Published in September 2006

Float Like a Butterfly...
By Jim Stokes

Ali Center's AV scores a TKO.
As guests make their way down from the second level exhibits, they can see The Greatest–Speed Power & Grace projected on a full-size boxing ring below; the ring surface is a projection screen. About every 40 minutes, this 20-foot-square hi-def image, with dynamic sound, is projected onto the boxing floor. This is the actual ring used in the Will Smith movie about Ali.

    The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville KY is an international cultural and educational institution that draws on non-traditional museum experiences, incorporating the ideals of its namesake, Muhammad Ali, to entertain, inspire and teach visitors. Whereas Ali used the media to get his ideas across to the public, the Center has made extensive use of AV displays.
    The $80 million project is housed in a 93,000-square-foot, six-level facility in the world famous boxer's hometown. Just as Ali looked within himself to be known as "The Greatest," the facets of life that inspired this word-famous figure are found within the museum.

Prolific Communicator
    According to Muhammad Ali Center president/CEO Mike Fox, Ali has been "a prolific communicator in his own right. And, because we're to be an extension of his legacy, we should, within this institutional environment, be a communicator that utilizes AV or media to help us project the imagery and messaging of the Center." Fox noted that, "Ultimately, the Ali Center is a center of ideas, not artifacts. Beyond the exhibits, the Center is a global gathering place where people come, both online and in person, to learn, share and celebrate our commonalities as human beings, and formulate ways of advancing humanity today and in the future."
    "The opening of the Muhammad Ali Center is the realization of one of [Ali's] lifelong dreams," said his wife Lonnie Ali. "Muhammad lives his life in accordance with a set of [six] core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality. These are the same values that guide the Center in its mission to promote diversity, cultural expression and community spirit."

Unprecedented Speed, Grace
    As a boxer, Muhammad Ali brought unprecedented speed and grace to his sport, while his charm and wit changed forever what the public expected of a champion. His accomplishments in the ring are legendary: two fights with Sonny Liston, where Ali proclaimed himself "The Greatest" and proved that he was; three epic matches with Joe Frazier; the stunning victory over George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle; and dethroning Leon Spinks to become heavyweight champion for an unprecedented third time. Nowadays, Ali's humanitarian efforts have provided 232 million meals to the world's hungry. In addition to his international efforts, Muhammad is equally devoted to helping charities at home.
    This writer vividly recalls the pro boxing career and media personality rise of then Cassius Clay in New York City. As a draftee, I was stationed there in the early 1960s. In this time of ferment with anti-war protests and pro-civil rights rallies, a young Cassius Clay captured the media with his wit and poetry. He had the rhetoric and positive attitude of a champion. The future Muhammad Ali inspired people worldwide to realize their own personal greatness. Certainly, he grabbed media and public attention along with other rapidly rising performers such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

    Major credits include the following. Architectural design and concept planning: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture+Design Partnership/Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners LLP, New York City. Exhibit design and fabrication: Formations, Inc., Portland OR. Center's chief curator: Susan L. Shaffer Nahmias, PhD, AZ and KY. Media design and production: Cortina Productions, McLean VA. Exhibit AV equipment and integration: Electrosonic Systems, Inc., Los Angeles CA.
    Specific AV personnel include Electrosonic site supervisor Tony Rosenfeld. Joe Cortina is creative director, Cortina Productions. Joe Summers was Formations project manager. Cliff Slater is in charge of IT/AV operations at the Center. Our interviewees include Electrosonic project manager Jim Maddux, Cortina project producer Stephen Platenberg and Ali Center president/CEO Mike Fox. Our thanks also to David Steinberg, Goliath Marketing in New York City, for his Electrosonic project summary and Jeanie Kahnke, vice president for communications at the Center, for background information.

Guests sit on a small bench within this presentation space and see a standard-def projected image.

