Mobile production trucks with LED screens offer an alternative to traditional video display methods

Mobile trucks, with their ability to provide the equivalent of a complete production studio in a convenient, portable package, have long been a fixture at sporting events and other shows in order to produce live and taped broadcasts of those events. They have been less commonly used to assist in directly staging those events, however. That's beginning to change — mobile trucks are beginning to evolve for live staging applications as event producers gain a greater appreciation of the convenience and technology available in such trucks.

One key twist that makes many mobile trucks valuable for live applications is the addition of large, portable LED screens to a truck's traditional production capabilities. One company aggressively pursuing this strategy is GoVision of Keller, Texas. Typically, within minutes after pulling onto the premises of a live event, GoVision trucks raise a Barco D10 Dlite or Slite LED screen 15ft. to 22ft. into the air, and begin displaying pre-produced or live video to the live audience. The screens can be rotated 360 degrees, and they can even be removed from the truck, resized, and hung using traditional rigging methods.

Since its founding two years ago by Chris Curtis, GoVision has provided trucks for a wide variety of sporting, concert, and other entertainment events. Customers have included the Gladney Cup Golf Tournament, the GMAC Bowl, and the Texas Motor Speedway, among others.

Pam Minnick of Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, employed a GoVision truck for the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic concert this year, and says the experience made her a fan of mobile technology for live events.

“Not only does it have great video,” she says, “but it has great audio, as well. People sitting in the VIP tent in the middle actually preferred watching the concert on the big screen than the two stages. You might think the direct sun would be a problem, but the picture was gorgeous all day.”

Chris Curtis founded GoVision with a strong background in the portable screen business. Before GoVision, he founded the well-known portable screen company ScreenWorks nearly a decade ago. Over the years, he has helped provide jumbo video screens for presidential elections, Rolling Stone tours, the Olympics, and several Super Bowls.

Recently Curtis sat down with his operations manager, Justin Eaton, to chat with SRO about the use of mobile trucks in the live event business, and about the direction of his company and industry.

SRO: How do your trucks, on live events, function differently from traditional mobile production trucks?

Chris Curtis: We're part of the event. A broadcast production truck sits in the background, behind a building. We're out front. The cameras and the screens are right on our truck, and we're located right in the crowd.

SRO: But don't you also offer more traditional production capabilities, as well?

Curtis: Yes we do, and it's that marriage of the two capabilities that makes us pretty unique. Our production capabilities aren't as extensive as those on a (typical) broadcast truck, but we have the production tools necessary to do a simple live event. And we also have the routing ability to add multiple sources. We built the trucks to be flexible.

So, for example, we can patch in and take feeds from the big TV trucks, and we can integrate other gear from outside. We can rent Beta decks and other types of equipment and incorporate them into our system. But there is a limit on how much equipment we can carry in the truck.

Justin Eaton: A lot of times, an event producer will have their own production people, and we'll just take their feed. In fact, a lot of our clients are production companies, and our job is to complement what they are doing. We can really work whatever way someone wants us to.

SRO: Give us a quick rundown of the kind of equipment on your trucks.

Eaton: Each truck has a matrix router, with the biggest one being a 32×32 matrix composite router, a Panasonic MX70 data pro switcher, a Sony Beta deck, Sony DVCAM, a Magi 16-channel audio board, a Fast Forward video hard drive, a VHS deck, and a Panasonic DVD deck. We've got patch panels on either side of the trucks, so we can patch in feeds to send or receive audio and video.

Curtis: We also have two model trucks. We have three GoBig trucks — our original model truck. This is a 40ft. truck that features a 9'×16' Barco D10 Dlite LED screen. Then we also have one GoBigger truck, which we unveiled in May. That features an 18'×32' Barco Slite LED screen. The screens are coupled with two custom-made EAW speakers for audio. And each truck comes complete with its own onboard production control room, power source, and air conditioning.

SRO: How do clients go about deciding whether to use a mobile-truck, portable-screen approach, as opposed to other portable-screen options?

