Tips & Tricks

Programming Very Large Arrays (VLAs)

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Programming very large arrays of lighting fixtures is an enormous task for any programmer. Many productions are creating huge walls of LED products, with some tours out right now that have arrays of more than 400 three-celled fixtures! That’s more than 1,200 pixels of control, just for a single array. When preparing to program an array, you must first determine the needs of the production and then select the best tools for the job. You may find that combining technologies might provide the best option, or you may select one method of control and run with it. Either way, it is important for you to understand the possibilities and always be prepared to hand-program very large arrays of lighting fixtures.

—From “Feeding the Machines” by Brad Schiller, PLSN, Aug. 2013

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Scenic Three-Sided Towers Rely On, and Benefit from, Human Power

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For Foster the People’s performance at the Firefly Festival, June 21-23 in Dover, DE, production designer Trevor Stirlin Burk collaborated with the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance company, and their dancers — not mechanized automation — turned the seven three-sided towers (periactoids) supporting lighting and video elements. Although the largest of the towers weighed more than three tons, they were attached to milled aluminum bases on ball bearings and equipped with outrigger handles so that the dancers could rotate the units. “To have the dancers control the towers was important to me. The organic imperfection of having seven performers controlling those huge towers in unison was something special,” Stirlin Burk said.

—From “Designer Watch” by Debi Moen, PLSN, Aug. 2013

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Do Lighting Rigs Really Have to Be So BIG?

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With the advent of the upstage video wall at concerts, the lighting systems have had to fly higher, span wider, gain massive lumens and require fleets of trucks. But this summer, for one client, we’re moving arena shows outside with a scaled-back rig. I still have three trusses of movers and a splattering of strobes. But upstage, I have a wall of voodoo. Basically, it’s four vertical rows of Elation Razors splattered with some Sharpys and strobes. I have taken my big-ass light show and hacked half the fixtures and a guy off it. But with torms from Daric Bassan at Upstaging — they’re 15 feet tall, had 15 fixtures on them, and couldn’t be more than two feet wide or they would block my video wall and scenery — the system looks large.

—Nook Schoenfeld, from “LD-at-Large,” PLSN, Aug. 2013

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Rediscovering MIDI

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With the rise in popularity of electronic dance music (EDM), DJs are touring now with elaborate visual productions. The majority of these DJ acts feature visuals that are programmed using a media server but not operated using a lighting console. Instead, many visual jockeys (VJs) are looking to other types of communication protocols for the ultimate in control. One such protocol, not as often used in lighting today like it once was, is MIDI. Combine this interface protocol with a touchscreen GUI, and you’ve got a powerful control interface with virtually unlimited configurations. Two of the more recent MIDI/Touchscreen interfaces that are making appearances at your local EDM venue nightly are TouchOSC, developed for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, and SmithsonMartin’s Emulator KS-1974. While MIDI isn’t new, software developers are continually inventing new and innovative ways to use it for lighting and video.

—For more details, check out Vickie Claiborne’s “Video Digerati” column, PLSN, July, 2013

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Specialized Lighting Effects: Various Methods, Similar Results

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It is important for programmers to understand the various methods available to create looks and to learn the benefits of each. Then you will be able to program amazing looks that go beyond the normal pre-programmed selections built into many consoles. There’s a look I like to call “kicks” which involves the beams from automated fixtures pointing toward the audience and continually traveling in an upward fashion. Only the upward sweeps of light are visible, with no indication of the lights moving back down to their starting position. The lights do not all do this at the same time, but rather appear to be randomly and continually moving upward. Before lighting consoles had effects, programmers would need to create a complex, multi-step chase for the upward movement of the fixtures and to reset the fixtures to their starting position. Console effects allow you to automate functions and create repeating movement. Today, consoles offer advanced effects tools. You can tell the console to apply an intensity effect that only is enabled for a specific portion of the effect duration. With three or four button presses, you can easily create what used to take many steps to create. Whichever method you choose to program is ultimately up to you. I find that I often program via different methods depending upon the production’s requirements and the amount of time available.

