Catalyst Helps Convert Tom Petty’s Production Designer

Jim Lenahan is no stranger to video technology. During his 29 years as production designer for Tom Petty, he's made nearly a dozen music videos for Petty and other artists. Despite that, however, he's never been a big fan of video projection for rock concerts. Having grown up during an era where rock 'n' roll shows were characterized by the dramatic use of lights, he never thought using huge video screens added much value to the concert experience.

“I think it's wrong to just hang a giant TV over a stage, which is what most people do,” he says. “They don't put any thought into it. They don't use any imagination or originality. They just hang a bloody big TV set over the stage, point a camera at the guy, and shoot his head and shoulders like everybody does for every cheesy TV show. As a result, people that came to see a live show end up watching TV. I can go home and do that.”

Lenahan also points out that video equipment can be very expensive, so he usually advises against it. Instead, he suggests, people are better off spending their money on creating high-quality sets.

“The cost of a really good set is a drop in the bucket compared to the weekly rental of video,” he says. “You can have a cheap little set, and some not very well thought out video, or you can have a great set.”

Change of Heart

This past year, however, while handling production of “The Last DJ” tour for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Lenahan's opinion of the value of video projection took a dramatic turn for the better when he worked with the Catalyst controller from High End Systems (Austin, Texas). With the Catalyst, Lenahan was able to integrate lights and video in innovative new ways.

Lenahan says he was attracted to the Catalyst because of its ability to treat video just like any other automated light. The Catalyst combines an Apple Macintosh G4 computer with propriety hardware and software that makes it possible to use a lighting console to control video, animation, and still images projected from almost any industry standard projector.

The Catalyst also offers an optional periscope mirror head that gives a show's director the ability to move the video and other imagery around in space and create beam effects. The rotating mirror head provides 250 degrees of movement on axis one and 360 degrees on axis two, and it can be fitted onto most high-powered rental/staging video projectors.

“The important thing about the Catalyst,” says Lenahan, “is that it allows a lighting console operator to become a video engineer and operate video cues as if they were lighting cues. You can build them right into the cues for the show. So, for example, during the chorus of a song I just hit a button for chorus, and the lights go to a chorus look, and the video goes to whatever we were going to do on the chorus. You can also fly the video around with the moving mirror head, or you can take the moving mirror head off and just use the projector in a more conventional way. Either way, you still control the images on that screen through a lighting console.”

Lenahan says the Petty tour's use of video via the Catalyst system evolved dramatically as the tour went on, and the crew got more experience with the technology. When the tour began in May 2002, Lenahan used just two Catalyst systems to project canned video and some abstract imagery. By the end of the tour in December, he was using six Catalyst systems, and mixing live IMAG in with everything else.

“The Petty tour kind of morphed into a video show,” he says, chuckling. “It didn't start out as one.”

The Approach

The set for the Tom Petty tour consisted of a simple, but highly functional, giant shell-like structure that Lenahan created from five curved trusses, each standing on end. The shell curved up and over the stage, around the band. By stretching panels of Lycra between the trusses, Lenahan created a giant curved screen that provided an immense surface upon which he could throw lights and video. Best of all, says Lenahan, the set cost just $5,000, which gave him plenty of money to spend on his experimental video foray.

Throughout the summer months, Lenahan used just two Catalyst-equipped projectors set up at the front of the stage, which he used to project various Quicktime movies, JPEG images, and animations that he had created and stored on the computer. Using a lighting console to control the projector, he could decide from moment-to-moment whether to throw the images up on the screen or project them out into the air.

For the most part, says Lenahan, he used the Catalyst simply to project abstract imagery that he had created by combining all sorts of material, including photos ripped from magazines or images pulled off the Web.

At one point, for example, he stumbled across a website containing photomicrographs of testosterone and adenine that were shot with polarized lights. The images had been created for scientific research purposes, but to his eye, they were simply abstract geometric shapes with rich colors.

