News Column

Pens production gurus set the tone for Game 7

May 13, 2014

By J. Brady McCollough, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

May 13--Tonight, before there will be a Game 7, there will be this:

The building will go dark. Three men will gather in the rafters to take in their creation. Thousands below will wait, waving white towels, a gesture not to be confused with the announcement of a surrender. In fact, the names of the music choices that will start blaring throughout Consol Energy Center -- "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, mixed with the theme from the video game "Battlefield 4" -- will strongly indicate that the Penguins' engagement with the New York Rangers is only beginning.

Generals gathered in their masses ...

Just like witches at black masses ...

In the fields the bodies burning ...

As the war machine keeps turning ... Oh Lord, yeah!

The message will not be subtle. This is no mere hockey game. Somebody is going home sad, angry, depleted, and it better not be the team wearing black and gold. So get revved up inside this ring of fire that swirls over ice, where blasts of smoke and strobing spotlights synced to drums are set as the backdrop to giant video screen highlights of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and this collection of anointed stars that for the fifth consecutive year faces the prospect of elimination before a return to the Stanley Cup final.

A tone must be set, of drive, power, unquenchable energy. The Penguins game entertainment crew only chose shiny things to be photographed for this video. Skates. Helmets. The Cup.

Those three men in the rafters will be listening. They have to know if they've done their job, if they've given goose bumps to the assembled mass, if -- after this 2 1/2-minute show -- the 18,000-plus fans lucky enough to have a ticket to this game are actually ready to welcome the Penguins.

As the Penguins fly onto the ice together, chants of "Let's go Pens!" will fill the cavernous arena. The three men -- game production gurus Steve Finerty, Paddy Driscoll and Aaron Spiegel -- will head back to their posts in the control room with the confirmation they need. Their hundreds of work hours that nobody ever saw were worth it.

In the booth, Bill Wareham, the director of event presentation, will await their return wearing a headset. Just 30 years old, he will lead a team of about 20 people who will watch from a room at the top of the building with about 70 small-TV screens, picking their spots to fan the flames with an amalgam of multimedia prompts or simply letting the crowd carry on with its own momentum and seize center stage.

"We're the marionettes," Mr. Wareham said.

Tonight, the Penguins have one game to get it right. They will need the fans' help, and the anonymous team up above will do everything it can to deliver that.

Pushing the envelope

They call their set of cubicles and offices "The Pod." It's a place where the mind is encouraged to wander, where there truly are no bad ideas (of course, that doesn't mean you won't get ribbed for one that doesn't stick).

Rod Murray gets a kick out of the young folks whose brains he has been charged with harnessing as the senior director of event presentation. The organization hired Mr. Murray in 2010 when it moved into Consol because it needed someone who knew how to run a modern game entertainment operation, and he had been doing it the previous 12 years in Anaheim with the Ducks and the Angels.

His first video? Back in the 1980s, when the first "Batman" movie was coming out, he used the dark knight to acknowledge an Angels rally. They swung bats! Get it?

The industry has come along way since then. The Penguins left behind a standard-definition video board at Civic Arena and suddenly had a high-definition board with two LED rings on the center scoreboard and two more around the whole arena. Mr. Murray needed workers who could conceptualize the possibilities.

"The guys that work for me, they do so much more than what I needed to do and know how to do," he said. "The generation behind us is going to blow the doors off anything we've ever done."

Last summer, the Penguins announced an opening on the NHL's website for a motion graphics designer. Mr. Driscoll, 29, was working in advertising in New York, designing mostly for corporate clients. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with degrees in studio art and art history, he came across the ad and figured he'd give it a shot.

Mr. Driscoll got the job. Nailed the interview. He was clearly talented and ambitious enough to put in the work that sometimes required 80 to 100 hours a week.

"This industry is best for the young and energetic and those with lots of free time," said Mr. Finerty, 37, the director of production operations. "You've got to love it. You're not here for the money, you're not here for the glory."

In his first year, Mr. Driscoll wanted to do something that stood out. During the summer, he began scouring YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest and other sites for creative fodder. He came across a video from Amsterdam that used a triangle composed of LED strips that, using a mirror and flashing patterns, created the impression of a never-ending tunnel of light.

Mr. Driscoll was hooked. The back of the Penguins logo was a triangle, so they could do something similar. Mr. Wareham contacted Mitsubishi Electric, the Wexford-based company that handles all of the team's video systems, and challenged them to create an LED triangle. Sure enough, Mitsubishi pulled it off.

Mr. Driscoll and a photographer began snapping pictures of some Penguins players -- Mr. Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury were the headliners -- inside the triangle. They shot everything they could think of, saving up for the all-important spring run to the playoffs.

When it debuted after the Olympics, it was considered a major success in the game entertainment community around the country. And because of all the trouble the Penguins went to in creating it, there was no way anybody could copy it for themselves.

Mr. Wareham views the video as the "climax" of the story his team is trying to tell. Mr. Murray has been around long enough to know that's not exactly true.

"We could have something really amazing as an open," he said, "but if the team is not going to be able to do what they're capable of doing, that's what people are really here for."

Looking for signature moment

With widespread panic taking hold of Pittsburgh late Sunday night, Mr. Wareham sat down in his Lower Burrell home and began composing an email.

A Game 7 was now coming to Consol, where the Penguins have not clinched a winner-take-all playoff series finale, and he wanted to focus his staff members.

"Tuesday night is our opportunity for that first signature playoff moment," he typed.

"It's a privilege to work a Game 7. It's for all the marbles. What great theater. Don't ever forget to enjoy it."

Tonight, when the Rangers come to town riding the wave of two commanding wins in a row, the sparkling young theater at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Place will be filled with a tension that hasn't been felt since the only other Game 7 in the building -- a 1-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011.

"Nervous isn't bad," said Mr. Spiegel, 41, a motion graphics designer like Mr. Driscoll, "because nervous is energy. So if you put a 'make noise' [on the video board], a nervous person is going to make noise. They're going to be all-in, inherently."

Mr. Wareham and his crew will have big plans. In Game 5, they trotted out videos of Pittsburgh native and comedian Billy Gardell telling fans to "GET LOUD!" and the wrestler Daniel Bryan doing his famed "YES!" chant.

All of that stuff is fun, but Mr. Wareham also knows when to step back and let the fans take over.

"I definitely believe in the organics of a sporting event," he said. "These fans are spending their hard-earned money to come see this as a form of entertainment. We don't need to always play music or a movie clip. If they want their opportunity to take control of this building, it's theirs every time, and every time that I can stay out of their way and let them go, I do. I love it."

READ MORE on the Pens: Evgeni Malkin boldly predicts win tonight in Game 7

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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(c)2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)


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