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Community Theatre Goes Digital

A combination of donated and discounted AV products helps transform the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre into a modern digital cinema.

CHALLENGE: Convert a community theatre into a computer-based digital cinema outfitted with high-definition video and the ability to accommodate analog and digital video on a limited budget.

SOLUTION: Bring together two resourceful user groups and the support of a variety of AV product manufacturers to turn a city's arts and cultural facility into a modern digital cinema showcase.

THE BARNSDALL Gallery Theatre is an inspiring place. Built as an acoustic music and film house in 1971, the theatre space now sits atop Hollywood, CA, as part of the Barnsdall Art Park, a complex consisting of an art gallery, the Junior Arts Center, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Hollyhock House. The Barnsdall Gallery Theatre (BGT) is facility owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. In its heyday, the BGT was the first city-owned facility in the Los Angeles area to offer films on a 16 mm projector. Today, the 299-seat theatre also hosts concerts, film festivals, and live performances.

“Since we are a city facility, it's often difficult to get the newest AV equipment,” says Anisa Hamdan, theatre director for the BGT. “Once equipment comes in, it's hard to get it out. We also have severe budget constraints. BGT is basically a rental house for the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. We operate on a $25,000 budget and must generate the rest with our rentals.”

That revenue generation can be hampered by BGT's soul as a not-for-profit, community-based theatre that encourages free events and reasonable ticket prices. So when Chris Meyer, co-founder of graphics company CyberMotion and user group Motion Graphics Los Angeles (MGLA), and Michael Horton, founder of Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group (LAFCPUG), approached the BGT with a cost-free option to upgrade the theatre's AV equipment, Hamdan was both hopeful and skeptical. “We've had other groups approach us in this same way, but none showed the dedication in making it a reality that Chris and his group showed,” Hamdan says.

While attending a memorial service for the late actor Tony Pope at the BGT, Horton was struck by the perfect size of the space and the inspirational design of the theatre itself. Coincidentally, MGLA and LAFCPUG were about to lose their long-time monthly meeting space at the Los Angeles Film School and needed a new home. BGT offered the right number of seats, plus the screen and sound they needed.

One of five MGLA hosts, Meyer co-founded the all-volunteer organization for professionals that create imagery for video and film using desktop tools. Formed in August 1997, MGLA's topics of discussion aren't restricted to specific hardware or software solutions, believing that artistic inspiration can be universal. “We have approximately 2,000 members, 100 to 150 of whom typically attend the monthly meetings,” Meyer says. “For each meeting, there are typically three to four presentations — one to two from a fellow artist, while the other slots are filled with manufacturer representatives who present the latest technology used in our field. MGLA is built around a community philosophy that if you share information, everyone wins.”

With such a high-end user audience, graphics and video playback versatility was important as well as quick and easy equipment switchovers. With the offer accepted by the BGT, Meyer and his team's biggest challenge was to acquire equipment that met the technical requirements, all at a minimal cost. At first, the donation campaign began slowly until Horton, who spearheaded the donation effort, had a revelation about the greater implication of this install. “The good will generated by positive relationships between the two groups and vendors over the years is what really laid the groundwork, but the chance to be part of something bigger is what closed the deal,” Meyer says.

With a new message pledging support for not only the MGLA and LAFCPUG groups, but also the entire city of Los Angeles' digital filmmaking community, Horton's revised approach resulted in generous funding, equipment donations, and/or steep discounts from Apple Computer, Pixel Corp., Sanyo, and Gefen.

The heart of the new system is an HD-compatible Sanyo PLC-XF35NL digital LCD projector with 6,500 lumens that replaced a much older and larger projector. Installing the new projector wasn't a challenge because it was so much smaller than its predecessor. Sanyo made the projector and lens available to the group at cost (facilitated by VTP Corp. and Hollywood Studio Rentals), while Apple Computer generously funded its purchase.

Meyer chose the LCD projector over DLP options after weighing several factors including budget and use. “Our meetings are a blend of computer graphics and video playback; if anything, a computer screen is onscreen more often,” Meyer says. “A bias in that direction certainly would not hurt us, as long as we were not penalizing our video playback.”

Meyer says the Sanyo projector's motorized lens shift and built-in keystone correction addressed many potential problems. The install team also didn't have to adjust the projector stand because the legs had a larger adjustment range than anticipated. The Sanyo has a 58-foot throw to the 12- by 25-foot projection screen onstage.

“Whenever we had a choice to make we took the one that would yield a higher quality picture,” Meyer says. “For example, the computer link is via DVI rather than a VGA connector. We're using Gefen equipment to send the DVI signal over dual Cat5 Ethernet lines from the stage to the booth — a distance of 125 feet —and can project 1024x768, 1280x1024, and 1600x1200 resolutions.”

Meyer also used Gefen's VGA-to-DVI converter to support older computers at the 1024x768 resolution and Gefen's DVI-to-VGA converter to display the signal on a local ViewSonic G220FB 21-inch CRT monitor. “Although today there are more VGA-equipped computers than DVI, we wanted to look toward the future,” Meyer says. “We foresee the growth of DVI over the next five years. And since Gefen is virtually the only player who sends DVI signals over long distances, we knew we needed their support to make this a reality.”

In addition to the need for DVI, the system design also took into account the theatre's present need for analog video. Meyer chose to send S-video rather than composite to the projector. Decks at the stage include a Sony DSR-11 (DVCAM and miniDV formats) and JVC HRXVS44U (DVD, VHS, and S-VHS formats). An Extron YCS Transcoder converts the signals between composite and S-video to support external decks, and an Extron MDA 4SV EQ is used to boost the S-video signal to run the 125 feet to the booth.

Because Meyer knew the system needed to accommodate different signal paths, he pre-installed and wired a moveable Odyssey FR-1116WDLX slant rack containing the entire signal processing system that could be easily wheeled out and activated from the stage. “This was the ideal solution,” says Tom Albany, technical director of the BGT. “The rack has only five lines (including power) to plug in and get started. It also addresses a previous limitation that there was no way of doing anything but microphones from the stage.”

The rack also houses a Behringer MX1604A audio mixer, a Samson wireless microphone receiver, and a Furman PL-8 that provides filtered power for the system. The new video system relies on BGT's existing audio system of four Electro-Voice loudspeakers as the house sound system.

To connect the system together, the install team hand-built a 100-foot custom snake that can accommodate all of the system's signal requirements. Installation of the snake was straightforward because it could run through an open soffit in the ceiling where the old microphone snake ran. An additional 25-foot snake was run from the FOH patch panel to the FOH equipment rack.

The system is on extended loan to BGT, which will use it for other digital media events, user group meetings, and seminars. “The generous donations from all the companies allows BGT to provide all sorts of new capabilities while maintaining low prices for groups such as ours as well as artists wanting to show their work,” Meyer says. “BGT is available for rent at a substantially lower price than comparable spaces around the city. We feel the end-result goes beyond just giving us a place to meet — it's a community resource.”

Linda Seid Frembes is a freelance writer and PR specialist for the professional AV industry. She can be reached at linda@frembes.com.



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