Indoor marching instructors and performers think “outside the tarp” in WGI’s new eShowcase category.
On a Friday afternoon in early March, Andrew Zweibel conferred with the music caption head and two other designers at Chromium Winds, based in Rosemont, Illinois, to discuss the video their ensemble would be submitting to WGI Sport of the Arts’ eShowcase. The goal of the conference was to “bounce our creative energy off each other,” says Zweibel, ensemble director.
His students were just hours away from remotely uploading their first individual performances that would be pieced together to comprise the full ensemble’s video submission.
Rather than entering a competitive category in WGI this year, Chromium Winds participated in WGI’s eShowcase, a new classification that allowed performing units to stretch their creative muscles, free of the rules and constraints that accompany indoor competitions.
Due to the impacts of COVID-19, WGI had gone fully virtual in 2021, offering various kinds of competitive and noncompetitive opportunities for soloists and groups involved in guard, percussion, and winds. For eShowcase, submitted videos were available for viewing on FloMarching and evaluated by an adjudicator who provided customized feedback. Competitive groups also submitted videos, but they could advance through preliminary, semifinals, and finals rounds.
Indoor units from the United States as well as various countries, such as Great Britain and Canada, submitted videos to WGI’s eShowcase, each with its own reason for being non-competitive this year.
Chromium Winds produced an entirely virtual video. “We created, filmed, and produced remotely,” Zweibel says. “The students were never in the same room as each other.”
From mid-January through mid-March, Zweibel gave his students a series of assignments that they needed to perform, record, and upload. “We then stitched them together post-production to create a video,” he says.
However, other eShowcase groups did meet and record in person—sometimes in gyms but mostly in alternate venues such as stages and parking lots.
When local restrictions in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, barred The Cowtown Collection indoor winds group from “putting anything on the floor” and performing in person, its co-director Cadence Sullivan opted for eShowcase. “We initially intended to compete as an independent group,” says Sullivan, adding that it would have been the unit’s competition debut.
As for Avon Lake (Ohio) High School, the indoor drumline “wanted to [try] a different approach,” says John Max McFarland, director of percussion and music arranger. “[We wanted to] go at our own pace.”
The flexibility and the critical feedback of eShowcase appealed to him. “It was going to be virtual anyway,” McFarland says. “With no restrictions, we can do whatever we wanted.”
Becky Zoellner, the color guard coordinator for Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minnesota, chose eShowcase because it gave her the opportunity to experiment with different lighting capabilities. An interior designer by day, Zoellner designed a winter guard show that included theatrical lighting. “Our stage was completely dark, and we used spotlights to help guide your eyes around the [stage],” she says.
Like many independent units restricted by COVID, Chromium Winds couldn’t secure rehearsal space, so creating and recording an entirely virtual performance made sense. eShowcase engaged the group’s performers and staff members in the absence of a face-to-face season. The Chromium Winds show opened with participants waking up and logging into a Zoom call, presumably in December, eager to hear the details of their upcoming 2021 show. As Zweibel clicked the play button to introduce the show’s music and whet his students’ appetites, the scene cut to his ensemble actually performing the music. “So the show is about the kids learning what the show is about,” says Zweibel with a chuckle.
Unlike Chromium Winds’ entirely remote show, Irondale High School shot its program, “Isolated,” in person. Irondale conveyed the sense of isolation that so many people have struggled with in the past 13 months by starting the show in darkness, with just one performer spotlighted in front of a mirror. As the performance unfolded, spotlights switched on, featuring more individuals who also performed in front of and around their own mirrors. “It’s only really you there with your refection,” Zoellner says.
The Black Watch, a winter guard based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, also designed a show featuring mirrors. However, its program focused on “RE:FLECTION” rather than isolation. “With everything that’s happened this past year, we wanted to take note of that in a not-so-literal sense,” says Hunter Cade McDaniel, show designer and choreographer.
Using many camera angles and special effect illusions, the show encourages viewers to take a good, hard look in the mirror and ask, “Who am I really?” McDaniel adds. His goal was to inspire viewers to shatter the mirror and create “the new world we have in front of us,” he says.
For WGI fans who are devotees of found footage horror movies, Avon Lake’s show may strike a familiar chord. “Stay in the Light” tells the story of a creature stalking a drumline. McFarland, a fan of the found footage genre, employs a range of lighting effects, some of which produce hidden messages. “The students’ goal is to stay in the light,” McFarland says.
Ultimately, though, the creature prevails and, as is to be expected in found footage horror, McFarland’s percussion ensemble disappears without a trace. The viewers are left with just a memory and the footage.
McFarland created two separate cuts. Due to time constraints, he submitted his unit’s performance shot from the rafters of the gym to WGI. He then later completed the found footage version, with intentionally disjointed and choppy editing, for the Ohio Indoor Performance Association. “It stretched the kids creatively and the staff creatively,” McFarland says. “We’re trying this stuff out [that] we’ve never done … before.”
