A Look at Some New Gear on Display in Vegas, Baby

For the painter there is the brush; for the sculptor, a chisel. For the projection designer there is a multitude of tools in the chest. Many of us are using, or at least have seen the use of, digital video technology in theatrical projection. For a display of these technologies that can only be described as monumental, one only need visit the desert environs of Las Vegas for the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) trade show. Recently we found ourselves with two compelling reasons to visit the glittering byways of Vegas: Diamond Vision had contacted us to come and have a look at the new 33' by 109' LED backdrop being used on A New Day, the mega-spectacle featuring Celine Dion at Caesar's Palace. This invitation happily coincided with the annual tech spectacle on the convention floors of the NAB show. It proved to be a rich span of days, and we found ourselves looking at some remarkable new technologies. Here's the bird's-eye view.

First and foremost we had made the trip to get a behind-the-scenes look at Diamond Vision's mammoth new high-resolution screen, serving as the backdrop to the equally prodigious proportions of A New Day. The screen is nothing short of a revolution in the use of LEDs. The 109'-wide screen is gently curved from left to right, and contains an ingeniously engineered embedded door upstage center that is virtually invisible in the viewing aspect of the screen. Any one of these attributes is enough to set a screen like this apart, but what stood out most was the remarkable subtlety and beauty of the screen's display capabilities. The production exercised these capabilities in a wide variety of modes and methods. Uniquely filtered and skewed IMAG, beautifully rendered roiling clouds of ground fog, and prominent use of some of Artbeats' colorful new high-definition stock footage (the Centrifusion HD collection) all made appearances on the expanse of screen, all with a beautiful, un-pixelated look. It was the first LED screen we have seen that didn't look like an LED screen when viewed in performance.

The screen is constructed from an array of Diamond Vision's 16mm SMD (surface-mounted diode) LED panels. The screen's resolution is beyond high definition, with a pixel dimension of 1280×4160 (that's 5,324,000 pixels, in case you're counting). Most of the signals utilized by the show were high definition, streaming from a pair of redundant DoReMi Labs V1HD Video Disk Recorders, and backed up by a Sony 777 Digital Media Server. All of the IMAG was accomplished with high-definition cameras. In a masterfully executed feat of engineering, the Mitsubishi R&D staff on both sides of the Pacific combined forces to produce a perfectly invisible upstage center door in the screen. The door is utilized for amazing upstage entrances, and the force of surprise when the portal first opens is considerable, due to its total invisibility. The screen's size is matched by its price. No department was apparently lacking for the latest technologies in the production, but the screen dominated the show's presentation. With a budget that began at roughly $6 million, the screen and its support systems have at this point commanded in excess of $9 million of spending “and growing,” as one of the production executives from A New Day related at the after-show Q&A.

Although tired from the visual assault of Celine's private circus, we bucked up and hit the floor of the Vegas Convention Center to take in the technologies and to put some pieces into place for some of our own upcoming productions. Accompanied by Seattle Opera director of production Robert Schaub, we reviewed a variety of projector blending technologies that could potentially be used in the Opera's upcoming production of Parsifal.

One stand-out system was the Montage System by Vista. The system accepts a dizzying array of signal inputs, and is capable of scaling, transforming, moving, and blending the inputs into a contiguous 10-bit image. The unit features a tactile control surface that has the physical appearance and function of a truly high-end production switcher. The system was being used in conjunction with Dataton's Watchout to produce a unified image that could be manipulated with amazing flexibility and ease. Scharff Weisberg announced the purchase of the system for inclusion in its rental stock at the show.

On the part of the show floor dominated by the manufacturers of non-linear video editors, mobility was the key word. Avid debuted its new DNA line of professional editing equipment. One of the available configurations, saucily named MOJO, enables Windows and Apple laptops to input and output uncompressed standard definition video through the FireWire (IEEE1394) port, as well as DV25 and Avid's own unique 15:1 “offline” resolution of video. Coupled with the new and improved Express Pro editing interface, the laptops were totally real-time, and agile, capable of editing, viewing, and outputting full-frame uncompressed SD video. We immediately lusted for them.

Our lustful eyes quickly strayed to a variety of other laptop-based video products. Canopus's new DVC500 provides a lovely digital-to-analog package that is capable of converting DV25 to either composite, S, or RGB component video. Coupled with a powerful laptop with a FireWire connection, the DVC500 provides many powerful input/output options in a small form factor.

But we weren't at an end of editing evolution. Apple surprised many by rolling out Final Cut Pro 4, with a bevy of new features, showing itself capable of editing anything from feature film to primetime shows. There were a lot of examples of HD-enabled Apple workstations, and a joyful congregation of Mac heads made approaching the gear almost impossible. It was easy to see from the large screens above that FCP was adding functionality one would expect in million-dollar edit suites to the desktop.

Another big surprise for advocates of editing in the PC environment was Sonic Foundry's rollout of Vegas 4. Vegas 4 is a full-featured video editing environment, with incredibly robust tools for video and for audio. The big surprise for NAB was revealing the product's new HD capabilities. Priced at under $500, Vegas enables anybody searching for a truly cost-effective editing toolset an opportunity to step up to the HD plate. We were, like, “Wow.”

At the high end of the spectrum, Media 100 was commanding attention with its 844/X platform for editing and compositing video. This elegant suite features jaw-dropping real-time blurs, a color corrector worthy of film grading, and an edit suite that is amazingly powerful and swift. For designers who use After Effects a great deal, 844/X is a true powerhouse, making up to four layers of the After Effects timeline operate in real-time. Anybody who's spent time waiting for previews to render will have an appreciation for the depth of power on display in this tool.

A lot of buzz surrounded the JVC booth, featuring the rollout of its new “prosumer” single-chip high-definition DV camera. The JVC JY-HD10U captures in 720p, 60i, and 60p, collected by a single 1/3" 1.18 million-pixel CCD chip. The output doesn't match that of a professional 1080i HD broadcast camera, but that's not the point, as JVC staff is quick to point out. With a price point under $4,000, the camera is poised to bring HD acquisition to the masses, including the moderately funded projection design populace. It is a prominent sign of the growth spurt that HD gear is enjoying in the consumer marketplace, and it's making new things possible for many of us on the production side as well.

Further down the aisle in projector land, NEC had a small revolution on its hands. The WT600 DLP projector displays images using aspheric mirrors instead of a projection lens and achieves a super-short focal distance not possible with ordinary projectors. Using aspheric mirrors, the throwing distance between the projector and a 60" screen is 25cm (10"); therefore, the WT600 projector can be installed in spaces where available depth is limited to approximately 60cm (24"), including the size of the projector. We were immediately struck by the opportunities that might exist for discreet placement of units such as this in restricted spaces and non-traditional applications.

Taken together, all of these things point to major advances in capability, shrinking sizes for amazing mobility, and price points that would have made us laugh out loud only a year ago. It all makes the projection designer capable of putting new and powerful tools to use at all levels of production. From truly beautiful LED-generated imagery to simple laptop production power, once again the future is upon us.

The Bonniols can be contacted at colleen@modestudios.com and bob@modestudios.com.