As two giant "legs" crisscrossed the football field, Jonathan Waters watched the Ohio State University marching band give life to a complex vision. Michael Jackson was moon-walking. The quick-footed musicians - their protruding instruments within inches of colliding - drew wild applause from the crowd at Ohio Stadium.
As two giant "legs" crisscrossed the football field, Jonathan Waters watched the Ohio State University marching band give life to a complex vision.
Michael Jackson was moon-walking.
The quick-footed musicians - their protruding instruments within inches of colliding - drew wild applause from the crowd at Ohio Stadium.
In previous weeks, spectators in the stands had been treated to formations depicting surfers, Shrek and a galloping horse - and, this time, the King of Pop.
Waters, too, liked what he saw.
"We have not gotten to the point yet where we haven't been able to do something," said the band director, whose halftime show on Oct. 19 (OSU vs. Iowa) celebrated Jackson's music and imagery. "No other band in the country, I think, could do that."
Christine Ngeo Katzman, editor and publisher of the marching-band trade publication Halftime, seconded the thought.
"They're at the top of the pack," said Katzman, noting the progressive routines and the digital buzz they've created.
"They're very good at doing these big, wide-appeal, fan-based shows."
Such sentiments seem fitting for the Best Damn Band in the Land, which will present its final Horseshoe halftime show of the season this afternoon during the Ohio State-Indiana game.
The theme: a patriotic salute to the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg - featuring Civil War-era tunes, cannons, marching-soldier formations and perhaps some pyrotechnics.
Outdoing itself yet again won't be easy, given the spate of shape-shifting visuals that have earned the 225-member band not only standing ovations on game days in Columbus but also heaps of international acclaim.
The performances have scored tens of millions of YouTube hits. Today broadcast a live performance last month on the NBC morning show. Headlines have peppered news outlets worldwide - from Britain's Daily Mail to Australia's Sydney Morning Herald. Katherine Jackson, mother of the deceased King of Pop, even phoned Waters to offer kudos.
Such far-reaching attention has elevated an already-celebrated group to a new artistic echelon - thanks to the premium put on eye-popping animations and pop-culture savvy, an extension of Waters' philosophy of "tradition through innovation."
On campus, the mass whose bodies form likenesses of battling pirate ships and Harry Potter maintains rock-star status.
"It's really great to see the support," said Ryan Barta, a 21-year-old senior trumpet player from Dublin. "People are so intrigued by what we do."
The stylistic sea change introduced by Waters has left audiences - both in the stadium and online - eagerly awaiting the group's next feat.
"Their mind is blown because they don't quite understand," said the 37-year-old, who was promoted to assistant director in 2002 and landed the top job in October 2012 after a year in an interim role.
"There's this excitement: Oh, my gosh, I'm really watching this happen."Getting high-tech help
So how does TBDBITL do it?
Like those of any other marching band, the performances require plenty of practice.
Until this season, the OSU musicians used dozens of paper charts with coordinates detailing where members needed to be on the field at precise moments throughout a song.
But that method - common among bands at all levels - has its drawbacks.
"On paper, it's static images," Barta said. "You don't see the in-between."
With 1 million pages printed during a season (price tag: $24,000), concerns about costs and waste arose.
A high-tech solution - an iPad application - was introduced this year after Barta and OSU band mate Charlie King pushed for the purchase of 45 iPads for squad leaders, drum majors and staff members. (A $25,000 gift from a private donor covered the expense.)
The $6.99 software, known as Drillbook Next, allows users to upload charts whose results unfold, beat by beat, with the repeated tap of a finger.
Similar to flip-book animation, an entire routine plays out in real time on an iPad. Each member's name appears alongside his or her coordinates - so a director "can put names with a dot instead of calling out 'A1,'??" said Scott Rundell, creator of the app.
"You want to know exactly where people are all the time," said Rundell, a computer engineer from Troy, Mich., and a University of Michigan graduate.
Drillbook Next bolsters the learning process by allowing proficient players to tackle more-complex formations and quickly refine them.
It explains how, say, a soaring Superman or a sinister Tyrannosaurus rex - each featured in the band's Oct. 26 Hollywood tribute - can take shape in just a few days.
With additional donations, Waters expects all OSU band members to have an iPad next football season. Plans are also afoot to establish a Wi-Fi network on the practice field.
Still, the young players are quick to note that the tablets aren't a crutch, explaining that the video-game spectacular performed last season was executed with paper charts.
What's more, the amount of practice time hasn't changed: two hours every weekday afternoon (plus the time that students spend preparing on their own).
Associate director Chris Hoch, who directed the bands at Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Delaware for seven years before joining OSU in 2009, credits rigorous high-school music programs and the students' ease with technology.
The new animations, he said, are complex but no less challenging than older routines centered on abstract designs akin to the military drum-corps style.
"You find something that works," Hoch said, "and you continue to evolve it."Inspiring future players
Waters - a smiling and soft-spoken guy who grew up idolizing the OSU band as a young tuba player in tiny Elmore, Ohio, but didn't make the cut as an incoming freshman - views the spotlight as a blessing.
"If this inspires some fourth-grade kid to play a trumpet and tell Mom and Dad, 'Hey, I want to be in the band someday,' we've done our job," said Waters, who ultimately joined the band the next year and dotted the "i" of Script Ohio in 1998.
Interest, as expected, is on the rise.
An online registration form for future tryouts has one applicant booked for 2021. ("That means they're not even in middle school yet," Waters said with a laugh.)
Beyond viral videos and blog posts, the band has expanded its physical exposure.
OSU officials in the summer boosted band funding to $1 million (up from $220,000 the year before) - in part to send the band to four away football games.
Waters' predecessors support the artistic makeover.
"Just watching them get a standing ovation, one after another, it's exciting and rewarding for the students and the fans," said 74-year-old Jon Woods, who retired two years ago after 28 years as director.
Paul Droste, 77, recalled making shapes during his time as band director from 1970 to '83. He once used a pegboard to chart a stationary horse - "It might have moved a little but not much"- that players replicated on the field.
Lately, Droste said, "Once these things start, the crowd just comes alive."
With heightened exposure comes pressure.
Each show is a collective effort of composing, charting and conceptualizing. Students offer opinions before future halftime themes are finalized.
Expectations, everyone knows, will get only higher.
And Waters continues to field the same query: What's next?
"You can either let that question eat at you and keep you up at night, or you can embrace the fact people are talking about the band," he said, noting that the beloved Script Ohio was considered revolutionary in 1936.
"We have to be innovative today, so that today's innovations become tomorrow's traditions."