Serious Solutions


Our last article covered our adventures with Microsoft Powerpoint for serving media in a show context. Powerpoint enjoys a cue-based interface that lends itself to show operations, and its compatibility with most popular file formats makes it a compelling choice as well. Where Powerpoint begins to fall short is in productions that demand more than one projector, split projection surfaces, or multiple monitors. It quickly becomes cumbersome to try running multiple, simultaneous Powerpoint shows to achieve this.

Multiple display cueing and serving is most often accomplished with much more complex and costly systems like Dataton's Watchout or Vista System's Montage. Both of these systems are fantastic for this sort of task, but their inherent cost often preclude them being used in lower-budget production environments. We're talking about regional, alternative, dance, and academic theatre here.

We've often felt that with the unending march of Moore's law delivering virtual supercomputers to the consumer desktop, it should be possible to do this for a lot less. In analyzing the problem we realized that academic theatre was the perfect incubator for alternative solutions. Matching the energy and dedication of college theatre students with their compatriots in the computer programs could yield interesting and effective results. The academic atmosphere has been a hotbed for open source software development, so why not take advantage of this by developing a projection serving solution?

At ETS/LDI 2003 we had the good fortune to meet one of these enthusiastic academic thespians, Noah Mitz. Noah had begun corresponding with us after some of our first articles appeared, and he showed up in person at the Designer's Roundtable to probe us further. During the course of these conversations, we planted our educational open source seed with Noah. We then headed back home and back to work. We forgot that we'd had the talk. Noah didn't. He contacted us in March to tell us about how he accomplished our idea.

Noah is a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The theatre department was going to stage a production of Serious Money that seemed to cry out for a projection solution. Serious Money is a dark and brutal satire set against the backdrop of the London Stock Exchange in 1987, which sends up the cutthroat dealings of corporate raiders and brokers. Written in verse structure by Caryl Churchill, the play features Brechtian style music interludes and songs written by English rock musician Ian Drury. The play was presented at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama's Philip Choskey Theater in the last week of February.

Scenic Designer Zach Bunker had envisioned a large central catwalk system with entrances and exits off into the wings from above, and to the stage deck through the use of spiral staircases. There would be two large rear-projection screen surfaces built into metal truss towers on each side of the stage, flanking a large central rear screen. The design was predicated on independent control of media on each of the screens at all times throughout the show.

The set itself is based loosely on the interior of the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE) trading floor. The space was meant to show a hierarchy of power: giving a sense of the business world's consuming need for the office with a view. The screens in each tower resembled an office building's windows, but also acted as a stage-wide projection canvas when all were employed.

Zach felt that the biggest challenge of the design, which led to the use of projections, was maintaining the play's fast pace, while still journeying to every location in the play. “Within the play, we go to such varied locales as the floor of LIFFE, several offices around the world, outside a Chinese restaurant, inside an airplane, a drug store in Missouri, and the meeting of a fox hunt in England, to name a few,” explains Zach. “Working with the director, Steven Cosson, I saw a need for this piece to retain its growing speed unimpeded by long scene shifts, all the while maintaining a strong sense of the realistic world that is being served up to us on a glistening platter.”

The ease of shifting visual locale made a projection solution practical for the show. The style of the play also lent itself to projection, providing snapshots of the dark and underhanded world that Churchill wrote about. The projection solution also provided a unifying element between the literal scenic moments and the more lyrical musical atmosphere that closed each act.

The projection content would be an amalgam of rights-managed photo materials, as well as still and animated sequences created from scratch by Carnegie Mellon art student Jon Martofel. Content ranged from a full stage shot of the Missouri sky, an animated neon Chinese restaurant sign, clouds rolling by an airplane window, to song sequences where the green screen trading numbers could take over the stage with words thrown into the chaos.

Noah had caught the projection bug back in 2002, and had been trying to figure out an affordable system for the department ever since. With Serious Money, Noah saw an opportunity to take his quest a step further. The initial plan for the show's playback was to rent five professional DVD players, and program them using a serial controller.

Says Noah: “We came to the conclusion that this was not an effective solution because: 1) updating content meant re-authoring and re-burning DVDs and, 2) to implement DVD players in the cue structure Zach wanted would mean large amounts of serial programming. We wanted some sort of software playback, but could never find anything that truly fit the project. There was even talk of having five computers, with five operators, running five PowerPoint shows. Luckily we avoided that scenario, but for a while it was a scary reality. It would have been a big disaster as far as maintaining five different PowerPoint slide shows with media updates, not to mention over-taxing the software, and the impossibility of getting five more run crew members on an already complex show.” The sheer inefficiency of this drove Noah to look further, settling on MIDI as a possible triggering solution.

