VIDEO ON THE VERGE: The Latest Tech & Tools for Live Productions

August 31, 2021

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Professional Lighting & Production magazine.

By Andrew King

We’ve been writing about the proliferation of video and its ongoing convergence with lighting in live events for years, and with the increasingly-rapid rate of evolution within the industry and the technologies it comprises, it seems those discussions are basically obsolete by the time the ink dries. So while the current industry-wide standstill owing to the COVID-19 pandemic is fun for no one, it does present an opportunity to take a quick snapshot of the video-for-live-events market in Canada.

Of course, there are multimedia studios across the country pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with video technology and how people experience and interact with it, and many of our panelists here have been involved in such projects; however, for this piece, we’re checking in with major rental and production houses from coast-to-coast to gauge the more widespread trends when it comes to major tours, festivals, and other live events that, hopefully, we’ll be back to enjoying before long.

We’re live in 3, 2, …

PL&P: What’s the most significant investment in video technology for live events that your firm has made in the last year or two? What informed your decision to add that particular technology to your inventory?

Louis-Philippe Gaudreau, Solotech: Solotech invested massively in video equipment over the last few years with the addition of the warehouse in the Chicago area: Saco LED [panels], Grass Valley, and Ross Video camera system  flypacks, Disguise servers, and Barco laser projectors. Relationships with the manufacturers are important for us to properly support the products globally. Market demands certainly drive our decisions, but our R&D advisors research and evaluate products and their reliability in rough conditions, which is definitely an important aspect. The touring industry isn’t known for being gentle with gear…

Kyle Jadon, Promosa: Over the past two years, we have been investing heavily into touring LED panels as well as high-resolution 2-mm tiles for large corporate events.

The LED touring panels allow for safe deployment of large walls that also benefit tours by packing tight in the truck. They are durable, built for the road, and stay in larger sections on a touring cart, resulting in faster load-in and load-out times. Tours started designing larger and more complex video elements while still wanting to maintain a fast load-in schedule.

The 2-mm products we invested in for corporate live events have allowed for higher-resolution video walls in more dynamic shapes. These new resolutions of video wall are competitive with projection and can be used in many different applications. We invested in 2-mm as the [resolution] demands for corporate clients continued to advance, and more complex stage designs moved from concept to reality. Right now, we are test-driving 1-mm product.

Scott Nayor, Nationwide Video: Two of our most significant recent investments would be the growth of our LED tile inventory as well as our acquisition of Panasonic AK-UC4000 4K cameras. As a wholesale provider focused on supplementing the inventory of rental and staging companies, it is important that we invest in the gear that our clients are investing in, or [rely on]. I don’t believe it’s a surprise to anyone that LED is becoming more and more of a go-to
option for corporate staging backdrops, so our clients are often looking for large quantities of tiles to span full stages.

Peter Penkala, MVI: In the last few years, MVI has added over 430 sq. m of modular direct-view LED video screen panels of <4-mm resolution to our existing inventory. In our world, “bigger” and “higher resolution” are the two main areas that our customers direct us to go. “Bigger” can mean the entire upstage area of a stage, studio, trade show booth, or convention hall. Higher-resolution arguably now means <4-mm resolution for indoor and <8-mm for outdoor applications, although with the pace of LED screen developments and reduced pricing in recent years, there is regular leap-frogging of what the latest benchmark in resolution is. Educating potential customers in selecting the best product for their application continues to be our first and often biggest job.

James Scarth, Tour Tech East: Since we are not the biggest firm out there and are still locally-owned, which is becoming exceedingly rare at this point, we have to be creative with our budget. One of our main weapons is our 18 x 85-ft. front and rear projection screen that we use with our stock of Barco HDX Flex 20 projectors and Arkaos Stadium media server. We chose the front and rear screen for added flexibility and have used it in many different formats, from four blended projectors to fill the full 85 ft. to using masking to create separate images on the screen to stacked and converged projectors.

PL&P: What’s one of the more innovative or interesting applications your company has been involved in over the past year or two? Is this type of application something you expect to see more of in the future, or that your firm would like to be more involved in?

