This month, the gear that debuted at ETS-LDI in October migrates off the show floor and into use. Some of it will hit the road with the North American International Auto Show, which rolls in Detroit on January 15; and some of it will stay in Las Vegas, where it will help dress up industrials events at casinos, showrooms, and convention centers. The Production Resource Group has some scheduled for IBM. “Vegas,” says Martyn “Ferrit” Rowe, operations manager of concert touring for PRG Las Vegas, “is the playground for new technology. It gives you a great chance to strut your stuff and push the technology as far as it can go.”
The stuff that everyone's strutting is the newest wave of “convergent technology,” which companies like PRG and High End Systems have been emphasizing in their product lines for a while now, and which companies like Martin and MA Lighting have recently debuted. The word “convergence” has meant different things to different industry sectors over the past several years, but the buzz is currently centered on the union of lighting and video functions in a single unit.
In early November, PRG's senior management decamped to Dallas, where “convergence was at the forefront of the agenda,” say Tom Sorce, vice president of business development at PRG Burbank and a guru of the digital revolution. PRG has its two proprietary media servers, the Mbox™ and the EX1™, the latter acquired from its “convergence,” via corporate merger, with VLPS Lighting Services International last spring. HES debuted the third generation of its digital lighting line, the DL2™, at ETS-LDI and promoted software-only packages of its Catalyst™, a convergence utility (mixing lighting effects with digital media to create virtual scenery) that had previously only been available as part of a complete media server system.
HES notes that up until recently the phrase “media server,” with its high-end, high-tech ring, made a design community raised on analog ways of doing things hesitant. “But it's part of the vocabulary now and it's commonplace to see media servers at the FOH of a concert or corporate event,” says its marketing communications specialist, Debi Moen. “There was a learning curve to be overcome. Plus there were production companies, whose warehouses were loaded with old products, that didn't want to buy into the new technology, and two years ago, the economy was in more of a slump, so the adoption rate was slower than we predicted. But at ETS-LDI we noticed more of an acceptance and a familiarity with digital lighting products.”
Regarding acceptability, HES says that Catalyst and DL1™ are being used in many of the same places where an automated luminaire might have been used: TV shows for creating virtual scenery, and, besides concert and corporate shows, theme park rides, houses of worship, opera, and on Broadway. Provided that a designer is conversant with convergence, stunning effects are possible. “If you're leaning toward video servers, there are countless applications,” says Jason Goldenberg, technical services representative of PRG Las Vegas. “I just did an installation at the Rio Hotel here that uses a video server on 18 plasma screens to show footage depending on the mood the manager sets. I'm sure a Doremi video player would have sufficed, but being able to do effects on the fly makes it much easier to produce. It's also interesting, a really neat application, to use 3D models real time on some systems.”
There is, however, some talking left to do before the technology, and not just the terminology, makes greater inroads among designers. Simply making the technology less expensive and more accessible, as will happen over successive generations, won't do. Projection and video designer Sage Marie Carter participated in discussions about what the Catalyst might be when it was under development. “And what it's being used for is logos,” she says.
Carter, whose work with Watergate-era photographs and news images added insight to New York's Public Theater production of Dirty Tricks, a one-person show about Martha Mitchell, isn't being dismissive. It's just that one-half of what manufacturers are offering her at the top of the line these days doesn't meet her needs. “I don't have any interest in learning how to program a lighting board. And lighting people I know aren't really interested in learning projections.”
“Lighting people struggle with video,” Goldenberg says. “They aren't used to it. There are so many new terms, both on the software side and hardware side. Lighting people might now have to learn how to use Apple's Final Cut Pro®, or Avid®. They also have to know what kinds of video signals certain devices output or input: SDI? RGBHV? DVI? What about video distribution? Most lighting folk don't have any idea what a DA is. Now we're running all kinds of five-pair video cable. All this new terminology has to be learned, and practiced correctly. And how many lighting programmers or techs know how to use Maya or other high-end 3D modeling programs? So there's yet another tool for lighting people to learn.”
