It's been a long time in the waiting, but I can happily announce that I have, at last, had the opportunity to inspect, dissect, tweak, and generally torture the brand-new Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® III. “So, what's it like?” I hear you ask. Well, ladies and gentlemen, if I could have a drum roll please. . . . This is, without doubt, an outstanding lighting console. It is not the perfect console — I doubt it would be possible to make one given the peculiarities of individual taste — but I am extremely pleased with what Flying Pig has worked so hard on, and so will you.
Before I continue, you should know that I am writing this review from the viewpoint of those of us at the sharp, pointy end of the programming world. I spend my days as an LD and programmer and don't really get excited about circuit boards, hard drives, or other tech stuff. To be honest, if something's broken it's usually safer for me to holler for a tech than try and get my hands into it. It would be unfair of me to review this desk from a tech point of view, but from a programmer's point of view I think I can write with some experience. So, this is for those of you who program your own shows, program for others, or need someone to program for you quickly, cleanly, and without hassle.
I spoke to Nick Archdale (co-founder of Flying Pig) before I went to see the desk and asked him about it. He told me that it was really only an “evolution” from the Wholehog II, and it was with those words in mind that I started to inspect his latest offering. In essence he's right, but there's a lot more to it than that. In its basic operation it is very similar to a Wholehog II. Those of you who are familiar with the Wholehog II will be able to step up to the Wholehog III and jump straight in. So, why should you bother shifting to a new console when the Wholehog II still works so well? After about five minutes at the desk you will start to notice revolutionary, not just evolutionary, changes.
The first, and best, is the way that the console thinks about fixtures. The console does not think in percentage values of DMX; it thinks in real-world, human terms. Most programmers have had to learn that, with most consoles, you just have to know that with certain fixtures the dimmer encoder will become a strobe after 50%, or that to reset from the console you have to have the shutter closed. The Wholehog III already has the parameters separated for you.
Also, how many times have you used different manufacturers' moving lights and found that, when you turn the pan encoder, one type's yoke flies across the venue while another's barely flinches? With the Wholehog III, the movement is divided into degrees, so when you enter a value of 20 into the pan encoder, everybody moves the same 20° — not 20%. This may sound like a rather quaint and totally cosmetic little effect, especially when you tend to use palettes most of the time. However, the real power of this way of thinking (and this is the clever bit) is that because all fixtures are thought of in real terms, rather than as simply percentages of DMX value, you can change the fixtures in your show without reprogramming the whole thing! If you're using High End Systems Studio Beams™ in the US, then find that there aren't any in South America, you can switch to Martin Professional MAC 600s without sweat. The values in your cues will remain the same (e.g., fixtures 1 through 6 pan 20° and tilt 35°, at 20% intensity, strobe at 75% in Lee 179). There will be a prompting syntax that will take you through the conversion process to facilitate moving from, say, color-mixing to fixed color wheel, but it will be as intuitive as everything else on the board.
What else? The whole Ethernet/network thing. I must admit that until I had had a look I thought, “What do I care how you get the information to the lamps, as long as it gets there.” The Wholehog III splits the processing between the console and the DMX processors. It is not until the signal gets to the processors that the conversion to DMX happens. The editing is done on the console and the playback on the processors. This means that there is almost no limit to the number of universes you can deal with. It also means that there is no chance of the console becoming sluggish when trying to process too much information at once. An example of how this can help: There is a large rig and absolutely no time to program, so you bring in another programmer. Within the network, you can have two (or more) programmers working on different parts of the same cue! Once the dual work is done, the second programmer goes away, and you are left with the show being run on one console. Brilliant, and also very useful for fixed installations, theme parks, etc.
