Those of you who follow our column in Entertainment Design know that we've been preaching the integration of projection tools into the lighting palette for a while now. This year's LDI had a profusion of light board-based media servers, and also featured the appearance of what will certainly be a growing category, the Digital Light. So what's a work-a-day lighting designer to do if they are interested in these tools? The first step is to learn the facts. So here we are to provide a primer on projection and multimedia tools that you might encounter or use in the near future.
DEFINITION OF TERMS:
Just like the lexicon of lighting, there are a profusion of projection buzz words that perhaps could use translation. Here's the low down on some of the more important ones.
SD, HD, and DV… Enough with the acronyms! Moving video comes in many definitions. These definitions reflect the shape, resolution, and schemes for compressing video signals. As we all know from visiting our local consumer electronics cathedral, televisions come in two common shapes, standard and wide screen. This shape is defined by a variable known as Picture Aspect Ratio (more on this later). This is reflected in the video signal and capabilities of most projectors as well. Since virtually all of the projection tools currently most accessible to lighting designers use some version of Standard Definition, we won't be discussing HD or computer based resolutions… yet. Still, SD has enough flavors that we're feeling the need for a table:
|Format||Pixel Resolution||Pixel Aspect Ratio||Picture Aspect Ratio|
|DV NTSC||720 × 480||(0.9)||3:2|
|DV NTSC Widescreen||720 × 480||(1.2)||9:5|
|NTSC||640 × 480||(1.0)||4:3|
|NTSC D1||720 × 486||(0.9)||4:3|
|PAL D1/DV||720 × 576||(1.07)||4:3|
|PAL D1/DV Widescreen||720 × 576||(1.42)||16:9|
So what the heck does all that mean? First of all, the world is primarily divided into two video standards, NTSC and PAL. NTSC is the standard for North America, while almost all other nations utilize PAL. In a pure measurement of quality through resolution, PAL is quite superior. So why do we use NTSC? It's a long story, involving trade warfare and attempts for standards domination. You can find out plenty of details on this with a little Googling, but suffice to say that we in North America enjoy less pixels in our broadcast than the rest of the world. For those of us involved in using video on stage it's pretty much irrelevant, because we can use whichever standard we like as we're not going to broadcast it. The only caveat with that statement is that PAL gear, particularly cameras, can be hard to come by in North America.
The second line of division is between D1 and DV forms of Standard Definition. D1 is uncompressed, meaning that there is no computerized file compression of the signal going on, and it is the standard among professional broadcasters. DV is the very popular form of Digital Video that has become quite common at the consumer level. Chances are if you were interested in buying a video camera for personal use, you'd probably look at a DV camera. DV devices feature a compressed signal that moves easily from camera to PC, enabling most folks to edit their cinematic masterpieces on their personal computers and show them to their friends. DV has enabled independent filmmakers as well as projection designers to engage in high-quality shooting at a very reasonable price. Thus DV has become quite common among many creative types.
As we already mentioned, PAL, NTSC, and DV all come in a standard and widescreen flavor. For your average home viewer widscreen lets you see feature films on your television at an aspect ratio closer to the original material (assuming you have a widescreen TV). This is done through a little trickery known as Pixel Aspect Ratio. Explaining Pixel Aspect Ratio would take up too much real estate in this article, but basically it involves squishing a wider picture into the same shape as regular standard definition, which then gets unsquished by widescreen capable devices. In almost all cases as designers we will be using regular standard definition anyway.
The numbers represented in the Pixel Resolution column reflect the actual pixels utilized in the height and width of the signal. Knowing this information is useful if you will be creating your own imagery to use in your show. All of the popular image creation and editing programs (Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Adobe After Effects, Photoshop CS) have presets for these variants. We'll talk more about these helpful tools in just a moment.
Now that we have talked about the video signal definitions, let's discuss what kind of hardware you might encounter in the field, and how it might fit into your lighting design.
