The Big Finish

Clients have always loved feel-good show closings that tie the meeting in progress to the show theme. Have today's tools and technology changed the finale?

When I first got involved in the staging business, the closing segment of many corporate meetings was a multi-image production involving drop-in slides shot during the event. We referred to these closers as "you modules" or "instant retrospectives." My crews in Canada always called them "happy snaps." Regardless of what we called them, they were popular. And they were comparatively easy to do onsite, because the audio tracks, sync tracks and theme slides were all produced in advance. Theme modules were available as rentals from a wide variety of national production firms.

Then the video age changed the practice of the closing module. Sure, we still did this type of closer in videotape, but it was a great deal more labor-and-equipment intensive, so it became limited to larger shows, and usually to multi-day events. The video crews that produced these shows lived like vampires, staying up all night editing videotape in hotel suites, living on coffee and dry room service club sandwiches.

Then for a time the "You Module" came back, thanks to video graphics systems that followed a multi-image paradigm, such as TVL. Coupled with recordable laserdiscs and still video cameras (anyone remember Mavica?) video graphics systems once again brought the big instant closer to the midsize meeting. For a while, these types of video graphics systems, in the hands of production professionals, drove the meeting with a multi-image flair.

Then PowerPoint killed everything.

Suddenly, "theme" translated to "template," the I.T. department took over many production functions, and dedicated devices like TVL disappeared- and with them went the best and easiest methods for onsite creation of thematic retrospectives.

Getting From Here to There
But the Big Finish is still an important part of large meeting presentations. How is it accomplished today?

Well, often we use the same tools that ruined multi-image, such as PowerPoint. We build a show with placeholder slides in it, preset to a music track. Then, on site, we replace the existing slides with new ones we shoot during the event. You can take this as far as you want, by adding DV clips at pre-set intervals and lengths, or increasing it to a multi-screen scenario with external control to drive the PCs that drive each screen output.

More sophisticated presentation programs, such as Apple's Keynote, can take the onscreen look even further with more sophisticated transition effects. In fact, one of the most rewarding experiments I've conducted recently in the "happy snaps" arena involved Keynote and the use of a Bluetooth-enabled camera, where the images landed in a predetermined drop folder on the editing computer every time the camera was in range. This allowed a video person at the control head end to be re-naming and replacing slides all day long, while the cameraman continued to shoot.

Even more sophisticated closing shows are done with video, except that it's a lot easier than it used to be. Thanks to Firewire-enabled cameras and capture devices, we can record video directly to a hard drive and instantly begin the editing process, without waiting to read tape into the computer. The portable Firewire acquisition and editing drives that are available, such as the ones from Novia, are ideal for this purpose-light, inexpensive, and easy to use. Combine a drive and camera with a high-speed laptop and nonlinear editing software, and you're in the instant retrospective business. Arrive onsite with your sound tracks, project files, logos and theme graphics already prepared, and the editing process is only slightly nerve-wracking.

Soon, we can combine these techniques with the new HDV cameras and drives that are becoming available, allowing the end module a high-definition look. Then, we'll begin to approach the techniques we used in multi-image.

No matter whether you choose stills and effects or full motion video, we have another tool today that we didn't have in the days of multi-image: automated lighting. Automated lighting makes the show take on a whole new look. Both still and video shows have the possibility of being presented with timecode or midi control tracks, so both can synchronize an external lighting control console. Prepare the lighting director with an advance copy of the closing show with the placeholder slides and video in it, and the lighting desk can be prepared to provide synchronized effects for your closer. Using lighting to take the show "off the screen" not only adds a lot of flair to an otherwise simplistic production, it makes the entire project look that much more "uptown."