Production: GFS 2010

I recently came to the decision and announced that I would be applying to the BFA Technical Theatre – Technical Production program at the University of Alberta this Fall, transferring from Computing Science. I haven’t really looked back since the realization came upon me, and last night’s Grad Fashion Show was a great reminder of how much I enjoy the production process.

The Show

To summarize, the Grad Fashion Show is a yearly fundraiser for the graduating class at Harry Ainlay. To most, it’s an opportunity to dress up in donated fashions from our local mall, and enjoy some food and do some silent auction stuff. To us, GFS is the technical extravaganza of the year. It started in 2008 when we were approached days before the actual event requesting live video. At first it seemed like it would be all but impossible, but we threw all our best efforts into it and made it happen. We had a single camera, feeding a quasi-analog video card with PowerPoint overlay.

Since then, it’s been an excuse for me to mess with digital video mixing and FireWire cameras. Last year we used VDMX for the video mixing and GrabberRaster in conjunction with Apple Remote Desktop to have a very high-latency secondary camera over ethernet. This year, despite having moved on and graduated, Kevin invited me to return and help out. Before we knew it, we were hatching plans to deliver my Hackintosh and other materials the next morning.

(A shot of Camera A, a Canon GL2 tethered to jQuad running QLab at the 2010 Grad Fashion Show, Harry Ainlay.)

The Rush

After much preparation, it came down to setting up the video mixing software with the two cameras. Luckily the school now has three Canon GL2s (old, but better than nothing). We used one tethered directly via FireWire right beside jQuad (A), and a second on the other side of the gym (B). Camera B was sending an analog signal (FireWire doesn’t work well/at all over long runs) and then fed into the third GL2 which was acting as an analog to digital converter and supplying the second FireWire signal to jQuad.

The software I planned on using, VDMX, did not support the use of two FireWire cameras simultaneously though, despite having two separate FireWire buses on jQuad. After some quick diagnosis, I realized that Plan B, CamCamX suffered from the exact same problem. Both GL2s showed up in “Camera A” and 0 cameras showed up in “Camera B”. Things were beginning to look bleak, not to mention the fact that our lighting personnel had bailed, and time was running short.

(A shot of our video monitoring rig. We initially brought the mini-TVs along for fun, but we ended up needing them to monitor feeds, which aren’t visible in QLab.)

QLab 2 to the Rescue!

So just like those many years ago when QLab came to rescue me from the complexities of In on It, QLab 2 pulled the whole thing off. It had no problem recognizing two FireWire cameras, even identical GL2 models. The Camera cues worked well, albeit there were a few issues with crashing along the way. I suspect it had something to do with the whole Hackintosh/8GB RAM/Crappy Graphics card/Failfest that was going on, but QLab would choke occasionally and I would need a total restart of the program. We rented a $3 license (which was essentially the only thing we bought to run the whole show) so I could easily reload the camera cues after a crash, but overall the cross fades and everything worked very well. In fact, QLab was definitely pushing out the lowest latency and best frame rates out of anything I had tested over the years.

Monitoring the two video feeds was tricky with QLab because that is not entirely what it’s designed for (but perhaps that would be a feature request?). With the help of the extra mini-TVs Kevin brought along, we were able to preview both cameras successfully though.

It was by no means a completely flawless system, but for $3, it was another great experiment in live video, and in particular, digital live video mixing. Learning how to chose the best shot at any given moment takes loads of practice, and this was without a doubt a great opportunity to do it! Most of my friends at Ainlay will be gone next year, so I doubt there will be another GFS, but I look forward to the many opportunities that lie ahead in my technical theatre career, and hope to share them here on along the way!