Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: May 2008 (Page 1 of 2)

Minimalist Set Design

The other day while recording the FaithTools podcast, we got talking about set design. I didn’t have a lot to say because at Upper Room we don’t do sets per-se. Upper Room meets at Christ Presbyterian Church, which hosts two contemporary and one traditional service each weekend. After the 11 AM contemporary finishes up, we invade the room and turn it into Upper Room. At the end of the night, we put it back the way we found it. And you should know the way we find it is a very traditional, old-school Presbyterian church sanctuary. Our services could be described as emergent and as you can imagine, that presents challenges.

We do the best we can however, and each week transform the space into one that works fairly well. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been in a series called Generations. It’s given us the opportunity to do some really fun and creative things, as the photos below show.

For Mother’s Day weekend, we went a little crazy and brought in three photo booths—the kind you would find at the mall or a fair (provided by The Traveling Photo Booth—thanks, Jeff!). They printed out a strip of 3 pictures, which we used as part of our experiential. That weekend the theme was What I Learned from My Parents. We had cards printed up that people could use to write notes of encouragement to their moms. They then attached the photo strip to the card. As you can see, the response was pretty great. [Note: click on any of the photos for a larger version.]

Though we don’t have much for lighting, the simple use of a gobo overlaid with a solid color creates a good-looking background.

The band at sound check. 

We had several hundred people come up and have their picture taken in the three booths while the band played a few worship tunes.

The view from FOH, which is located in the balcony, house center-left. If you look closely, you can see the massive pipe organ that belies the room’s very traditional feel.

The next weekend, we did something really out of the ordinary and performed a song from the musical Avenue Q. This was a bit challenging as the original musical was performed by Muppets. Never being ones to let details like that stop us, we substituted humans and put together some video footage that was projected on the main screens and a false back wall. The back wall was covered up with blank signs of colored poster board, which was used later in the evening to set up the message. The photos don’t really do the video projection justice—it looked a lot better live. The band and vocalists just knocked this one out of the park, and it turned out to be a great setup for the message, What I Learned as a Twentysomething.


You really need to see the larger version of this to get an idea of the video projected on the wall. The wall, by the way, is just 3/8″ plywood on a frame of 2x4s and covered with black foam insulation and black construction paper. It’s propped up in the back with diagonal braces made from engineered floor trusses.

We originally wanted the main screens black but because of the way our video distribution is wired, it would have meant a lot of hoops (I hope to rectify this eventually), so we left them on. In the end, we decided we liked it.

After the song, we invited people to come up and share a question they asked are are asking in their 20’s. An artist then wrote the question on one of the poster boards. After about 5 minutes, we had a wall full of questions.

Having only 15 conventional fixtures to light everything we need to is a challenge (we’ll be adding 5 more this week). As you can see, the color wash from the previous week is gone, but the tree gobo remains. That gave us some continuity, and we still were able to light the actors. Like a lot of things, more fixtures are better when it comes to lighting. Sadly, we’re running out of dimming channels, fixtures, space and cash.

So there you go. That gives you an idea of what we do on an “average” week. Actually, these two weekends were a bit bigger than usual. But it also shows what you can do if you don’t have the time, budget or facility to create the really cools sets that other churches do (for example, check out South Hills Church in Corona, CA; Van Metchke does a great job with sets out there).

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FaithTools #17 Is Up

Faithtools Podcast Ready to Go

Interested in wireless white spaces? How about set design? Or Twitter? Check out the latest edition of theFaithTools podcast. Colin just posted it, and it’s a lot of fun. There is some especially good discussion of the 700 Mhz band re-allocation and what that means to churches. If you’ve been ignoring this issue until now, it’s time to pay attention and start planning. Change is coming, whether we like it or not. There is also a good discussion of set design, and Van has some great pictures available from his website, The Soundbooth. Check them out if you need some inspiration, or if you just want to see some cool sets.

