The Experiential: Creative Toolkit – Switching It Up

This week I wanted to explore a little bit of tech. There's some great coverage of art and science coming up soon, but first I thought I'd give you a peek into my carry-on bag.

When I work on experiential projects, I am often (fortunately) walking into situations where vast audio visual capabilities have been marshaled to execute the gig. Layer upon layer of multi-screen control, switching, media servers, PowerPoint, or Keynote machines, and sometimes interactive phenomena. In those situations, the most important specification is the switching and multi-screen controllers at the heart of the system and their power and flexibility to assimilate a lot of formats, inputs, and outputs effortlessly and reliably.

Yet, even in those cases, as a screens producer, designer, or creative director, I can sometimes find myself without the proper tools to intuitively monitor the input side for my own purposes. I want to be able to setup in particular places to see the whole picture but also be able to monitor the individual pieces and perhaps supply some of my own.

On other occasions with tighter budgets or limited resources, I would find myself directly responsible for providing a robust basic switching platform that can handle live camera input, presentation computers, and server playback. Nerds like me have to have hobbies.

Thus, I have developed some kit that I habitually carry with me, just in case. It gives me a lot of flexibility and power in the field. Sometimes it stays in the hotel room, but sometimes, it saves my proverbial butt.

At the heart of my kit is the new Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio HD. I still have the old model as well, but the new one is killer. Wonderful, clicky I/O select buttons on the front panel, a mini LED preview screen as well, and on the back are four HDMI inputs, four HD-SDI Inputs, four HD-SDI outputs, an HDMI and SDI out for a multi-viewer, stereo XLR outs, as well as sync, networking, and RS 422 PTZ remote. Often I don't even use it to switch. It's a great multi-viewer. With the HDMI and HD-SDI inputs, it's also a simple and powerful solution for small meetings with a few cameras and maybe a computer presentation machine or two. It's got a realtime keyer, titles and graphics banks, and an extremely decent built-in camera shader module.

This is sturdy, simple kit, and it's price locks it in as must-have: $995. For a thousand more, you can have the 4k version.

Yes, that's right. This always seems like a minor miracle to me, as I vividly recall the times when such a solution couldn't be had for under $100k. That was only a little more than a decade ago.

Blackmagic Design also makes a tactile hardware switcher control surface. I generally either punch the controls on the face or run the software interface on my laptop. It fits in a backpack. I could probably actually fit five in a backpack.

But instead, into that backpack, I throw a few more things to make life easy on the road. Several Blackmagic Mini Converters to do HD-SDI distribution or format-switching; a bag full of StarTech adapters to make any mini-display-port, display-port, DVI, HDMI, or VGA play nice; and a couple of Blackmagic HyperDeck Shuttles, which allow me to record playback or easily grab line-cuts of production on bare SSD drives. If I know I will need to deal with ad hoc audio or MIDI routing (which is common when I rub up against EDM layers of my life), I also carry a MOTU UltraLite-mk4. This little powerhouse allows my MSI laptop to input up to 18 audio channels and send out up to 22. I do not profess to be in the business of professional audio, but I find in many situations that it makes my life easier to be able to intercept or supply tracks. The mk4 is small and makes it easy.

I also generally travel with a basic bit of networking, a small dual band wireless gigabit switch, some CAT6. Many and many a time have I found myself in a convention space or arena, needing to take the one wire provided and make it into five to get all of the content management systems talking.

Here's the thing: I should not be confused with real EICs who know what they are doing with pro video nomenclature, but in the same way that price has democratized, so has the accessibility of these powerful tools to help me be the glue between the tech, the art, and the goal. Being able to fend for myself with a certain layer of tech empowers me to help everybody around me execute better.

Of course, there’s a whole software side that is the other half of this, but that’s a story all its own.

Until then, go out and experience.

Bob Bonniol is a director, production designer, and contributing editor to Live Design. He is known for his implementation of extensive media and interactive features in his productions.

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