External Links

Companies

Broadweigh Portable wireless load monitoring [UK]
PRG Scenic Rigging & Automation [USA]
Unusual Rigging Rigging, suspension and automation [London, UK]

Flying

Fisher Technical Services 3D Flying [USA]

Jobs

Automation London Theatre Automation & Motion Control jobs [London, UK]

Makers

Weld-Fab Stage Engineering Ltd Revolves, Scissor Lifts, Scenic Engineering [UK]

Manufacturers

AVW Controls Impressario System [London, UK]
Bosch Rexroth Stage Technology [Germany]
Creative Conners Inc.
Delstar Engineering [UK]
Hudson Motion Control Hudson Scenic [NY, USA]
KEB America Automation Products [USA]
Kinesys Motion control
Mannetron Robotics, Simulators, Automation [USA]
Q Motion Stage engineering and automation
Silicon Theatre Scenery Scenic automation and performer flying [The Netherlands]
Stage Machines LLC
Stage One Scenic Automation Projects [UK]
Stage Technologies Includes many examples of their projects
Tait Scenic Rigging & Automation
VisualAct Technology & Engineering for the entertainment industry [Sweden]

Resources

Podcast: Circuit & Gear - Scenic Automation

Software

Spikemark Scenic Automation & Visualisation

Last updated: 4 April 2021

Keywords: Scenic Automation, Automated Scenery, Moving Scenery