Is It Lighting or Is It Video

Show control, beyond video control, is heating up, especially on the lighting side. Show professionals are using lighting control consoles to control media servers like Catalyst, in addition to controlling the lighting, and other effects. Are AV professionals in danger of having video control taken away from them by lighting programmers? Will video control systems need to integrate DMX, Ethernet, or some other type of control protocol in order to compete with lighting consoles? Important questions. Before we can answer these questions, lets take a look at whats behind the lighting/video crossover trend.

When automated lighting debuted, lighting fixtures were extremely limited in the number of patterns that could fit in the unit. Manufacturers constantly pushed to develop fixtures with more gobos and effects in response to demand from lighting designers. However, the trade-off as manufacturers developed new products was larger, heavier lighting fixtures with up to three gobo wheels. But there is an upper limit to the size of a fixture you want to hang on a truss. These fixtures, while providing 20-plus patterns in some cases, simply take up more space in the rig. Other factors like price (some of these fixtures can cost upwards of $10k each) are also prohibitive. That kind of money for so few patterns has resulted in most major lighting manufacturers pushing to find an effective way of creating a lighting fixture with a digital gobo library. The goal for manufacturers eventually became a fixture that could have a virtually endless supply of images while enabling designers the freedom of selecting unique images instead of using stock patterns that have been used on hundreds of other shows.

In the mid 90s, LSD launched a product called the Icon M. When it came on the scene it was a revolutionary breakthrough in the lighting industry. While it remained an in-house product due to issues such as the fixtures proprietary control, it did prove that the industry could create a fixture with a much larger library of digital images.

An Important Milestone
High End Systems continued the R&D on solving the digital gobo problem, and in the late 1990s HES teamed up with hardware developers WWG and SAM Show Control Software developer Richard Bleasdale to develop a prototype product (the precursor for Catalyst). In its earliest form, Bleasdales control software, the foundation for todays Catalyst Media Server software, provided the source and control of the digital images while WWGs orbital projection head, attached to a large scale projector, provided the ability to pan and tilt the very bright source of light from mid to large size projectors (5k to 18K lumens) from a DMX lighting console. This was an important milestone because using Catalyst meant that the lighting programmer would have the ability to control digital images that could be fed to a projector, and the orbital head allowed the programmer the ability to aim the digital images anywhere on any surface while controlling the speed of the movement between focus locations. This breakthrough opened up the minds of everyone in the lighting industry, and video suddenly became a new aspect of the lighting industry.

How does a media server connect to a console? The real advancement for the lighting industry comes from the ability to control video via a DMX signal, something previously not possible. In the case of a Catalyst Media Server, the server receives a DMX signal from a lighting console via the Catalyst Interface Box. The CIB converts the DMX information into USB and feeds it to the server. The server then interprets the information, processes the data, and creates the look. That look is then sent out via the servers Video Card outputs and into video distribution amplifiers before being routed into a Video converter called the DV1. The DV1 converts the VGA signal to RGBHV and sends the data out to the projection device. All media servers can connect to a wide variety of projection devices, anything from projectors to monitors to LED Walls using either the VGA or RGBHV outputs of the DV1. Catalyst can handle HD video (maximum resolution for any image is 2048x 2048, but most moving images are around 740x480). The server can handle video clips at that resolution running 30 fps on 4 layers simultaneously. Catalyst can handle professional live camera inputs via its BlackMagic video capture card which reduces the frame delay down to only a frame or so.

What does a media server do? Currently, a media servers main purpose is to provide an extremely large library of media files to be called up and programmed into lighting cues from a lighting console. This could be via DMX, or it may be via an Ethernet, ArtNet or other type of protocol. Each media server provides the programmer with some ability to control various things on the fly (as opposed to having to re-render each time you change an effect) things like play speed and direction of a movie file, layering and playback of still images, masking, color, intensity, scale, rotation of the image along X, Y and Z axis, and mapping an image to a 3D object. Some media servers allow you to program your looks on the media server itself and then trigger those presets from the lighting console via DMX (e.g., the Maxedia from Martin) or MIDI (e.g., Brash!Live from Lucid3D). Some media servers, like Catalyst, allow the programmer complete access to all attributes directly from the console and the programmer records the looks directly into cues on the console. In no cases currently is the content actually stored on the console; instead, the files are typically categorized on the server in folders and then called up from the console via a DMX value on a specific channel.

What are the benefits of using a media server? Lighting designers in the past had to rely on separate personnel from a different discipline to execute video aspects of the show. Having a DMX controlled Media Server eliminates this problem and allows the operator to be able to playback video effects simultaneously in the same cue as other lighting fixtures are also being told to change colors, patterns, positions, etc. Also, designers who are familiar with current video equipment are always amazed at how easy it is to manipulate video images live, in real time, without re-rendering each change. Controlling video from a DMX console enables the LD more input into the overall look and feel of the show, and the programmer working with both lighting and video is better able to balance levels between the lighting and video aspects, something which is generally very difficult to do when lighting is controlled from one location and video from another.

Currently there are many choices for professional video gear available in the market, each with its own merits. Therefore, it can be difficult for the Lighting Designer to be in complete control of all of the video aspects used in a show. The entertainment industry is, at least for the time being, in the place where media servers are more likely to be routed to a switcher instead of the media server handling the switching between video devices. But with the recent introduction into media servers of features like Live Camera Inputs, Audio Inputs and Serial Device Control, some technically savvy lighting programmers (who are video savvy as well) are undertaking the complete integration of video control from their lighting consoles and having great success, as on last years Rush Tour (using the HES Catalyst).

A Tool Thats Here to Stay
Whether it was originally intended to unfold this way, the reality is that digital media servers as a video as well as lighting tool are here to stay. As a result, lighting consoles will continue to develop features that enable better and more efficient programming results when controlling video. Today, most major lighting manufacturers either offer a media server or are developing one. Lighting designers now have many choices for controlling the visual aspects of the show from one control source. Will that lead to a reduction in AV technicians on shows? Not likely. AV technicians are essential to the equation. A lighting programmer is tied to the console and is not easily able to attend to problems with equipment when they arise, especially at showtime. Even on shows where a media server is used, AV technicians are still needed to properly setup and maintain the projection devices. And you will be hard pressed to find any Video Director on a network broadcast at this time that would be comfortable with the video being cued from a Lighting Console. The trust hasnt been established yet, and the functionality of most lighting consoles serving as a video controller is not ironed out. But it will be eventually. So a basic understanding of lighting principles like Channels and Cues and the concepts of programming a lighting console do seem essential for an AV tech if he wants to continue to expand his knowledge and increase his chances for employment.