Countdown to Willow

Willow Creek Arts Conference




It’s hard to believe that it was March when I booked my flights to Chicago for the Willow Arts Conference. Last year was my first year, and I was thoroughly impressed. It was great to get a few days out of the office, and to spend some time worshiping without worrying about a video cue, the sound mix or whether the right words were on the screen. It was so refreshing.

So this year, it’s back again. Just over 2 weeks away now, in fact. This year, speakers include Nancy Beach, Gilles Ste-Croix (Sr. Vice President of Creative Content,Cirque du Soleil), Brian McClaren, and Francis Chan. The Robby Seay Band will be there, as well as a host of other breakouts.

Last year, I was surprised that the trade show was as big as it was. It’s not NAB, NAMM or InfoCom, but it’s a decent sized show with some great church-friendly gear.

As far as I can tell, it’s not too late to register. As I’ll be going solo, if you’re planning on attending let me know. It would be great to meet up with as many as I can. One thing I really enjoy about events like that is meeting like-minded people from all over the country.

If you’re going, shoot me an e-mail at mike [at] churchtecharts [dot] org. We can swap contact info and figure out how to meet up. We work really hard all year long; it’s great to get away for a few days!

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Get Your Geek On

Geek. It’s a descriptor I embrace. I often tell people I need to, “get my geek on.” My daughter sings, “geek squad…” whenever I start talking techie stuff at the dinner table. Our office manager, Emilie, is jealous of my geek-ness; “Why do you guys get to do all the cool stuff?!!” Yup, I’m a geek. And proud of it. This past weekend was a veritable celebration of geek-ness. We had some very cool things going on, so I thought I would recount some of them for you (fellow geeks?).

Sunday started with an iChat file transfer of a video. An editor friend in CA had cut together some footage that we were to use as a background for a rendition of “I Wish I Could Go Back To College,” from the musical Avenue Q. We’re in a series called Generations, and this week was “What I Learned as a Twentysomething.” As the file transfer was taking place, I was building the ProPresenter playlist on my MacBook Pro. Multitasking—love it!

When I got to the office, I booted up my MacPro and started synching the click track I had made on Friday with the video. While I was doing that, I transferred the graphics and ProPres info to the iMac in the tech booth. While Compressor was crunching away on the MacPro, I screen-shared into the iMac and made sure all the graphics were good. I also made some setting changes, since it’s new.

Once in the sanctuary, things got fun. I took an output from our RGBHV DA and fed it into a scan converter. The resultant composite video out was fed to a tie line to the stage and fed the 3 backdrop projectors. This way, we could feed the video to the 2 main screens and the backdrop from the ProPresenter iMac.

As rehearsal got started, I fired up VMWare’s Fusion and got Windows XP running on my MacBook Pro. I launched Yamaha’s Studio Manager and then had real-time access to our M7 at front of house. Since we’ve made our switch to feeding the IEMs from the Aviom card, we now have enough omni-outs to send discreet mixes to the recorder, great room and video booth. The video booth is fed from Matrix 1, and using the Studio Manager, I was able to build a really nice mix in the booth at the same time Nate was mixing FOH. I was also able to diagnose a problem with the keys during the service without leaving the tech booth. That was cool.

Once the service got underway, I tweaked our mix a bit more, then proceeded to screen-share back to the MacPro in my office. During rehearsal, I logged a few clips that I had shot on Friday and batch captured them. During the service, I was able to put those clips on the timeline, add a timecode reader filter and send the timeline out to Compressor to make an MPG2. I mentioned I was sitting in the tech booth, right? After Compressor finished, I launched DVD Studio Pro, built a quick DVD, and burned it to the blank DVD-R I had previously left in the drive. The only thing I couldn’t do was use screen-share to deliver the DVD to our creative director.

