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  • Writer's pictureShane Novacek

Blockbuster Effects, Automated for Any Theatrical Production

Hudson Scenic Studio sets the stage with cost-effective automation systems for stage and show applications of all sizes

Hudson Scenic Studios automation from Beckhoff
A peek behind the curtain: Hudson Scenic Senior Engineer Chuck Adomanis works at the controls of a typical bank of controls for a production.

In William Shakespeare’s celebrated play, “As You Like It,” the legendary playwright famously wrote that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, players.” Perhaps this kinship to the theater is what continues to drive the success of plays around the world. When attending modern theatrical performances, especially at the highest levels, the storytelling and action seems effortless, enabling the viewer to naturally step into the lives of the characters on stage.


Hudson Scenic Studio engineers
From left: Erik Nelson, Automation Engineer and Chuck Adomanis, Senior Engineer at Hudson Scenic Studio.

However, successfully crafting another world to entertain viewers takes a herculean effort behind the scenes. Though we only see the cast on stage, the talented men and women behind the scenes of theater and show productions provide a vital component to help the stars shine. This is where Yonkers, New York-based Hudson Scenic Studio comes into play, providing scene fabrication and automation services to the entertainment industry since 1980.


Chuck Adomanis, Senior Engineer at Hudson Scenic Studio, explains: “Over the years, we have built a solid reputation as a full-service theatrical automation and production shop. Our extensive experience in the entertainment industry provides us with the ability to offer custom artwork and stage pieces, scenic construction and automation for nearly any stage or show application. We serve the Broadway theater market and provide solutions for other live events, TV and film, and for permanent installations such as theme parks and cruise ships.”


Productions big and small get star treatment


Hudson Scenic Studio serves some of the largest and most successful Broadway shows to ever hit the stage. Their impressive repertoire includes a staggering number of high-profile projects, including Broadway productions such as Aladdin, among others. However, Hudson Scenic offers support for stage and show technology to customers of all sizes, as Adomanis continues: “I think the biggest differentiator for Hudson Scenic is flexibility and our willingness to work with any customer, big or small, to help them discover the best solution for their needs. Whether the production is a multimillion dollar Broadway show or a play at a small regional theater, we have the flexibility to tailor systems and components that ideally fit the client’s application.”


Hamilton image
Hudson Scenic Studio breathes life into stage and show productions, such as the Broadway hit musical Hamilton, pictured here. (© Joan Marcus)

In a broader sense, Hudson provides the means for creative directors and their crews to bring their boldest stage and show ideas to life. From the ground up, the company offers planning services, project management, fabrication and commissioning to help nearly any stage and show application earn rave reviews. To accomplish this, Hudson builds incredibly intricate scenery and stage props, and then makes that scenery dynamically move, shift, and change to enhance the visual direction of the show. Each of these individual actions, whether opening a trap door on stage, lifting a section of scenery, or helping an actor fly across the stage, is referred to as an effect. In the Aladdin project, for example, buildings that form the marketplace of Agrabah move and rotate across the stage while turrets raise and lower. These effects are vital to achieving the sense of escape for the audience, so they can become fully immersed in the storytelling.


Bringing about this high level of special effects necessitates robust operation both from mechanical equipment and from the software and automation technology. The Hudson Scenic systems are embedded into the scenery and structural elements of each client’s venue. Using a wide range of motors, drives, cabling and other components, the company can create nearly any effect desired by the customer. Behind the scenes, large control cabinets house the automation and control systems for the show, enabling staff to navigate the complexities of the automation system – without extensive training – via a proprietary HMI software interface from Hudson.


Lowering the curtain on component costs


Controlling all the complex moving parts in a large-scale theatrical production such as the Broadway shows served by Hudson requires a robust control system in the background. Specifically, Hudson uses Beckhoff CX2030 Embedded PCs with 1.5 GHz Intel® Core™ i7 dual-core CPU, as well as several CX5100 Embedded PCs that offer Intel® Atom™ processors with up to four cores. Hudson also uses 7-inch CP6606 Panel PCs with ARM Cortex™-A8 processors for testing effects before implementing them in the field.


Beckhoff Embedded PCs
A look under the hood of the control system reveals the brains of the operation – a Beckhoff CX2030 Embedded PC. This works in concert with additional CX5100 Embedded PCs to provide the necessary computing power across an entire production.

Adomanis explains the need for a variety of controllers: “Each of these devices acts as a primary system controller, running PLC, NC and HMI software as the main controls device in our automation systems. The highly scalable range of controllers allows us to choose the right performance level for the job, and helps mitigate cost for customers.” When larger screens are required, the Hudson-programmed HMI is displayed on a series of 15-inch Beckhoff CP2916 multi-touch Control Panels.


