I’ve been wanting to learn After Effects for a while now. Now that we’re getting closer to getting our environmental projection setup I want to be able to create our own custom content when we can’t find something we like that’s already on content sites.
Adobe After Effects is an extremely powerful tool to create some motion graphics and cool videos in general. Learning it though can be a little intimidating though when you’re starting from scratch. When I decided to learn After Effects I stumbled across VideoCopilot.net.
VideoCopilot.net has been an awesome resource to learn After Effects in a fun way. The guy teaching is pretty funny and knows his stuff. Everything is done through videos and they even supply project files to use in the tutorials. If you never have used After Effects before then start with the Basic Training series and go from there.
They even provide free files where you can just plug in your text or graphics and have really nice title graphics with almost no effort. They also have some great products of their own that help support the site and keep the training free.
I’ve also ordered Adobe’s classroom in a book training for After Effects. That will help cover some of the topics and basics that VideoCopilot doesn’t. I used one of their books when I first learned Photoshop and they’re great.
As we go down the road of environmental projection it’s relatively easy to add some projectors. It’s a lot harder to to get something to reliably feed the projectors the video content. We have gone through a few different setups at this point. I’ll run through what we’ve done so far and go over some details of each.
We started with ProPresenter running from a MacBook Pro. This gives you a lot of options for a reasonable price. At our campus we have a site license for the software so that was the best place to start.
ProPresenter worked fairly well. If you have an iPhone or iPad you can remote control ProPresenter to trigger the videos. It can struggle with some formats or higher res videos though even on a fairly powerful machine.
Then we needed to trigger some videos at precise times. Videos with lyrics for example need to be timed right or they’ll look pretty silly, ha ha. ProVideoPlayer lets us trigger video clips through MIDI. We used this feature to receive signals from Ableton Live. I’ll go more in-depth with this setup in another post.
Once set up the videos are just playing along with the click track and when everything works right. You have videos triggering automatically and it’s great. This extra level of control allowed us to take our videos to the next level. Timing things out with verses and choruses adds that extra level of production that really pays off.
Both ProPresenter and ProVideoPlayer are packed with a lot of features for the money and really are great tools. Both are limited by your hardware though. The framerate and resolution of your videos will be limited at some point. They’re good options but they’re not as good as dedicated media servers with custom software and hardware.
Green Hippo Hippotizer HD
This leads us to the Hippo. In order to play back true 1920 x 1080 HD content perfectly you really need a media server. There are a few options out there but the one that seems to be leading the pack is the Green Hippo Hippotizer HD. It’s used all over the place, big award shows, the Super Bowl, some of those singing competition shows, lots of stuff.
Once you step to a real media server you gain tons of features. Rock steady playback is just the beginning. Now you can manipulate your content in real time. Speed up, slow down, change color, apply filters that completely change the look, etc.
Rarely will you have a large wall that’s perfectly flat. Most stage walls have angles and curves that will distort your projection. With some abstract motion graphics that not really a big deal but once you start showing any kind of natual landscapes or text you want a goemetrically correct image. The Hippo provides all the warping tools you’ll ever need to correct for any shape surface you want to project on.
There’s also the image blending tools needed to blend any number of screens together in any arrangement. So you can create a seemless image with multiple projectors side by side, top and bottom, or a combination of both.
Media servers can also control lighting fixtures. The most common use for this is controlling static LED fixtures. So if you have LED fixtures throughout the stage and you want them to always match the looks of the videos you can do that pretty easily. Just map everything out in the software and it does the rest
Now with all these features comes some more complexity and there’s a little bit of a learning curve with a media server comepared to the simpler software only options. I got to demo the Hippo and without and real training I was able to load my media and get things playing back. The more advanced features will take some more work but loading and playing media is pretty simple even though it’s a powerful device.
It’s because of all these features that we will be going with a dedicated media server when we finally install our environmental projection system. We will need all of the screen warping and image blending features to create a seemless image across our curved rear wall using multiple projectors.
All of the media server features come at a cost, they’re typically fairly expensive gadgets. The Green Hippo’s range from about $7,000 up to almost $50,000. Coolux has their Pandora’s Box media server and they have a software package that start’s under $1,000, that’s another option to check out. You’ll have to weigh out what project you’re working on and what features you can and can’t live without and find what’s right for you. Between ProPresenter, ProVideoPlayer, Green Hippo, Coolux, and even QLab you have a lot of options.
Adobe makes some great products, Photoshop, Premiere, and After Effects to name a few. They’re great, but they’re expensive!
Adobe just released a new product they call Creative Cloud. Basically instead of having to shell out a lot of money you pay $50 a month and you get all of their apps plus 20gigs of Dropbox style online storage. You also get all of the product updates and the new versions as they’re released. No more buying in then having to pay for an upgrade when the next version comes out.
This makes getting into real deal, professional software, very affordable. Pretty cool concept and I’m enjoying it so far.
With our schedule when it’s busy we’ll have one event backed up against another. Often this means that we end up programming lighting for shows at the last minute since we have to wait until the lights are set up to start programming. So now we’re programming lights ahead of time, before the lights are even set up.
To do this I’m using a pre-visualization program called Light Converse. Light Converse allows you to build your room in 3D (don’t worry it’s easy) and place all of your fixtures virtually. There are several options out there, WYSIWYG is an industry standard but is very expensive. Light Converse is reasonably priced, has a lot of features, and even offers a house of worship discount. There’s several versions that get more expensive as you add features so you can pick something that will work for what you need.
First you have to build the room in the software, you can keep it simple or get really elaborate. Once the room is built can try out different stage plots. Since everything is to scale you’ll know what will fit and not fit.
