Tips & Tricks

Computer Networking Knowledge More Important than Ever

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In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that computers would double in power approximately every two years. His prediction became known as Moore's law. Later on, Intel CEO Andy Grove coined his own law, with his tongue planted firmly in cheek, predicting that networking speed would double every 100 years. Grove was lamenting the fact that, at the time, networking speed had not kept up with computer power. That was then. Today, computer network technology has improved to the point where we are able to transport huge amounts of data over copper, wire, and fiber. That's why we can stream videos to our laptops using Netflix and Hulu, and why new televisions can connect to the Internet. It's also why the live event production industry is being inundated with network technology. You can hardly swing a disconnect switch by its feeder tails without hitting a network-connected console, media server or computer. If we're going to be in this business for long, we had better get comfy with the technology.

-Richard Cadena, from "Focus on Fundamentals," PLSN, Mar. 2011

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The One-Off Concert

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The very first thing a programmer should do when learning about a one-off concert is to ask for a copy of the music and a set list.  As the concert is based on the music, this is of utmost importance...Once I have the music, I listen to each song and create a chart for each...After building my palettes/presets, I will usually dive right in and start creating cues from my notes for each song.  I do not worry about the nuances and instead build big chunks of looks to correspond with each cue.  As with any concert, I create a page per song, with a master cuelist for each song.  I label everything as I go so that I know the song and cue with which I am working. Once all this is done, I create a number of additional playbacks to intermix with any of the cues at any time.  In most cases, these will live on a template page so that they are available for all playbacks.  These live manipulation playbacks include color bumps or fades, ballyhoos, audience blinders, flyouts and strobe cues.  By combining these live with the basic pre-recorded cues, I can create an exciting and energetic concert during the event.   

-Brad Schiller, from "Feeding the Machines," PLSN, Mar. 2011

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Drive-Ins Going Digital

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West Wind Drive-Ins, San Rafael, CA, started refurbishing their drive-ins about four years ago. At one location in Concord, CA, the projection stats at the Concord "digital" drive-in are impressive.  At your average walk-in, the distance between rows is 43 inches, screen width (for a typical 300 seat multiplex) is around 36 feet, and the "throw" distance from projector to screen is approximately 60 feet.  At the Concord drive-in, the distance between rows is measured in car lengths, screen width is a huge 75 feet, and the throw is a remarkable 465 feet.  This throw required the biggest digital cinema projector that Barco makes, the liquid-cooled DP2K-32B, with an output of 33,000 lumens...Drive-ins were dormant for years, but with a little enterprise in a family-friendly atmosphere and new digital projection technology, this has the makings of a delightful old (yet very new) way to spend an evening. Perhaps the trend will be continue and come to a digital drive-in theater near you. 

-Paul Berliner, from "Video World," PLSN, Feb. 2011

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Get to Know Your Fixtures

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Automated lighting programmers are responsible for more than just mastering their console of choice. A programmer must also understand the capabilities and functions of the fixtures under their command. Quite often, an LD will specify a fixture type without knowing all the capabilities, or a lighting company may substitute one fixture type for another. In addition, fixtures contain various modes that can greatly affect the abilities of the fixture. Automated lighting programmers need to be aware of the fixtures they are programming and educate themselves about the details of each unit. Recently, I received the plot for an upcoming production, and I noticed that it had a new type of wash fixture that I had never used before. I had just seen these in action at LDI a few months before. So the first thing I did was to go to the manufacturer's website and read the specifications on the unit. This gave me a basic understanding of the features set and various configuration modes. I also downloaded the user manual and DMX protocol. The next step was to locate a fixture library for my console. Since I knew this was a brand new fixture, I assumed that the library was not in the current software for my fixture. However, I went to the console website to double check. After confirming it was not in the software, I headed to their online forum to look for a download of the library. Sure enough, it was right there waiting for me; so I downloaded it and loaded it into my show file. Had it not been available, I had plenty of time to request one before my gig.

-Brad Schiller, from "Feeding the Machines," PLSN, Feb. 2011

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The Perils of Pinspots

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Although we've been using dimmers for years, I still get questions about whether or not it's okay to put a pinspot on a dimmer. Some people say it's not a good idea and others say they've been doing it for years and they're not going to stop doing it. What's the truth about dimming pinspots? ...I did some tests with a pinspot on a Lex Slimmer Dimmer, and in the process, I found an interesting phenomenon. When the dimming level dropped to around 10 percent, the voltage waveform went completely haywire, and the transformer in the pinspot started buzzing loudly. Whatever the cause of the malfunction, the DC current in the circuit shot up, and if I had let it continue, it would have burned up the transformer. I suspect that's why dimmers designed for fluorescent lamps can only dim to 10 percent or, in some cases, 1 percent. They are probably built to avoid this from happening and damaging the circuit. The magnetic ballast in a fluorescent lamp is an inductor, just like the primary side of a transformer, and they are susceptible to the same dimming pitfalls as a pinspot...Pinspots really inexpensive these days. I recently bought some for $10 apiece, and that was the retail price. If you're trying to design a lighting system on a budget, pinspots can really help you stretch the budget and fill out your design. But don't let a $10 pinspot throw a spanner in the works and ruin a $200 dimmer module. You can use a dry contact closure to turn pinspots on and off, and if you must dim them, do it at your own peril, because it can cause damage to your equipment.