Curtis: First of all, we use the latest-generation LED, so we provide as good an image as anybody. The second thing is the marriage of a production room and a screen. We put it all together in one package. You don't need to have a separate production truck or flight pack to do the event.

In addition, one particularly unique capability is that the screen can be taken off the truck. So, for example, if you have an indoor event, you can take the screen indoors and hang it, and use the truck as the production control room. There are a couple other companies offering mobile LED screens, but I think we are the only ones that have provided the capability to get the screen off the truck

Eaton: And I think we are the only ones that can drive with the screen actually turned on. A lot of times, we'll pull up at an event with the screen running and everything that is needed is programmed in.

Curtis: The ease of setup and takedown allows us to do multiple venues in the same day. For example, every Saturday we do [the University of] Oklahoma's home football games. We start out by doing a pre-game show outside the stadium. After the first quarter, we fold up the screen and drive about six blocks to another location at the stadium. By halftime, the screen is back up and ready to go. And then later, we do a post-game show. Our quick setups and takedowns make us the only ones capable of doing that.

SRO: What about cost? Are the trucks more expensive to rent than a traditional screen?

Curtis: Actually, when you factor in the production services we provide with the screen, we are probably a more cost-effective solution. It's better than having to hire a screen and a production truck separately. But even if someone just needs a screen, I think we are competitive price-wise.

SRO: What other factors should event producers consider when trying to decide which type of portable solution might be right for them?

Curtis: The number one thing is reliability. You want people who know what they are doing and who are going to get it done. I tell people, this is not life or death stuff, but it can be career threatening. If you are a corporate event planner or PR person responsible for an event, that event becomes your chance to shine. But if your video vendor messes up, it could be career threatening to them, because video is such a centerpiece of so many events.

When you are doing live events, the start of the event is not going to be held up because the video people can't get their act together — you have to be ready to go when they are.

SRO: So you're saying it's the quality of the people that is most important, and not necessarily the technology?

Curtis: Yes, but the technology is an important piece of it too in that some people are continuing to try to produce events by piecing together old technology, and that can create problems. Broadcast technology and big-screen technology have advanced a lot. They are much more electronically advanced, and that makes them more reliable. So the reliability of the equipment someone is using is important too.

SRO: Any other advice you can offer event producers?

Curtis: Preparation and communication is key. You need to make sure that the client knows what they want and that they have relayed that to their vendor. And you need to be sure there is good communication between all the people involved. And that's really the client's responsibility. The sound people are different from us, and we want to make sure we talk to them early, so that when we arrive on site, we know exactly what we are expected to do and what's going to happen.

There's always a danger that people will make assumptions about what other people are going to do, and then when you get to the site, you suddenly find out you are not doing the same thing. Also, you want to be sure you've looked into who's providing power. Is it reliable power? That's another thing we've had to deal with a lot.

SRO: What happens when you encounter unforeseen problems?

Eaton: Sometimes, weather creates unforeseen problems, especially for outdoor events. If you are in a field, you might end up getting stuck, and then you can't get into the position you need to get into.

One time, I remember where we almost had a serious problem when we were doing a commercial shoot for a local TV news station. At one point during the shoot, they wanted us to lay our screen on the ground so the weather person could stand on top of it so they could shoot from above. And we only had 30 minutes to set it up before the weather person had to leave. That was tough, because the screen really isn't made to lie on the ground. We really had to scramble to get it done, and during the process of doing that we nearly cut the cable. Once the shoot was over, as we were pulling the screen back up, we noticed the cable was cut in half, but somehow, it still managed to stay together for the shot.

SRO: When is the mobile truck screen not the best option for an event?

Eaton: It pretty much gets down to size or location. If you want to put a screen up real high, or if you want to make a really big screen, you probably need to consider another option.

Curtis: But sometimes people get unnecessarily worried about using a truck. When people hear you've got a truck, they are aghast that they'll have a truck in the middle of their show. But, the fact of the matter is, it's a lot more user-friendly because of its self-contained quality. You don't have to do a bunch of rigging or create a production area out of flight packs. By making a few simple concessions to accommodate a truck, you can save a lot of time and headaches.

Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has covered video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years.