Drawing inspiration from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise,” Canyon High School in Anaheim, California, created a show that implores individuals to take heart and not be discouraged by current conditions. “All these things are getting us down, and everything is crappy right now, but even with all of that, I’m still going to get up, and I’m still going to fight the next day,” says James Catherall, head percussion coach.
With fewer restrictions, some directors felt liberated and seized the opportunity to design shows that extended beyond the edges of a tarp stretched out on a gym floor. Quite often, McDaniel says, directors get swept up in the pageantry of color guard as they assiduously check all the boxes. “eShowcase relieves you of that obligation,” McDaniel says. “We had the power to choose what [the viewer] sees. We had the power to communicate this abstract idea and personify it via video,” says McDaniel, who adds that he specifically designed The Black Watch’s show with the camera, colors, and casting in mind.
The Cowtown Collection’s 2021 program, “Journey to Bovine-9,” combined the “performers unique visual ideas, settling on a mix of puppetry and animation,” Sullivan says. Since video was recorded remotely, “I really wanted to create a show that can’t be done in a live performance setting, beyond the ‘Brady Bunch’-style of multi panels that we’ve seen other groups doing.”
More Freedom = Extra Challenges
But liberation came with a set of design challenges. Compared to the past, this year’s Chromium Winds show was more difficult to create, Zweibel says. In a regular season, designers are bound to a set of parameters, a box from which they can’t stray. With the boundaries of competition removed, Zweibel was forced to start from square one. “How long do we want it to be? How many people do we want to feature? What type of visual effects do we want to add?” Zweibel had pondered.
From mid-January through mid-March, Zweibel gave his students a series of assignments to perform, record, and upload while at home, in their dorms, or in an empty parking lot. He gathered recordings of the musical performances as well as footage of students waking up and eating their breakfasts. “We then stitched them together post-production to create a video,” says Zweibel.
While his instructors were working with students via Zoom, Zweibel was furiously editing the footage.
Design hurdles were not the only things that tested eShowcase groups. They also dealt with lighting, video equipment, and software issues.
To capture his unit’s performance and create his submission, McDaniel divided Black Watch’s show into several scenes and equipped six staff members with a variety of DSLR cameras and iPhones. His guard performed some scenes eight, nine, or even 10 times. “[We were trying to get] the maximum footage to piece it together later,” says McDaniel, who estimates that 15 hours of postproduction work yielded its five-minute show.
Bob Green, director of bands at Lakeland High School, the sponsoring organization for Huron Valley Percussion from White Lake, Michigan, captured his unit’s performance with an assist from the school’s video production class. They shot the bulk of the video using the school’s HD video cameras, then the video production class and its instructor swooped in for postproduction work. “Any time I can find a way to bring it back to another program in the school, we try to do that,” Green says.
In addition to WGI, Green also submitted his unit’s video to the Michigan Color Guard Circuit.
Employing the lighting techniques that gave Irondale’s show the desired effect proved more difficult than anticipated. Zoellner says that, initially, her iPhone was not capturing the performance with the lighting she designed. She experimented by turning lights on and off throughout the auditorium to get the desired effect, and it took a couple of weeks before she was satisfied with the results. “It was a challenge getting enough [ambient] light in the space,” she says. “The kids probably thought we were crazy.”
Avon Lake also needed to “play around with some lighting effects,” using black lights and traditional spotlights, McFarland says. Each Sunday McFarland’s unit would meet for what he called “tech rehearsals.” Although individuals from the school’s theater department assisted with the lighting, they still struggled to figure it all out, he adds.
Canyon High School’s percussion ensemble could not rehearse or record indoors, so dealing with outdoor elements—even in sunny California—proved difficult, Catherall says. The schedule dictated that they shoot in the afternoon, so they consistently battled long afternoon shadows and winter’s diminishing daylight.
Beyond technology, groups also faced logistical setbacks. McDaniel, for one, compressed his indoor winter season into just two months, starting in January, without a fall training season preceding it. When January rolled around, he also had trouble finding rental space. He finally found a gym that he turned into a black box theater where his students could perform their show on the gym floor.
Maintaining a sense of community and keeping the performers motivated proved to be one of the hardest aspects of Cowtown Collection’s video project.
McFarland too saw problems with motivation. Without the competitive aspect and the fire that competition breeds, performers had to raise their standards in their own little bubbles, he says.
It Was Fun But …
Although the directors involved in WGI’s eShowcase reported positive experiences, most were happy to put it behind them and are looking to the future. “After participating in week three and four of the eShowcase, I think we may put our virtual hats behind us and look forward to a warm spring and summer when we can hopefully perform for our community,” Sullivan says.
McDaneil calls eShowase a monumental steppingstone and would like to see WGI offer it again in the future. “Providing this opportunity for designers to step away from the competitive spotlight and just create is super important when it comes to the activity,” he says.
But he’s chomping at the bit to compete and promises that Black Watch will be back on the competition circuit in 2022 “with guns blazing and ready to go,” he adds.