“They were like the most gorgeous colored gobos that would cost a fortune to make in glass,” he says. “But with the Catalyst, I could just download them for free and put them into the show. One of the great things about using the Catalyst is that the prep time is so small that you can literally be on a plane on your way to the gig, see an image in the airplane magazine, rip that page out, scan it when you get to the gig, and you've got it in the show that night.”

Therefore, in essence, says Lenahan, for the first few months of the tour, he used the Catalyst as a kind of super gobo machine capable of creating an infinite array of gobos.

“No one would know, for example, that at any given moment what I had done was take a picture of the Eiffel Tower, thrown it out of focus, laid it on top of a photomicrograph of testosterone, and rotated them in opposite directions,” he says. “All they'd know is that there is kind of a cool pulsating color back there.”

Moreover, he would often surround the Catalyst images with 20 to 30 moving lights that shared the same color palette. “So nine times out of ten,” he says, “you would not be able to tell what was video and what was light.”

More Ambitious

Along the way, Lenahan and Petty discussed hooking the house cameras into the Catalyst systems so they could add IMAG to the show, but a number of logistical problems made that approach impractical as long as they were using just two projectors. In the fall, however, Petty was invited to do a concert at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles that was simulcast in high-definition to movie theaters across the country. Petty wanted to make the event special, and so he and Lenahan decided the time had come to figure out a way to add IMAG.

The solution Lenahan came up with was to add four more Catalyst-equipped projectors to his arsenal. Thus, four 15,000-lumen projectors from Digital Projection were double-stacked and set up behind the Lycra shell — two on each side of the stage — where they could be used to rear-project the IMAG. Unlike the two front projectors, the four rear projectors were not equipped with the periscope mirror head, since it was essential that the IMAG always maintain the same orientation on the screen.

According to Lenahan, IMAG can't actually run through the Catalyst system because the image processing time required by the Catalyst makes it impossible to do realtime, lip-synched video. However, by simply moving a T-handle on his lighting console, Lenahan could switch from a live video feed to Catalyst imagery as needed.

Because the screen was so curved, Lenahan was unable to stretch a single image across the whole breadth of the shell. To get around that problem, he split the image in two, using two stacked projectors to do one side of the shell and the other two to do the other side. Sometimes, he would show two distinctly different images on each side, and sometimes, he says, “we were able to cheat some of the Catalyst imagery so it looked like one image going all the way across, even though it wasn't. With Catalyst, we could zoom in on part of an image and put the left side of the picture on the left side of the screen, and put the right side on the right side, and it would look like a single image.”

However, Lenahan adds, “we never did only video on the background. There were always moving lights in there as well. Mixing with the video, punching through the video, going around it, surrounding it, blending with it.”

And because all the IMAG was done in black and white — in keeping with the theme of Petty's new album — there were even times when the combination of lights, video, and fog effects would create a dazzling 3D effect.

Intense Video

In the end, Lenahan and Petty were so pleased with the effects they achieved with the six Catalyst systems for the high-def broadcast that they decided to continue using them for the rest of the tour. Doing that meant adding two field cameras to their production rig, as well as three lipstick cameras. With that change, Lenahan suddenly found himself deep inside the video world.

“We had one guy who would switch cameras, while I called for the shots I wanted,” recalls Lenahan. “At the same time, I was running the lighting console and calling cues to the follow spots and switching between Catalyst and IMAG images as necessary. So it was kind of like juggling chainsaws. There was a lot going on.”

But even in the midst of all that activity, Lenahan realized he was experiencing an important evolution in the production world — the blurring of the line between light and video. Still, he says, the trend is only in its infancy. Not only will production designers and lighting designers need to develop their expertise in using these new tools, but also the tools themselves will need to continue evolving.

“Lighting consoles will now need to be frame accurate,” he says. “We need to be able to do 30th of a second edits, which lighting consoles can't do right now. They can only do a 10th of a second. So it is going to mean that lighting consoles are going to have to get more like video, just as video is getting more like lighting. It's all just blurring together.”


Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. Email him at sporter@gsinet.net