Gaudreau: Every tour has its innovative challenges. Everyone wants to come out with something that’s never been done before within a given budget. Productions always want to save time and money. Technology like auto-calibration for multiple projectors that saves time and money will be in demand. Video is now more than IMAG, becoming part of scenic design with automation systems.

Jadon: We are seeing more events exploring LED video on different surfaces, such as flooring, walls, ceilings, custom set carts, and more. I can see this increasing in the future as it allows the designer to easily change the look of a stage, whether it be texture, live video, or combined colour.

Nayor: Some of the most innovative and interesting projects that we have supported are large-scale mapping projects in the U.S. and beyond. I anticipate that mapping projects could become even more popular as temporary outdoor art exhibits; in fact, we are already seeing mapping used for indoor museum exhibits.

Penkala: MVI was approached by an NHL producer in 2019 and challenged with developing/improving their “interactive” accuracy shooting event for their All-Star Weekend Skills Competition. Using touchless sensor technology, a high-resolution LED screen, and several types of software, MVI developed a system that would react with an extremely high level of accuracy and consistency, allowing the event to proceed at the required pace of live TV. A fully-digital targeting and sensor system allowed for pre-produced personalized graphics for each shooter at the click of a mouse.

Leon Roll, Solotech: We have been involved in many tours over the last few years where designers have used video to its maximum effect: Taylor Swift or The Rolling Stones LED screen-filled stadium shows to Paul McCartney, Kiss, or Lumineers arena shows, they all bring some great challenges.

Scarth: We did an event with Barack Obama in November using the 85-ft. screen
and blended projectors. The innovative side of that went more into the set-up because we had to load in at 6 a.m. and be ready for 4 p.m. doors, dealing with all the extra security and issues that come with doing a one-off presidential engagement, which meant that every department had to work closely together and every second had to be utilized efficiently. The entire video program had to be loaded and programmed with a lighting console into the media server beforehand. There was zero room for error on that one, and our team pulled it o perfectly. It really proved to me that gear is gear, but if you can have the right technicians working together, almost anything is possible.

PL&P: Based on what you’ve seen in trade publications, at trade events, demos, etc., what’s an incoming technology that you expect will have a significant impact on the live events industry in the coming years?

Gaudreau: Control of incoming technologies is becoming more complex. Video-over-IP and complex networking will definitely be needed. All of the departments and their gear will need to communicate via different protocols in order to make the magic happen.

Jadon: I think we will start to see increased integration between LED video and lighting, whether it’s increased pixel mapping between fixtures or video walls being used for larger lighting effects. Every year, it seems there are more designers integrating video and lighting as one, maximizing how both elements can complement each other for better immersive visuals and stage looks. Also, LED walls used to be reserved for large arena tours or festivals; we are starting to see smaller bands and productions integrate video walls into their shows.

Nayor: The world has had a crash-course in online communicating in the last few
months. Bringing outside feeds into a live event will be less of a novelty and more
commonplace, making events more of a hybrid between in-person and web-based
presentations.Stagers that establish reliable and engaging methods of presenting web-based interactions with live event audiences will likely achieve a leg up in the industry.

Penkala: I see more growth in the modular flexible tile/panel for the rental/staging market. LED floors are also becoming viable (they will be when you can clearly read them while standing on them), which means the realization of higher-resolution and higher-durability systems brings tremendous
growth opportunity.

With the recent COVID chaos enveloping the world, virtual sets for broadcasting
events have utilized LED screen technologies as backdrops and floors. The film
production industry started using LED screens over projection and green screen a
few years ago for specific applications, and more are very likely coming.

Roll: All of it, as soon as a designer can sell it to an artist and they sign off on it.
It’s our job as a solutions provider to keep an open mind on technology and how a
designer would like to incorporate it into a show.

Scarth: I get excited about the integration of lighting and video. You can create extremely immersiveevents by having multiple display technologies all controlled by one controller, using image mapping for irregular shapes, pixel mapping for matching colour and tone of video content with lights, and projector blending to create enormous high-res images. There is almost nothing that can’t be done.