AV Install
    Integrator Electrosonic Systems teamed with Cortina Productions, which managed production of the exhibits' AV components, to supply the AV hardware and control systems used throughout the Center and in numerous exhibitions spanning Ali's life. Electrosonic is quite experienced in doing large-scale media installations with complex show control and back end for programming such as this project. "We've worked with [Electrosonic] on some very large projects," said Cortina producer Platenberg. "And we brought them to the team." Exhibits were provided and installed by Formations, Inc.
    The project presented the integrator with several challenges. For example, many of the projector throw distances were very short and displays called for large images on curved or odd-shaped screens, so projection systems had to be placed precisely. The openness of many exhibit areas also required that the audio be balanced correctly so visitors could hear the content.
    In addition, the integrator had to cope with delays in building construction. "That gave us less time to install and still meet the opening," noted Electrosonic's Maddux. "We ended up working side by side with the rest of the construction team. Drywall was installed and painted at the same time the projectors were installed."
    The operation of the Center's AV system is dependent on Electrosonic Media Networks ESCAN Show Control software. Two ESCAN systems were installed: one in the Orientation Theater and one in the control room, which runs the AV equipment on the fourth and fifth floors. "Most of the source material is played back from either a Media Networks SD or HD video server," explained Maddux. "ESCAN was selected for its reliability, functionality and ease of use for the end user." ESCAN Scheduler initiates the start and shutdown of all exhibit AV systems and controls most of the equipment in the racks. In addition, the system has an input from the Center's fire alarm system, which will mute the audio and video of the entire system in an emergency.
    At the core of the Center's audio system are two Fostex D2424LV hard disk recorders/players that supply multiple tracks of CD-quality music throughout the Center via Peavey NION processors. Surround sound systems feature Crown amplifiers. Sound effects for some exhibits are played from Roland AR200 message repeaters with solid-state memory.

Orientation Theater: Stellar Example
    Walking through the Center's exhibits reveals the extent of the equipment provided by Electrosonic. The first stop on the tour is fifth floor for the Orientation Theater. "It's an environ where we've had absolutely 100% of the visiting public rave about it," said the Center's Fox. "They weep when it's appropriate and react when there's an emotional high." The presentation's queuing area demonstrates Ali's playful side with a Poetry & Humor pre-show film. Six overhead Bose speakers augment audio from a 60-inch monitor receiving AV content provided by a HD FrEND Player. A countdown timer mounted in the wall near the theater entrance doors shows the time left until the show inside opens.
    The theater presentation serves as a stellar example of the AV project's equipment install and creative production capabilities. Theater presentations illustrating pivotal events in Ali's life and preparing visitors for their journey through the Center are scheduled every 20 minutes. Three Stewart Filmscreen screens, separated by a pair of roller screens, take center stage. "The main screen is a normal 16x9. However, the screens on the side are angled and have a trapezoidal look," explained Maddux. "So the content had to be edited to fit that, and projector placement had to be dead-on. The two roll-down screens have the Laser Magic holographic material."
    Because of space restrictions, it was practical to have the other "screens" just painted on with a paint mix that resembled a white screen. This painted-on surface screen technique was used also in the "Lighting the Way," "Conviction" and "Spirituality" pavilions.

Rendering by Formations, Inc., of the Orientation Theater that illustrates pivotal events in Ali’s life and prepares visitors for their journey through the Center.

