Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 25, 2010

Behind the Scenes: the Load-in

As we prepare to stage the company’s big annual events, I hope you will find it interesting to know some of what goes into making a show happen.

We start by moving in. Over the past six months we’ve been working with our production team to design this show, and now all the pieces of what it takes are assembled in 5 semi trucks that have arrived and are unloaded. That’s the load-in. In this case, there’s an additional element of complexity, because the loading dock of this hotel is on top of a parking garage, and can’t accommodate the weight of a tractor-trailer. That means everything has to be unloaded from the semis that transported it here and either wheeled up to the building or loaded onto smaller trucks, in the same way the marine industry uses lighters to transfer freight from ships anchored in a harbor.

The work is supervised by the production company, but the labor is local. These people actually are specialists in doing this sort of thing. They work in hotels, auditoriums, stadiums. Some of them are undifferentiated other than being stage hands – which IS a trade — but there also are electricians, carpenters and other trades present.

It’s probably already occurred to you to ask and, yes, the trucks were loaded by a plan developed to account for the order in which the gear should arrive: the first thing that needs to come off the truck is the last thing put on.

Does someone keep track that things are accounted-for? Yes. Absolutely.

The crates and boxes are wheeled to places as close as possible to where they’re going to be needed, and then they’re opened as they’re needed. All of the electronics, video gear, controls, etc. are shipped right in custom-made cases with the equipment built into racks. The specific mix of video players, routing switchers, communications gear, audio controls, etc. has been specified for this show and installed in the racks prior to shipping. There is a cost for every single item in a case. There’s a daily rate, calculated item-by-item. Some of the gear is stock that the production company maintains in-house and uses constantly, while other gear is specialized enough that they rent it when they need it for a show. We’ll get into more of the specifics later in the week.

Once these cases come off the trucks, they’re wheeled into place, off come the covers, and the crew starts plugging things in.

Think of the various things that comprise a show as “departments:” lighting, audio, video and so forth. Each department is responsible for the final configuration of their equipment, but a technical director is in charge of the load-in and the construction of the room. Everything is done in an order of priority, and the first, most time-consuming issues are erecting the set and hanging the lighting trusses.

Set construction

Set construction

The set is a series of pre-fabricated frames. It’s a big erector set, really. There’s a plan, as there is for everything in the room, and the crew is familiar enough with this sort of work that most of these standardized fasteners and units go together pretty easily. The screens on which video and graphics will be projected are an integral part of the set and are installed at the same time. We’ll talk more about video projection later this week, but we can take a quick look at the screen. It’s a flexible, translucent material that unrolls and snaps onto a frame. It has to stretch tight and it is fragile, so they have to take some care with it.

We’ll also learn more details about how the lighting actually works later this week, but let’s look at the installation.

lighting on truss

lighting on truss

Big pieces of grid work with a square cross-section are bolted together. That grid on which the lights and speakers will hang is called a truss. Months ago, the designers of the show started with an electronic file showing not only the physical space of the room in three dimensions, but also the structural parts of the roof. That plan indicated access points to which the trusses can be attached, called hang points. A hang point is rated for a certain amount of weight it can bear. As the lighting designer planned how many lights and where they were to hang on the truss, he had to know how much weight he was adding. More weight, more hang points. And every time he needed another hang point to accommodate the gross weight of the truss, he had to add a chain and a motor that will support the truss and raise and lower it. If all this planning is not precise, it is an excruciatingly time-consuming and expensive matter to adjust things on site. The schedule assumes that everything will go according to plan, and, since the show has to happen at a specific day and time, delays are A Bad Thing. That’s one of the primary reasons to have people in whom one has enormous confidence doing this work

Another reason to get good people is that there are several thousand pounds of hardware that are going to be hanging over the heads of an audience. Safety First!

lighting truss

lighting truss

Although this photo is several years old, the principle still obtains. As the truss is assembled on the ground, all the chains are attached to their hang points, and then in sync, the motors crank the truss up to about chest level. Then the crew starts attaching the lights and their cables. All this is executed according to a detailed plan, because each lighting instrument and its control cable have to be wired into the system in a specific way that corresponds to the software that and the lighting control board that will be used to program the show.

The goal is to move as quickly as possible to get the trusses built, attach all the lighting instruments and speakers, run the cables, and then “fly” the assembly up into the air. That leaves the ballroom floor free so that the stage can go in and other work can happen in the ballroom.

While all this large-scale work is going on, there is activity in every part of the room, and in the next couple of days, we’ll continue to look behind the scenes at the work that is happening in parallel.

Tomorrow: Lighting and audio.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Nice photo of the Anvil cases with “Plasma” stenciled on them. I just hope there aren’t any unfortunate mix-ups with a blood donor convention in the same location!


  2. Thanks, B! This makes it real 🙂


  3. The carpet and ceiling seem vaguely familiar somehow. 🙂 I think it is excellent that you write about this. One can easily forgets that there is a lot of work done, before the crowd shuffles in. Please let us now more of this.


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