—From “Feeding the Machines” by Brad Schiller, PLSN, July, 2013

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Body Armor-Clad Artists Use MIDI for Special Effects

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Destroid is using hundreds of custom LEDs — not in the rig or lining the stage, but clothed on their bodies.  The EDM group is outfitted with specially-made $100,000 body armor — complete with smoke machines, CO2 and laser arm blasters, custom LED panels and animatronics and built-in video cameras feeding live visuals. LDs Michael Smalley and Kyle Kegan worked together on the show for the group, which is performing at some summer festivals and is planning to embark on a major tour in the fall. Atlanta-based Smalley explained how the suits were programmed to react to band member triggers. “Through a custom piece of software my friend Matt Davis came up with, the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) triggers on the custom guitars could be turned directly into Art-Net and sent to our desk. The same thing with each of the MIDI drums in the drum kit. This enables the band to trigger their cryo blast, which is DMX controlled, as well as lasers in their helmets. In the future progressions of the show’s programming, the band will be able to trigger all sorts of events in the show, from lighting to strobe effects, all from their guitars or playing the drums.”

—From “Designer Watch” by Debi Moen, PLSN, July, 2013

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Vectorworks Add-On Keeps Track of Cables and More

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The Vectorworks Spotlight program became the standard because it provided the right tools for the job of the lighting and scenic designer in a form that was natural and intuitive, and that got the job done far better than hand-drafting. Over the years, many Spotlight users have created customized objects and plug-ins to solve specific needs of related entertainment design professions, which has resulted in integrating functionality for event planning, video projection and audio layout. One of these third-party innovations for the industry called connectCAD. Developed by longtime broadcast and AV industry professional Conrad Preen, connectCAD is a software add-on to the Vectorworks platform for designing broadcast, AV, lighting, IT cabling and other connected systems. It solves the problem of keeping track of large numbers of cables or other interconnected systems in a complex installation.

—Frank Brault, from “Focus on Design,” PLSN, June, 2013

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The Corporate Events Market is Rebounding

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After several lackluster years during the worst of the economic downturn, the live corporate events business is picking up for those providing lighting, projection video or staging. Spending is predicted to climb 5.1 percent this year, to $268.5 billion, according to trade group the Global Business Travel Association. Its forecast, released in April, is up substantially from the 1.8 percent rise in industry spending in 2012, and is even higher than the group’s previous prediction for growth of 4.6 percent. The New York Times also reported that spending on group events is expected to increase six percent this year, to almost $116 billion, compared with an earlier prediction of 5.2 percent growth in 2013. Other indications of a revitalizing events market are the increase in the number of new convention centers, like the just-opened 350,000-square-foot, $623 million Music City Center in Nashville.

—Dan Daley, from “The Biz,” PLSN, June, 2013

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Reap the Benefits of Sharing Your Knowledge with Others

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You might think that going out of your way to share what you know with others might be a purely altruistic endeavor. Instead, there are considerable benefits to be gained by sharing your knowledge. Even if you are early in your career, you will always have some skills you can share with others. You might explain to another technician your layout for busking a show, or you might decide to host a mini-seminar in the lighting shop. Just teaching others will help you to solidify your personal skill set. To help foster our industry, we should all look for opportunities to instruct others and share what we have learned. By doing so, we will learn more and expand the abilities and professionalism of our entire field.

Brad Schiller, from "Feeding the Machines," PLSN, June 2013, page 64

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Matching Cable Lengths to Truss

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When you rent gear from Christie Lites, you get a long list of every cable, nut and bolt, rigging piece, etc., on a spreadsheet. I normally hate these things, but last month I happened to look through it just to see what was listed. All the cables were in weird lengths. There are no 5- and 10-foot jumpers. They are 4 feet and 8 feet instead. The multi cables are not all your industry standard lengths of 25-foot increments. Nope, they are all just another facet of Christie Lites founder Huntly Christie’s way of doing things. I tried to decipher the logic of this. It wasn’t metric, and it didn’t make sense. Not until I sat down with the guy himself and asked him why. “When I started out, I was keen on some of the latest technology and what one could purchase at the time. Back in 1985, there were no people I found that were mass-producing truss in America for what I wanted to do. But Thomas, a truss manufacturer out of the U.K., was building and selling pre-rig truss. The same stuff you get today for double hung rows of PARs, etc. These truss sections were all standard 7-foot, 10-inch sections,” Christie states. “And I just hated the fact that all the cables, when they reached the dimmers, were different lengths. I found it messy and there was a lot of unnecessary copper lying around so I borrowed the idea of 8-foot cable denominations from two smart Quebecers — Jacques Tanguay and Louis Racine.” Interesting concept, one that I think is unique. And pretty cool if you can get away with it for three decades.

—Nook Schoenfeld, from “LD-at-Large,” PLSN, June, 2013

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