BHP Steel Experience recreated with lighting and multimedia

Posted on Thursday, April 5th, 2012


The Newcastle Museum recently relocated to new facilities at the old railway workshops adjacent Civic Railway Station in the heart of Newcastle. As part of the relocation, and with regard to the place they held in the story of Newcastle, BHP provided sponsorship to develop a gallery devoted to the history of steel making in the region.

As part of the development in 2011 Mental Media were commissioned by the City of Newcastle to design, produce and install “a dramatic audio visual program which will interpret the excitement, colour, drama and noise which is inherent in the steelmaking process” to “enliven the exhibition, expand the visitors’ experience and help to interpret the very large objects on display in the exhibition”.

Mental Media proposed a major ‘object theatre’ production that provides visitors with a glimpse of the inside of a steelworks. It incorporates two giant objects that dominate the exhibition space – a former BHP steelmaking ladle and a ‘Bottom Fill’ Ingot Car, the container into which the molten steel is poured.

The gallery is designed as a multi-level theatre style space which allows many viewpoints for the visiting public. Located in an existing heritage rail shed the space has a dramatically high ceiling, gritty industrial finishes and a high level mezzanine structure which serves as the “stage” for the production.

As part of the development of the concepts, Mental Media made several visits to the Bluescope Steelworks at Port Kembla where they recorded audio, video and still images of modern day steelmaking as a reference to their production.

BOS (Basic Oxygen Steelmaking) assaults the senses. It is extremely loud, fiery, smoky, dusty, hot and dangerous and Mental Media’s first and major concern when planning the recreation was safety. While certain effects, such as live flame, pyros and sparks could be spectacular, given the nature of the building, the safety of the visitors, limited operations staff and ongoing operational costs, Mental Media had to rule them out at an early stage.

Running on the hour the show, titled “Big Harry’s Place” uses sound, lighting, vision and mechanical effects to create a theatrical experience of a steel pour.

Giving the visitor an exciting, awe-inspiring glimpse into the environment of the steelworks is a challenge and even though a large part of this show is the “experience” and wow factor, a strong story helps the audience identify and empathise.

As the lights in the space dim, a light in the crane operator’s cabin overhead fades up, directing attention up there. We see the figure of Big Harry appear behind the glass – Harry looks up, and addresses us gruffly through the ‘Tanoy’ system.

“Gday. We’re about to tap the number eleven furnace here, and pour some ingots. You’re welcome to stay and watch, but it’s gonna be loud, hot and dangerous…”

The character narrates the five minute show and explains the steel making process to the audience. The process includes a steel pour from a faux furnace into a real ladle (museum object), a faux ladle transit across the 18m wide room at ceiling height and steel pour from the faux ladle into and ingot car (museum object).

When the ladle is in the middle of the transit across the room, it suddenly shudders, drops and begins to swing treacherously, jets of smoke shoot from the bottom, alarms sound and lights flash in a simulated accident event.

There are five major effects generators that have been used to simulate the steelworks… mechanical, sound, lighting, video and smoke. There are also a number of built set pieces that create the steel works environment.

The image of ‘Harry’ in the crane operator’s cabin is created by holographic Pepper’s ghost effect projected into the windows of the cabin.

The furnace steel pour is simulated by a combination of custom LED panels, several layers of acrylic diffusion panels, smoke and lights.

A combination of LED screen technology, strobes, smoke machines and clever lighting effects were used to replicate steelmaking and transport you back to the old days of life working in the furnace.

The furnace mouth and chute is bought to life by a Martin Magnum 1800 smoke machine, three Martin Atomic 3000 strobes (replicating molten steel flowing in the chute), four Pro Shop Molefay Duet, two custom LED video displays and one electric spark generator.

Both the steel ladle (a museum object) and the faux ladle, which is a two thirds scale model of the real ladle that travels on a specially designed gantry crane, contain a JARAG 25 in their base. Each JARAG is pointing up out of the ladle to replicate the molten steel ripple effect bouncing off the roof. This was done by running a series of chases and effects through the JARAGs.

More Atomic strobes, Magnum 1800 smoke machines (plus Martin AF-1 fans) and Molefay Duets are also used. The ingot car holds four Molefay Duet fixtures.

The entire mezzanine concrete structure has been clad in faux steel girders and scenic painted to simulate the appearance of a real steelworks.

General lighting includes four Martin MAC350 Entour moving heads which do the main pick ups, such as the buckets, from the front using colour and pattern.

Lighting design for the project was by Peter Neufeld with Mark Hammer programming the show. “Mental Media did a lot of the viewing work so that people could see things,” commented Mark. “They were very good and I was really impressed by them.”

Eight Pro Shop LED MultiPARs and a couple of LED PAR64 were also incorporated into the room lighting, used to give the set some extra dimension. At the start of the performance they provide a low glow of blue picking out lines and shapes of the room and as the performance progresses they build up.

“We spent a lot of time researching the best effects with the gear available at time of ordering,” commented Peter Neufeld. “The Martin MAC350’s were the perfect choice for a museum with their low maintenance of course being the big plus. The same goes for the LED MultiPARs and the LED PAR64s. We researched lots of effects for the actual pour but decided to go with the Atomics to really kick out and take over the audience at that dramatic moment.”

The show was programmed on a MA Lighting grandMA, time-coded to the audio and downloaded to a replay unit.

“Chameleon was great and Darren McLanders from Showtech was outstanding,” added Peter. “His support and effort was just brilliant. Also that it was a pleasure again, as always, to work with Mark Hammer who programmed the show.”

Photographer: David Jellings, Mental Media Pty Ltd ©2012