Five Projectors
    Five video projectors are fed by five player/video servers in sync with Fostex audio playback. Christie DS+8K serves as the theater's primary projection system. It's supplemented by Panasonic PT-D5500 projectors located elsewhere in the theater. Other projectors used at the Center include the Christie LX series and the NEC WT610. Theater speakers are placed left/center/right with six Triad Silver Surround speakers in the side walls and a Bag End subwoofer behind the center screen. Two AMX touchscreens for staff control of the Orientation Theater system plus two Shure wireless mic transmitters, one handheld and one lavalier style were provided as well.
    On the production content side, Cortina's Platenberg noted, "In our research, we found out that Ali carried the Rudyard Kipling poem "If" in his pocket when he was a youngster. We found that it related to a lot of things we were trying to get across in the story of Muhammad. And it related to the six themes, as well." The film begins with a lot of action such as Ali in the ring asserting, "I'm the greatest." Then the attention-getting basso voiceover of Avery Brooks tells us that Ali carries "If" with him. Familiar NPR female voice Vertamae Grosvenor reads the poem throughout the presentation. The show was written by Jeffrey Blount.
    The 14½-minute-long, graphic-intensive production runs across five screens. Platenberg said it was the "blend of images researched about Muhammad over two years." Joe Cortina and Platenberg worked with Patrick McDonough of PCMD Design in New York. "They established the graphic look and feel of the presentation. Then we worked with PCMD in final compositing and graphics."
    Editing was in Final Cut Pro HD. Graphic production was in After Effects. The 7.1 surround sound audio mix was done at MVI Post, Falls Church VA. And the original score was by Michael Josephs. Ambience and sound design helped heighten the emotional level that producers were trying to give the film.
    Exiting the theater, visitors follow four Journey Lines, interactive multimedia timelines of Ali's life. Each timeline consists of two NEC video projectors, two computers with custom Cortina Productions software, a control interface, sensors or buttons, an audio amp, and one or two speakers. The Journey Lines have Spanish text translation, accessible by just turning a knob.
    "When you get within four feet from a display, you trigger a motion sensor, which activates the particular Journey Line and brings up images, text and various content on that period in Ali's life," said Platenberg. "In addition, there are artifacts. For example, in the first Journey Line, there's a bike. When Muhammad was 12 years old, his bike was stolen. He told policeman Joe Martin that he wanted to 'whoop' the person who stole the bike. 'Why don't you learn how to box,' asked Martin, 'so you can whoop 'em'." Platenberg noted that a related video is triggered to play by touching the bike.

Preventing Audio Fatigue
    According to Platenberg, all the exhibit pavilions on fifth floor are in relatively close proximity. Because they're all media-driven, the potential for audio spill and the resulting audio fatigue on visitors was of great concern to project personnel. So Cortina Productions took preventive measures. Instead of having an individual music track for each film, Cortina produced a music track for the fifth floor pavilions. Individual tracks are stored and played on the Fostex.
    "Working with Los Angeles composer Rex Rideout, we created a sound track where a pavilion has a certain element from the music track," related Platenberg. "For example, 'Confidence' is primarily strings. 'Dedication' is mainly percussion. 'Spirituality' is, appropriately, ethereal. 'Respect' is piano. And the 'Conviction' pavilion has the main mix melody track playing. However, 'Giving' is the only values pavilion that doesn't have a music track.
    The end result is that, if you stood in the middle of the pavilions, you'd hear a mix of them all. "Usually we edit to the music," continued Platenberg. "In this case, we proposed to show a film that ran independently of the music. It worked out great! And it helps give people the feeling that it's all continuous. The films build on each other."
    Another prime aspect of the music track is that the tempo is the same throughout the pavilions. There are seven songs that make up more than 30 minutes of music. Because the films are on motion sensors, when you walk into a space, there's already some attractive imagery on the screen. But you trigger a motion sensor that triggers the film to play. So the visitors see the film from the beginning. And the motion sensor ramps the music up or down via the Fostex. Of course, the video and accompanying voice track come from an Electrosonic server/player.

“Conviction” features six areas covering Ali’s political/religious activities.