TwinCAT 3 automation software provides the core underlying architecture for Hudson control systems. Adomanis continues: “We use a variety of TwinCAT 3 packages for automation and motion control, given the varied nature of our projects. Whether TwinCAT PLC and NC for axis control; TwinCAT ADS, TwinCAT TCP/IP Server and TwinCAT OPC UA for horizontal and vertical communication, along with other add-on packages, we take full advantage of the broad portfolio of TwinCAT solutions. This high level of communication also enables remote access to show sites, ensuring that our customers receive timely service from our experts.” Remote access enables Hudson to diagnose equipment issues anywhere in the world without engineering teams having to physically travel to the venues, providing significant cost savings which can be passed on to the customer.


EtherCAT and motion control solutions


As one can imagine, safety is paramount for stage and show applications. Hudson Scenic relies heavily on the TwinSAFE system from Beckhoff to integrate the wide range of necessary safety functions into the automation system. This includes a variety of safety equipment, such as guard doors and e-stops. “Our previous e-stop solution was hard-wired to run a 24-volt signal, which required running an additional cable,” noted Nelson. “With TwinSAFE we have a single cable and it connects everything, greatly simplifying our commissioning, increasing reliability, and allows us to satisfy increasingly complex safety requirements.”


Beckhoff AX5000 Servo Drives
Action is the heart of any performance, and Hudson Scenic leverages a series of AX5000 series servo drives and AM8000 series synchronous servomotors. These Beckhoff motors with One Cable Technology (OCT) are frequently installed directly within the rigging.

In order to transmit the necessary high-level commands throughout the automation system, Hudson relies on a large number of Beckhoff EtherCAT I/O Terminals and EtherCAT Box Modules. These EtherCAT I/O devices offer best-in-class speed, as well as a minimal footprint – essential in the space-constrained applications Hudson takes on every day. In addition, the low cost of the Beckhoff I/O terminals was especially appealing for Hudson Scenic, as Adomanis explains: “The EtherCAT I/O system offers a low price per point and with TwinCAT we can quickly map and freely configure I/O, adding up to significant cost savings.”


One particularly beneficial product used by Hudson Scenic is the EL6070 License Key Terminal for TwinCAT. “Downtime isn’t an option for theater applications. In the event of damage to devices, having the ability to swap out a controller, transfer the license key via the I/O terminal, and get back up and running in minutes is game-changing,” said Adomanis.


For motion tasks, Hudson relies on AX5000 series servo drives and AM8000 series synchronous servomotors from Beckhoff. These devices have become the motion control standard for Hudson, a change from the three-phase induction motor systems used in the past. For example, the AM8073, AM8063, and AM8053 servo motors are now used in lifting winches in conjunction with the AX5125 and AX5112 drives. “As the technical demands of our projects continue to grow and change, One Cable Technology (OCT) for the motors and drives, when coupled with absolute encoder technology, provides excellent value in our projects and will be our standard on new equipment.”


Increased performance and profitability earn critical acclaim


Beyond added flexibility in system design and maintenance, Hudson Scenic achieved impressive performance increases. Adomanis explains: “With our previous PLC motion system, we were living in a world with scan times higher than 20 milliseconds for PLC commands and motion control. Now, our scan times are around 1 or 2 milliseconds, which could certainly be decreased further if necessary. When working with EtherCAT and TwinCAT, we can accomplish real-time, microsecond-level deterministic I/O communication, which was impossible in the past.”


Beckhoff Control Panel and Servo Drives
Displaying the HMI programmed by Hudson is a series of 15-inch Beckhoff CP2916 multi-touch Control Panels, as shown here.

In addition, engineering costs have been greatly decreased while efficiency has increased. “Code written for one project is easily scaled from one effect to another without a lot of rework,” said Nelson. “We're no longer stuck manually addressing data registers and PLC memory.” Adomanis also noted that though the specific cost savings are not easy to quantify, “we can say unequivocally that our margins have dramatically improved on projects and Hudson can go after applications large and small with PC-based control and EtherCAT technology and maintain high profitability.”


“Beckhoff is able to go beyond the ‘basic automation and controls’ vendor with entertainment industry-specific technologies, such as I/O terminals with DMX communication and other standards used for lighting and multimedia equipment,” Adomanis said. “Working with an automation company like Beckhoff, with profound understanding of entertainment applications, provides considerable benefits to Hudson Scenic Studio and our clients.”


As these projects grow in scope and technological complexity, Hudson Scenic Studio team is ready to meet any entertainment engineering challenge that comes their way. And with Beckhoff providing the controls foundation, these talented engineers have the necessary tools to keep bringing the artistic visions and dreams of stage and show professionals into reality.


Are you interested in enhancing your entertainment engineering and machine designs with PC-based automation? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


 

Shane Novacek of Beckhoff Automation USA

Shane Novacek is the Marketing Communications Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.


A version of this article appeared in PLSN Magazine.

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