IT/AV, Video

AVent Horizon: Once More, Into The Racks

I’ve been working in one or more segments of the AV industry since 1978, and have covered many of the bases: rental and staging, video and meeting production, systems design and integration, and marketing and education.

Lately, most of my time is spent on the last two disciplines, and I’ll have a few courses to teach at InfoComm in Las Vegas this coming June. Of course, that means many hours spent planted in front of a computer screen, whipping up courseware in Word and PowerPoint (not to mention editing tons of photos and videos).

So it’s always a welcome break when I can shut off the computer and go into the field to get my hands dirty. From the age of 10, I was always happiest sitting at my workbench, soldering iron in hand, building everything from Heath and Allied kits to my own pirate radio station (AM and FM simulcasts, no less!). Or assembling antennas and working on my 65-foot tower, festooned with yagis for operation all the way up to 2.3GHz.

About 10 years ago, I crossed paths with a local non-profit group, Closely Watched Films. They purchased, upgraded and operate two vintage theaters nearby: the 70-year-old County Theater and the even cooler (and older) Ambler Theater.

The Ambler Theater is an enormous Spanish colonial-style building with a full stage and scenic lifts. It was constructed by Warner Brothers and opened on December 31, 1928, with a seating capacity of 1228. The theater also featured a massive Gottfried pipe organ back in its heyday. As the economic environment became progressively more difficult, the theater stopped operations in the early 1970s and was sold to another group that screened 16mm Christian films. They, in turn, sold it in 1997, and not long after, Closely Watched Films bought it.

After $2 million in improvements and restoration, the Ambler Theater (by now three separate theaters with seating capacities of 110, 150 and 280) was in full operation by 2007. A few years earlier, they began hosting a fund-raising party on the night of the Academy Awards, showing the HD telecast in all three theaters.

My involvement with them was initially to figure out a way to show the HD telecast in each theater. That was actually the easy part: The local TV station’s tower could be seen from the roof of the theater, so a simple yagi antenna was installed and a long drop of RG-6 coaxial cable run down to the projection mezzanine.

Back then, Samsung had some nice ATSC set-top receivers (DTB-H260Fs), so one of those was installed in each projection booth rack. That worked quite well with the Sanyo PLC-WF20 projectors used to show DVDs on Saturdays. (The theater was still using 35mm film projection then.)

Two years ago, Closely Watched Films was able to raise the necessary funds to convert all three screens to digital cinema, using Barco DLP Cinema projectors. I was asked if there was a way to feed local video to each projector so the staff could run a graphics loop acknowledging sponsors and do some live on-camera announcements.

That seemed simple enough, but over the years, the racks had become quite cluttered with equipment, including some obsolete analog switching and distribution hardware. I was also asked to provide a video feed to a flatscreen behind the concession stand and another spotted atop the ticket booth. Thus, a lot of wiring would be required!

My first attempt at doing this a year ago ran into some serious obstacles, not the least of which was the inability of the system to pass HDMI signals at the resolution I wanted to use. Throw in the patchwork “overlay” of digital equipment (HDMI on top of DVI on top of analog) and the AV support almost didn’t work. It wasn’t until 45 minutes before show time that I got a workable HDMI-based video overlay to function correctly.

After the event, I spent a few days exploring the racks, locating unused cable runs and a plethora of redundant hardware. From there, I developed several block diagrams and identified the “choke points” to avoid next time I staged the event.

The Thursday before “Hollywood Awards Night,” as the theater calls it, I started wiring in a master control system based around a Kramer VP-773 presentation switcher/scaler. (Full disclosure: I do consulting work for Kramer.) This would be located in the concession lobby and switch between a live camera, graphics from two computers and video feeds.

A Samsung 46-inch LCD TV was positioned above the ticket booth in the enormous front vestibule, while a Panasonic 50-inch plasma monitor was mounted behind the concession stand. These two screens, plus the three theaters, were connected using long runs of Cat6 STP cable (run through the walls and ceiling) and Kramer PT-571/572+ transmitters and receivers. An 8×1 HDMI distribution amplifier upstairs split off the signal feeds, including a return loop back to the control desk to function as a confidence monitor.

Because of my earlier problems with passing high-resolution video through the existing AV racks, I opted to drive the Barco projectors directly through their auxiliary DVI inputs.

Audio for each of the theaters was extracted from the HDMI links using Kramer FC-46xls, while the Samsung and Panasonic screens handled the digital audio stream directly. All of the connectors on the Cat6 cables use metal housings with solder tabs, and the drain wires were soldered at each end (this technique greatly extends the HDMI signal transmission range).

Aside from an audio feedback problem related to the in-room Panasonic monitor, the system worked exactly as planned. Theater staffers were able to switch easily to any video source (three HDMI, one VGA and one DisplayPort), and live announcements were made using a small lavalier mike connected to the video camera.

Unlike previous years, I was able to kick back and enjoy the evening’s festivities, not to mention the delicious catered food and beverages. Attendees competed to see who could correctly pick the most award winners, and you could also take chances on a wagon of cheer, a 55-inch Vizio Razor TV, an Apple iPad Mini and a Dell laptop.

For me, the best part of the evening was watching all of this stuff work the way I had intended it to. I’ve used the wiring challenges of this theater in my classes on HDMI signal management (I even set up a pair of wireless HDMI links a few years back for this event), and it was fun to put theory into practice, not to mention using several products in a way that they weren’t really intended.

Theater management has also gotten religion and will attack the AV racks later this year to remove all of that no-longer-needed analog gear and simplify the digital signal path, upgrading all inline AV receivers and audio processing gear and installing new servers for advertising and sponsors. All of that will make my job a lot easier in 2015, unless I decide to try some cool tricks like wireless camera feeds and multiple channels of live wireless audio. (And I probably will….)

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