Getting back to lighting stuff, post-vacay

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, August 9, 2023, 8:45 PM | comments: 0

A personal highlight for me on our Northern Europe cruise was that I got to spend a little bit of time talking to theater and show nerds about their lighting not just on the Dream or the cruise line, but Disney in general. We got to see a "lights on" run through of "Be Our Guest" in their Beauty and The Beast show, complete with the video feeds from under the stage and in the wings, and the stage manager's headset traffic. They also happened to have two of the top show execs from Disney Cruise Line on this particular voyage, and they did a Q&A. I got to talk to the more technical guy for like five minutes after, and learned a ton about what they were running. The short story is that they're using Grand MA3 consoles almost everywhere, with some MA2 units still in some places (including the American Gardens Theater at Epcot, because I asked the DL after one of the Living Colour shows). The Walt Disney Theaters in the various ships have in excess of 500 fixtures each. I'd love to see their network rigs.

When I last checked in, in late June, I was trying to figure out the most optimal way to send bits across the wires to make lights do stuff. I'm pretty happy with where that landed. Once you understand the protocols, this is not even remotely the hard part of writing lighting software. I also pretty comfortably figured out how to model the identity of fixtures, cascade dimming across different fading mechanisms, structure cues and cue transitions, do some basic effects... basically all of the things that an existing console can do.

The hard part is the user interface. My experimentation has involved using a browser-based interface, with actual on-screen sliders that work as "faders," even on a touch device like a tablet. Honestly it's all pretty cool that it works. But there's a lot of investment in UI development to map actual lighting fixtures to the model that I was able to easily stub out. The same is true for building cues, grouping fixtures, creating preset "looks," etc. The conceptual paradigms, doing change tracking of the lighting's state, is pretty straight forward and well established against existing products. Building a user interface out myself seems a little daunting.

Getting back to MA3, you can download the software for free, on Windows or Mac. It has a built-in visualizer, which means you can make virtual rigs and create entire shows on a laptop. The trick is that you can't output any of it to the real thing without spending money. The most basic thing for them is a $2,000 box that enables output of 4,096 parameters, which are kinda like DMX channels (mostly... two channels controlling the tilt of a fixture count as one parameter). This box means that you can use the software on a computer that you provide, presumably with a touch screen, and run an actual show. The top of the product line is an actual console running the software with a bunch of touch screens and physical buttons and faders for $80,000, and it controls 20,480 parameters. It's a weird product line, because their smallest, self-contained product with screens costs $30k. But if you're willing to bring your own computer with external touch screens, they have an "on PC" product that has the main control surface for $7k. Comparing that to the video gear world that I'm familiar with, that's actually a really good deal.

The MA line appears to have the greatest market share, while ETC's EOS line seems to be second. I've played with their stuff as well, and run through some tutorials. They have a "student" kit that includes a USB key to unlock the software and a USB to DMX box for like $200, but I can't figure out any way to qualify for that. The software-only key is only $500 though, controlling 1,024 DMX channels, which is actually a great deal because networked DMX interfaces are cheap. But as I've done more MA3 tutorials, I'm just not convinced that their product is anywhere nearly as good as the MA stuff.

It's worth noting that I have been using MA's retired product, dot2, since last fall. It's free and can run two universes (1,024 DMX channels). It has been super useful to learn a lot of the light programming concepts, but it's kinda limited in terms of features. It doesn't really customize very well and the effect engine is limited.

Why do I care about any of that? Because I don't think my time to develop my own product would be worth it. There are really good products that do it all already. If I'm genuinely interested in learning enough about it to the point of doing it part-time or in quasi-retirement, I should just use the real thing that exists in venues. The only problem is that it seems my interests and hobbies are all very expensive. Also, looking at some used lights on eBay for home use. (That sounds ridiculous to say out loud.)

The vacation has re-lit a fire for all of the things that I was too mentally spent to work on. I'm scheduling more shooting for the movie, vaguely planning another forum release for this year, still thinking about gaming, and yeah, the lighting thing. Sure, ADHD has me jumping around, but at least I don't get bored!


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