There are many more features of this desk that make my toes tingle with excitement, but I must first address a very important question that is on the lips of all I talk to: “Is it ready?” It is important to put this question into perspective. In the life of every lighting product I've seen, the release has always been slightly premature. This is due to the difficulty in striking a balance between when the developers are ready and when the backers need to start seeing a return. At the time of writing, the Wholehog III, in a simple form, is ready (v1.0 is being used on shows already). However, there is still definitely a lot of “this will do and that will do.” However, and please take note, I remember when the Wholehog II came out and I kept on using the original Wholehog because the Wholehog II wasn't ready. Look what a success the Two eventually became. So, I am heaping praise and glory onto this desk in the certain knowledge that this will become the new yardstick against which all other consoles are measured.
But, when will it be fully ready? According to Flying Pig info, we should be able to see all but the smallest tweaks sorted out by early 2003. As an aside, Flying Pig will be releasing “branch” software releases. These will contain updates that are only relevant to the version of software your console is running. This will enable you to secure your software without forcing you to accept a whole new version. So, to those of you who have seen the console for a few minutes at trade shows and are critical of its current state, please think ahead and do yourselves a favor and get into this console before you find yourself left behind!
Now let us step back and have a look at the architecture of the console itself. Visually this is a very sophisticated desk. All anodized aluminum, decently sized, tilting screens, the trademark comfy armrest, very stylish 2:1 ellipses all over the place. The heat sink is set into a recess inside the outer casing and, as there are no fans, it is almost silent. The touch screens are also substantially brighter. It's very light at only 22.5kg [50lb]. Check out the two-color LED desk lights (white and blue). They crossfade to blue either when the console's asleep or when you set them. This is a sophisticated console in its looks and in its performance. (It even looks considerably better in person than it does in pictures.)
I'm not going to turn this into an instruction manual, but let me rattle off some other functions that will give you a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling:
The console will back up to the hard drive as you go along. I know that, in public, everyone maintains that they back up to disk often enough. In private, I'm sure that most have suffered from lack of tidy backing up. Anyway, there will be no more of that. Like the original Hog, all edits/changes are committed to hard drive immediately. However, the Hog III also has an auto-backup facility that periodically makes sequential copies of the current show to hard drive or removable medium (Zip/CD). An internal battery ensures correct system power-down should the power be lost. As per software like Photoshop there is multilevel undo, and, while using the “pig” button, multilevel redo.
Combined with the Auto Backup features listed above there is also the Linux operating system. Linux is a multiprocessing OS which means that every software process, e.g., playback, desktop, editor(s), operates independently within “protected memory” so that you could crash the programmer (editor), for example, and everything else will continue to function — playback, in particular, is almost impossible to bring down. Processes can simply be restarted if they've failed. Furthermore, the remote DMX processors offer a final layer of protection. This is a most reassuring feature for anyone who's suffered an untimely desk crash.
Multiple Contents Editor
This is the ability to edit the contents of a cue without having any values in the programmer. The most immediate benefit I thought of was that if the LD wants something changed while you have something rather complicated in the programmer, you can make the change without losing what you were working on. We should all admit that sometimes the creative flow of an LD may not exactly run smoothly, and how frustrating is it using a fader for somewhere to dump “work in progress” while you pander to the sudden brain wave?
You know that you know how to do something but it's not at the forefront of your memory, the LD and the production manager are out front, and your fingers have stopped flailing about with their usual confidence. What do you do? Well, rather than reach for the manual (a guaranteed egg-on-face moment) you quietly hit the “?” button on the screen and all your questions are answered as specific help comes to your aid. Phew — nobody noticed, and they'll hire you again.
I could go on and on about this console, but I think that every individual who takes programming seriously needs to get in front of a desk and get a feel for it. Those of you who are used to the Wholehog II will love it as a seriously advanced version of an old friend. Those of you who use other consoles and are familiar with their functionality and syntax will finally get what everyone was saying about the Wholehog II. I am sure that some people will say, “Yes, well, I can do that on such-and-such a console,” but I doubt very much that you could do all that this can do. Lots of other consoles do lots of other things, but the sequence of button pushes is usually the definition of frustrating.
In synopsis: Suppliers should buy it, LDs should spec it; it is undoubtedly worth it.
Alex Reardon is a freelance lighting designer, director, and programmer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.