Stage Automation Engineer
To accomplish the fantastic feat of a flying car in that stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or rotating and tilting the 50-ton Sand/Cliff Deck in KÀ, theatrical productions rely on sophisticated technology and the skills of a stage automation engineer.
Working closely with the set designer and director, a stage automation engineer is contracted—as a freelancer or through a third-party vendor—to design the automation systems that will control the movement of set pieces, flying scenery, and even the stage itself. He or she begins with a thorough review of the designer’s illustrated plans and physical models, and then discusses the specific travel sequences and effects that must be accomplished through automation. It is important that the engineer understand how the systems will be used, not only the motions to be repeated. In the London production of The Lord of the Rings, several interconnected stage platforms rotated and made vertical movements simultaneously; the challenge was how to accomplish this activity while still accommodating actors engaged in dramatic fight scenes in near-total darkness.
With the necessary technical specifications in hand from the set designer and director, the stage automation engineer must design and draft the electrical, mechanical, and hydraulic systems that will perform scenery movements. Depending on the needs of the production, the design may be as simple as an arrangement of winches and pneumatic actuators, or a far more intricate system like the KÀ gantry crane that supports 300,000 pounds of elevated platforms. The engineer uses computer-drafting software such as AutoCAD to create a detailed blueprint of the automation structure and the related electrical control components. The engineer will then supervise the shop crew of highly skilled craftspeople in the execution of the design; this includes welding steel frames, installing gears, and programming the control software. Each function of the total system is tested independently before being combined with the larger arrangement, and the engineer will assist in identifying glitches and devise a solution. When the build is complete, the engineer performs a full-scale test for the client and, if it’s successful, oversees the installation of the automation system in the venue. For touring productions, the engineer will attend rehearsals at the home venue before the show’s crew sets out on the road.
Skills & Education
A bachelor’s degree is required in this field, but a master’s degree is preferred. Majors in architecture, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and theatrical design are all applicable to this career. You should also pursue courses in computer drafting, carpentry, physics, geometry, trigonometry, and computer science. A stage automation engineer must be capable of envisioning how numerous complex systems will work together, then illustrating those systems on paper down to the smallest nut and bolt; this requires an individual who is meticulous, obsessed with details, and highly organized. In this engineer, creativity must be equally matched by practical know-how.
What to Expect
Most of the stage automation engineer’s time is spent in computer drafting, but the individual in this role must also be prepared to get his or her hands dirty. Producing an attractive blueprint only gets you halfway to the goal; the other half is spending time in the shop tightening greasy gears and drilling pilot holes. Work in set construction and rigging is a good place to start in pursuing a career as an engineer. You can begin scouting for an opportunity to make the upward move with a few years of relevant experience as a set automation technician or with an automation company that caters to the theater industry.
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