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Darien Koop – Stepping Up Pixel Mapping

Posted on October 1, 2014

Darko Visual Design’s Darien Koop caught our attention when he pixel mapped a collection of COLORado Batten 72 Tour fixtures to create piano keys for the popular Pentatonix tour.  The end result blew us away, so we asked Koop to share some of his thoughts on pixel mapping with us. As excited as we are about pixel mapping, our interview with this dynamic LD left us even more psyched!

Pixel mapping hasn’t even begun to hit its stride, according to Koop. Advances in technology are allowing pixel mapping to “step up big time,” transforming shows with more movement and images than ever before. But there are challenges with pixel mapping that every designer must know before going forward, as Koop explains in this interview.

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How has pixel mapping changed the way you approach lighting design from a creative standpoint?

Pixel mapping was essentially an enhancement on an already existing idea.  The cool thing I’ve loved about that concept was that for so long the world wasn’t ready to accept LEDs because the technology just wasn’t there yet.  As LEDs have become more and more complex and the systems controlling them follow suit, the creative possibilities have stepped up big time.

“Since adjusting my mindset on the whole subject there’s been a realization that you can use more than LED pixels in pixel mapping — a single pixel could be any size in a grand canvas!  So, if the design is right you can use any LED fixture in combination with other fixtures to create a larger cohesive canvas.  On a tour I designed this summer for the band NEED TO BREATHE, we used extensive pixel mapping from a Hippo Media Server for three different pieces to a large lighting puzzle; yet we were able to pixel map all as one or separately, which turned into endless options in programming and resulted in a very unique show.”

Your awesome pixel mapping on the Pentatonix tour attracted a lot of attention. Can you describe what you did with pixel mapping the COLORado Batten 72 Tour as piano keys for Pentatonix?

“For Pentatonix, using the COLORado Battens was integral to the overall look of the show.  They matched the concept of the LED piano keys set piece we had built to bring the overall look up, down, and around the entire stage.  I needed the looks that I was creating on the piano keys to be able to be resembled everywhere else when needed, but without taking  away from the main focal point.”

Would you have illuminated the piano keys on the Pentatonix set differently if you didn’t have pixel mapping?

“The piano keys were always going to have pixel mapping involved in one way or another; the extent to which this was done came down to pure budget.  To answer the question plainly though, absolutely – I would I still have had elements of pixel mapping regardless of the available technology.  You can opt to just program scenes and chases in your lighting console and go from there.  Pixel mapping just gives you tons of options and truthfully time-saving ones.”

Do you have a preferred means of controlling pixel mapped images?

“My preference is the Hippo Media Server for pixel mapping.  I however have used the on-board options on Jands Vista and grandMA2.  Catalyst is also a very easy and convenient option.”

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Do you approach working in different pixel images like animation graphics, videos differently? Is it the same approach or different depending on the type of image?

“When it comes to pixel mapping and content, it for sure differs based on the application.  Given the nature of pixel mapping and the fact that in general you would be working with larger pixels and a much lower resolution canvas, it really comes down to what your end goal is in regards to the ‘look’ you’re after.  When Marc Brickman, Tony Fransen, and I approached the Empire State Building, we had such large pixels but quite a few types. In the end, the point was to cut down programming time and to have looks on the building that were more dynamic in parts rather than just rely on straight programming, which is why normal resolution video and graphics were able to be used.”

What’s the biggest challenge you face with pixel mapping?

“The biggest challenge I have is choosing when to use pixel map and when to not use it.  That’s why I normally both pixel map and patch the fixtures to be programmed from the lighting console.  Also, it’s sometimes good to stop pixel mapping and leave the fixtures in solid colors. This gives your audience a visual break, and also when you do go back to pixel mapping, it maximizes the impact of the looks in your fixtures.  It’s easy to get to a point where you can get too excited with pixel mapping and use all of your tricks song to song.”

It seems like pixel mapping is encouraging LDs to come up with ideas for constructing bigger displays on their sets, whether it’s a big truss pyramid or things like your piano keys. Do you agree?