To recap, as I sat in our tech booth during the service, using my MacBook Pro I was controlling the MacPro in my office to make a timecode DVD, running Windows to control our FOH M7 to tweak our booth mix, and checking my e-mail, reading blogs and updating Twitter—all beautifully organized with Spaces. Getting my geek on? Oh yeah!

After the service, Nate fired up the FTP server on the HD24 recorder and I pulled the sermon audio down to my MBP while we tore down. Since it’s a 10Base-T connection, it’s the longest part of the sermon audio process. I make some quick edits in Soundtrack Pro, apply compression and export to an aiff. Then an Auomator script compresses two MP3s and ftps them to our website and CD duplicator. Props to our lead audio engineer and fellow geek, Erik, for writing the Automator script!

Clearly this is not a “how-to” for any of this stuff. If anyone is interested, I will write up some more detail. I just find it remarkable that we can utilize technology to this degree. Because the DVD is now done and I have the sermon audio on my MPB, I’m already ahead for Tuesday. Now if I could only find a way to use technology to get the song, “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” out of my head…

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Sweet Green Screen Software

I’ve done a lot of green-screen work in my career. At my last post, I did several videos that were almost all shot on green screen. For one client, we shot 20+ interviews, all on green, then composited them over the graphic background in post using Serious Magic’s (now Adobe’s) Ultra 2. It looked really cool, but took forever!

The other day, I was poking around Joe Wiggleston’s site and noticed some new clips he put up. One was a 10B4 that NorthPoint uses each week. The host was keyed over the background, and it looked pretty good. So I asked Joe what they were using for the key. He told me that NP uses Keylight from The Foundry. I’ve played with this software, and it’s good (and it comes included with After Effects CS3 Pro). It is RAM and processor intensive, though.

Then he told me he personally likes dvGarage’s dv Matte 3 Pro Studio for keying right inside of FinalCut Pro. Being the curious sort, I checked it out. I didn’t plan on spending 2 hours at their site, but I did. Let me tell you, the software looks amazing. The green screen removal it does is so clean, so fast and so easy, I was stunned.

DV footage is notoriously hard to key because of the 4:1:1 color space. That means that the color information is only 1/4 of the resolution of the luminance information. Because keying traditionally relies on color info, when you key DV footage, you end up with a rough and jagged key. Their software uses information from the luminance channel to help clean up the key, and it makes a huge difference, even with HDV footage (which is 4:2:0, but compressed with MPEG2, not a keying-friendly format).

They have another product called dv Matte Blast that does green screen removal in real time! Another product, Conduit Live, will take any video input you have, and remove the green screen live (!), and allow you to test it out over a background. They even keyed water, live, over a background! Very cool. 

While I’ve not had much occasion to do a lot of keying here at Upper Room, I’d really like to. Once we roll over to the next budget year and I have money again, I would like to get a flexible green screen and start shooting interviews over that. Then, if we want to put people on black, white or a background, we can. I will definitely be looking to pick up dv Matte 3. Once I do, look for a full review. They also have full trial versions available on the website, so check them out.

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Field Monitoring

Back in the day, when I owned my video company, my partner and I were sticklers for image quality. To be sure we had properly exposed and color balanced shots being laid down on tape, we traveled with a pretty expensive field monitor and a handy little device called the Hamlet Micro Scope. The Micro Scope was a portable waveform monitor/vectorscope, and would overlay the scopes on top of the video signal. It was especially useful when shooting on green screens, as we could see how even our lighting was. I miss my little Micro Scope, and it turns out they still make one, as seen here. But that’s another post.

I’m still a stickler for properly exposed shots. Problem is, the GL-2 I have to use at church doesn’t help much. The exposure meter is dubious at best, especially when shooting people against a black background (which we do a lot). There are zebras available, but they are not the nice dual-stage ones I much prefer. And since you can’t calibrate the LCD, and the brightness changes radically depending on angle of view, there’s really no way of knowing what your exposure actually is.

