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LD On The DL: Dealing With Data

We like to think of our jobs and roles within the industry in terms of our speciality. For example, I am a lighting designer, ergo, I work with lights. Or I am a shader, ergo, I paint cameras. Or I am an A1, ergo, I handle sound. Each discipline uses its own crews, lingo, and gear. However, as the digital revolution continues to unfold I think another, more unified perspective is becoming more appropriate. Rather than multiple, specific disciplines with little overlap, I see our jobs revolving around roughly the same thing: data.

Evidence for this abounds across multiple sectors of the industry -- take television, for example. At my work station I see 9 remote feeds which bring images from all over the United States right to my screen. I often delight in watching car chases -- shot from a pursuing news helicopter -- during lulls in the day. You wouldn't believe how many there are in any given week. Furthermore five local cameras, one program feed, four playback devices, and numerous graphics outputs feed my monitor via a punch router I control. My screen is just one of many in the studio, and that's just video. Via my headset panel, I can choose between a myriad of audio feeds. I can hear the director, stage manager, video shader, host, and guests -- both locally and remote -- while other headset stations hear producers, camera operators, or remote facility technician in far away places. The amount of data required to create a straight forward, live television broadcast is staggering.

That car chase illustrates my point exactly, because it takes a minor miracle of data management and routing for me to see it. First, a camera operator on a helicopter remotely controls a camera on the underside of the aircraft. Images are wirelessly beamed to the ground, and then distributed via fiber optic cables to studios all over the country. The blips of lights arrive at the studio and are translated back into video and audio. The audio data goes to the audio room and sound console. The video data routes to the video shader's console. He or she then tweaks the image, adjusting lights, darks, and other variables to clean up the picture and standardize the incoming image's look to the show‘s look. The now tweaked image travels throughout the building and eventually to my monitor. The complexity continues should the car chase be aired on the show, like as a “breaking news” segment or live cut-in.

Events, too, require larger and larger amounts of data. Lighting control and talk-back protocols continue to grow more sophisticated. Streaming ACN and RDM are providing us with more information about our lamps and fixture health. Media Servers push huge amounts of data to various display devices -- like LED walls or projectors. Grand MAs have been using gigabyte ethernet for distributive processing between desk and signal processors for awhile. Even rigging can't resist getting onto the data bandwagon; nodes now provide immediate weight feedback from points in the rig. Headsets, walkies, RFUs, ShowDMX units mean more crowded airwaves with ... you guessed it ... data. I've seen some bar mitzvahs bring everything but the actual video truck, relying on a watchout system to route tape feeds, live camera feeds, and stills to a variety of projectors and LEDs walls throughout the venue.

Not to be left behind, greater data loads have found their way into the performance arena as well. ETC's Emphasis system helped bring networking into the theatre through nodes, dimmers, and gateways. We loved it; now, nothing else will do. Designers expect to be able to put a node in the grid and make port two the third universe. Audio plays a major role in performance. Achieving great sound quality used to mean smart construction, but now can mean a really smart computer sending altered signal to a variety of speakers that fakes smart construction. An extreme example is Cirque's show, LOVE at The Mirage where there's a speaker in every seat.

Remember the days when rock concerts used to have a wall of speakers by the stage, and they blasted them so the back row could hear? I don't either, but my father-in-law recounts a particular The Who concert where (he figures) that exact configuration caused most of his hearing loss. Compare that with the sound design of U2's 360 Tour -- a totally different beast consisting of smart data routing and management.

So there's more data in our lives than there used to be ... great. What does it mean? For starters I see our jobs separating into two broad classifications: those concerned with data routing and those concerned with output. A great camera operator may not be concerned with how the camera “sees.” He or she may only pay attention to what the camera sees, things like framing and focus. The underlying mechanics of how the camera translates light into data or how that data routes throughout the building may be a complete mystery. Similarly, a television director doesn't have to possess any knowledge of how the infrastructure works in order to call a show. He or she just says, “Take camera two,” and the appropriate data feed routes to the appropriate place. Many old school LDs only concern themselves with output. I once saw a well-known LD try to link two Ions together by just plugging them into opposite ends of a regular ethernet patch cable. I really enjoy the nitty-gritty of infrastructure, but if you asked me which two pins aren't used in 5-pin DMX cable, I wouldn't be able to tell you. However, the time I had to run DMX through a multi-cable (using a 5-pin XLR to Edison plug “adaptor” on both ends), I'm glad an electrician on the crew knew. It's worth noting this was a last-ditch, emergency situation, and shouldn't be repeated for a variety of reasons. The main one being it's a stupid, stupid thing to do.

We're back to the left brain, right brain debate ... creative versus logical. Obviously in the field most of us have some mixture of both, though I suspect all of us prefer one side over the other. In a data heavy world we need more people who intimately understand the infrastructure we are coming to depend on. Output-centric training gets a lot of attention. Everyone wants to design and big concepts pair nicely with pretty pictures, but the world doesn't need more output-centric thinkers. The world needs people who can make stuff work, who deeply understand how it works, and who have the knowledge-base to find a workaround in case things get ugly. When cuing a complex show with a lot of moving lights, I want a programmer. I want a logical thinker who understand the gear's limitations and the board's quirks. I don't want a fellow designer treading water till the day he or she can sit in my seat. In a cost-conscious world one person may have to do double duty, but I think at a detriment to both sides of the spectrum.

Along those same lines, I think data management devices will become more prevalent and more complex. At the Broadway Lighting Master Classes, held here in New York City, I visited the folks at Enttec who developed a pretty smart box. The Datagate has a graphical user interface, so the technician can see how data routes and is manipulated via a built in web browser. It's clearly a bone to us output-centric folk who feel trying to programing a complex device with small buttons, a tiny screen, and elaborate menu structure (think ETC Sensor rack brain) is akin to nails on a chalkboard. As an industry we left behind the model of one analog signal from a console to an output device, be it a dimmer rack, speaker, or screen. Now, some thought goes into the in-between steps. As our data load increases on a per show basis, I think more thought and pre-planning will be required. Data management devices -- switchers, routers, hubs, optos, splitters -- and the people who understand them will be, too.

Also in a data heavy world, I think continuing education becomes even more important. Schools are churning out young professionals who possess a lot of systems knowledge. As ad-hoc IT support for the family, many already understand basic networking and troubleshooting before even entering college. They bring to the industry a brain already wired for data management, and as such risk eclipsing anyone not paying attention. Anyone, and any organization. The onus on organized labor to incentive its membership into staying current has never been more imperative.

More data means more gear, more knowledge, more continuing education, more possibilities, and more potential for failure. Here at work I marvel at the engineers who seem to possess an encyclopedia-like understanding of the myriad of systems it takes to broadcast our show. I enjoy asking them questions when time permits, and their answers give me greater understanding of how my own world works and how I fit into the overall ... pardon the pun ... picture.

Data alone doesn't mean anything, it's just bits of electric current passing through copper wire or blips of light passing through fiber-optic cable. Data needs output-types assembling it to form a perspective. If anything, all this increasing technology proves just how important the relationships between infrastructure and output has become. We need each other, we depend on each other, and for our projects to really excel each side of the equation needs to be at their best.


Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director and Directory of Photography for The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City.

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