This article orginally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.
By Andrew King
Just over a year ago, production industry veteran Mark Desloges launched Drifter Rigging, a first-of-its-kind Canadian firm specializing in the rental, design, and operation of automated rigging systems for live events. In the time since, he’s provided equipment and/or expertise to a wide range of productions, from the Grandstand Show at the 2017 Calgary Stampede to We Day at New York’s Madison Square Garden to major tours by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Dierks Bentley, and James Arthur.
Most recently, Desloges has joined forces with Christie Lites, forming a new automation department at Christie that he will lead as the head of automation worldwide.
In this exclusive interview, Desloges – much better known in production circles simply as “Drifter” – discusses the proliferation and evolution of automated rigging systems and how they’re affecting the live production industry in general.
PL&P: You’ve been in the live production industry for your entire professional life. How did you first get into rigging specifically, and what were your initial experiences with automation?
MD: I started in audio, and I still vividly remember the first day I worked on a flown line array. Seeing a chain motor pull up all that weight just left me in awe. I was hooked from then on.
After working for a production company as an audio tech for a while, I made a push and moved into rigging, and eventually into IATSE as a rigger as well.
Mid-summer in 2015, I was out of the country doing a festival and got a call from the company where I’d worked for six years saying that they were out of business. I got a call about an hour later from my good friend David Bond of Kinesys USA saying that, since I didn’t need to go back to work, I should fly over to Atlanta to take a look at what Kinesys was up to. I spent a week in Atlanta pulling apart automated motors, training on kits and software, and programming actual moves on a demo rig. The rest is history.
PL&P: At what point were you seriously considering automated rigging services as a career focus? What potential did you recognize in the production landscape that you wanted to take advantage of?
MD: In February of 2016, I was working for a production company as a production rigger and servicing motors on top of being the IATSE head climbing rigger. I had reached a point where, after spending years on my career, I was left feeling uninspired and unchallenged. I had drunk the automation Kool-Aid and wanted more.
After drinking a tall bottle of navy rum one night and promising myself a change, I woke up with a strong hangover, but an even stronger determination to make my dreams of being an automation guru a reality. I started work on Drifter Rigging that morning.
I recognized that there was a lack of qualified automation technicians. I also saw the increasing demands for automation services, and the failure of others to be able to take advantage of these exciting and lucrative opportunities based on a lack of trained and experienced personnel. By narrowing my focus, immersing myself in the field, and studying my butt off, I was able to gain a lot of specialized knowledge in a very short period of time. From there, it was fairly straightforward to put myself in a position where I was making more decisions and controlling my own fate.
PL&P: Tell us about the origins of Drifter Rigging. How did you go about choosing and acquiring your kit, and then plugging yourself into the industry network to start landing projects and building a résumé?
MD: After becoming addicted to automation and deciding that I needed a change in my life, I made up my mind very quickly that Drifter Rigging was going to be a thing. I threw myself at it with all of my energy and things progressed very quickly. It went from an idea to its first project, to its first tour, to, “How the hell do I work out international shipping import details and taxes for next week while I’m out of the country doing a show?” before I ever knew what hit me. We literally hit the ground running with our first project and just kept going with the momentum.
Having such an active interest in and knowledge of automated rigging, I knew what I wanted before I knew how I was going to get it. The next step was opening up dialogue with friends and colleagues in the industry to prove to investors that there was a market for what I had to offer. I gained a lot of traction by offering live demos with intro courses to many of the industry’s top vendors. Once people knew what we had, what we could do, and what we had done, it became a very much inbound call-based operation.
[Pictured: The 2017 Calgary Stampede Grandstand Show featuring auotmation from Drifter Rigging]
PL&P: In addition to automated rigging, you also provide the standalone service of load monitoring. What is load monitoring in a nutshell, and in which cases would a production consider taking advantage of that equipment and service?
MD: Standalone load monitoring is not something I do a lot of, but it’s something that I wish more people took an interest in. Typically, riggers will calculate loads manually. We will do a lot of math to determine the weight loads on each element, and how that will transfer to each individual motor. The next step is to calculate how that load will be applied, and spread over the roof structure that is supporting it. This work is critical to rigging safety.
While this math is very accurate, there are a lot of mechanical variables that affect how weight is actually spread out. When load cells are used to monitor the weight of each connection point to, say, a video wall or a stick of truss, you are able to properly distribute the weight along the connection points with a much higher accuracy. This allows users to safely distribute the weight in the way that their math has predicted. An example is if you have more than three motors on an object and move one a 1/4 in., you can shift the weights of the connection points by hundreds of pounds.