“I found it very difficult to find software where you could build a ‘cue stack’ and trigger it with ‘go’ commands,” recalls Noah. He decided to call his older brother, Adam, who was working on his Masters of Computer Science degree at Washington University in St. Louis. When asked if he could help make a playlist in a piece of software and cue it with MIDI triggers, Adam suggested using Ethernet. Since networking the six computers just required some off-the-shelf networking equipment, Adam agreed to help with the project.

Noah and his brother Adam jumped in with both feet. “The software development could best be described as ‘rapid.’ There was approximately one month between development of the first ‘version’ of the software and opening night,” says Noah. “That first version was a primitive player that read a .txt script with file names and displayed them in a window. We had not yet dealt with a number of elements including networking, full-screen output, background loading, user interface, and alpha blending. There were days in which I would get three or four revisions of the server software.” When the six Dell computers arrived, Noah performed tests on each version of the software-key to de-bug the software and demonstrate its capabilities to the design staff, who then developed new ways to use the system.

“Early on in the process,” Noah continues, “we realized that we were going to need a way to douse the LCD projectors ‘black.’ This was important because the space behind the two lower downstage screens were key staging areas for scenic elements as well as major crossovers for actors.” As a solution, Noah borrowed from the lighting department Wybron ColorRam 2 color scrollers. Wybron makes a stock “dousing scroll,” which was affordable and well constructed. This turned out to be a perfect solution.

“Controlling the scrollers was another issue that came up. We felt it was unfair to ask the lighting department to integrate and cue the scrollers for a number of reasons. We considered using our Vari*Lite® Virtuoso DX console just to control five scrollers. This seemed like overkill,” Noah says. They then looked at Color Kinetics' “Smart Jack” that the company had donated last year. The Smart Jack is an USB-DMX adapter that runs demonstrations of Color Kinetics' fixtures off a PC. “What was great about this piece of gear is that they have a Java SDK available on their website,” says Noah. “This was quite fortuitous, seeing that we were running our media server control software in Java. Within a day, Adam was able to integrate DMX control to our control software. This worked very well as a solution.”

The technical process for the show was as hectic as any tech, with the added disadvantage of simultaneously developing the playback software for the media. “As always with developing software, certain revisions would fix one bug, but three new ones would pop up,” says Noah. “This was especially frustrating given our limited time. Also, we were never really sure about the ability to fade; it was the most difficult element and the biggest unknown. This made the artistic staff very nervous. The first time we got live cross-fades to work on stage was a truly exceptional moment.

“There were hard decisions to be made while we were developing the software during tech. Before the first dress rehearsal, we only had the option of either having all of the screens ‘blink white’ for a split-second when the machines loaded a clip, or to have the video clips play at the wrong speed. It was simply a matter of where we were in developing the software. Eventually these bugs were worked out. There were times when we would have to go through rehearsals with the server crashes or glitches that resulted in skipped cues. All of these issues were due to the fact that the software was constantly in a state of flux. This made the experience both exciting and difficult.”

In the end, the show worked successfully. With the advantage of hindsight, we asked Noah what conclusions he had drawn from his experience and he believes this development of the projection software could only have come about in an academic setting. He explains, “We took a pretty big gamble when we decided to go with a ‘home-brewed’ solution for playback. We had few backup solutions and little time for implementation. That kind of gamble can only happen in an academic setting.”

Noah found that Carnegie Mellon's Drama department was more willing to invest in equipment that was re-usable. For instance, the administration purchased six new Dell computers, because there is always a need for them in the academic setting. After the show's conclusion, three computers were distributed to the School of Drama, while three stayed in the production inventory for use as a multimedia playback platform. “The School of Drama would have been more reluctant to purchase the same dollar amount in esoteric, and soon to be outdated, equipment for DVD playback,” Noah says.

“In the end, the whole project was driven by a passion and a commitment to the production shared by everyone involved, concludes Noah. “Without this dedication, the production team would have been less willing to put forth the extraordinary effort necessary for success.”

Hopefully other academic artists will begin to utilize these cross-departmental, collaborative opportunities. The next big thing is out there, somewhere.

ATTENTION All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:

Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at [email protected].