-Richard Cadena, from "Focus on Fundamentals," PLSN, Feb. 2011

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Live TV Broadcasts: Every Second Counts

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Every year, I find myself at some stadium lighting something. If it's not a rock show, it's often the halftime entertainment or pre-game ceremonies of some sporting event. The gigs vary drastically, but the one thing that they all have in common is that it is broadcast on live TV, and you only get one shot to do it right...The one thing I have learned over the years is to take advantage of downtime when working in television. When I write my chases, I record them with various timings as well as different levels of intensity. The cameras and the producers are unforgiving. As we ran through the opening ceremony several times, I was told that the first strobe chase was too fast. So I whipped up a different fader with a slower speed. This one wasn't random enough. On the third fader I had yet another cue. This time the producer said that I had nailed his vision and it's a wrap. The same with the ColorBlazes. The shade of blue I had chosen apparently did not match the players' jerseys, but the second cue made them content with color. Nobody wants to wait on the LD, and I give them no reason to.

-Nook Schoenfeld, from "LD-at-Large," PLSN, Feb. 2011

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Using Your Ears

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In the production meetings that are scheduled in the weeks before a big event, the most critical thing I do is to listen.  I listen to the scenic designer, I listen to the choreographer, I listen to the producer, and I listen to the director.  I want to absorb as much of their input as possible so that I can give them exactly what they are looking for. In those same meetings, I pitch ideas.  I gather photos and/or clips ahead of time and bring them with me to the meetings.  And I am not afraid to use e-mail.   As I search for visual content, I can easily send the production team a link to a photo or clip and ask for their feedback.  And through that process, the visual concept for the show begins to take shape.

-Vickie Claiborne, from "Video Digerati," PLSN, Jan. 2011

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Protect Your Work

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Starting with your first show of the New Year, save your show to external media more often.  I follow the credo that "you should never lose more than 30 minutes worth of work."  Of course there are situations that do not allow you to save that often, but you should strive for that regularity.  Most modern consoles use an internal hard drive to ensure the show is continually saving.  However, it is still essential that you save to external media (CD, USB drive, network drive, etc) at regular intervals.  The more backups you have, the more secure you will be when something goes wrong.  Remember, backups are not just to protect from console failure, but also from human error.

-The first of 11 New Years Resolutions for 2011 submitted by Brad Schiller for "Feeding the Machines," PLSN, Jan. 2011

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Blame the Circuit, Not the Fuse

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"Most of the time when people say a fuse or breaker is operating improperly or blowing when it shouldn't, it's because the device is doing exactly what it's supposed to do. The fault is usually in the circuit, but no one wants to admit it's their error. It's kind of like when you're computer programming. When the output isn't what you wanted, the first thing you want to believe is that there's something wrong with the machine, not that you have a coding error. Using that as a starting point, I would say he or she needs to be absolutely sure that the circuit is not overloaded. If it is not, then the next most likely problem is overheating caused by loose or corroded connections. That should solve 99% of the tripping or blowing faults. If there is still a problem, then it just might be a fuse that has been subjected to repeated overcurrent and heating that was not sufficient to blow the device, but which over a long period of time caused the material in the fuse to degrade. After enough time the fuse might be compromised and will blow before it's maximum current and temperature rating is reached. This is not a bad thing, however. It means the fuse will protect the downstream wiring from overheating and causing a fire. It might be a nuisance, but unless it interrupts the circuit on process equipment (think of a factory or a smelting plant), it's not dangerous. Considering the number of years fuses have been used, they have a pretty good track record for holding up to environmental stresses. The big disadvantage to fuses is that when they do finally blow, it costs money to replace them. And when you're replacing a fuse in a company switch, you're talking about a 200- or 440-amp device. It's physically challenging and dangerous to do this. The term ‘qualified personnel' is no misnomer here. If you don't understand arc flash, PPE (personal protective equipment) and lock out/tag out procedures, you have no business changing a fuse of this size."

-Richard Wolpert, co-owner, Union Connector, quoted by Richard Cadena in "Focus on Fundamentals," PLSN, Jan. 2011

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"I Guess We Just Did It Differently"

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When I was a young man, I toured with the Talking Heads. They were a "new wave" band with a big following and a light show that was out of the ordinary. The show consisted of all white light - no gels, except for one song where the rear cyc turned red, and all tungsten fixtures except for one HMI 2.5k fixture we used once. Wherever we went, there was always some older stagehand who would question what we were doing at the time and then remark, "Well, I guess we just did it differently in my day." Now it's 30 years later and I am starting to wonder if I am that old guy questioning how shows are lit today...I recently found myself at the Country Music Awards in Nashville. My artist was playing the same hit single...But I was disturbed as I look at the camera monitors. The levels of the strip lights are so hot that they are creating white flares on the camera. As the cameras flare, the iris on them automatically dials down to compensate. Now my artist is looking very dark and needs more light. But this is what rehearsals are for. Surely someone in the TV truck will notice this and dial the levels down for the show. Then come the strobe cues. They appear to be full on, max power. My entire monitor turns into a snow blizzard. I imagine this has been noticed as well. I look to a wide shot monitor and notice that my entire 10-piece band has no front light. I obviously have not kept up with the latest in television lighting methods - no front light except on the main artist, and it's now acceptable to blind the cameras. People must like this...The cameras are wiped to white. It's ruining an otherwise beautiful piece of music. My band comes on 20 minutes later and everything I assumed would be fixed hasn't been. It looks bad, but it must be me. I realize now that I have become the old man who doesn't understand this new change in lighting theory.

-From "LD-at-Large" by Nook Schoenfeld, PLSN, Jan. 2011

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