Tomorrow night in Los Angeles Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will premiere their brand new Out of This World show to kick off its cross country tour. With a 145 year old history of being The Greatest Show On Earth, show producers are always thinking about innovative ways the circus can continue to delight fans of all ages and this new show is heavy on technology.
While visiting Ringling Bros. in Florida, I got to meet Lorelei Owens. Lorelei works as a Lighting Technician for Ringling Bros. and gave me a behind the scenes look at the cool new technology that the circus is using (projection mapping, video boards, and a new spot light tracking system!). She also shared how she got to be doing this very cool job and advice for girls who are interested in pursuing technology fields.
For Lorelei, the circus is a lifestyle. Even though she might not be on stage with the performers who are gliding across the ice, she’s will be behind the scenes, living with 250 other people who travel together and work together all day, every day, 365 days a year to bring you The Greatest Show on Earth. I think her job is fascinating and hope that this interview provides you with interesting insight into the technology behind the brand new Ringling Bros. Out of This World show.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: We haven’t been to the circus in a few years and from what I’ve seen from the opening act, Ringing Brothers has reinvented the circus in a brand new way thanks to technology. Can you share how the circus has evolved and what guests can expect when seeing Out of This World?
LORELEI OWENS: The allure of the circus has always been the promise of the incredible. Since the days of PT Barnum, circus-goers have expected to be swept up in a spectacle unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. With the access to the Internet being virtually universal and constant, as well as the increasing popularity and use of CGI and 3-D movies, audiences in the 21st century seem to have “seen it all” and impressing today’s crowds is a great deal more challenging than it was in Barnum’s era. Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey presents ‘Out of This World’ is taking that challenge head-on.
‘Out of this World’ is taking the circus into the future, both literally and figuratively. With daring acts and acrobatics, performing animals and a live band, the heart of the circus still beats strong, however, the introduction of projection, automation and special effects allows us to transport the performers and the audience virtually anywhere in the universe and create a totally immersive experience.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: How do the projection mapping and video boards work?
LORELEI OWENS: Out of This World’ uses 7 high-resolution projectors to create the worlds that bring our circus performance to life. In every city, our video crew will carefully place and focus each projector, to ensure that the video images align perfectly, creating a smooth, solid picture.
During the show, a video technician controls the projectors from a laptop at Front of House (usually up in the seats, somewhere with a clear view of the entire floor). As cues are taken, the laptop communicates through an Ethernet connection with the server rack backstage, which, in turn, passes data via Ethernet to the seven projectors mounted in the grid. All of this communication happens within a fraction of a second, so the audience is never removed from the full experience of the show.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: Places like Walt Disney World use projection mapping to transform Cinderella’s castle as part of the fireworks show and the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom but how did the idea to project on ice come about? What makes ice a good surface for projection mapping?
LORELEI OWENS: As anyone who has ever been to movie theatre will know, an ideal projection backdrop is a clean, white surface. Thusly, ice lends itself perfectly for video and lighting. In addition to being an ideal canvas for projection, the ice introduces a brand new element for performance. Freestyle skaters, figure skaters and ice-trained acrobats bring a fast-paced energy that drives the entire show to a whole new level.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: While I was in the costume shop, we heard about beacons that follow certain individuals around during the performance. Can you tell me a little bit more about these and how they work?
LORELEI OWENS: Our spot-light tracking system is, in my opinion, one of the coolest pieces of technology we get to work with on ‘Out of This World’. The system allows us to flawlessly follow and light fast-moving skaters, as well as opening a world of possibilities for various effects that could never have been accomplished with a hand-operated follow spot.
The performers costumes are fitted with “stringers”, thin black wires with a small, infrared light at the end. These stringers are plugged into little black packs called “beacons”. Each beacon tells the infrared stringers to pulse at a specific pattern, virtually undetectable to the human eye. Each beacon, and their associated pulse pattern, is assigned to a specific performer. When the performer walks onto the floor, this infrared blinking is picked up by the specialized cameras mounted on the audience beams on all sides of the arena. It is important that the stringers can be “seen” by multiple cameras at any given time in order for the program to be able to determine the exact location of the performer on the floor. This means that the lighting and video department must work closely with wardrobe to ensure that the placement of the stringers in the costumes allows for optimum visibility to the cameras, without being noticeable or distracting to the audience. Generally, the tops of the shoulders make for ideal stringer placement.
The cameras then send location data via Ethernet to the servers backstage and the servers combine the location data with the programmed cues and sends it all to the moving head lighting fixtures, telling them where to light.
All of this information is passed via CAT 6 Ethernet cable. CAT 6 is currently the latest generation of Ethernet cable available and is, at this time, the only version capable of sending so much information at speeds fast enough to run a smooth and flawless show.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: Working for Ringling Brothers on their technology behind the scenes is such a cool job! Can you tell me about your background and what led you to this job?
