At first glance, Blue Man Group–the bald, blue-faced trio formed in 1987 by longtime friends Chris Wink, Phil Stanton, and Matt Goldman–doesn’t seem to have much of an association with the Mac. After all, Blue Man received possibly its widest exposure from appearing in a series of TV ads on behalf of Intel’s Pentium processor–not exactly the most obvious way of casting your lot with the PowerPC crowd. But go behind the scenes at any one of the group’s performances in New York, Chicago, Boston, or Las Vegas, and you’ll find Macs helping to run the show. Associate Artistic Director Caryl Glaab, Associate Video Director Kevin Frech and Communications Director Manny Igregous recently explained to Macworld that while a typical Blue Man performance may involve spewing Twinkie creme filling at slicker-clad audience members or using Cap’n Crunch cereal to make music, the show can get pretty high-tech offstage.
Q: With shows running in four cities, how many performers do you have?
Glaab: Thirty-three. And there is a woman Blue Man who’s part of the Boston cast.
Q: How would you describe the Blue Man experience?
Glaab: It’s a… visually based, music-driven, tribal ritualistic show, based on the Blue Man character who’s ultimate goal is to create a unique experience with the audience.
Igregous: It’s one of the hardest questions for us to answer. Even the original Blue Men–Phil, Matt, and Chris–get stumped. We just say, “Well, you’ll just have to see it.” A long, long time ago, Chris Wink said in a television interview that one of the things they were looking to do was to create the kind of excitement that the circus did when it came into town in the last century. They want to provide entertainment beyond what you expect. That’s what Blue Man’s like, though it’s hard to explain it to somebody who’s never seen the show. You end up saying, “They do this, and then this.” The person looks at you and says, “OK…” But when you actually see the show, it all comes together.
Q: What goes on behind the scenes to make a Blue Man show run?
Glaab: We have two G3 computers running the Dataton control software, which controls three video mixers, five digital data recorders, phase meters, and seven projectors. It’s a pretty huge system, but the Dataton software takes a show that should take three people to operate and makes it so one person can run the show fairly easily. That’s what the nexus of the backstage control would be.
Frech: There’s a combination of live video and recorded playback. There are two cameras that we use–Sony GX30 cameras. Everything in the [Las Vegas] show runs at broadcast quality because it’s such a large venue. There is some playback like the plumbing video. There’s also a phase meter that responds to the audio signal that’s fed into it live. We project that signal as well on 10-foot circular screens.
Glaab: That phase meter projection uses a program that was customized for us by Metric Halo Labs. They have sound-editing software for studio use, and basically they customized that program for our purposes. It’s actually a Lissajous meter used to see if your audio is properly in phase.
Q: So you’re running your entire Las Vegas show on Power Mac G3s. Are they souped up in any way?
Glaab: They are basically off-the-rack G3s. We have five in all in the show–two to operate the Dataton software and three to run the phase meters.
Q: What kept you from upgrading to the G4? Would the color clash?
Glaab: Funny you mention that. For our own research and development here in New York, we just purchased G4s for the next phase.
Q: What other software do you use?
Frech: There’s some code writing that happens for some of the Sony mixers. Sometimes it’s all about getting the devices to talk to each other.
Glaab: We do use Avids a lot for our post-production work. We are working on material for the shows and material for the second album and we also produce all our own B-roll and commercials and media material.
Q: A lot of people recognize the Blue Men because of those Pentium commercials. Yet Macs power your show. Do you find that ironic?
Glaab: No. We use all kinds of machines, depending on what we want to do.
Q: The Blue Men use some pretty inventive instruments in their show. What’s your favorite?
Frech: My favorite’s the backpack Tubulums. I like the fact that they’re mobile, they produce a really unique sound, and I love that they can launch rockets.
Glaab: There are some great string instruments that we didn’t invent, but we changed the way they’re performed. Like a Hungarian Cymbalum in the Las Vegas show. It’s played by the band. It’s a big stringed instrument that they hit with drumsticks, which produces a pretty amazing sound. I also like the fixed Tubulums. They’re basically large cardboard tubes that you hit a reed at the end with a drumstick, and it gives off a very deep, vibrational sound. Very resonant.
Q: You have a lot of high-end gear, but you also have a lot of low-tech stuff in the show. What in your mind is the most low-tech part of the show?
Glaab: The thing about how we approach things at Blue Man is that it is decidedly low-tech/high-tech because the things we want to have happen . . . well, there aren’t necessarily things existing to do that. So we always end up combining technologies. An example of that is the phase meters we talked about before. They’re actually run on G3s, but then the processed sound is fed through an Electric Mistress, which is an old guitar effects pedal. It creates more distortion so the projected visual is better. That’s typical Blue Man–combine a G3 with an old guitar effects pedal.