Man, the Projection Master Classes at LDI were a rocking success again this year. Somehow, just the right people ended up on just the right panels — after many perambulations — and the knowledge shared was huge. At the end, I was thrilled, and everybody seemed to glow with some new purpose.

As in previous years, the final few sessions focused on DIY (do-it-yourself), alternative technical approaches, and thinking about the future. Our final panel had the gifted interactive artist and production designer Pablo Molina; Nick Sears, creator of the Orb LED display; VJ Robb Pope; and Josh Fleitell, live from Shrek tech on Broadway, via Skype! That's what I'm talking about! The conversation ranged widely across realms of approach to projects, process, alternative methods, interactivity, and control schemes that departed from current industry standards. The nice contrast in these last sessions was that the discussion turned from what the big productions use, and how they use it, to focus on how to get the same, or more, done with a good deal less.

I thought it would be great to talk a bit about those things we covered that day. One of the questions I often get coming into the sessions is: “I would love to use media servers or expensive projectors, but I can't afford them. How can I accomplish my project on a way tighter budget?” This is especially the case at the regional theatre level, the academic theatre level, and in the market for corporate or alternative marketing where budgets are now so tight.

There are many things changing about our business these days. Some of them relate directly to us, but often, factors in other businesses have a huge impact on us as production artists and technicians. The entertainment industry has suffered from massive vertical integration. “Suffered” is an intentional choice of verbiage. Record labels, studios — all of these massive conglomerates — suffer in this economy from the inherent bloat of maintaining all answers to all problems. They have to maintain overhead. The labels, for instance, are trapped into a model that only understands how to commoditize one product: prerecorded music or media, a product that, due to cultural and technological trends, has to be shifted to the category of loss leader. It's not that there is not money to be made in content; it's that the money has to be derived from target captive audiences in the live environment and secondary market. It is in commoditizing the live event, and in the sales opportunity of this paying focus group, that artists and management have the best opportunity to generate significant income.

Music and media need to be the invitation to participate in the market place of the live, of the on-demand, and of the participatory experience. Once contained within the constraints of this participation, a protected marketplace is established, where merchandise, video, and audio products can be sold to motivated consumers. Ask Live Nation about this. It's not for nothing that they've done 360° deals with Madonna, Nickelback, and Jay-Z. The parameters of a 360° deal go way beyond the average recording contract. They generally task the producer with creating marketing and revenue-driving opportunities for the content. Think TV ads, ring tones, branding campaigns, and the massive application of swag, including bling, hoodies, bonus music, and DVDs. In return for this pimping, the producer shares all of that revenue. It's strategic at a macro level, but the vast majority of recording artists don't have the opportunity to do 360° deals with Live Nation, which is lucky for all of us.

On the opposite, but related, end of the spectrum, many artists are still divorcing themselves from labels and using the Internet for distribution, claiming the lion's share of their income via self-distribution and keeping the income generated from live events. It puts artists and management in the position of producer. They require the same creative and production services that the labels and the conglomerates require but on a more economic and imaginative level. Self-distribution also affords them the same cross-industry opportunities that the bigger groups get with their 360° deals. Ultimately, it's up to the effort they expend and the people they get to help them.

Let's boil it down: We were in an economy where big companies did business with big companies. Now, we are in an economy where small nimble entities are collaborating and doing revenue sharing with other small nimble entities. If you're reading this, and you work for one of the former, I imagine you might be spending some thoughtful moments thinking “WTF?!” If you are one of the latter, then it is time not for fear but for opportunity and initiative.

Are you feeling like I lost track of the discussion here? Wasn't I supposed to be telling you about new cheap ways to get it done? I will, but we should all understand that choosing to operate in an ad hoc guerrilla fashion doesn't have to be out of necessity. It can be because of a choice to take advantage of a completely crazy time in the entertainment market place to get ahead.

Moving on to the question: “I can't afford a major media server. I still have to get a show done with three discreet outputs for video on stage. They have to be synchronized. What can I do?” There are a bunch of tools out there that don't pop up right away on the production radar. Sometimes they are tools created for interesting subsets of production; sometimes they are tools we can hijack from other businesses entirely.

I'm very fond of several VJ video mixing applications. The one I tend to use most is Livid Instruments Union, but there's also Resolume, Arkaos, and others out there. If you have a fairly powerful laptop — say, one that would be good for gaming — you'll find that VJ software can perform high-resolution playback and enable you to mix live between two layers, while applying effects. These are robust environments that often leverage Direct-X, Open-GL, and other graphics systems that have largely been developed for gaming. Put to a different use, these systems enable you to playback high quality media in a controlled fashion. They do demand focus and planning from the user. You're not going to be hooking this rig up to a lighting console (probably). You're not going to be hitting one button to “go.” It's old-school, baby! Keep track of your clips, have a list, cue them manually, and make the fade yourself with the mouse, when it should happen.

That's playback. So, what about those three outputs? If I take that same laptop and attach the super-awesome Matrox TripleHead2Go, I now have a computer that sports four monitors (including the laptop's internal monitor). The Matrox TripleHead adapter plugs into your computer's DVI port and splits it into three monitor outputs. If you manage the way your media is encoded carefully, then you can now use that clever VJ technology to playback in a window that you scale to cover all three of the breakout monitors. Of course, you'll have to compose that media correctly to look right when spanned that way. For more information on that, please apply for an MFA in Projection Design at CalArts, where my wife Colleen and I teach!

Cost for the above solution (exclusive of the laptop and the media creation):

Livid Instruments Union Software: $299

Matrox TripleHead2Go: $195

Unbelievable.

Can you do everything you'd do with the upper end systems? Probably not, but only probably not. I've seen crazy-talented VJs and video performance artists create amazing shows with tools just like these. I've written before about the process of creating in this very direct way. There is power in it, from working it live — an added element.

Second most common question: “How small a projector can I get away with?” It absolutely depends on the application and how bright the room is going to be. The options for smaller projectors are better than ever. Small is an operative word here.

For instance, performance artists, incidental video artists, and general multimedia nerds rejoice when they check out the new Samsung P400 Pocket Projector. It's got an LED light source, can be powered by batteries, stores media via solid-state storage sticks, and at 5"×5"×3", you can literally put it in a pocket. The opportunities for performers to work directly with onstage projection sources, or for designers to stuff a little projector anywhere for an effect, boggle the mind. At only 150 lumens, it's got to be specific, but for experimental theatre, dance, or even a dark Broadway scene with some freaky back wall full of imagistic light boxes, these would do the trick. Price: $649.

These are just a couple of examples. I've got a bunch more up my sleeve. Make sure to check out the blog section on livedesignonline.com, where I'll continue with this, and if I'm lucky, I'll get some more article space for my ramblings soon.