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The Audio Challenge

Hall D at the San Francisco Moscone Convention Center is not an easy place to stage an event. The room is 440ft. wide and 140ft. deep, and a row of large columns runs down one side, making it difficult to set up a stage area visible to everyone, especially when the room is packed with 6,000 people.

Pedersen Media Group (PMG, San Francisco) and Video Applications (Tustin, Calif.) have wrestled with the room's logistics several times over the years, most recently this past June when they produced and staged the Sun Microsystems JavaOne 2004 developers' conference. This marked the second year in a row the event has been held in Hall D.

PMG has designed and produced the JavaOne conference with Sun since its inception, and for eight of the past nine years, it has teamed up with Video Applications to design the event's video, audio, and content display systems. Each time, they take it as a personal challenge to make the event more dramatic and cutting edge than the year before. (See the September/October, 2003, issue for a report on the 2003 event.)

VIDEO APPROACH

This year, organizers feel they overcame the room's spatial challenges as never before, primarily by creating a stage design around a dramatic 20'×80' center screen and two 18'×24' side screens. Equally important, however, was how they filled those screens — an all high-definition production package that included HD IMAG cameras. In addition, they developed a rich tapestry of overlays, keys, and composites that stretched the limits of the industry's most sophisticated screen-switching and video-processing system, Vista Systems' Montage. PMG and Video Applications introduced Montage to the JavaOne conference in 2003 — one of the first, major, corporate uses of Montage — but this year's event pushed the approach further.

“Supporting the demands of this event has always required thinking ahead of the status quo,” says Mark Pedersen, founder and CEO of PMG. “We have a strong history of delivering staging designs which are consistent with the content demands of technology conferences. Going all HD for JavaOne this year was a natural evolution.”

Creating a cutting-edge show is especially important for this particular event, Pedersen explains, because the content of the show itself is cutting edge. Java is an enormously popular software development environment created by Sun that is used to write applications that can run across virtually any device — from high-end servers to cellular phones — without regard to the underlying operating system.

“From Sun's perspective, this conference is their technology showcase for their customers and partners, so it's important for them to present an image and a brand that is consistent with that,” explains Pedersen. “You couldn't do a conference about Java and put up two 15'× 20' screens with drapes. The delivery of the message would be incongruent with the message itself.”

While the four-day conference included an exhibit floor and breakout sessions, the centerpiece of the conference was the multiple keynote presentations given by both Sun and its corporate partners in Hall D.

Last year, PMG and Video Applications used a 15'×45' center screen for keynote presentations. This year they went bigger — a 20'×80' Stewart AeroView 100 screen supported by a four-image SXGA blend. Eight Panasonic PT-D9600U 12K projectors, divided into four stacks of two, handled the projection.

“We like the Panasonic projectors for a whole host of reasons,” says Darrell Hennegen, executive VP/COO of Video Applications. “Most importantly, we think their image processing, their contrast ratio, and their quiet operation differentiate them from other products in their category. They are real workhorses for us.”

Because Hall D is so wide, even the gigantic center screen couldn't provide a good sightline from every seat. As a result, Video Applications also brought in two 18'×24' screens to place on each side of the center screen and supported each of those with a pair of overlapped Panasonic 9600s. The side screens were visually linked to the center screen through some forced-perspective scenic elements.

To maximize the impact of the giant center screen, with its 4:1 aspect ratio and horizontal resolution of 4,000 pixels, Hennegen and Pedersen knew they'd need all tape playback at HD resolution. They also decided to bring in HD cameras so they could support the IMAG feed in HD as well.

SHOOTING IMAG IN HD

While HD playback has become more common, Hennegen points out that HD IMAG is still fairly rare in the live-event industry, largely because the rental cost of HD cameras has been prohibitively expensive. In addition, Hennegen says, “In the past, even if you did bring in HD cameras, the HD switcher, routing, scopes, and HD test equipment added costs that were beyond the range of most corporate events.”

Although the broadcast and film industries have been rapidly adopting HD production tools, live-event staging companies haven't been able to follow suit. “There has been a lot of price sensitivity on the part of end clients,” Hennegen says. “Budgets and rates have probably dropped five years straight.” As a result, he adds, “There is this schizo-phrenic nature to the business. Production companies want to have the latest, greatest, cutting-edge stuff, but at the same time, they have one-third less money to work with than they had the year before.”