Somewhere in the last few weeks I read of someone using their MacBook Pro and Final Cut Pro as a field monitor and scope setup [Edit: Source located; I read it at Dave Smith’s blog creative | ideas—thanks, Dave!]. It seemed like a good idea and I had a shoot today, so I tried it. 

Man if it didn’t work like a charm! All I had to do was take the FireWire out of the GL-2 and shove it into the MBP. I launched FCP and entered Capture mode. In the Clip Settings tab, I activated the Video Scopes. And there you go! You get a decent sized preview of the shot (which is much easier to check focus with than the GL-2’s low rez LCD), and full waveform/vectorscope monitoring. As a bonus, the audio meters also work, which makes it easier to tell exactly where you are level-wise.

Look at my nicely exposed image...and look, the color balance is off a few degrees.

Look at my nicely exposed image…and oh look, my color balance is off by a few degrees… (click to enlarge) 

I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. I will, however, use this technique as often as I can. I think I’ll even look for a longer FireWire cable so it’s easier to set the rig up. The only real downside is that there is a slight delay in the preview, and it’s a bit jerky. I can live with that however, knowing that my shots are now properly exposed. Give it a try next time you’re out on a shoot. I’m no longer jealous of Adobe’s (formerly Serious Magic’s) On Location—though I’m still going to look for the install discs, I know we have them around somewhere.

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FaithTools Podcast Episode 16






Readers of this blog might (read, you really should be it you’re not…) be interested in the latest episode of the FaithTools.net podcast. Some time was spent on Twitter, though the bulk of the episode is spent discussing various digital audio boards for churches. There was some particularly good discussion surrounding the Yamaha M7CL, which we have at Upper Room. Check out the podcast here.

Oh, and you might recognize one of the pundits on the podcast…

Why Not Y?

Y-cords (or, more correctly, Wye cords), can be useful when used properly. When used incorrectly however, they can lead to increased distortion, a dramatic drop in signal level, even damage to your device.

I’ve always known Y cords are problematic, and tried to avoid them whenever possible. I never really took the time to learn why (pardon the pun), however. This week, our lead sound engineer, Erik, sent me a link from the Rane website with a great article on the dangers of using Y cords improperly. For those impatient types, here’s the executive summary: Using a Y cord to split one signal into two is OK; using a Y cord to combine two signals into one is evil.

It all has to do with impedance. Outputs are low impedance, inputs are high impedance. If you try to combine two low impedance outputs together, they drive each other into clipping. In other words, it’s bad. So don’t do it. Ever.

Personally, I’m not a fan of using Y cords even to split outputs. I once came a cross a signal chain that had a Y cord right at the board, and Y cords at every device along the chain—and there were 7 of them. That means the signal was split 7 times. It didn’t work so good.

Anyway, here’s a link to the Rane website so you can read the full article. They have some great diagrams on how to build an adapter that properly combines two inputs into one. If you’d rather just download the article in pdf format, click here and save it to your library. Thanks to Rane for making this available!

Yamaha M7 and Aviom Tricks

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of a church that upgrades from an analog to a  digital board is not the loss of that sweet “analog sound” (whatever that means), but that the board is still used like an analog board. This is especially true of my favorite digital board for churches, the Yamaha M7CL. This is mainly because it’s technically a “hybrid” board; that is it’s rear panel is populated with analog inputs and outputs, but everything on the inside is digital. Higher end, “true” digital boards require the use of stage racks and FOH racks for I/O, and transmit those signals in the digital domain. Doing things that way pretty much requires you to re-think your system. An M7 however, can be dropped right  in to the space left by the old analog board. And that’s a shame, because it has a lot more to offer.