Pavilions Potpourri
    Although it's beyond our scope here to cover all the pavilions and other related exhibits entirely, we'll provide highlights. The six pavilions on the fifth floor explore the values by which Ali lives his life. In "Confidence," the five-minute "I'm So Pretty" video, about how Ali's self esteem and self confidence have inspired African Americans, plays in a cone-shaped theater where three Christie video projectors are fed by three video servers. A Bose left/right speaker pair and subwoofer supply the audio.
    "The film has a historic look," said Platenberg. "We shot some actors who were made to look like they were in the period. They comment on seeing Muhammad on TV. And we see the changes that African Americans were going through in the '60s. Ali was standing up for his race, for himself, for his confidence and for a generation of black people." The audience is immersed in imagery because the screen surface is a circular 270 degrees. "It took a little while to get the viewing look just right because we had pincushioning and very severe keystoning," he continued. "The projectors are high and the screen is both caving in and encircling you. We did all the film's distortion in After Effects."
    In "Dedication," a rap-style program, "The Will Must Be Stronger Than The Skill," is projected onto a curved 10'x7½' painted-on surface by a single video projector. The exhibit has a music video feel to it. A left/right speaker pair provides the sound source.

'Giving' to Charity
    "Giving" focuses on the time Ali devotes to charitable causes. Four visitor stations, each with its own SoundTube dome speaker and touch-control interface by exhibit fabricator Formations, Inc., play a one-minute program on the topic. Platenberg explained that Formations provided four light boxes with images and quotes. "There's a handprint cast of Muhammad into which the visitor puts his or her hand, which triggers the light box to activate and triggers an audio piece, as well. The sound domes are concealed above a cloud in the pavilion's ceiling. The sound beam is narrowly focused to cut down audio spill."
    "Conviction" has six visitor areas where Ali's involvement in the Civil Rights movement, his decision to join the Nation of Islam and his refusing the draft are explored in a pair of two- to three-minute programs. Two areas are outfitted with Christie LX32 projectors, two with 27-inch monitors and Bose Freespace 16 overhead speakers, and two audio-only areas with Roland digital audio repeaters and a Fostex multitrack digital audio recorder. "The 'Conviction' area has the most different media experiences," said Platenberg. "The Center examines Ali's name change and his refusal of the draft." There's a fabricated lunch counter where he was refused, despite him coming back to Louisville as the Olympic Gold Medal winner. Visitors walking in trigger a motion sensor and hear the 1960s diner chef declare, "What are you doing in here? I can't serve you. Leave!" On the video monitors are, variously, documentary-style imagery full of quotes, graphics, photographs and film clips from '50s and '60s America showing the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam conflict.

    "Respect" for yourself and others is demonstrated in a values pavilion where a six-minute video interview with Ali is shown on a Pioneer 50-inch plasma display with speakers. The Ali Center's Fox emphasized that "the Center is not trying to sugarcoat anything. We present Muhammad with all the contradictions and decisions, good and bad, which he has made in his lifetime. 'Respect' shows a progression of his life. It shows the ways he's treated and mistreated people. People can better appreciate and respect what he's learned, and what it means to get respect and show respect. So we show it and tell it like it is. And people have really respected that from the Center. That's been very positive."
    Finally, in "Spirituality," a suspended mesh wall with images of moving water projected onto it forms the perimeter of the media program viewing area. This pavilion's video program is displayed on a suspended cylindrical screen by a projector located in a plate glass-covered cutout in the floor. Six speakers plus a subwoofer furnish the audio. According to the Center's Mike Fox, "Spirituality" is like a "decompression chamber. This is where you can literally lie down on very comfortable couches and look up at the ceiling. Projected in a very artistic and beautiful way is the message that reflects Muhammad's viewpoint on spirituality."