PL&P: Elaborate projection-mapping, interactive and responsive video walls, immersive experiences... It seems some of these applications have been on the cusp of wide adoption in live events for a few years. Where do you see the most potential for innovation and new advancements in video-based live applications?

Jadon: We are still seeing projection-mapping on tours and corporate events.
A newer trend is projection on a kabuki placed in front of a video wall. This allows for very dynamic looks as you essentially have multiple video sources creating elaborate images all occurring at the same time.

We have also seen an upswing in the request for interactive video wall elements for stages and events. With tours, concerts, and corporates seeing an increase in timecode programming, we are now seeing elaborate designs based around touch-interactive LED floors or perfectly cued interactive video elements. We have also seen this reach out into the corporate world where there has been a demand for various video walls placed around a conference room where attendees can interact with one video wall that feeds data and information into a main wall.

Nayor: Real-time graphic generation continues to improve at a rapid rate.The simplest changes to a data stream can produce almost hypnotic and complex images that are never repeated. Imagine presentation graphics where the backgrounds change and accentuate as they react to the presenter’s voice when they run down the bullet points. Suddenly charts and graphs are something to look forward to…

Penkala: In my opinion, projection mapping is a fantastic and cost-effective concept and has excellent growth potential in the outdoor market, provided that an appropriate budget exists to produce good content (which holds true for all display applications).

Video walls? You mean the screens with all the visible lines (mullions) on them made up of either  at-panel TVs or projectors? Even in the retail world these are being replaced with LED video screens – look ma, no lines! I cringe that people call everything from a bunch of stacked TVs to the most fantastic digital palette a “video wall.” Move on to new language folks – that horse is whooped. Interactive and responsive displays certainly have room in the market if – recurring theme here – the content is well-produced and upgraded often in fixed installations. Most environments currently attempting this type of tech do a poor job of keeping the tech working and audience engaged (which is mostly budget related).

I still think – and people are starting to do it – that the fully-immersive digital
screening room is feasible, akin to a Holodeck in Star Trek, starting with a seated
experience probably in-the-round. This would take the VR headset o of people
and allow groups to share the experience together. I compare the concept to the  first time I experienced IMAX North of Superior – the  oat plane banking, the canoe rolling over… I am dating myself. Add in “scent” technology and “forest bathing” could be a whole new experience – along with endless other applications.

PL&P: As video becomes more pervasive in all kinds of events of different scales, how do you find the industry’s talent pool has kept pace? Is it a challenge finding qualified or eager technicians, operators, etc.? Generally speaking, how can the industry do a better job of finding and developing talent?

Gaudreau: Human resources is a challenge to maintain the quality of service we’ve committed to give. We try to design systems that are easy to operate and troubleshoot, but obviously the technologies drive us toward more complex knowledge. We will surely have the needs of more qualified technicians in networking that understand the reality of live events specifications … We have to adapt to this reality and put more resources on training.

Jadon: From an LED video standpoint, it has been difficult to find qualified techs.
This side of our industry is still so new and is changing rapidly with new technologies. There are not too many people with a deep resume in this  eld; however, as we have seen more integration between video and lighting, we have started to notice more lighting designers or techs interested in learning more about video. This works out well for tours as LDs and lighting crews are now operating and teching LED video.

As far as the industry is concerned, we are now seeing more people wanting to learn video walls. I think we need more companies and professionals willing to teach this technology as it is a fast-paced, changing part of our industry.

Just over a year ago, we started our own “Promosa University” that offered free classes to any local techs in our markets to grow their skillsets. The results have been great for us being a production company and seeing an onsite understanding of video wall products, but also in the sense that we can share our knowledge and help grow the understanding of video walls in the industry.

Nayor: The lack of a growing talent pool in our industry is an ongoing challenge. Schools like Full Sail University in Florida offer solid programs, and I’m sure that
many in the industry are pulling students directly from their programs. I believe that the organizations that hire large numbers of entry-level individuals will continue to be forced to act as training grounds for the rest of the industry. Beyond that, companies must identify their most talented young people and help them learn and grow quickly.

