When last we convened, we had witnessed the flood of new digital video tools at NAB. We were inspired by the apparent progress, but as always cautious to put these innovations to the test in the field before really making conclusions. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait very long for that opportunity.
We have the good fortune of collaborating with comedic performer Barry Humphries as his production designers. Barry, possibly best known for his irascible character Dame Edna, is currently working to structure a new Broadway production. To that end, he planned a short tour in July and August that would be sure to find an attentive audience traveling the length of Australia. We would be using this production to test new material, and to re-introduce some of Barry's hilarious characters who had long been hiding in the shadow of Edna.
Barry expressed a desire to explore interaction between himself, the audience, and multimedia presence. He fearlessly had plotted out some very aggressive ideas, all of which would demand a system that could continually update and create content, store it, and play it back. We decided this was a great situation to put some of the newer digital video tools to the test.
We contracted with OmniTech and Scharff Weisberg to provide the system. Scharff Weisberg supplied the Christie L8 projector that fit the needs and budget, while OmniTech provided two Avid Xpress DV workstations, configured on laptops from DVLine; a Canopus ADVC500 FireWire to component video converter; a Videonics MXPro DV switcher, as well as an FFV Omega deck for backup playback. With this system (mainly in his suitcases) Bob packed up and headed to Sydney, while Colleen remained distracted back in the US with other productions.
Working with Barry requires an openness to constant change and evolution. Barry is a performer who roots his show in audience interaction. This can make it a challenge to predict exactly how a given bit will actually work out until the first audience arrives. At a functional level, it demanded that the show be capable of reworking daily. The design was to be a mix of prerecorded segments featuring and introducing the various characters, along with some live camera work, and various projected ‘texture’ during musical numbers. We specified the Avid workstations to allow us the ability to accommodate changes. We were anxious to also have the ability for playback directly off the timeline as well, so reliability was key. We equipped the laptops with Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator, as well as Sonic Foundry's Vegas Video 4 as an alternative editing application. This addition proved key. We were to collaborate with an Australian video production company (Shooting Star Productions) in the shooting of the pre-produced segments. Shooting Star's package was based around PAL standard DVC-Pro cameras and decks. They would then be digitizing this content using Canopus DVStorm hardware and providing us with finished edits. The Canopus video codec at first presented a challenge, ultimately requiring us to purchase the Canopus DV Powerpack (along with a USB security dongle) in order to read the files correctly.
This was to be our first time utilizing the Avid Express software, and we discovered that despite our previous experience with the Avid DS, it was a daunting learning curve. One element of this curve was our inability to figure out how to convince the Avid to be happy with the Canopus codec. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful in doing this. We turned to the Vegas Video installation, and found that it had no trouble assimilating the Canopus codec. We utilized Vegas to re-encode the Canopus files, as well as to edit and encode our After Effects work for ‘digestion’ by the Avid. We were positively floored by Vegas's flexibility and intuitive interface. Based on this we decided to use Vegas as our application of choice in producing a different show for Holland America Cruises (probably a whole different article as well!). The Avid had proved entirely reliable for editorial and playback, however.
As mentioned, we had included another Canopus product in our rig, the ADVC500 Analog/Digital converter. The ADVC 500 gave us the ability to seamlessly input and output all the flavors of video we needed directly to and from the laptop. The unit has an elegance and simplicity, featuring analog component video, composite video, and DV (FireWire) input output, as well as balanced stereo XLR connections for audio. Having this unit allowed us to capture PAL footage directly through the component outputs on the decks, as well as to convert the laptop's DV output to component signal for the projector. The ADVC500 worked like a champ, and got a big thumbs up.
Basing the editorial and playback systems in a laptop was a bit nerve racking at first. DVLine had configured two ProStar laptop chassis with desktop Pentium 4 3.06 Ghz processors, desktop graphics subsystems (The excellent Radeon 9000), two gigs of fast memory, and extra FireWire busses via Belkin PMCIA connection points. The laptops were stripped of system accessories, antiviral software, screen savers, and anything else that would impede on the precious bandwidth needed to reliably play back video in show situations. DVLine worked closely with us before the package left for Australia to work out any kinks, and by the time production began, the machines were working very smoothly and very fast. Having the ability to snap the laptop shut and continue work at the hotel after the allotted hours in the theatre was a godsend. Post rehearsal notes could be addressed and fixed, with overnight renders set up making us ready for the next tech day.
Another concern for us was making the ever-changing show stable and structured enough to be maintained and expanded by our lighting director on the show, Tommy Hague. Tommy would be operating the shows lighting, as well as triggering video cues. He had little experience with projection gear, but a willingness to learn. The very different nature of our system made previous experience with more typical playback systems irrelevant in any case. We were able to set up logical timelines for each number, which Tommy could recall with a mouse click, and playback. This allowed for reshuffling the order of the show, and implementing ‘local’ changes in footage without affecting all of the discreet parts of the show. Tommy proved very able in this role, something we were quite pleased with. More and more often we have been encountering opportunities to design lighting and projection together, and we are beginning to view projection skills as an absolutely necessary skill for our lighting assistants and operators.
Another aspect of the show was the aforementioned ‘texture’. We relied on several After Effects plugins and some well-chosen stock footage to allow for quick adaptation in this department as well. Trapcode makes some of the best and most cost effective plug-ins for After Effects. Their ubiquitous plug in, Shine, can be seen in almost every commercial and title sequence on TV today (you know the one, light rays coming out of logos…) In this case we made great use of Trapcode's Sound Keys. Sound Keys allows for the creation of keyframes based on audio waveforms; it allows for picking and choosing specific frequencies to generate the keyframes. This allows you to isolate the bass drum beat (for instance) and then use that beat to cause the intensity of a lens flare to move up and down in time with this beat, or any other keyframeable attribute for that matter. Incredibly simple, and immensely powerful, Sound Keys was the foundation for much of our music driven texture. Another incredibly powerful plug for After Effects is Profound Effects Useful Things. Known affectionately as a ‘super plugin’, Useful Things is actually an interface for creating script driven effects. As users develop custom effects, they can contribute them to the online database that is made available to users of the software. With over 65 scripts currently posted, Useful Things features more bang for the plug in dollar than almost anything. Among the available effects are a whole range of interactive gauges, dials, read outs, odometers, 35mm camera range finder graphics, radar screens, color effects, distortions, too many to list really. We found ourselves turning to some Stock Footage to give us a variety of layers and looks for media we created from the show. Digital Juice provided several of their Jump Back animations, as well as a selection of ‘lower thirds’ from their Editors Toolkit collection… we put these to use in faux newscast footage. Also utilized was a variety of footage from Artbeats.
We discovered that DV acquisition, production, and even playback via laptop was viable. To be honest, the show may have been more reliably served by more expensive and conventional means. But for the purpose of this experiment, we were quite pleased. We came away looking forward to expanding on this first foray, and also looking forward to our first large-scale utilization of Watchout, with Seattle Opera's Parsifal. More on that in our next missive, same channel, same time!