LORELEI OWENS: My story is a little a-typical when compared to most entertainment technicians, as I did not come from a technical theatre background. While I did grow up in and around theatre, I was always on the performer side of things and had very little to do with the magic behind the scenes.
I went to college at a state university in Northwest Ohio as a Political Science major, and to be honest, I hated it. I had always done well in school and I had a few really great classes, but the college environment and structure did not suit me. I felt bored and trapped and I no longer had theatre as an outlet. Easily the biggest challenge in my education was finding an environment where my love of learning could thrive. I spent my sophomore year studying abroad in Australia, which offered a very different perspective on the world and opportunities than I would not have gotten had I not left small-town NW Ohio. It was amazing. The experience made returning to my home university even harder, but now, I was determined that I was only going to find fulfillment by looking in new and previously unthought-of places.
I reconnected with a few life-long friends, one of whom I call my ‘brother’. My brother had, at various points in his life, spent time working in circuses and sideshows and, after giving college a shot, realized that’s where his heart was. With his help, I learned fire eating, glass walking and a host of other off-the-wall skills. My circus-brother opened his own touring sideshow museum and we spent the summer touring the Southeast with various carnivals and playing county fairs. We worked from before the fair opened every morning until the Ferris wheel lights went out every night and barely made enough money to eat, but it was amazing. That summer was the hardest I had ever worked and the happiest I could remember being. The following spring (2012) I joined a mid-sized traveling tent circus and I’ve been on the road ever since. I finished my political science degree online while on the road with 2 different family circuses before joining Ringling in December of 2014 as a member of floor crew. One of the great things about working for Ringling Bros is the way the circus-family mentality encourages management to promote from within. I became an electrician in 2015 and nearly all of my training has been hands on and on the job, which, as it turns out, is exactly the environment I have found that I thrive in. Every single day is a learning experience and I couldn’t ask for anything more from a job or career.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What was your biggest hurdle/challenge in your education or career in getting where you are today?
LORELEI OWENS: The most challenging part of my career as a technician has been overcoming low-expectations, both from others and myself. While I take great pride in my professionally diverse background and variety of accomplishments, the fact remains that I did not have a technical or science background before my position at Ringling Brothers. Being the “non-technician” on a technician crew meant it was easy enough to have me learn one or two simple things and that would be my job. I wasn’t expected to take any real responsibilities or take on complicated tasks. I was set to become complacent and just earn my checks.
However, I knew that I had been presented with an incredible opportunity. Many of my crewmates had degrees in technical theatre or years of experience in the field and I was in a position where I was actually being paid to learn! Still, training someone from the ground-up takes an immense amount of patience and effort on the part of the trainer, so it fell on me to prove that the effort would be worth it. This meant volunteering for projects no one else really wanted, sometimes staying late or working between shows, it meant borrowing books and reading whatever I could to try to build the foundation I was lacking. I looked up to (and still look up to) a number of the people I work with. I am surrounded by individuals with incredible problem-solving skills, a wealth of knowledge and an attitude that nothing is impossible. It can be extremely frustrating to sometimes feel like you are the slowest person in the room, but every time I am given a problem to solve or trusted on my own with a project to create, repair or maintain I am reminded of how far I have come and how much I have learned and I know that I need to keep pushing.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: When you were looking for jobs, what was appealing about Ringling Brothers?
LORELEI OWENS: Aside from my personal and professional growth, the most rewarding part of my job is seeing the show come together in every city and watching the wonder on the faces of the audience, children and adults alike. I grew up going to Ringling Bros. almost every year and I have a number of very distinct memories that really epitomize my childhood in my mind. It’s incredibly mind-blowing to me to know that I am a part of making those memories for someone else. We do multiple shows a day, hundreds of shows a year, but every single one is a once in a lifetime, special event for someone in the audience. Every individual show is someone’s family tradition or Birthday surprise. It is so important to me, and to all of us in the cast and crew, that every performance is treated and presented like the special occasion that it is.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What is the most challenging aspect of your career?
LORELEI OWENS: The crew arrives 2 hours before every show to prepare the floor and backstage area. This includes loading pyro, testing every single lighting fixture and projector, testing all motors, sound check, setting props and floats, cleaning the floor rubber, and cutting the ice. Doors open for the Starseeker’s Early Access pre-show at 1 hour before show time, and during this time the electricians do small things like set the tiger cage for Alexander Lacey to introduce his leopard, Mowgli. However, for the most part we use this time to prepare and begin work on our projects for the day. These projects often include repairing lights and cables. In addition to the 200+ lighting fixtures and 25 miles of cable that bring ‘Out of This World’ to life, the electrics department is also responsible for all atmospherics and special effects (think foggers, snow machines, hazers) as well as electronic props, and lights in floats and costumes. We do virtually all of our repairs in-house, as we own all of our own equipment, rather than renting, as is common for many touring shows and concerts.
