We see before us an arrangement of planes and lines. As we stare out of our 4th floor warehouse windows, we view a landscape of linear breakup, a galaxy of girders, slabs, cables, and conduits, forming the shape of the Mariner's Safeco Field (Go Ms!), and its adjoining parking garage. Upon our desks lay our trusty laptops, filled with more planar surfaces and cubistic breakups. Surrounded by paper, adjoined by books and cubonic disk arrays. Is cubonic a word? But we digress.
The point: that our world is certainly a linear and regular place. But entertainment, theatre, performance — this is the place of dreams; and dreams are curvaceous, luscious, frosted, soft, bodacious, liquid. Yet we look at the average workday application of projection and media in design, and it occurs in the predictable rectangle. Where is the soft, the irregular? When will we, as designers, literally break out of the box?
Some of the blame (if we can call it that) lies with the manufacturers, who are following the most economical and apparent production model. People are used to seeing video on the rectangle, on the television screen. Our industry, which necessarily shares the resources available to the wider video production market, is thus a larger reflection of the ordinary, everyday video experience. But with the advent of digital lighting, with the greater-than-ever-before implementation of projection into performance, we need to explore and inhabit a less regular world. The middle-of-the-road rock-and-roll set with some big rectangle at the back just doesn't cut it anymore. Making the compromise of rectilinear mullions for video walls is (or ought to be) out the window. Audiences shouldn't be paying $100 to watch a 100' wide television in back of a performer. Damn it, we need to be more scenic than that these days.
Recently, we were talking to an R&D brain from a major projection manufacturer. We idled some time away discussing what attributes might be desirable in a projection unit to be used as a digital light. One thing we mentioned was the attraction of a round field. All of the current projectors we know of, including the High End Systems DL1 and DL2, are inherently rectangular in terms of their field. To our way of thinking, a digital light might want to utilize a round field for many reasons: blending with other non-digital lights, being able to more appropriately and intuitively “map” onstage surfaces with projection, etc. (We'll conveniently leave the whole signal path problem aside.) We were shocked to be informed that, ironically enough, imaging chips in projectors usually start life as round planar objects, which are then masked or cropped to a rectangle. Free the round field!
With the advent of MiPix, Barco certainly expanded the possibilities beyond the square. Veritable video Legos, the MiPix blocks can be assembled into custom shapes that go from square, to round, to literally spherical. There is finally emissive display technology that allows us to make columns of video, or a video torus, or a video tortoise for that matter. We need more products like these. Diversity and widespread application of a technology make it viable economically. Cool gear is no good if it can only be applied by the largest budgets. So G-Lec, we're happy about all those awards, but let's see some curvy tubes please. Element Labs? Keep up the good work. We love the VersaTubes and new round VersaTiles. How about VersaSpheres? All of you folks making media servers: Can we have some real spline driven image deformation tools (cueable please) for warping images onto irregular shapes? How about per layer corner pinning or keystone correction?
When the designer breaks out of the rectangle, then the media is really set free. To see this, look to Elaine McCarthy's sublime blending of projection into the highly irregular profile of Eugene Lee's set of Wicked. Look to Willie Williams, with the amazing fluid distribution of “pixels” in U2's current tour. Designs like these point the way to the future of media deployment, to a sensibility that literally replaces paint with pixels.
The golden rule is proportional, but it need not be square.
So speaking of rules, on to topic number two for the month, protection for content and content creation.
In February, our sister publication, Lighting Dimensions, ran a fabulous article, “A Cautionary Content Tale,” by Mike Falconer, about the extraordinary and crapulous experience of video designer Vello Virkhaus in having his content “jacked” by a major hip hop artist. If you haven't read the article you need to, it reveals the consequences of who controls your media after you create it. The gist is that Virkhaus had content created for a previous show used without his permission by an artist who just happened to rent the media server used on that previous show. The tale has a good deal more detail regarding other content malfeasance, but this particular aspect really got our blood boiling.
Here's a word of warning to all you vendors and your expensive legal staffs: If the copyrighted work of a designer is used without their permission by another artist, by virtue of you, the vendor, not wiping it from the media drive prior to rental, then you are party to that copyright violation. This is not a trivial topic. The lifeblood of designers is in the balance. It's not just a procedural detail for rental houses; it is really a moral imperative. Lighting and video rental houses have to step up and take responsibility for protecting the designers and producers who hire them.
For us, the view of copyrights and wrongs is open to a lot of debate. For artists who embrace the idea of sharing their work for extension and use by other artists, there are mechanisms for doing that. The Creative Commons License is one way to go. But we can say from personal perspective that most of our clients are unwilling to freely share the media they have commissioned for many thousands of dollars. Most of those clients have much bigger legal departments than us, or any vendor we work with, and they are willing to fight for what they have paid for. Vendors who don't take care of media assets fall in the shadow of this legal “complication.”
We've spent a lot of time thinking about good ways to protect content when it leaves our studio. When we started marketing our stock collections for media servers, we contemplated and researched ways to protect it. It's a real puzzle. No one file type is universally optimal, for instance Catalyst certainly prefers Quicktime, while Maxedia runs best with AVI or Windows Media. So locking collections to a dongle, for instance, is problematic. We've thought of sending custom shows out on our own disk arrays, to be connected to rental media servers, but what can be accessed for playback can also be accessed for copying, given moral flexibility on the part of any technician present who can drag and drop. Right now it's just not easy to lock down content reliably. If it were, we'd see some scheme in place on the part of the major stock providers, like Digital Juice or Art Beats, to protect their collections.
There is hope for content designers, as well as food for thought for those willing to steal content. Trickle down theory is at work from the cable and On Demand industries. New formats and codecs of existing formats are being developed to make media perishable. Content creators will have the abilities to make media work only for given time periods, or only on specific machines. Also built into developing codecs is event tracking, even remotely. You'll be able to check files over the net or locally and find out how many times they were used, when, and by whom. This level of trackability will lead to culpability. These innovations will help to some degree.
We've always thought there was a certain sense of honor among us, among designers and technicians, when it comes to protecting designs, and doing the right thing. We'd appeal to that honor as well. Beyond the vendors, it's up to the head electricians, up to the crew chiefs, up to the board operators, up to all of us to be on the up and up, to not lift somebody else's work just because it's there.
As we write this, NAB is just around the corner. This show is the nexus for broadcasting gear and well worth the time for video designers. We're expecting to see a lot of new innovation in the realms of HDV cameras, as well as some big jumps forward in editing and FX software. We'll be covering all those developments in our monthly newsletter, On Projection, in May. Other exciting things for you to contemplate are the upcoming Broadway Lighting Master Classes, featuring a projection track led by the ubiquitous Wendall Harrington. We won't be there (try to contain your disappointment), we've got to go design some rock and roll, but there will be exciting people and techniques on display. Go bone up.
All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. Please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.