Load monitoring is something I think all major productions should be utilizing for all sorts of rigging practices. I personally think the minimum is to use load monitoring when using mother or sub-grid rigging, when doing a critical lift – meaning it’s large or potentially dangerous – or moving an element dynamically during the show.
PL&P: We did a full feature story on the Grandstand Show for the 2017 Calgary Stampede, which was Drifter Rigging’s first official production. Since then, what are two or three of the major tours or events you’ve done, and give us a quick idea of what they entailed from an automation perspective?
MD: I’ve been on several tours in the past 12 months; it’s been pretty wild. Each has its own challenges and successes. Shortly after the Stampede, Drifter Rigging provided an automation and load monitoring kit for a moving video wall reveal for We Day New York at the Theater in MSG. I went on that project as the vendor, lead, programmer, and operator. That show day I got to move thousands of pounds over Justin Trudeau and his wife’s heads.
I personally went right from there to Boston to fill in for a mate with Ed Sheeran. I left my kit at home for a few weeks and was setting up, teching, and operating their motor and automation rigs on the last bit of the U.S. leg of the Divide Tour 2017. That tour had a mother grid weight of 35,000 lbs. and a total weight of 75,000 lbs. There were over 100 Kinesys intelligent motors; over 90 of those were fixed speed, and 12 variable speed. He has four lighting pods that move above the stage during the show, all controlled by a Kinesys Vector platform.
After that I went to the U.K. for a month to tour an automation kit as the lead under Christie Lites for X Factor winner James Arthur. We had a lighting element built out of three sticks of truss with lights in the form of his logo that would descend from the ceiling. I was able to work on the automation system design and programming on that tour right from the start. I then went on the tour as the tech/operator. Drifter Rigging provided the control platform. It was the first Kinesys tour I did for Christie Lites and was a big success for us. We played some great venues like Wembley Arena.
PL&P: How do production designs come together from your perspective? With which parties or departments do you have to interface and coordinate, and how do those designs evolve?
MD: It varies from tour to tour; however, the standard that I am used to for larger-format tours is that there’s a production company that looks after a total design, controlling all aspects from audio to lighting to video. In this format, they will have a lighting designer, a video designer, and an audio designer who will work with the production manager to make something that realizes the artist’s vision. Once a design is agreed on, the production manager will shop it out to vendors and bring on department heads to iron out the details of the design.
Usually, by the time the automation portion crosses my desk, it’s a pretty thorough plan as to what needs to move and be automated. At that point, it’s simply a matter of doing some math, choosing the proper equipment, and making some minor adjustments to physical items to make sure the idea works in a real 3D space.
PL&P: I understand that in the last few months, you’ve come under the umbrella of Christie Lites, and were just recently named Christie’s head of automation. How did that arrangement come to be and what are the advantages of this arrangement on either side?
MD: Christie Lites and I have had a great relationship for the past couple of years. Early in the planning stages of Drifter Rigging, working alongside Chrisite Lites was crucial to our success. We have built a strong relationship that has progressed naturally for both sides. As we tested the market and did our research, we were able to find a way to lower costs, increase efficiency, and deliver a higher-quality service. This led to us no longer renting equipment direct from Drifter Rigging or sub-renting through Christie, and instead shifted it to the assets being owned and contracted directly by Christie, streamlining the process and paperwork.
This arrangement has been fantastic for both of us. Traditionally, automation is something that Christie has sub-contracted; now, it’s something that we own and provide. For me, having the resources of Christie behind me, I feel like I am on top of the world. We now have the tools we need to give our clients world-class automation solutions backed by a company known for its ability to set industry standards.
For me personally, as the automation landscape at Christie Lites evolves and grows, there have been many exciting highs, and some difficult challenges for me. It’s never easy being away from your family on a world tour as a tech while at the same time designing an automation kit, purchasing it, and planning prep deadlines, but it certainly made for some well-deserved hotel and bus whiskies, as well as an exciting career.
PL&P: What would you say has been the highlight of your experiences with automated rigging thus far, generally speaking?
MD: As cheesy as it is, I am an old roadie and a nerd at heart. The highlights for me more recently have been my experiences working with some cutting-edge products and technology. I am at my happiest when I am on an arena or stadium floor and I take what people think is a regular chain hoist and dump its chain on the floor at 100 feet per minute. The deer in the headlights looks and conversations started by awestruck stagehands is what keeps me going. I enjoy showing people this new technology and taking the time to discuss it, educate, and demystify it.
