Johnny DeKam's video rig

johnnysrig1.jpg

Johnny DeKam wrote up a bit of info about our video rig, capitalizing on some much needed downtime at the Jupiter Hotel in Portland, Oregon. Johnny designed the entire video production rig himself, and along with his partner Brian Ziffer (http://naoism.com) also designed all of the content for show, here is what he has to say:

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Hello Dolby fans! As some of you have been very interested in the video production, I thought I would pass along the gory and geeky details of what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ with video.

As a general note, the challenge of designing the rig was primarily the need for flexibility. Since we are playing many smaller venues, with a variety of layouts, we needed a rig that would gracefully adapt to these different situations. In addition, the show itself needs to be able adapt to what’s happening on stage, as Thomas can be full of surprises when he is up there. Needless to say, this makes my job very interesting day to day… and so far, no two shows have been the same, both in the overall set design and also what you see on the screens at any given point.

To help achieve this flexibility, we are using what we call in the video biz ‘Fast Fold’ screens from DaLite. We have two sizes: a smallish 6′x8′ and a much larger 10′x14′. Both screens can be freestanding or hanging, and both can be front or rear projected. Depending on the stage, I can put a screen centered and over Thomas’ head, other times it is lower with Thomas off to the side of the screen. In a few cases we may utilize the venue’s house screen (like at the Key Club for example).

The main projector we use is a Panasonic PT-5500U, which is 5000 lumens, and has swappable lenses (we use both a short-throw or mid-throw lens). In addition the projector has optical lens shift on both the horizontal and vertical, which allows the projector to be placed up to 30 degrees off-axis in any direction for maximum flexibility in setup. This is a fantastic projector typically used in permanent installations such as retail spaces or theaters, but makes an excellent concert projector too. I am very pleased with its performance thus far.

I also carry an inexpensive and lightweight NEC VT35, (2000 lumens) which is used as a ‘video lighting’ projector. I had a custom mic stand mount fabricated, and place it directly on stage in close proximity to Thomas. The idea is to project an independent video channel directly onto the music rig and therefore his body as well as a special effect.

Now, on to the content playback system, or what you might call the ‘VJ’ rig. I have a long history as a video performer and software designer, and one of my claims to fame is that I design my own software. I wanted to write something extra special for Thomas, so the software I am using is all custom designed for this tour, and is really the heart of the system. It is written in an environment called MAX (http://cycling74.com) and runs on a Dual 2.5 G5 AGP with 4 gig RAM and 4 FW800 drives. It also has a Miglia Alchemy video input card, and a (non stock) ATI X800 video card (the fastest you can get for this machine).

The software allows me to composite up to 4 layers of video at once, 3 full resolution movies plus the live video input. I can also apply various realtime effects. The movies are triggered and mixed via MIDI using 2 M-AUDIO Axiom 25 keyboards. Incidentally, M-AUDIO has made me their first ‘Sponsored VJ Artist’ for this tour, which you will see a story on their site about this soon (Thanks for the free gear M-AUDIO!) The software has an extra special feature, which is that all the video is ‘mapped’ onto a 3D model of a vintage television screen. This gives the very subtle illusion that the video is not flat, but rather ‘warped’ onto the glass of an old TV – it is one of my favorite aspects of the system. An innovative technology used in the software is that all the compositing and effects are performed on the GPU (graphics card) rather than on the CPU. This is done using OpenGL Shader language programming – by doing so I can harness much more power, more effects, more channels and higher resolution.

Brian Ziffer and I spent 3 months collaborating with Thomas on making the video clips for the show. They were created using many sources and techniques, including archival film footage (kindly provided by Paul Lisy at eFootgage.com), samples from his old videos, things we shot, and a few other ‘secret’ techniques :)

It is important to note that I do not ‘press play’ at all for this show – the entire show is PERFORMED, much in the same way Thomas is performing his music. I call this ‘video instumentalism’ or in some circles we call it ‘live cinema’. Generally I dislike the term ‘VJ’ as it is often associated with acid-style rave eyecandy visuals in clubs – this is not what I do.

An important element of the show for Thomas was that the audience get an enhanced view of the action on stage, revealing his processes and expressions in performance. For this we decided that multiple ‘bullet’ cameras on stage would be very effective, including one mounted directly to his cool vintage headset, giving his POV (point of view). The cameras we use are high quality ‘VIOTAC’ cameras, which are the same used by the FBI and SWAT teams around the country. We also have a vintage tube camera circa 1978 mounted on stage which gives a different kind of look from the modern tactical cameras. The cam feeds come into my rig where I can ‘premix’ them with a Korg Kross Four video mixer before they go into the G5 for further compositing. I also take a copy of the K-4 output into a second video mixer, a MIDI controllable Edirol V-4. The V-4 is the final stage before sending to the projector, I can mix ‘wet and dry’ feeds from the computer or the cameras and apply other effects.

Finally, I also carry a Powerbook G4, running various custom software, some written in MAX, some written in Quartz Composer, and also one of my favorite softwares called VIDVOX GRID. The Powerbook’s roll in the rig is as an AUX effects processor, as well as driving the ‘video lighting’ projection.

Well friends, that is a pretty detailed synopsis of the video rig, now its time for me to get ready for tonight’s show – hope to see you soon!