During the show the electricians have very specific responsibilities. Our board operator runs all the lighting cues from Front of House, this also involves occasionally making live changes to account for small technical problems as well as changes in the show that are inevitable with live performance. Other electricians run motors and automation cues, helping our aerialists take flight and float through space. Still another member of our crew helps the video and wardrobe teams with spotlight tracking beacons and making sure no performer will be in the dark. Finally, a team of 2 technicians run the pyrotechnics and open flame for the show. Ensuring every shot and moment is as safe as it is spectacular.
In between cues and during intermission, everyone except the board operator continues work on their assigned projects, making sure we have spare lights and parts available for a quick and smooth swap between shows should it be necessary. On days where we perform more than one show, we will eat lunch or dinner at the “Pie Car Jr.”, our small, blue catering truck that serves pretty much everything except pie.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What advice do you have for parents of girls who are interested in pursuing technology?
LORELEI OWENS: The best advice I can offer parents of girls who are interested in technology is this:
We are living in an incredible time of information. The ability to learn more about anything that peaks our curiosity is literally in the palm of our hand. Teach your children to use their phones and computers for this purpose. When your child shows interest in something or begins asking questions, encourage them to ‘google it.’ Teach them to find the information and let them teach you about what they find. Not only will this build confidence, it shows children that there is so much more to technology than sharing pictures and getting “likes”.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What advice do you have for today’s generation about pursuing a career in technology?
LORELEI OWENS: One of the most exciting things about technology is the way that it is constantly changing and updating. Being successful in a technology career requires a willingness to adapt and to constantly keep learning. Never think you know it all. What you are an expert in today might be obsolete tomorrow, and that’s OK. Make an effort to keep current, read whatever you can about what interests you and always keep an open mind.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What do you love most about the innovative work that Ringling is doing with Out of This World?
LORELEI OWENS: There is this cynical idea floating around that technology and live performance are somehow mutually exclusive of each other, or that technology is destroying art. ‘Out of This World’ blows that myth right out of the water. I’m extremely excited to be working on a show that embraces change and technology and will be launching a whole new genre of circus and live entertainment.
Along with all the lighting and video advancements I’ve talked about, the new Ringling Bros. app has found a way to turn our smartphone/social media addiction into an opportunity to enhance the audience experience, rather than distract from it.
I have always loved circus, and I find the ever-changing world of technology absolutely fascinating and I am thrilled to be a part of this innovative venture to bring those two things together and create something spectacular.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What do you wish others knew about what you do for Ringling Brothers?
LORELEI OWENS: One of the most difficult things to explain about my job is that it’s more than just a job. The circus is a lifestyle. There are around 350 people that work together to put on “The Greatest Show on Earth’ and we all live together, travel together and work together all day, every day, 365 days a year. I’ve often heard the circus described as “a city without a zip code” and that truly is the most accurate explanation I can imagine. The amount of passion required for so many people to devote themselves so wholly to something is nothing short of extraordinary, and every single performance of ‘Out of This World’ is a product of that passion.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: What are some things you want girls to know about working in technology fields?
LORELEI OWENS: The most important piece of advice I can give girls wanting to pursue technology fields is “arm yourself with knowledge”. It doesn’t matter who tries to tell you what you can and cannot do, no cynic or critic can take away what you know.
This field (as is true with all career fields) is full of challenges, and there will be times when you find that being a female presents it’s own set of unique trials, and while it may be frustrating, do not let it discourage you. Do not let yourself become caught up in the idea that it is “harder” for girls. Acknowledge that it is different, and adapt. Different perspectives, thinking outside the box and new ways of problem solving are invaluable in the technology industry, and the diverse challenges that face anyone who is a minority in their field will set you up develop exactly those skills.
TECH SAVVY MAMA: When Out of This World hits Los Angeles on July 14, will you be traveling with the show as it makes its way across the country?
LORELEI OWENS: I will be travelling full time with Ringling Bros. Presents Out Of This World! 🙂
Tickets for all California stops, including Anaheim, Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Ontario, Sacramento and San Jose are currently on sale. To see when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Out of This World is coming to your city, visit Ringling.com. Before you go, download the new Ringling Brothers app (free for iOS devices) to maximize your fun while attending The Greatest Show on Earth!
I was hosted by Feld Entertaiment for a Ringling Bros. press trip. All opinions are my own and based on personal experience. No compensation was received for this post. Some images courtesy of Ringling Bros.