Exploring High Definition for Live Performance

Why upgrade to high definition for video projection? An informal poll of our contemporaries finds that most video showing up in projection applications these days has made its way down an uncompressed standard definition signal path. Alternatively, digital video (DV) has been making itself well known. The popularity of the DV format has increased the technology used for the creation and editing of footage, putting it within financial reach of most projection designers. The accessibility of its editing software has provided substantial support for a projection designer's ability to explore and expand into video.

However, the financial draw of DV is somewhat compromised by its less-than-spectacular 5:1 image compression ratio. Just because DV is inexpensive and readily available doesn't make it the ideal solution for every theatrical production that calls for projection. It's great for pushing data around, but it's chock-full of artifacts, color bleeding, and bad luminance transmissions. This leads to an image quality that cannot hold up to many live performances.

Projection design needs to support the production seamlessly. Sometimes a design is a blatant display of technology; more often it needs to be discreet. From the standpoint of a designer who may be accustomed to the rich, high-fidelity resolution of large format projection like Pani, standard definition video is not an acceptable substitute. For video imagery to truly compete at this level we have to begin to explore the realm of high definition.

Our studio recently began work with the Seattle Opera and advising Schuler & Shook, the consultant and technical team, to specify the projection systems to be installed in the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall. The new performance venue, to open in summer of 2003, will have undergone a multimillion dollar rebuild and expansion. All major performance systems are to be replaced, with additional options and technologies to be added. This is a perfect case study for understanding the benefits of high definition.

The Seattle Opera has been a longtime proponent of projection in design. From its beginning, the organization owned a large inventory of incandescent Pani projectors, as well as several high-output HMI units. Time has taken its toll on this fine collection of gear, and with the inauguration of its new facility, Seattle Opera wanted to explore new possibilities.

Our first challenge is to meet the design needs of the Opera in the new space. True to its Wagnerian core, the Opera chose to open with the epic Parsifal. Noted scenic designer Bob Israel envisions a large projection background, 50'x80'. Bob has created a series of images for each act, and has expressed a desire for some of them to be kinetic. The motion and image manipulation that was discussed at the design meeting precluded large-format film projection. Resolution and quality needs demanded an output better than standard definition video. Standard DV format has a 720x480-pixel resolution; whereas high definition is capable of up to 2K or 2,048 by 1,556. This results in a resolution that has almost three times more depth and clarity.

Under normal circumstances, the opera house has more than enough depth for successful large-scale rear projection. But Parsifal is going to require a 50'x80' active art area, and will only have a scant 26' from the projection surface to the back wall. Multiple projectors and other tricks are in order to make the throw distance work.

Another priority is to specify a system that will combine the multipurpose needs of the venue, including the Pacific Northwest Ballet and digital cinema events. We suggested that the technologies exist to present a high-definition video solution for the problem, giving the Opera flexibility and options while satisfying the City's desire for the inclusion of digital cinema events. Robert Schaub, the Seattle Opera's technical director, recommended we collect information on equipment and standards for the project.

We divided the equipment into output devices, playback, and content creation. Our inquiry began with the projectors. The main features considered were brightness/contrast, I/O (input/output) capability, and flexibility of accessory options. Brightness and contrast help the projection designer win favor with the lighting designer. In the last three years the average large-audience projector has increased from 5,000 ANSI (American National Standard Institute) lumens to over 12,000 ANSI lumens. This allows performances to have lighting and projection work together rather than against each other — no more mandatory dancing in the dark. The Opera uses projection primarily as a scenic element, so image resolution remains one of the top priorities. Therefore, the projectors must have HD compatibility. Lens availability and accessories round out the wish list we have compiled. The big three producers (Barco, Christie, and Digital Projection) of high-end event projection gear each have an interest and a product line that supports these needs.

For playback we have always used and trusted Doremi's digital disk recorder series. Their V1-UHD is high definition-capable and maintains the company's commitment to multiformat and ethernet interface. The RS-422 control is frame-accurate, making it a perfect match for the Opera's demands for consistency and reliability.

Dataton's show control software Trax will connect the playback system to the projectors and synchronize the projections to a timeline with specific cues or MIDI control signals. Their Watchout system is a program that would allow the use of multiple projectors to achieve a whole image. It uses an edge-blending technique that would allow us to scale and divide the whole composition between discrete projectors.

We also had to consider which systems would provide us with the power in the studio to deal with high-definition imagery. It would be important for us to be able to at least edit the footage in real time, as well as have the tools to create and store it. As projection designers we rely on computer animation in addition to live footage more than most. Avid's Softimage XSI has been our animation platform since 1997. The recent upgrade of XSI has incorporated an animation mixer that allows us to edit animated positions into fluid motion, giving even greater flexibility for onsite changes.

On the compositing side, Adobe's After Effects had been our tool of choice for a long time, and it would ably continue into high definition. We would need to increase our studio network storage to at least a terabyte to accommodate the digital footage files. Ideally, we would add a new level of editing and compositing power as well. We chose a new hybrid system from Avid, the DS/HD, which combines real-time conforming and finishing of projects at multiple non-compressed HD and SD formats. The immediate impression is the richness and beauty of the images in high definition. When composing an image that is being used as scenery, as in the case of the Opera, it needs to have enough depth to keep the audience engaged. Another bonus to this system is that it's compact enough to travel.

DV still has its place in live entertainment, and will continue to be enhanced by projection designers and editors alike. Nevertheless, if the production demands high-quality images with that melt-in-your-mouth flavor, exploration into high definition is required. Ultimately, high definition provides a moving image with real-time editing capabilities that is comparable to film. The bonus of having a team onsite providing up-to-the minute changes or edits makes it ideal for theatrical projection design and realization. Parsifal opens at the new Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle, WA, on August 2, 2003.