Now that you have a stage plot that works you can place all of your lighting fixtures and try out different ideas. I experimented with a lot of different lighting layouts before settling on what we used in our last show. That’s a huge time saver right there. When you’re under a time crunch you won’t get that kind of time to experiment.
With everything set in the software we connected it to our ETC Ion lighting console using ARTnet. You can use any console that outputs ARTnet and just connect your computer to the same network. If you’re not using ARTnet there’s some DMX options you can use but that adds some more cost.
Now that you’ve got the software and hardware set up you can start to program without even using the real lights! This saved me so much time and allowed us to get a lot more elaborate with the lighting cues. Stuff we never would have had the time to do otherwise.
This isn’t perfect though, you’ll still have some work to do when you get you’re lights running. You’ll have to double check your aim and focus. There will always be little differences in the software and the actual pan and tilt of the fixtures. The software can’t really estimate the focus so you’ll need to tweak that so gobos look how you want them to. These issues aren’t that big of a deal compared to the time you’re saving so it’s well worth it.
If you have a media server like a Green Hippo you can send the software the HippoNet feed and it will display that feed on the projectors in the software. How cool is that! Now not only are you previewing your lighting looks but you can add in your video looks too, all in real time!
There’s an app for everything these days. From little handy tools up to full lighting control. I’m just going to run down some apps I use for lighting that come in handy.
iLedMapper is a cool little app that will receive ArtNET and turn your iPhone or iPad into a mini “LED” panel. I’ve used it to put a light into a prop when you want something to light up. Pretty cool and cheaper than buying a custom LED fixture.
In our theatre we have an ETC ION lighting console. ETC makes two apps that work with that console. One is free and shows you the cue list and lets you make notes on each cue. Great for tech rehearsals when you’re still dialing things in. The director doesn’t have to figure out what cue you’re on, they’ll see it live on their iPad or iPhone. Cool idea and not too hard to set up or use. I’ve also thought about giving access to people back stage to see where we’re at in the show live.
The second app lets you actually control fixtures and go through the cue list. That app is a little pricey but does come in handy. It’s cheaper than getting the hardware remote and can do more. If I were to buy the console again I probably would save the money for the hardware remote and just get the software.
Pocket LD has all kinds of great info on lighting fixtures. One cool feature is being able to calculate the throw distance and see what size light beam you’ll have and what the brightness will be. Great for when you’re setting up a show. Helps take out some of the guesswork when you’re trying to pick the right light.
DipSwitch is a really simple app that makes addressing older style intelligent lighting fixtures easier. You just enter the address and it shows you the dip switch combination you’ll need to set the address in the fixture. If you’ve ever set dip switches on a lot of fixtures you’ll love this app.
Faber Acoustical makes some pretty cool iOS and Mac apps. I got them a while back when they were a little cheaper but they’re still reasonably priced. Since I always have my iPhone on me I use these apps pretty often. More often than I would use Smaart on my laptop.
There’s an RTA app that I use the most. Granted the iPhone microphone doesn’t have full range, flat response, but you can still identify frequencies that are feeding back or sticking out. When you’re killing feedback it helps to really zero in on the exact frequency that’s giving you problems. Many times when dialing in by ear it’s hard, or at least a lot slower, to get perfectly center on the problem frequency.
Once I’ve gotten enough gain from a microphone then I can move on to adjusting for tone. That’s how I approach problematic situations like wireless LAV’s and headsets or choir mics.
When you’re dialing in a system you’ll want something to reference along with your ears. Smaart Live has been around a long time and offers a lot of features. I use it with an Earthworks reference mic that gets it’s phantom power from an internal battery. This allows me to use Smaart on my laptop and be completely portable without a board or power cables. With a standard mic you’ll need to get phantom power from a board which usually ties you down to one spot.
Typically I’ll start tuning a PA with some pink noise and make some larger adjustments to get the PA in the ball park. The software make this a quicker process than going by ear alone. Once I make some tweaks with pink noise I’ll use the transfer function in Smaart. This looks at the reference signal from the board and the measured signal from the mic and shows you the difference. Now you can see the frequency response of the PA without listening to pink noise which can get annoying.
Once some large adjustments are in place I’ll listen to some music I know really well and tweak by ear. Then go back to Smaart and see what’s happening. Listen, move locations, measure, repeat, etc. I find that you don’t want to realy just on ears or software. Ears fatigue, software doesn’t. That said I try to leave the “last word” to my ears.
Do you have to have measurement software to tune a PA? No, but it will allow you to work much faster and be more precise. And for dailing in system delays that are measured in milliseconds, you really need software.
I learned about QLab during a trip to New York. QLab is used all over Broadway for audio playback on lots of shows. It’s pretty simple to use and set up but at the same time is fairly sophisticated.
Set up is pretty straightforward. You drag and drop placeholders for audio tracks, fade cues, whatever you need. You number the cues to however you want. Cues can be grouped and set up to trigger in a sequence or at the same time, just about anything you need.
We’ve used it for several shows now and it’s great. No more burning CD’s for music and FX just to make a change and burn another disc. Unlike just playing back from iTunes Qlab gives you a ton of control. You get lots of track editing options so you can do all your playback and editing in one program. The only thing it can’t do with audio is EQ, which is a little bit of a bummer but it’s not the end of the world.
It can also do all kinds of other stuff like video playback, live camera feeds, MIDI playback, MIDI show control, timecode, and more. Crazy part is that it’s actually free if you just want basic audio playback. Then you have the option to purchase it for more features or even rent it by the day. Really cool.