Other Display Areas
    One of the most fun portions of the Center is a cluster of exhibits devoted to Ali's boxing career. "Train With The Greatest" features a soft floor mimicking the floor of a boxing ring. Triggered by a motion sensor, daughter Laila Ali's image appears behind a mirrored wall. Above is a three-minute clock controlled by ESCAN to run along with the video. Visitors can engage in a three-minute workout with Laila, where they can learn things like the Ali shuffle. Behind the mirror is a Panasonic PT-D5500U projector. Video, provided by a Media networks SD player, gives visitors an opportunity to see the commitment required by the sport.
    A "Shadow Boxing" experience uses a Christie LX45 projector to throw shadows of Ali onto a wall in a controlled space, while backlighting mingles visitors' shadows with his.
    "Speed Bag," an audio-only exhibit, features a self-powered Tannoy i5MP speaker. Visitors turn a dial to play the cadence of Ali's punches at various points in his career as they try to match his pace and rhythm.
    In addition, the program "Speed, Power & Grace" is displayed on a cylindrical screen above the ring, and the video "The Greatest" is projected within the cylinder onto the ring's canvas floor. The exhibit also features 20 Bose satellite speakers and five subwoofers.
    In "All Ali, All The Time," his professional bouts are showcased in six interactive touchscreen media areas with video on demand. Each area consists of an ELO 1747L touchscreen with audio and a conventional 36-inch CRT TV monitor.

'Lighting the Way'
    The exhibits conclude with "Lighting The Way," a multimedia experience with 16 interactive acrylic torches mounted in aluminum-clad cylinders and lit by color-changing fiberoptics. The torches symbolize both the famous Olympic torch and how Ali's life sheds light on life's possibilities for others. In the preshow, as a visitor touches a torch he triggers an overhead light and either a camera feed or audio and video stored on a 12-channel video server.
    The main show, displayed on a 45-foot painted-on surface screen, includes three live cameras with images of the visitors, shots of hands passing the torch, a recap of the themes of the Center and Ali's unforgettable torch-lighting at the Atlanta Olympics. The integrator provided the cameras, touch sensors, four projectors, four speakers, three subwoofers and the ExhibitFX Media Manager computer supplying the stereo audio track and video.
    Additionally, at the core of the Center's third floor is the Howard Bingham Gallery, which illustrates the photographer's long friendship with Ali via pictures and a 4½-minute video presentation. The gallery is outfitted with a 60-inch monitor, AV content from an HD FrEND and four overhead Bose speakers.


Cortina Productions
    The approach at Cortina Productions, McLean VA, is collaborative and content-driven. Working on multiple levels, the company provides story translation for all media formats, including hi-def, film, television, interactive exhibits and the web. From a single monitor to multiple screens, Cortina Productions develops technological avenues for expression. Its work process is structured enough to stay on task, on time and on budget. Cortina Productions' experience allows staff to anticipate challenges and create solutions in a timely manner. The process covers media design and creative direction, project management and technical coordination.
    For more information, go to


Electrosonic Systems
    With offices in Minneapolis MN, Burbank CA, Orlando FL, New York NY, London, England, Helsinki, Finland, and the Far East, Electrosonic Systems has a 40-year history in the AV market with design, installation, manufacturing and staffing capabilities. The company has designed and installed complex systems at hundreds of well-known sites around the world. With a worldwide presence, Electrosonic specializes in the AV needs of corporate communications, command and control rooms, museums, retail display, theme parks and exhibitions.
    For more information, go to