Yamaha M7CL-48

One of the few complaints I’ve had with our  M7CL is that it only has 16 omni ouputs. And while that seems like a lot, they get used up pretty quickly when you have 6 monitors, 9 IEMs, a Great Room, and 3 recording sends to feed, not to mention the house and aux fed subs. Thankfully Yamaha included three MY-card slots to expand the I/O capability of the board. When I arrived at Upper Room, I was curious about the Aviom card in slot 3. It seemed no one actually used the Aviom system, as all services preferred the wireless IEMs (which were fed from a wild array of Y-cords that also fed the floor wedges). Yet there was that Aviom card. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to use it for more than a cover for slot 3. So we did.

After discussion options with my Lead Sound Engineer, we decided that the Aviom card would make a great digital snake. Combined with the Aviom 16/0, we end up being able to transport 16 channels of our choosing via a single Cat-5 cable. At the receiving end, we simply hooked up 8 of our IEM transmitters to the 16/0. Why only 8? Stereo, baby!

At my previous church, one of my favorite features of the Aviom system was the ability to pan instruments left and right. That makes for a much more intelligible mix at lower volumes. But with limited analog outputs, we’ve been running our PSM-700s and 600s in mono mode. With the “digital snake,” we can now run most of our IEMs in stereo. It seems that someone at Yamaha considered this a possibility as well, and made it easy to do. Turns out you can link 2 mix busses together (1&2, 3&4, etc.) as a stereo pair. Then when you select a channel, the Mix 1 pot acts as Pan, while Mix 2 acts as level. 

It gets better. When you do a fader flip (aka “sends on fader”), you can choose either of the 2 linked mix busses (say, 1 or 2) and you will get adjustments for level only. That way, you don’t have to try to figure out if you’re adjusting pan or level when you fader flip. It’s always level. One could argue that it would be nice to pan on the faders, but I think that’s complicated. 

Another cool thing about the M7 (and most digital consoles for that matter) is that you can assign just about anything to the Matrix busses. You can even run them pre- or post-fade. That means you effectively have another 8 mix busses at your disposal. And now that we’ve freed up a bunch of omni outputs, we can get creative. We don’t normally run wedges at Upper Room, but once in a while we need them. Since we still have all 6 monitor amps up and running, we patched them into the omni outs, and built 3 matrixes (matrices?) to feed 3 of  them. We can also use a matrix output to feed the video booth, and with the remote control software, I can adjust the mix from the booth with my laptop (a MacBook Pro running Windows under VMWare’s Fusion—aren’t Intel Macs great?). We can also use another matrix to send to the Great Room. 

The other upshot of this whole configuration is that we’ve cleaned out quite a few cords from FOH. Since the 16/0 resides in the same rack as the PSM-700s, we built a couple of custom DB-25 breakouts that are just long enough to reach. Once we add a power distro, there will be just a few connections (which we’ll probably make on a single rack strip) to the outside world. Thus, if we need IEMs somewhere else in the building for an event, we can pull a few cords and take the whole rack with us.

The beauty of a digital board shines brightly when it comes to setting up for the three different types of services we run each weekend. The traditional service typically uses one or two monitors, and it’s a simple matter of digital patching to set that up. The contemporary service uses up to 8 of the IEMs each week, occasionally a wedge or two, plus the butt kicker. So they don’t run out of mix busses, we have them set up with mono IEMs, with the other mixes falling in behind. Upper Room normally doesn’t need more than 6 IEMs and rarely a wedge, so we run stereo IEMs. The only thing necessary to accommodate all these setups is loading a different file.

Even with all this capability, it’s still easy for our volunteer sound engineers to manage. Because we can do the configuration up front, they simply load the right setup file.  These are just some of the reasons that I think Yamaha has really hit it out of the park with the M7, at least for the church market. If I would have had to attempt a set up like this at my previous church, with an analog board, it would have required a significant amount of patching every weekend. As it was, I had 5 patchbays in that system to accommodate inserts, direct outs and inputs. The ability to change the configuration of the system by loading a file is truly cool, not to mention a huge timesaver. 

