Prelite offers previsualization and virtual 3D preprogramming services to designers and programmers before they get on site. Originally founded by Tom Thompson with Norm Schwab, Prelite now has offices in San Francisco and New York. Thompson manages the West Coast facility, while Rodd McLaughlin and Kim Grethen keep things running smoothly in New York. Marian Sandberg spoke with the Prelite team to find out the scoop on this developing area of show production.

LD: What's your background and how did you get involved in this area of the industry?

McLaughlin: We all come from a lighting background, but from different parts of the industry. Kim and I come from a theatrical history, whereas Tom is from rock and roll. We all have a great deal of experience with corporate and television. In terms of the pre-viz side of things, Tom and I were simultaneously carrying around pre-viz systems in suitcases when it occurred to Tom to turn it into a real business. He and Norm Schwab created Prelite Studios in June of 2000. I was working with Norm as a programmer around that time, and it seemed right to open Prelite NY, so Kim and I partnered with Prelite Studios.

Thompson: The genesis of Prelite was, for me, having Robert Bell as what we now refer to as “Host” on the U2 Popmart tour. I spent two weeks programming at LSD in Newbury Park using WYSIWYG on a dual 200 MHz machine with 200 High End Systems Studio Colors. Later in the tour, I met Rob in Montreal where he showed me version 3, which was very impressive. I ran the demo version of the program on my girlfriend's (now wife's) computer, since I only had a Mac, in order to learn it. I bought a dongle, an interface, and some computers, hoping to provide a service for people as Rob had for us on U2. One day, I was talking to Norm Schwab, and he thought it was a great idea and wanted to partner with me, and we formed Prelite.

LD: What are some of the more common reasons clients use your services?

TT: Here on the West Coast, the most important and popular use of our services is our “OnSite” service. Basically, we set up our studio on the site of the gig or even at the home of the LD or programmer. We saw an opportunity to add this level of service to our clients about four years ago, and now it has become quite common and effective.

Grethen: The number one reason to come to the studio, or rent an OnSite system, is time. Using Prelite stretches the calendar for our clients, allowing them more time than they'd get on site. And living in the future. Where else can you see what it's all going to look like before a single piece of equipment has been loaded in? Proof of concept is a popular phrase, because ideas can be tried out and built on or abandoned before they become a committed, physical rig.

LD: Why wouldn't everyone use previsualization for a show?

RM: Pre-viz is getting to the point where it just makes sense. Personally, I see the industry getting to the point where it's considered irresponsible not to do some sort of pre-viz simply for proof of concept. It shouldn't ever be said, “We didn't know it was going to look like that.”

KG: I have no idea. Why wouldn't they? There's a huge value to getting a foundation in the console and getting everyone on the same page. If a set piece moves, fine. You've still got the building blocks to work with. Changing focus positions is a lot easier than creating a whole show from scratch.

And it's not uncommon for our clients to catch problems, sometimes some truly major ones, while it's still virtual, saving everyone time and money on site.

LD: What's been one of the more unusual uses of your services?

TT: I think the most unusual usage of our services had to be when a producer came in with a video camera to shoot the “pre-viz” result of a show that had already happened. Was the pre-viz really better than shooting the real show?

RM: Some of our favorite projects are the ones that barely have anything to do with lighting. Lighting is a part of it, but the idea is to get all the elements together and everyone understanding the event visually before they ever set foot in the venue.

KG: For New York, I think it would either be the combination bowling alley/nightclub/go-cart track, where the client got to see his club before the plasterers were done in the building or the animation of a cosmetics display for a department store. The client used it to work out the speed at which the display should rotate (so it would sync with music), as well as how fast the elements (venetian blinds) should open and close. Plus, this client would normally work out the size of their displays by laying down masking tape on the store floor. Looking at the digital version, they realized it was going to be way too imposing and needed to be scaled down. This one wasn't about lighting at all — didn't even connect to a console — but made a big difference in the final creation.

LD: What do you want people to know about previsualization?

TT: “Pre-viz,” most times, has little to do with lighting and often has little to do with shows in general, rather it can be used for a whole range of projects‥

RM: Pre-viz can be used for a wide variety of end goals, and they are all valid. It is an image that conveys the concepts of the designer. The extent that you wish to go to is where Prelite comes in. We can help all the way from PhotoShop to real-time simulation and renderings in 3D Studio Max.

KG: For me, there are two things. First, that previsualization isn't about this software or that one. It's about all of them — hooking up to a console, creating animations, generating photo-realistic renderings, all of it. That's why Prelite has so many different programs on hand. We don't shoehorn clients into the one software we've invested in. Instead, we invest in all of them and use what's most appropriate for a client's needs.

Second, I would want people to understand that previsualization runs a gamut of photo realism, and it has to do with allocation of resources. For example, if processing power is needed for real-time simulation, keeping moving lights and video running the speed they will in the physical world, then it's going to be at the expense of a degree of photo realism. It's a question of deciding what your goal is before you start, so we can choose the right software, and create the end product you need.

LD: How do you see your business growing in the next year? The next five years?

TT: More support for the movie and video game industry.

RM: Film, architecture, and gaming — I think all the kids will be doing it.

LD: How does development of technology affect your business? Or, maybe what technology affects it most these days?

RM: The gaming industry is pushing technology at an incredible rate. We are enjoying the fruits of their labors every day. In terms of industry specific developments, everything requires more programming time — media servers, moving lights with a million attributes, consoles capable of controlling coffee makers — but the time designers have on site doesn't seem to be increasing

LD: What piece of gear can you absolutely not live without?

KG: Strawberries and Lindt chocolates. We are a service company, after all.