In most cases LDs interested in incorporating projection in their workflow are going to utilize one of the myriad new media servers out there that interface with lighting control or will use the lighting console to trigger external devices. There are two primary ways to go about this (both of which we have tried and tested). The way we've done it in the recent past is to use the built in MiDi functionality of many lighting desks to trigger video playback devices. Usually this entails utilizing a programmable show control device in between the lighting desk and the video playback device or server. In our case this has most often been Dataton's Trax product. Trax works on a timeline based interface, and can receive MiDi timecode from a lighting desk and trigger playback devices to play specific video at specific times. It can also do this given input of particular MiDi notes that many lighting desks can also broadcast. In this way it is possible to tie together playback of specific video with specific light cues. Other products in this category are Medialon Manager, and Crestron. Medialon Manager has grown to be a very popular show control interface, and working with it has become easier and more intuitive than most other options in show control. Going down this path generally means including a rack of digital, instant-access playback devices, like the Doremi V1 Digital VTR, or Fast Forward Video's Omega Deck. These are essentially VCRs that use hard drives instead of tapes, and can instantly jump from clip to clip anywhere on the disk.
Recent evolutions in media serving have given rise to much more intuitive ways of incorporating the video cueing directly into the lighting console. High End's Catalyst, Fourth Phase's M-Box™, DHA's Hippotizer, and VLPS's new Virtuoso EX 1 are all examples of computerized media servers that put video clips and the abilities to affect them directly into most lighting desk's control surfaces. All of these devices are basically powerful computers that contain a nice, fast array of disk drives which hold all of the media. Specific clips can be assigned to palettes on light boards the same way a favorite gobo or effect in a moving light might appear. These clips can then be slowed down or sped up by giving them time parameters, their color can be changed by grabbing any of the pots controlling color, and their shape can often be changed by altering beam parameters that also commonly appear on light boards. As you can imagine, this makes cueing and dealing with video feel much like complex gobo work, something most LDs can readily wrap their heads around. All of the server devices we named come with a profusion of pre-loaded clips and many gobo images as well. All of them have the ability to layer clips on top of other clips, and to crossfade from one to another.
Some have advantages over the others in minor yet telling ways. For instance the Hippotizer, distributed by DHA, contains the entire library of DHA gobos. This can be pretty compelling. Since the device was initially developed for VJs whose primary business was raves, much of the other media in its library is quite flashy and textural, perhaps not what you might commonly use in a period musical. The Catalyst, from High End Systems, benefits from the entire High End gobo catalog; it also has many flashy pieces of media, including literal Flash animations that do wonderful things with beam sculpting when you have haze in the air. Additionally, the Catalyst has the ability to layer up to four moving and still images together into one output. This gives a designer a lot of options for texture. For example, if you were lighting a trade show, you could use a negative image of a client's corporate logo with a clip of roaring flames or water behind it, to make the client logo appear to be built of flames or water. All of these media servers vary in terms of exactly which resolution of standard definition video they use, so make sure to check your documentation before launching into your own creations.
What all the servers mentioned share, is the ability to incorporate your own imagery into their library. This can take the form of motion graphics, video clips, animation, or still images. This single ability opens a huge door for the designer. Need a particular gobo look? No problem. Whip out your laptop, fire up Photoshop (or whatever your favorite drawing/painting application may be) and make that graphic. Next, download it to your media server via networking, CD-R, or USB key storage device. Add to library. Playback through projector. It can be that easy. Aesthetically, this is a land of great opportunity. If you are looking for just the right shade of color on a set wall, one that gradates to a dirty black as it descends towards the floor, you can do it. Want that painting on the wall of the set to come to life and chat with a character? No problem! One has only to see the tremendous work of Elaine McCarthy and Ken Posner in the Broadway musical phenomenon Wicked to understand how these projection techniques can enhance and blend with light seamlessly. The lesson here is that the technology need not be video for video's sake, but can afford a designer the ability for greater subtlety and detail than they have ever enjoyed previously.
The way to get to this subtlety is through your own use of image creation tools. We have already mentioned Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and After Effects in a rather cavalier fashion. Some of you may recognize these programs or use them, a lot of you may not. On to more definitions.
Adobe Photoshop is the king daddy of image creation software. Initially created by John Knoll at Industrial Light and Magic for FX work on Star Wars, this program has grown to preeminent stature in the realm of photographers and image designers. In it, you can manipulate photos, apply color effects, painterly effects, image warping, lighting adjustments, make text objects — you name it. Photoshop is a lowest common denominator tool for projection designers and many, many other artists in all fields. If you are going to be creating images for your projection technologies, this one is a must have.