    1 AMX AXT-CA10 touchpanel
    1 AMX AXD-CV6 touchpanel
    1 AMX NI-700 NetLinx integrated controller
    1 Bag End Infra MXB bass signal processor
    1 Bag End Quartz-R high-output concert Infra subwoofer system
    2 Bose 402-II Pro speakers
  21 Bose Freespace Model 16 speakers
    5 Bose Freespace 3B speakers
    9 Bose Freespace 3 speaker systems
    5 Bose Panaray 502B base speakers
    1 Bose 502B bass module
       Cambridge acoustic speakers
    3 Canon lenses
    2 Chief CMA105 ceiling plates
    1 Chief RPA985 mount
    1 Chief PST2095 mount for Sony
    4 Chief RPA034 mounts for DS+25w projector
    3 Chief RPA140 mounts for LX32 projector
    3 Chief RPA620 mounts for LX25a projector
    2 Chief RPA6500 mounts for PT-D5500U projector
    5 Chief RPA985 mounts for LX37 projector
    1 Chief VCM47E mount for LU77 projector
    1 Chief VCM91C mount for DS+8K projector
    1 Christie DS+8K projector
    5 Christie DS+25W projectors
    1 Christie LU77 UXGA LCD 7700 lumen projector
    8 Christie LX37 XGA LCD 3700 lumen digital projectors
    3 Christie LX32 XGA LCD 3200 lumen digital projectors
    3 Christie LX25A XGA LCD 2500 lumen digital projectors
    1 Christie LX45 XGA LCD 4500 lumen projector
  10 Christie ChristieNet wireless presentation portals
    1 Christie 0.8:1 lens
    1 Christie 1.8-2.5:1 lens for OT Main
    3 Christie 38-804737-01 connectivity modules
    4 Crown CTS 2000 amps
    5 Crown CTS 4200A amps
    3 Crown GCP 660 amps
    1 Crown CTS 1200 amp
    1 Crown CTS 8200A amp
  20 Dei 504D shock sensors
    2 Electrosonic MS9001 ESCAN software
    2 Electrosonic MS9024 FrEND HD networked players
    2 Electrosonic MS9025 FrEND networked HD player
    1 Electrosonic MS 9100P HD player
  14 Electrosonic MS 9200P HD players
    2 Electrosonic MS 9400 HD FrEND HD video players
    4 Electrosonic MS 9304 4-channel video servers
    1 Elo TouchSystems c72404-000 touchscreen adapter
    6 Elo TouchSystems 1547L/823428-000 15" LCD rear-mount touch monitors
    5 Exhibit FX media manager computers
    2 Fostex D2424LV audio processors
       Laser Magic holographic screen material
  10 Middle Atlantic MRK-44-311 racks
    8 NEC WT610 MultiSync short-throw projectors
    2 Niles LS-1 light sensors
    5 Panasonic PT-D5500UL DLP projectors
    2 Panasonic ET-DLE100 zoom lenses
    2 Peavey MediaMatrix CAB 16i audio input bridge
    1 Peavey MediaMatrix CAB 16o CobraNet audio output bridge
    1 Peavey MediaMatrix CAB 4n audio bridge for MediaMatrix
    3 Peavey MediaMatrix NION 3 programmable digital audio processing nodes
    2 Philips 27ST220L/17 27" 29i (27v) System SmartCard ITV
    6 Philips 36ST220P/35 36" 33i (32v) system SmartCard ITV
    2 Philips 60PP9363H/17 60" projection TVs
    1 Pioneer PDP-504 plasma monitor
    1 Pioneer PDP-SO5-LR speakers
    3 Renkus-Heinz STX 2/64 speakers
    5 Roland AR 200 audio recorders
    2 Shure UIXP14 series wireless
    2 Shure ULXP4 wireless
    5 SMC EZ Net-24SW EZ switches
    3 Sony DXC-990 3CCD color video cameras
    1 Sony FWD 42LX1/B 42" LCD monitor
    4 SoundTube FP6030 sound domes
    8 SoundTube SM500i-BK speakers
    5 Stewart Audio PA-50B 2-channel amps
    1 Stewart Filmscreen 3-screen frame
    2 Stewart Filmscreen roller screens
    1 Tannoy I5MP self-powered speaker
    1 Telex ST300 listening system
    1 TRENDnet Te-100-s24 24-port 10/100 Mbps Sw system
    4 TRENDnet TE100-S8P 8-port 10/100 Mbps Sw systems
    6 Triad 125667in-wall silver surround speakers
    1 Viewsonic E70B monitor
    4 Watt Stopper CI-200-1 360° PIR sensors
    1 Watt Stopper CX-100 PIR sensor
**List is edited from information supplied by Electrosonic Systems, Inc.

Sound & Communications Contributing Editor Jim Stokes has been involved in the AV industry for more than 30 years as an AV technician and writer.

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