Penkala: Tough question. I think industry, government, and educators need to step up more to get tech into young hands and minds earlier, and increase mentoring opportunities and programs. Unfortunately, this remains somewhat utopian and unrealistic in the current state of the world and industry.The level of greed, mistrust, and race to the bottom in almost every industry and  eld continues to limit innovators.Those that manage to taste success rarely have the time to teach the next generation because they are busy on the next new thing or keeping the wolves away from their door. There are certainly some leaders out there, but they tend to be in the twilight of their careers. Personally, I hope that as I gradually exit this industry, I have the energy to contribute towards motivating interested people to listen, look, learn, and dream about what could be next.

Roll: Yes, it’s a challenge We are from the generation of “go on the road and figure it out.” We are using technology now where you can’t do that as easily; however, with the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in now, companies are getting creative with how they teach and demo their new products. I see this as a good advantage going forward, as people will be able to learn from the road (when touring starts back up).

Scarth: I find the talent pool has kept pace and diversified. When I started in the industry, it was a very high percentage of white males who had very specific roles they could fill – i.e. guys who only did monitors, projectionists who couldn’t work switchers, etc. Now, it seems like a much more diverse group of people who can fill many roles and are not afraid of new challenges. But it is challenging to find qualified and eager techs because I feel as though the rates of pay have not kept up with inflation, especially for younger techs. That combined with the insanehours we work, massive amount of stress, and very physical,dirty nature of this work has pushed many talented young techs out the door. It’s really more than just a job for anyone who makes it to the higher levels of this industry.

From the Front Lines: Chris Mills Sr. Video Engineer & Director

Based in Toronto, Chris Mills is a go-to live video pro who collaborates with many different firms and creative types on a myriad of applications, giving him a unique perspective at the forefront of the business.

PL&P: What’s one of the more innovative or interesting applications you’ve been involved in over the past year or two? Is this type of application something you expect to see more of in the near future, or that you’d like to be more involved in?

Mills: Over the last few years, one of the fastest growing elements is interactive video content as well as real-time collaborative features. These are especially popular in the corporate world in the form of tele-presence appearances. Since the onset of the current global pandemic, tele-presence and video conferencing have become ubiquitous and it stands to reason this trend will continue in the event industry.

A fairly new technology I’d like to be more involved in is real-time tracking and dynamic pixel mapping. This will allow pixel-perfect projection on moving objects on stage, offering endless creative possibilities in set and show design and bridging the gap between video, choreography, and props. What can result is a seamless integration of these art forms.

PL&P: Based on what you’ve seen in trade publications, at trade events, demos, etc., what’s an incoming technology that you expect will have a significant impact on the live events industry and your work in it in the coming years?

Mills: There is currently a fairly new technology emerging and finding new applications for itself; I’m talking about machine learning and AI. Most people have some misconceptions with these terms, fueled by decades of sci-fi stories. For now, the reality we will see is AI/machine learning driven algorithms showing up in signal processing, from noise reduction and signal enhancements to data compression and reduction. Some of these technologies are already entering the consumer market. Gaming PCs already use AI-based resolution upscaling and amazing noise cancellation software. I also expect to see AI-driven content creation, allowing real-time data analysis and visualization, virtual moderators, and a boatload of other things we haven’t even thought of yet.

PL&P: Elaborate projection-mapping, interactive and responsive video walls, immersive experiences... It seems some of these applications have been on the cusp of wide adoption in live events for a few years. Where do you see the most potential for innovation and new advancements in video-based live applications?

Mills: I’ve touched on this in previous answers. I also think, given the pandemic and its impact on the public’s behaviour, there will be a lingering reluctance to attend “classic” mass events. This means there will be an increased focus on individual experiences, which allows the audience to feel safe. Whether these are broadcast-type events like webinars or online product launches or events with physical attendees, a new way of thinking will be required to communicate effectively with your audience. We used to distribute information with a fire hose from a stage, randomly throwing it out there. This will no longer work in the future; it will require a much more targeted, personal approach, delivering interactive, customized, and immersive content to the individual audience member.

Technologies like augmented reality displays will mature and find their way into our world. We will have to deal with face-tracking and eye-tracking solutions as well as real-time camera tracking and integration of real-time rendering engines like Unreal or Unity.

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