In what might seem a subtle differentiation, Adobe also has an image creation program called Illustrator. Illustrator is optimized for rawing and, of course, illustration. Illustrator creates it's image file using Vector Graphics. This is an important factor for us, because Vector Graphics, when imported into video editing and compositing programs, can be scaled up and down in size without any degrading or nasty pixelization (those jagged edges that sometimes appear ). So if you are going to create a text image, or a client logo to use in moving video, and that text or logo will be scaled up or down within the video, you'll want to use Illustrator. To further clarify this, it could be said that Illustrator is a drawing program, where the starting point is your imagination, while working in Photoshop will often start with a pre-existing image or photograph.
Many designers will want to shoot some footage to incorporate in their show. In addition to a solid DV camera, you're going to need a program to edit this footage into something sensible and usable. These programs are known as non-linear editors, and there are many good choices out there. If your favorite flavor of computer has a fruit on the front (that is to say Apple), you'll want to look into a gem called Final Cut Pro. If you lean to the Windows PC side of the equation, you have some choices. Adobe, the distributor of Photoshop, also make a non linear editor (NLE) called Premiere Pro. It benefits from wonderful compatibility with Photoshop. Another choice is Avid Express DV or Express Pro. Avid has been the 800 lb. gorilla of video editing for a long time and their product shows it. It is powerful, flexible, and entails a rather steep learning curve. Another great option on the PC is Sony's Vegas Video. Vegas Video can handle video files from standard through high definition depending on the power of your machine. What all of these programs share is the ability to make cuts, cross fades, and to apply effects to your video clips. They then all offer various ways to format your output into files that the aforementioned media servers can deal with.
A third and more advanced category of software that you might find helpful is compositing and animation programs. Compositing programs allow you to take moving footage and apply advanced effects to it. This could include adding glows or beams of light, making a moving picture appear to be etched in stone, or keying a foreground element on top of a background element. These programs also usually have the ability to very specifically control and affect the color of your video or moving imagery. On the Apple platform there is Shake (used to create many of the effects in Lord of The Rings) or Combustion (which also works on PC). On the PC side the best known tool for this is another Adobe product, After Effects.
Going another step further you might want to try your hand at using computer animation software. These applications are immensely powerful, and often require a great deal of time and patience to learn well. We use a very advanced program called Softimage XSI to create our animated imagery. For us, this has varied from extremely realistic background landscapes with flowing water and rushing clouds, right down to more flashy effects like big animated marquees or fireworks. Elaine McCarthy used animation programs in this way to create the silhouettes of Flying Monkees in Wicked. In using Softimage XSI we've sort of chosen a sledgehammer to swat flies, but we've yet to run into something we couldn't do with it. There are some animation applications that are a bit more accessible for what we commonly do in the theatre. Products in this category might include 3D Studio Max from Discreet/ Autodesk, Lightwave 3D from NewTek, and Cinema 4D from Maxon. At the higher end, there is XSI from Softimage, and Maya from Alias Wavefront. XSI and Maya are more commonly used to create feature film animations and FX, and you might find a tool like this in Finding Nemo or The Matrix. With a suite of tools like these, you'll be ready to create almost anything you can picture. In both Entertainment Design and Lighting Dimensions we'll be exploring many of the software solutions available to designers for creating your own imagery in much more depth in the coming months. You may want to keep an eye out for these tutorials.
LET THERE BE (DIGITAL) LIGHT
Finally, this last year has seen the emergence of the Digital Light. High End's DL-1 finally achieved the holy grail concept of combining a projector with a moving light head. A unit like this, in combination with a light boardbased media server allows you to put projected creations anywhere onstage you might like, as well as the ability to locate your projectors in many other places besides the FOH or behind a projection screen. The techniques of subtle enhancement and detail work can really come into play with digital lights in the rig. For the concert designer the kinetic beam-sculpturing opportunities have never been this good. For designers in theatre, opera, or dance, there comes an ability to project onto unconventional surfaces or performers themselves. The DL-1 is the first of what will be many options in this category. If we were to gaze into our crystal ball, we predict that similar units are well along the way from many of the other moving light companies, as well as more powerful versions from High End.
Well then, what a bag of tricks this all is. The only thing left to do is get out there and use it. It's become friendly, intuitive, and economically viable. Most of the major vendors and rental houses have this stuff creeping into their inventory. We think that the average designer will be able to assimilate these tools much the way they have moving lights in the last decade. We're all about to see some unbelievable new lighting designs.