Automation has changed the landscape of what is achievable in live entertainment. When scenic automation first emerged late last century, it was applied as traditional hand flying had been for generations – for the most part to lower a piece of scenery into place then lift it out again. With the arrival of precise computer control more than a decade ago, simple cueing and plotting was no longer sufficient. In response, Stage Technologies innovated one of the first truly 3D plotting tools in the industry; Visual Creator.
Fast forward to today, and the automation world is as far removed from basic 3D flying as the first automated linesets were from manual hemp lines. Our industry today implements technology that matches, and often exceeds, other engineering disciplines in its sophistication – traversing, rotating trolleys with multiple lift lines, articulating multi-axis stage platforms and free roaming wireless wagons, all of which need to not only interact with each other, but with lighting, projection, sound, and even performers.
There have been some significant steps taken to solve today’s complex plotting issues but the solutions have been limited in scope and often complex and cumbersome. Previous attempts to leverage the power of animation software have partially addressed the need but never with an all-embracing solution. A specialized 3D animator would need to grasp the subtleties of automation and motion control or an automation operator would need to learn a great deal about complex animation software before any degree of success could be achieved.
Stage Technologies is, once again, the first to fully address the needs of today’s market with an innovative new software solution. Sculptor Animation Toolkit was launched at this year’s PLASA and made waves in the Innovation Gallery amongst automation programmers and artistic directors all the way from London’s West End to Europe and the USA.
Sculptor Animation Toolkit is an add-on for 3ds Max, a software package commonly used to animate films, movies, and games. The contemporary demands of technical theatre require a simple, flexible plotting tool that retains awareness of the restrictions of physical equipment and Sculptor Toolkit fills this niche by combining the safety and robustness of Stage Technologies control systems with the creative freedom enjoyed in a modern 3D animation environment. The toolkit excels when applied to venues and productions with many hundreds of automated axes and scenic elements such as revolves, hydraulically-driven, custom-built machinery, lifts, stage trucks and rotating winch trolleys, saving hours of .plotting time with smart shortcuts.
Sculptor Toolkit can be used from as early as the initial concept stage for a production allowing pre-emptive collaboration between artistic and technical departments. As the show is pre-visualised by the creative team, real world data such as drum capacities, rigging angles, and speed and acceleration requirements can be easily gathered and manipulated in the animation world, ensuring that the equipment choice and placement will fulfil the creative vision whilst retaining realistic parameters. The toolkit presents clear, visual feedback of all the potentially complex mechanical and safety restrictions and as a result the animations can be used with confidence as initial show cues, minimising valuable stage time during technical rehearsals.
Since Sculptor Toolkit is built upon 3ds Max, an industry standard in visualisations and leader in format compatibility, scene data can be shared between departments even if they use different animation packages, such as Maya, or specialised lighting tools. The toolkit is integrated into the main toolbar of 3ds Max and can be used to identify axes in a scene as one of 4 different types: linear axes (such as point hoists, actuators or stage lifts); rotational axes (such as revolves or swivel joints); trolley axes, (which follow fixed tracks); and truck axes (which can be used to plot Stage Technologies free-roaming wagons). Any of these axis types can be used or combined without restriction. For instance, Sculptor Toolkit can be used to define a trolley that travels along a track, add a revolving ring hanging from it, then add some winches below the revolving ring as linear axes; these winches might then act as pickups in a larger bridled system. Flight paths, either drawn or sourced from recorded joystick data can be imported and supplementary feedback is provided to the operator when refining these paths, ensuring the flown move will run safely.
Mike Kovacic, a senior project engineer with Stage Technologies in Australia and developer of Sculptor Animation Toolkit, described the creative potential opened up by this new add-on: ‘By combining these different types, the toolkit supports the plotting of mechanical assemblies we haven’t yet dreamed of. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what this toolkit is capable of.’