– Johnny DeKam

http://node.net/

johnnysrig3.jpg

40 Responses to “Johnny DeKam's video rig”

  1. Nebules says:

    Johnny,

    Thanks for taking the time to describe your setup!

  2. themirrorsong says:

    Wow. I’m amazed at how far the technology’s come in the last few years. The multiple bullet cams + the dolbycam were a much loved mood piece for the show. The vintage tv warping effect – I don’t think most of the audience saw it so much as “felt” it. Wonderful work. Thank you.

  3. Dominik says:

    Very interesting. Thank you Johnny. ;)

  4. soreth says:

    Seattle’s show was so excellent, it could sustain someone who attended for another 15 years sans Dolby. Congratulations to everybody involved for an utterly incredible performance! I’m gonna be wowed the rest of the week…

  5. Sarah_wit_the_H says:

    I am angered at the fact that I can’t come to the ONLY concert coming near my house because School and grades have gotten in the way. It’d be nice if you went around during the summer break time so you’d get more turnout.

  6. [...] Thomas Dolby’s blog continues to induce rabid gear lust. After drooling over Mr. Dolby’s live rig and repurposed vintage MIDI controller, we now get a glimpse at Johnny DeKam’s live video rig. (Kevin Johnsrude caught this one, and reminds us that “envy is one of the seven deadly sins.” Better keep that in mind.) [...]

  7. MiniCoopGuy says:

    Thanks!! I’m looking up the projector specs now. 5,0000 lumens is bright, and I figured you’d have to have something fairly stout in order to project brightly in a semi-dark room. My little 2,000 lumen projector seems pitch black by comparison. :) Thanks again for all of the insight! Now to convince my wife that we need a new projector…how do I get that one by her? ;)

  8. MiniCoopGuy says:

    Just completed major research on the Panasonic. It sounds like a great system, and I like the fact the bulbs switch automatically if one burns out. I’ll be curious to see it work live. The contrast ratio on my current projector is higher, but the lumens are much lower. It will be interesting to see the reproduction of the blacks and greys on the big screen. The projector reviews state it is fairly quiet in low energy mode, but I’d like to hear how loud it is in high output mode. My room will be quiet except for movie dialogue and sound effects, so projector noise has to be minimal. If you read this and can give me some ideas, feel free to message me offline.

    Thanks again for the review!

  9. Wireless says:

    That sounds like a great rig Johnny.

    I first worked with the Panasonic PT-5500U last year on a conference tour round UK. We had 6 of them (3 were backup) working off bespoke mirrors for rear projection screens. They were brand new out of the box. One problem we came across was bad lamp flicker, sometimes only after 30 hours or so. We were running both lamps at the same time.

    A couple of tips for you:-

    If you get bad lamp flicker, take the lamps out and swap them round. Flicker is gone! (Saves on lamps)

    Make sure the cooling fan system is set to ‘Highland’ setting (found in software menu) this just helps the lamps last longer.

    They are great little projectors with a high output. I also work with the bigger brother the ’77′ which is another great projector although it weighs more.

    I hope when you come to the UK you can plug your rig into festival size screens!

    All the best.

  10. dekam says:

    Thanks for the tip on the bulbs Wireless, that will definitely be useful. I have definitely been running dual lamp with High fan mode. We also brought spare bulbs in case there is a problem.

    Minicoopguy: I wouldn’t recommend the Panosonic for most home theaters.. it is way overkill, and personally I would be looking at native HD resolution LCOS chips (instead of DLP or LCD) check out JVC projectors or Canon’s just announced Realis projectors for outstanding quality in home theater.

    Just a side note for anyone looking at projector specs: Be completely skeptical of LUMENS and CONTRAST RATIO. There are no standards committees, manufacturers basically can twist the numbers however they want. LUMENS itself is an irrelevent measurement of brightness (measured at the lamp surface, which tells nothing of what happens to the light once it leaves the projector) “Foot Lamberts” is the only true measurement of brightness at the screen, but projector manufacturers don’t want you to know the ugly truth. (and its complicated by many variables) Contrast ratio is much the same – it is 100% on/off measurement which has nothing to do with the real world. In the end, projectors are best tested in person if possible. The good news is that the market has become alot more competitive as it grows substantially, so the manufacturers are paying much more attention to quality, detail and color instead of playing the lumens and contrast ratio game. I tend to favor those companies which actively develop/tout image quality not brightness and contrast. LCOS is by far the best quality technology out there to date. Thats all for now.. this isn’t a projector forum! :)

  11. MiniCoopGuy says:

    Dkam: thanks for the heads-up on the ratings. I had no idea the specifications weren’t standardized.

    I currently own an Infocus projector, but the colors and brightness haven’t blowen me away. The picture is good (especially with an HD signal), but I wanted something that was brighter and more colorful without the fan noise. I can crank up the brightness, but the projector sounds like a small jet airplane warming up in my quiet room. Whenever there is subtle dialogue from a movie all you hear is the fan.

    Since this isn’t a projector forum as you mentioned, I’ll sign off by saying thanks again. :) I’m off this weekend to find a JVC and Canon dealer to see their new stuff. Still have to convince my wife why we need a new one. ;)

    Cheers!

  12. Hi Johnny,

    Congratulations!

    Jennifer Meier

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