Fortunately, not only have rental prices for HD cameras dropped dramatically, but the newest generation of screen switchers, such as Vista's Montage, has also created the ability to pass HD signals without degradation. “It is now possible to switch HD in a show live without having to employ an HD production switcher,” says Hennegen. “In addition, today, the cost of producing HD content is incomparable to what you would have spent shooting in DigiBeta two years ago. The HD value proposition has changed dramatically in the last six months.”

To capture IMAG for JavaOne, Hennegen used three Panasonic AK-HC931P HD cameras with Canon HD Lenses. Two were fixed cameras that were equipped with 86:1 Canon Digi-Super HD lens and a 40:1 HD lens. The third was a handheld camera with a 24:1 Canon HD lens.

One of the things Hennegen especially likes about the Panasonic cameras is that they output both an HD signal and SD SDI signal simultaneously. This was important, he said, because Sun needed a standard-def signal for webcasting, plus the client needed to distribute copies of the presentations on standard-def Beta SP tapes.

“That's another reason why this is a breakthrough year for bringing HD to the live-event stage,” Hennegen says. “With today's equipment, we can bring HD cameras in at a price reasonably close to what you'd been paying for SD. We can still support destinations that require SD while sending HD to the screen and providing an HD record.”

For recording, Video Applications employed four SD Sony Beta SP recorders, one Panasonic DVCPRO HD deck, and one Sony HDW-500 HDCAM deck. A Grass Valley 110CV SD switcher fed the Beta SP decks, while the Vista Montage fed the live screens and the HD record decks.

As for how the HD IMAG shots looked up on the screen, Pedersen and Hennegen were pleased with the results. “When you do a show with high-resolution graphics and great HD content and then mix that with IMAG shot in SD, it becomes very apparent that it is a painfully low-res source,” says Pedersen. “That's why we wanted to push the edge for this show and bring in HD IMAG. It was clearly one of the hits of the show. When you are sitting with the clients in the front row of the audience, and all the graininess that you are accustomed to in the IMAG window is gone, and it's three times sharper, you notice. It really allows you to give the speaker a much greater presence.”

Hennegen also points out that when there are several people on stage at one time, the 16:9 HD IMAG window lets you incorporate more people into the shot, reducing the need to cut back and forth between the people on stage. “You'd never shoot IMAG this wide with SD, but with the HD, you could park on a three shot and it felt very natural,” he says. “The aspect ratio fit that screen look very well.”

One of the most pleasant surprises in making the switch from SD to HD IMAG was how few challenges there were. “Everybody expected there would be a whole host of issues,” recalls Hennegen. “Do we need camera operators with specific experience? Would there be more or less light sensitivity? Would backgrounds look too sharp and reduce the depth of field?”

In the end, however, everything worked seamlessly, he says, and the background images (usually a mixture of graphics and After Effects composited images) had just the right degree of softness.

PAINTING THE CANVAS

While the use of HD IMAG was crucial to the presentation experience for the JavaOne audience, equally important was the way Pedersen and Hennegen used the immense screen space.

“One of the advantages of using a widescreen format is that you can break out of the routine of simply projecting 4:3 slides on screen,” says Pedersen. “You can look at the screen as a canvas to better tell your stories. And that's what we are all about, telling our clients' stories in the most impactful way possible.”

Painting that canvas began with the creation of a fullscreen 4,000-pixel graphics window with a JavaOne header and footer to cement the Java brand and carry a consistent look and feel throughout the presentations. The center of that graphics window was black. During presentations, various types of visuals — fullscreen graphic backgrounds, IMAG windows, demo windows, PowerPoint slides, text callouts, high-res JPEG images, and Flash animations — would be keyed into that center area and often layered on top of one another.

The screen essentially served as an electronic background for the stage, sometimes displaying fullscreen videos and crisp, 4,000-pixel still images of cityscapes, other times displaying subtle custom-designed backgrounds. Most often, however, the screen displayed a complex composite of imagery that pushed the Montage's prodigious image-processing capability to its limits.

“There were times when we'd have a key signal layered over another key signal that was layered over a flash animation background that itself was layered over the original 4,000-pixel graphics window background,” recalls Hennegen. “And then, we'd have a HD IMAG window opened up somewhere else on the screen. That's a lot of processing going on there. And the fact that the Montage was able to handle it all is pretty impressive.”