“With the invention of things like the CHAUVET Professional Nexus 4×4 etc. we are finding ourselves with more useful ways to use content that we create specifically for the actual pixel count on stage.  This is something we’ve been doing for years with LED video walls, but to apply the same ideas to lights and pixel mapping is great as it adds greater depth to what we can achieve.

“The long and short of it is that the project and the product determine which content is best for pixel mapping.  Overall you could technically use anything.  However depending on the end goal, it is usually better to have lower resolution files to have better definition in the lower resolution canvas.  You have to have a bit of a developed eye for what works and what doesn’t.  The same thing applies to anything though, really.

“However, I would say absolutely pixel mapping has opened up a new area of design, especially for designers who don’t have huge budgets.  You can accomplish really big ideas with smaller amounts of gear.  I, for sure, approach things differently all around to see how they can work together because of pixel mapping.  I’ve made pixel maps out of LED moving light fixtures in the air before due to their proximity, and it’s worked out quite well.  Other ideas sometimes don’t work out so well, but the point is to create options for yourself as a designer.  Look up some of the work by Nick Rivero, and it will show you how some of his best ideas came out of a garage and a lot of hard work.”

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Since pixel mapping incorporates a lot of movement on set pieces, do you see it affecting the way moving fixtures are used?

“I think that moving fixtures will always be a given in design even if you aren’t showing any looks in your design where you see them actually moving.  Having the ability to change your fixture placement song to song is a huge help in keeping everything fresh.  Also knowing that you can pixel map imagery onto moving lights while still retaining the programming ability in every other parameter in the lighting console is great.

“One of the coolest looking tours I have ever worked on was back in 2007 when we did an all video and LED show with no haze.  It was only video FX combined with a ton of linear fixtures hung vertically.  At that point moving lights weren’t necessary at all.  So in regard to your questions, I don’t think either movers or set pieces will become less important; it’s just that now, we as designers have greater opportunities and more tools to use in our art than ever before.”

Would you use pixel mapping differently for a live concert than you would for a broadcast application?

“Possibly — There are for sure things that don’t translate in broadcast versus a live show.  You can get away with so much more in the live end as the audience is seeing the big picture as it’s happening as opposed to an audience member seeing only what shot is determined by the video director.  That being said, I would light a broadcast and live situation differently anyways, regardless of whether or not it was pixel mapped, to reflect that difference in audience experience.  Even when I have an existing live show that we are setting up for a DVD shoot or live broadcast, I change certain cueing and lighting and darken certain areas as well as make sure all the angles are covered with something interesting, so there is never a boring shot and the overall art is preserved for both audiences.  From a designer’s perspective, the best situations occur when you can rehearse specific camera blocking that reflects camera shots being shown in wide angles and then cut to the other tight shots in sync with a tightly programmed light and pixel mapped show.”

Can a lighting designer devote too much of a show to pixel mapping? Does pixel mapping have to come and go in a design to be most effective?

“For sure, yes —  but this is true of any tool you have in your designer’s tool box. You don’t want to focus too much on one component of your design, because this will take away from the specialness of it.  My goal is to always bring a new moment for each song to make each one its own thing.  One of the things I find myself doing when I go to a show that I really want to see is pointing out the different times of the show where there were key elements that made each song’s lighting unique.

“As designers, we want to have our shows be unique for sure, but we also want to communicate the vision of the artist’s songs in the individual moments.  I’d say the most effective way to process your pixel mapping decisions is to examine each moment of your show and decide when to use it and when not.  When does it make the most sense to both accentuate the song but also maximize the pixel mapped look of the fixture in the moment? That’s when you want to pixel map.”

Do you think we’ll see more fixtures with pixel mapping capabilities? Any other trends?

“Most definitely.  We will see more pixel mappable fixtures for sure as it’s a new wave.  With the introduction of all the new fixtures, we’ve entered a new age.  One of the best parts of this industry is being able to see what’s dreamed up next and then the dreaming of how to use it.”

If you had to sum it up in a single word, what’s the one thing pixel mapping brings to the table for a lighting designer?

“I’ll give you a choice of four words: Options, Tools, Excitement and Ease.  Take your pick, they all apply to pixel mapping.”