Welcome back to this series for live event programmers moving into to film. So far, we got through signing onto the production and gave you a glossary of titles that interact with the Programmer. This week, it’s time to prep the gear. Now, you should be aware I haven’t always been given time (on the clock) to prep. If that’s the case, the work happens on the plane, in the hotel room, and then eventually on the first location. But let’s discuss in terms of better, if not best, case scenario.
I’ll Fix it in Prep- Overview
You need to develop a plan for how you are addressing and channeling all your fixtures. Profiles need to be chosen for each light, the wireless system needs to get laid out, and documentation needs to be made to reflect all these things. You also will create color palettes, pre-build some effects, find out everything you can about how your Gaffer (and DP) like to work, and figure out how you are going to fit everything onto your cart. It’s a lot. This work will impact every day on set and include many many considerations. There will be follow up posts going into detail on many of the things I introduce here.
There are three designations of gear you will be working with: The Truck Pack, the Stage and the Drop Packages. It’s important to understand each to set them up right in your board. Within each, there will be a list of different fixtures that will be used. You will want to ask your Best Boy (or perhaps the Gaffer) what inventory you can expect to see in each.
The Truck Pack
The Truck Pack are all the fixtures you will work with on every location as it is the lighting that comes with you everywhere on the truck(s). Think of it like the fixtures in the house plot. Typically owned by the Gaffer and the Best Boy with a small amount of rental gear to supplement, these are the first call lights. What may be a surprise is that you will almost always assign the channeling for these fixtures. I will always place these fixtures starting at the lowest channel numbers. Why? The Gaffer choose these lights because they like them, and they will be used constantly. I’m a big believer in saving time a keystroke at a time. Your Gaffer’s favorite light should be channel 1. I personally then have each new type of light start on a number ending in 1. For example, if the Gaffer loves Litemats and we have 9, those are channels 1-9. If the next favorite lights are the Spectrums and there are 8 of them, they are channels 11-18.
Now that you know what fixtures you have, read the manuals. All of them. The less you know about film, the more you need to read the manuals. Also- be prepared for many manuals to not include the DMX profile information. They will often have a separate document with all the information a programmer needs. Once you find this possibly hidden information, discuss with your Best Boy what modes the Gaffer prefers things to run in. Be sure to ask about what effects they know will be called for in the project and make sure you have modes that allow you to give them things rapidly and accurately. You may need to advocate to make sure the fixtures will respond well to your control. Excessive smoothing in the fixture profile (for instance) will make it slow to respond for a flicker or muzzle flash or explosion effect. I tend to favor profiles that allow CCT mode and a crossfade to RGBW+ mode with Green magenta shift. 16 bit dimming is highly desirable as is fan control at the board. The big debate is when fixtures have multi-cell ability and how many areas of control vs how many addresses get used. Be sure to discuss this in detail with your Best Boy.
The Stage is a familiar concept to live event peeps. It’s one or more stages with one or more sets built and almost always a green screen. There tends to be many fixtures here. It’s not unusual to burn 6-12 universes for a modest stage. You must make sure that each stage fits in the same show file as the truck package, since the truck package will be used in addition to the lights already there. Be sure to find out numbering preferences of your Gaffer before assigning channels to the stage. I know you chose the channeling on the truck pack, but since these are fixed in position, they may want input. Your rigging team will be the people creating the plots for the stage and you will need to interface closely with them. Tell them what modes/profiles, channels, universes and IP addresses are open for their use, as well as what DMX protocols to use- Artnet or sACN. If you are lucky, you’ll get a Rigging Programmer (worth their weight in gold, shower them with support and gifts of various sizes) who will prepatch your stage and flash it before you ever show up. If not, you will typically roll off from some daylight exterior shoot that is small enough to work without you so you can go to the stage to troubleshoot the rig. Be sure you know what effects might be called for before you go. This is your best time to build options.
Typically, riggers will surround the stage (and any location) with both power and network switches. You’ll stab into one of these places to get control of the rig. If the flash through goes well, build stuff once you have control. If they aren’t ready for you, build in blind or some form of vis while you are waiting for things to be completed.
The Drop Packages
Locations that are built out with additional fixtures by the riggers before you show up are drop packages. There may be many. Unlike the Truck Package and the Stage, these locations come and go. You can set aside a range of channels, addresses and IP addresses that are reused for each drop package. All the previous statements about working with your Rigging Electricians hold true here as well. Give them the information they need well in advance so they can make your life easier. It’s not unusual to have drop package wireless rigs, so be sure to gather all the information and get a plan. Same rules apply with surrounding the location in power and a network. You will not need to advance all this information immediately, just the first location. The others will be constantly in process for the rest of the film. Keep on top of this and be prepared to spend some weekend hours making sure you are up to date with the riggers and they have all the information they need.
Typically, the truck pack works almost exclusively from wireless DMX. This is almost always a Lumenradio CRMX-based network. City Theatrical owns theater and much of live events, but is barely present in film, which is a bummer since the Multiverse product line is amazing. A quick word of advice to save you misery I’ve experienced: NEVER turn on a wireless transmitter or receiver without having the antennas installed first. It can cause damage to the unit that is invisible, except your wireless goes from world-class to terrible. Decide if you wish to use Artnet, sACN, or old fashioned-DMX lines to feed your transmitters. Then, when looking at the truck pack, try to spread your fixtures so the ones that don’t have CRMX built in are all in one universe. I made a newbie mistake and had a truck pack with two universes. It was annoying for everyone, and avoidable if I knew better.
Once you have a plan regarding DMX, profiles and wireless, get the patch in your board and get ready to make labels. So. Many. Labels. This isn’t different from live events, really, but in case you didn’t already do this- make sure your label has the channel/fixture number in large print, then the profile and addressing in smaller print. Make it easy for the electricians to help you know what the gaffer means by “that light” by making the number easy to read. I will typically have two labels- the one with all the data goes near the display for the fixture. The second has only the channel number and should be easy to read from the bottom of the fixture.
Make it So
Last step in this phase of prep is to grab each fixture, set the profiles and preferences, sync it with the appropriate wireless transmitter, label it and flash it. Is this the end of prep? Heck no. It’s just a good place to stop this article for today. Next week we will step through building your color palettes, how to navigate a light meter, and perhaps dive into the oddities of apps that you need to use in film (I’m looking at you, Astera App).
There is a lot going on in prep, and there is no way to cover absolutely everything in a single article. If you feel I missed something important, please comment! Let’s all make this the best resource it can be.