PL&P: What about challenges from a technical or practical standpoint, as opposed to those associated with running a business from an admin angle?
MD: Networking and equipment communication have been a real steep learning curve for me. Part of the safety engineered into automation equipment is communication. Automation kits are constantly polling data from every element and polling it against its counterparts. It comes in the form of load weight data, brake date, encoder data, relay voltage for e-stops, and so on. These devices are constantly talking to each other, polling data, changing their own operation based on that cross-referenced data, and then checking to see if the changes they made are co-existing with the other pieces of equipment it just polled.
Getting automation gear to talk and shake hands the first week is always the difficult part of any automation kit. A good automation tech needs to have strong networking and data troubleshooting skills to ensure they are able to build a system with all of its components communicating with one another.
PL&P: Considering how quickly automated rigging is proliferating in the live production industry, and how quickly the technology is developing as a result, how have things changed most significantly from either perspective since you launched Drifter Rigging a little over a year ago? Do any of those trends have you particularly excited, or maybe disheartened?
MD: The front-end technology of automation has most certainly evolved quickly; however, the theory and the mechanical parts have stayed relatively constant. What changes quickly – even noticeably in the past year – is safety standards, specifically overseas, so you tend to see a lot of the same chain hoists with a few tweaks provided to meet evolving safety standards. Think cars; it’s still four wheels and an engine, but the sub-systems, the safety factors, and how you interact with it are what have been updated.
I have been very lucky to work closely with Kinesys using some groundbreaking products. I currently have an automation kit out on a tour that is used to fly an artist on four brand new Kinesys Apex hoists. These hoists are specially designed for lifting artists and meet or exceed all current safety regulations worldwide with a SIL 3 rating. To put that into perspective, a commercial airliner requires a SIL 4 rating to operate. SIL 3 requires a redundant everything, so these motors have double breaks, double load cells, double encoders, double everything, and then A/B poll each component. This is a large step above a traditional chain motor used in most production applications.
This is the first touring application for Apex in North America. I am proud of that because by using this kit, we are not only meeting, but exceeding all current regulations for lifting in North America. It has always been very exciting to be at the forefront of such amazing new equipment developments, especially when it comes to safety.
PL&P: I understand you’ve been working with the team at Triangle Media Servers on some product development. Can you fill us in on what you’re working on and how that’s progressing?
MD: George Gorton from Triangle and I have been close friends for about a decade. We have worked together on a lot of projects and have always had an active interest in what the other has been up to. My collab with Triangle was just an organic progression of that.
We have fabricated a rackmounted PC that is specifically designed to run automation and load monitoring front-end software like Kinesys’ Vector and LibraWatch, while taking the abuse of the road. The Triangle Tetrahedron 1 EH is a 2 RU PC that is 24-in. deep with no moving parts, and something that we are very proud of. We developed a prototype earlier this year, which did its first gig flying an artist above the stage for a live performance. That first unit is currently out on tour with Dierks Bentley. We have since tweaked the prototype and have just released a first-generation platform that is currently available for purchase. We are already suppling product to some very large-format clients and could not be happier.
PL&P: Outside of automation, which continues to grow in capability and popularity, what do you see as the most significant current or future trends affecting live production these days?
MD: People have been stimulated audibly and visually for years. I see the next natural progression being a new dimension of sensory stimulation – things like pyro and cryo, confetti and balloons… Things you can feel and tangibly touch. That is how I think designers will continue to captivate audiences. We’ve pushed the boundaries of what you can hear and see; what’s next is what they can physically feel. A great example is events with light-up bracelets that activate when you clap and are wirelessly controlled to match the music. Things like that make an audience feel more involved, like they’re part of the show.
PL&P: What’s on the horizon for you and Christie Lites for the foreseeable future? Anything noteworthy for late 2018/early 2019?
MD: There is a lot on my plate as 2018 brings the closing of Drifter Rigging as a rental house; however, it also opens up a new chapter in my life where I call Christie Lites home. Right now, it’s a matter of settling into this new landscape while planning our 2019 strategy. We’ve got automation kits that are currently out on tour until the late fall, with more dates for much of 2019. The immediate future is a matter of executing projects while purchasing and planning for future ones. There are a lot of big things happening and I am excited to see them come to fruition over the next 18 months.
Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production.