Read the Freaking Manual

Though I am theater/live event born and bred, I’ve been working for the last month on a feature. Normally, I feel that a large part of my value is not just knowing where the buttons are but knowing the venues, work processes, fixtures, and how to troubleshoot issues.  As a stranger in film, I find that nearly everything around me is unfamiliar.  (Film professionals, you are welcome to laugh at me.)  So as a programmer walking into a large amount of new fixtures and two new-to-me platforms I need to program, what do I do?  I read the manuals.  All of them.

I had one day before I flew to location.   I texted the Gaffer to ask what fixtures I’d be working with and what color palettes the DP knew they wanted.  I was not surprised (though not reassured) that I had only worked with one of the lights before- the Arri S60.  So I downloaded the manuals for every piece of gear and read them in a marathon, and then re-read them on the plane.

Wow, it was a good thing I did.  There were many unfamiliar functions in these fixtures where Color Temperature Correction systems run parallel to RGBW systems.  I would never have imagined such a system existed, but the moment I read it, it seemed obvious.  I was very surprised to find that in several manuals, the DMX Profile wasn’t even in it.  Eventually I found separate documents that presented the DMX Personality information, only slightly hidden on the websites.

Next task, to make sure the board has profiles for all these fixtures.  ETC does a great job of keeping up with fixtures, but I’ve almost never needed to look at their film fixture inventory.  Though I struggled to find one profile, and did need to a very simple personality for another, everything else was indeed there.  Whew. 

Armed with some information now, I selected profiles, loaded a patch into my board, set up demo fixtures in Capture and tested them all to ensure I understood the fixtures as much as possible.  I wasn’t exactly sure how Color Crossfade would work.  When viewed in Capture, I was surprised to see the units going from CTC engine to POP into RGBW territory.  With a name like Color Crossfade, I figured this might be a limitation of the Capture color engine rather than how the fixtures were intended to function.  I made a note and later found out I was right.  I programmed the palettes and boxed my console up.

Next up were the two other programming systems I would be asked to control: Astera App and Sidus Link.  Of the two, Sidus Link was the far more intuitive.  Astera App has been a little less easy to come to terms with.  So I read the manual and watched the tutorial videos created by the company on how to operate this tablet-centric programming platform.  Over and over.

When I arrived for my first day programming, I was really glad I had reviewed the app so much.  I had a bunch of Titans in a gas station that were set in the coolers and the overhead florescent receptacles (which were frequenting falling down while I was trying to get them paired).  Adding to my first day jitters was the fact I couldn’t make the Samsung tablet that came with the Astera ART7 controller pair with it.  Fortunately the programmer who referred me to the job answered my panicked text saying he also could never make it work and I should just use my iPad.  It paired the first time and I was off and stumbling, err, running.  

Though I could go on providing examples of my ignorance of what equipment is commonly used in film, I feel like it wouldn’t add much more.  What I hope to communicate is that advance work is always the best work.  Don’t underestimate the “performance” quality of that first moment you program for someone.  They want to know they are in good hands, so grabbing parameters quickly and with confidence will help you gain their trust quickly.   Later, when you need a moment to give them what they want, they will be far more likely to give it to you.


  1. Curtis Frye - Reply

    “I’ll figure it out in prep” is so much better than “We’ll fix it in post.”

  2. Chris Steele - Reply

    We’ve all so been there at one point. We just hope we aren’t there over and over again (but we probably will be…)

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