Shining on stage

Alumni modernize stage lighting industry with BlackTrax

William McDaniel has lit up the stage at Sheridan’s Macdonald-Heaslip. Literally.

In April, McDaniel (Technical Production Theatre and Live Events ’14) stood centre stage at Sheridan’s Trafalgar campus, the spotlight shining. Marty Cochrane (Technical Production Theatre and Live Events ’13) called out from the audience for him to move across the stage. As McDaniel shimmied to the right, the spotlight followed. As he dashed to the left, the overhead light continued to track his movement, never missing a beat.

Sheridan College, Macdonald Heaslip Hall

The display was part of a workshop being done for students from Sheridan’s Technical Production for the Performing Arts program. McDaniel and Cochrane were two of three alumni showcasing the capabilities of BlackTrax – a vision-based system that can track a performer in real-time. The system can be used for everything from theatrical productions to keynote speakers, modernizing the stage lighting industry and the role of a lighting technician.

Soon enough the students were trying the system out for themselves, swinging umbrellas, jumping up and down, and running from one corner of the stage to another, attempting to trick the spotlight that’s set to track their movements.

Cochrane, product manager, works with McDaniel, assistant product manager, and Andrew Avon, product engineer (Technical Production Theatre and Live Events ’15) at BlackTrax.

The company is part of Toronto-based software and hardware developer CAST Software, which serves markets in entertainment production, special events and meetings.

“There are lots of changes and evolutions in this business. That’s where a big part of us coming out and talking to the customers plays in, because we’re not going to have these evolutions without listening to them.”

While CAST has about 45 employees, Cochrane estimates about 15 are dedicated solely to the BlackTrax team, meaning he, McDaniel and Avon often work closely together. Although they graduated in different years, the trio crossed paths during their years at Sheridan.

“When I was at Sheridan, most of my focus was on audio and a bit of lighting,” says McDaniel. “I first heard about BlackTrax when we were in school, and I remember thinking what a cool thing it would be to work on in the future — and now I’ve been here for almost four years.”

Cochrane credits Magi Oman, a professor of technical production for theatre and live events, for connecting him with Cast Group CEO Gil Densham. He was hired as the assistant product manager at the time, before then being promoted to product manager.

In the years that followed, Cochrane was able to bring McDaniel and Avon onto the team as well. McDaniel, who graduated a year below Cochrane, spent a month working on a cruise ship before joining the company, while Avon was hired the following year.

With BlackTrax located in Toronto’s west end, the three alumni didn’t have to travel far from Sheridan’s Trafalgar campus to find opportunities in their field, but the nature of their work means they’re rarely in the area.

McDaniel travelled to China for a broadcast featuring e-commerce giant Alibaba, while Cochrane recently trekked to Australia for the opening of the Commonwealth Games. The company has also done work with Disney On Ice in Florida, and sold one of its first BlackTrax systems in the fall of 2013 to Cirque du Soleil.

It’s a common misconception that professionals in the lighting industry spend much of their time sequestered in a dark booth. In fact, McDaniel says having face time with customers is essential not only to growing the business, but also to gather feedback and improving the software.

“There are lots of changes and evolutions in this business,” explains Cochrane. “That’s where a big part of us coming out and talking to the customers plays in, because we’re not going to have these evolutions without listening to them. That’s just as big a part of our job as it is working on the shows.”

Along with networking in the social sense, having computer networking knowledge is also important to succeed.

“Networking is a big thing because a lot of people don’t know how stage networks or infrastructure works,” says McDaniel. “So being familiar with the different protocols and how they integrate with each other is important.”

Going forward, BlackTrax is looking to continue its international growth with a new office in France and a preliminary deal that would see the technology being brought to cruise ships.

But despite this expansion, the Sheridan alum say having a close-knit team is a key aspect of their work.

“We have projects where we may go out on our own for two or three weeks, but we’re always communicating.”

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