This summer, I was asked to design video for the outdoor Zilker Summer Musical, My Favorite Year, in Austin. In the 1982 movie, writers for the King Kaiser Comedy Cavalcade TV show are reviewing classic, old film footage of the Errol Flynn-type movie star Alan Swann (played by Peter O'Toole). This was also the genesis for video design in this musical production. One main projector was hung on a center truss, projecting as large as possible on the back wall. Most cues would be seen here. A platform above the orchestra serves as the location for the writers' office set. A video projector is hidden underneath an 8mm film projector. Fifty-year-old TV shows for pre-show/intermission and other important cues appear on a 1958 television in a Brooklyn apartment set; a TV repair shop retrofitted a working television inside the older chassis for this. My collaborator, K. Eliot Haynes, and I were committed to deploying all of our content from one computer and doing it under budget. All of the video design budgets in the production were less than $5,000.
My career as a theatrical video designer and solving the problems associated with video deployment go back a few years. In 2002, the Austin-based Zachary Scott Theatre produced the original musical Jouét. In 90 minutes, the story of the controversial performer Jouét's final performance unfolds in real time. Video cues run throughout almost the entire musical, most of them designed to juxtapose with the story being told onstage. The operator used two DVCAM VTRs and a video switcher — no random access to content, no skipping tracks, no DVDs. Fast-forward, rewind, play, pause, a monitor, the switcher buttons, and fader bar were the only tools. We needed an operator with as many arms as the Hindu deity Vishnu. We'd have the calm disposition of being at peace, along with the physical prowess that comes with the extra set of arms and digits to run the show!
The next season, I designed video for Zachary Scott's production of The Laramie Project. The content-creation tools included glacially slow DVD authoring/encoding software, 1x burners, and $5-a-pop DVD media. The random access of the disc certainly made the operator's job easier. Only this time, when director Dave Steakley asked for even the simplest change, new DVDs had to be created. Instead of applying the requested change and then rendering and printing-to-tape, the steps included export, encode, author, mix, and burn. There were multiple all-nighters during tech week for The Laramie Project.
In 2003, I designed How Late It Was How Late for the Rude Mechs in Austin. The video design explored what visions in the mind might be like if one were suddenly blinded. The interior walls of the theatre were painted chroma-key green. There were three projectors, three cameras, two DVD players, two Videonics MXPro switchers, A/B switches, and distribution amps. An actor would appear on one or all of the screens keyed live with a DVD-generated background, or keyed with another actor placed elsewhere onstage, or two separate camera feeds would be keyed to a background.
One deviation from this trajectory was the Christmas 2002 production of The Little Prince at The State Theatre in Austin. We were lucky enough to have High End Systems as a partner and were able to use a Catalyst system (Entertainment Design, February 2003). The power and freedom to tell the board operator to manipulate a video cue as if it were a light source — which, after all, it is — was awesome.
Looking for a new solution for Zikler Theatre Productions' My Favorite Year, Eliot had success with the software QLab (www.figure53.com) for audio deployment in shows we'd worked on together. We were excited about its video capabilities, but were unsure about how it would do in practice. We had a 17" MacBook Pro for the run. Now, how do we get multiple outputs off of the one DVI out from the laptop? Our backup plan was to run a DVI-VGA out to a VGA A/B switch. One side of the switch would go to the office projector and one would go to the main projector. The way the show runs, the operator could be on the office side of the switch at the top of the show and then on the main after that. All of the apartment TV cues would be played back via the dreaded DVD player in this backup scenario.
We were certain QLab could play content out to three different outputs if the computer recognizes three discreet video outs. Patch a cue to one of the three, and you would be good to go. One option for multiple outs from the MacBook Pro was a PCI Express-to-PCMIA adapter and a PCMIA VGA card. QLab's Christopher Ashworth raised a concern about whether this solution supported the video card standard Quartz, vital for video in QLab. Another solution was graphics expansion modules from Matrox — the DualHead2GO and the TripleHead2GO (www.matrox.com/graphics/en/gxm/products). These devices take a DVI or VGA out and allow you to connect two or three additional monitors. The second desktop extends over all of the monitors. A computer recognizes the Matrox device as one large external monitor, not two or three. So we were not sure how we would get video to play in each of our outputs, but we bought the TripleHead2GO anyway. What's one more return authorization, more or less?
Eliot and I connected everything up on my dining room table: MacBook Pro to the Matrox TripleHead2GO, one of the VGA outputs of the TripleHead2GO going to a scan converter that then sends video to the apartment TV, then the other two VGA outs going to the two projectors. The display arrangement was set so that the external display was an extended desktop, not mirrored, with a resolution of 2,400×600. Much to our delight, we were able to play a cue in QLab, select the resizeable window in the geometry settings, grab the video to position it to either projector or TV, and then scale it. Once we figured out what those geometry settings were, we entered the correct parameters for the appropriate cue. All of the QuickTime movies were 720×480, so the software was also scaling those clips up to 800×600 to fill the frame. One video cue occurs while there is dancing and singing all over the stage, including upstage by the back wall projection surface. We were able to use QLab to take the video out of proportion and squish it so it appeared only up over the performers' heads.
This has been an amazing experience. The video deployment in this configuration has been bulletproof. The operator only has to make sure that the devices are connected and powered up in the correct sequence. Otherwise, the Matrox resolution might be off and the laptop can default to mirroring. The QLab software has many other cue parameters. Entering a time delay allows the stage manager to call a video cue with a gang of other cues instead of calling a separate video cue, for example. We kept all fades out of the QuickTime movies and programmed QLab to do that. That preserved more precious flexibility. Cues roll out to two outputs simultaneously without a problem. We achieved our goal to engineer video deployment that allowed the volunteer video operator to simply hit the space bar to trigger a cue whenever the stage manager calls a go.
Colin Lowry is a theatrical video designer and producer of television commercials with design credits including Jouét (Zachary Scott Theatre, The Actors' Theatre of Louisville), The Laramie Project (Zachary Scott Theatre), 7 Rooms to the Soul (Ariel Dance Theatre), .com (Tapestry Dance Company), The Little Prince (State Theatre Company), Writing Austin's Lives (UY Humanities Institute), and How Late It Was How Late (Rude Mechs, Austin and Phildelphia Fringe Festival) for which he won the 2003-2004 Austin Critics' Table Award for Video Design.