To get up to speed up on convergence, “I would recommend lighting folk learn as much as they can about video and content creation,” Goldenberg says. “I stress the second part of that, content creation. This is a huge part of it. Do you think lighting designers are good at creating content? I don't think I know one lighting designer who is good at Adobe® After Effects®. This is an amazing program that creates effects like they use on Sunday football. Those are the experts at it, and we have to get to that level.”
PRG and HES have training programs set up for their new technologies. Pat Little, general manager of lighting services at PRG Las Vegas, says he and his staff “just dove right in” when Mbox became available to them. “There's no wrong way to light a box in the center of a room.” But not every designer wants to light the box, or create the content. Specialization, and the thrill of working as part of a team, is more important than cross-training or being able to do everyone else's job.
Carter, who made projections by hand before moving on to computers, helped bring her mentor, Wendall K. Harrington, up to speed on the technology when she was Harrington's assistant. Says Harrington, whose work can be seen on Broadway in The Good Body, “People should do what they are good at and what they are trained to do. I think there are various skill sets for each discipline and I'm not sure everyone has them all. But that's me; I'm sure set designers who do their own costumes and projections would disagree. There is no way to settle this question; it really has to do with whether you want to be responsible for everything, or you enjoy collaboration.”
Carter worked closely with set designer Neil Patel on Dirty Tricks. While manufacturers assume that projection and lighting are closely related, making for a natural convergence point, both of these designers are more grounded in architecture than they are in illumination. “More set designers are doing projections than LDs, and I think it's partly because of time,” says Carter. “For the set designer, once the model has been okayed and sent to the shop they have a lot more time to do image research (which few LDs I know want to spend the time to do) and they use Photoshop and some of the digital tools that a projection designer uses.”
Patel, who has tinkered with virtual sets, says that he and his colleagues are still grappling with the “rapid changes” in the projection market, let alone convergence. “It was just a few years ago that an Ektagraphic was like a machine gun going off in the theatre. They've become brighter and more silent.” Before contemplating convergence, Carter (who also recalls the not-long-ago days when theatrical video projection was just “huge gray light”) puts on her PRG wish list a greater promotional push for the “absolutely fantastic” PIGI projectors, which she feels do a better job than a mixed-use lighting/video product.
Though industrials and theater designers may differ on how useful convergent technology is to them, one thing is certain: There's no end to the product stream in the digital realm. Moen says, “The traditional moving light company will still be around, and the automated fixture will successfully co-exist in a hybrid rig with the newer technology.” The Lance Burton Theatre in Las Vegas, for example, remodeled its rig with a range of HES moving yoke and moving mirror products as well as Catalyst and DL1s. “We still have an appetite for luminaires — after all, we introduced Color-Command™ and ColorMerge™ in the past year for the more traditional market — but the opportunities for another ‘same but brighter’ new fixture are not there. There is more opportunity in digital lighting products, not only for us, but also for the designer.”
“The moving light will be a moving projector,” Little foresees. “There won't be moving lights. Once you can shape the beam and put any image you want into that projector, there's fewer moving parts and less upkeep and the price will go down. We're not far from that.” Given advancements in digital lighting and LEDs, Sorce says today's IMAG projection “will be completely overrun by a lighter, more malleable, and less expensive delivery system.” Rowe says that perhaps “a WholeHog for audio, that can do lighting as well, is a possibility, and as a computer that can be tweaked and touched as you might handle a console.” Lest you think that industry members like Goldenberg and Carter are poles apart in their thinking about technologies, Carter, moving convergence in a different direction, says, “After Effects and Pro Tools, when opened up right next to each other on a screen, look exactly the same. The technology for sound and projection runs parallel, and they're easily integrated. That integration would take sound and projection designers very far.”
If convergent technology penetrates deeply into the marketplace, making multitaskers out of specialists, many will have to adapt, as some are naturally. Others can stick to what they know and mentor the next generation in the all-important creative element, as the new waves of hybrid units come ashore. “In smaller start-up theatre companies, the content — theatre, performance art, poetry — is blurred, to attract newer, younger audiences,” says Carter. “The designs cross all the boundaries as well.” It may be that the generation best able to manipulate convergent technology is using an Xbox before it gravitates to an Mbox, on playgrounds very different from the one that is Las Vegas.
Robert Cashill is a former editor of Lighting Dimensions.