Hennegen emphasizes that the use of Montage at this year's JavaOne conference was far more extensive than what organizers attempted in 2003. “We were building and expanding on what we'd done the previous year. We used more sources and really increased the amount of layering and keying and tricks we were doing. We were dancing right on the edge of what's been done with the machine.”

CREATING THE CONTENT

To prepare for this complex, content-rich event, PMG and Video Applications worked hand in hand months ahead of time to ensure that visuals were properly prepared. That collaboration was apparent in how they created the custom-designed backgrounds for the center screen. PMG's design team not only created a series of backgrounds for Sun speakers, but it also created and posted to the Web a library of other backgrounds that could be used by other corporate presenters. Some backgrounds were static images; others were Flash animation.

Also, HD IMAG required quality background imagery. “That is what the camera is going to see when the presenter is walking and talking on stage,” Pedersen says. “We wanted to make sure that what we see behind that presenter is a good clean look, and not a cluttered look. We didn't want to see video feedback or other artifacts.”

To ensure the backgrounds would work, the PMG team posted background templates to an FTP server where the Video Applications team could download them and run tests on its projection setup.

“We were in daily conference with each other to determine which files were working and which ones needed tweaking,” says Hennegen. “And that was so important because no matter how knowledgeable you are and how good your intentions are, the fact is that when you are creating images on a monitor, but displaying them on an 80ft. screen that is composed of four images blended together, it's going to look different.”

Meanwhile, the HD video content brought its own challenges. PMG-produced content consisted of an opening video providing an overview of Java's many uses, as well as several case studies showing Java used by specific companies. PMG shot much of the content on film and transferred it to HD during postproduction. A notable challenges was the need for PMG to deliver the videos in multiple formats.

For the 4:1 center screen, PMG provided the video in an anamorphic HD format on Sony HDCAM tapes. “We always direct clients to use anamorphic recording when filling large canvases because we don't want them to carry any black pixels,” says Hennegen. “We don't want to waste any resolution. When we have it in that format, we can use the Montage to size it and stretch it out to the proper aspect ratio.”

For the two 4:3 side screens, PMG provided the video in 16:9 letterbox on DigiBeta tape. During the show, the 16:9 SD version ran on the side screens simultaneously with the center screen's 4:1 HD version.

Finally, PMG also provided a version of the video in SD 4:3 format directly to Sun Microsystems for downstream distribution.

From a production standpoint, Pedersen says creating content in HD is enormously beneficial because of all the downstream flexibility. “As an acquisition format, it makes all the sense in the world. When you shoot in HD, you have the capability of putting it up on a large screen and then distributing it at a lower resolution for downstream marketing purposes if you need to.”

As for the value of using an all-HD production package for live events, Pedersen and Hennegen are equally enthused. “There's no question that the clients loved it,” Pedersen says. “But whether people will be willing to pay for it remains to be seen. But from my perspective, it's where shows will go, and need to go, as quickly as possible. We are certainly going to do everything we can to try and move our clients into an HD world.”


Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 16 years.



Sidebar

THE AUDIO CHALLENGE

While Video Applications tackled the video for Sun's JavaOne Developers Conference, its audio division, Audio Applications, tackled the audio, relying heavily on a line-array speaker approach.

“Hall D is a wide room — we had to have even and intelligible coverage for a very large audience. We couldn't spend days hanging speakers,” says Audio Applications' executive VP/COO, Darrell Hennegen. Instead, his team chose to take advantage of the long throw distances of line arrays.

“Line arrays are driving the industry right now,” Hennegen says. “They allow you to hang fewer cabinets, and they throw further. But they are long throws, not necessarily wide throws.”

Ten JBL Vertec 4888 vertical stack line arrays covered the depth of the room, while eight L'Acoustic ARCS horizontal line arrays were used for the wide center fill, as well as for fill on either side of the stage.

Two Apogee AE5 units were used for down-fill between the JBLs and the ARCS, while six Apogee SSM speakers were used for front-fill. Rounding out the audio scheme were 25 Apogee AE5 delay speakers used to service the rear of the audience.

“The rear of the audience could have been supported with more powerful JBL line array speakers, which can easily throw that far,” explains Hennegen. “But that would have created considerable slap-back, or echo, in the room. Therefore, we trimmed the JBL line array coverage to fall off 50ft. before the back wall and used the smaller delay speakers to provide sound in that part of the house.”