May this inspire to you to re-think how you’re using your digital board. If you’ve not jumped into the digital lake yet, perhaps this will give you some reasons to do so. And don’t get me started on having two dynamic processors on each channel. Try that on an analog desk! If anyone is interested in more details of our configuration, let me know, I’d be happy to provide them.

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The Fig Rig

I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing, too. I read a review of the Fig Rig a year or two ago in DV magazine or something. At the time, it seemed rather silly. A steering wheel looking device with a bar across it for mounting your small camera. And a bunch of accessories for, well, accessorizing. “What’s the big deal?” I thought. Here’s the thing.

As much as I hate to admit it, I really miss my nice, big, 16-pound shoulder-mount AJ-D700 DVC-Pro camera. It was a great camera. And while I think I may have permanent back damage from lugging it around, the thing was a breeze to shoot handheld with. It’s weight and form factor, and the fact that it sat on my shoulder made it a cinch to get steady shots. Because I shot with it so much, I got quite good at bracing myself for handheld shots that rivaled being on sticks.

But no more. Right now, all I have to shoot with is a GL-2; and while I appreciate the light weight, it’s almost impossible to get a smooth handheld shot with it, even with the optical image stabilizer. The problem is physics. It’s so light, it has no mass to stabilize it, and the form factor demands that you hold it out in front of you, which means you’re relying on muscle power to hold it steady, not bones. And switching to a low angle shot requires a rather lengthy grip change over.

Yup, it\'s a Fig Rig

Enter the Fig Rig. It looks like a steering wheel, and is about as big. As a camera support system, it’s a model of simplicity—and this turns out to be a good thing. The wheel is padded at 3 and 9 (where you’d hold the wheel to “drive”) and there’s a bar with various holes—some tapped, others not—across the bottom to hold the camera, a monitor, mics, and whatever you can rig up to it. That’s it. It’s made from anodized aluminum and weights just a few pounds.

Like I said, when I read about it, I thought, “Whatever, I still miss my 700.” However, today I took it out on a shoot. What a difference! It is truly amazing how much easier it is to shoot with a small camera using the Fig Rig. For basic shots, that is at about eye level, you hold the rig in front of you, with your elbows braced against your sides. This is an inherently stable position. Try it—even without the rig, you can see how much more stable your hands are than if you have your right hand floating in the breeze as you would when holding a camcorder.

If you need to walk and shoot, pull your elbows off your side, bend your knees and walk. It looks almost steadi-cam like. Perhaps not quite as fluid, but hey, we’re talking just over $300, not $10,000. One cool trick is sitting down and resting the rig on your thighs. In that position, you can pan and tilt almost as smoothly as with a fluid head tripod, and with fewer constraints. You can also set it on any flat surface for horizontal support, and twist it to pan. Tilting is just as easy. The variety of shots you can pull off fluidly is quite amazing.

Because I was shooting kids (OK, that sounds bad, I was filming children playing on the floor with adults…), I went for a bunch of low angle shots. I’ve not ever been able to get decent shots like this with the GL-2. There’s simply not enough mass to stabilize it when hanging off my arm. With the Fig Rig, I just shifted my grip to the top of the ring and held it down low. No bending over, and really smooth shots.

What’s not to like? Not much, really. The thing is so simple and works so well it’s hard to find any downside to it. Ours is equipped with a Bogen quick-release plate adapter, which means that when I order our new tripod in a few weeks (with a Bogen 503 head), I’ll be able to slide the camera off the Fig Rig and onto the tripod without changing the plate. They make other adapters, check to see if your tripod head’s plate is compatible. They even make an adapter to put the Fig Rig on the tripod. And, now that I’ve used it, I want to look into getting a shotgun microphone mount, preferably the shock-mounted one.

Rarely do I come across a product that is so simple and so useful. It’s very affordable so if you’re shooting with a small, non-shoulder mount camera, you should get one. Seriously, it actually made shooting more fun today (and everyone comments on it, so you’ll feel really cool). Check it out here.

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