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Defining Design with Pixel Mapping – Mitchell Schellenger

Posted on January 6, 2015

Anyone who saw Mitch Schellenger’s work on the iconic Third Eye Blind’s festival tour this summer, had to be impressed by how this up-and-coming LD was able to blend the look of pixel mapped Nexus 4×4 panels with the setting sun outside. However, although Schellenger loves nature and enjoys having his designs blend with it, he doesn’t want to see his work dependent on its whims (or winds), which is one reason why he had become a big proponent of pixel mapping.

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Designers who embrace pixel mapping and master its nuances have a greater say in defining their own designs, according to Schellenger. In some cases, this may mean being able to achieve the look they were seeking for an outdoor concert without worrying about the wind blowing away their haze. It can translate into the ability to tie a group of very different fixtures together to create a cohesive layered look. Schellenger shared his ideas with us in this informative interview.

Can you describe the pixel mapping you did for Third Eye Blind? How did it contribute to realizing your vision for the show?

As soon as I found out that Third Eye was doing festivals I knew I would be incorporating pixel mapping in one way or another. Festivals — or any outdoor show for that matter — can never be trusted in terms of atmosphere. You can’t rely on volumetric light as a creative tool, because the haze has a tendency to blow away, as we all know. Instead of bringing 15 hazers, I like to embrace the elements and design based on the given parameters. Pixel mapping allows me to sculpt in a way that doesn’t rely on atmosphere in the air.”

What do you like to pixel map – abstract graphical images, text, video?

“I approach pixel mapping differently on every project. I’ve certainly done text; I’ve used static imagery to shift attention on stage, and I’ve done a fair share of abstract movements to create unique looks with the gear. It really depends on what story you’re trying to tell with your visuals.

“I think pixel mapping is a great way to extend video walls as well. Say you have a 9mm LED wall surrounded by Nexus panels and then a row of LED pars; if you map the video across all three elements you have quickly and easily created a gradient from high res to super low res (pars). It ties all your elements together in a unique way and is another trick to keep your show dynamic.”

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What do you like to use to control pixel mapped fixtures?

“I tend to map using either a media server or the grandMA2 bitmapping feature. It depends on the application and how much mapping I’ll be doing. On many projects the bitmapping capabilities of the MA2 (or many other consoles for that matter) will do just fine. Servers are great for doing very specific things with your mapping, or ‘extending’ a video wall as I mentioned earlier.”

Do you think pixel mapping will change how often you use different types of fixtures? Are you more likely to use panels and set pieces because of pixel mapping?

“I have always seen light to be a structural element. Pixel mapping takes that concept one step further and really creates continuity across your rig. I think now that pixel mapping is such an integral part of lighting design, most designers keep that in the back of their mind while choosing fixture types. It’s a tool like any other, and it should be used when appropriate. I think it’s great that manufacturers such as Chauvet are aware of what designers are doing and creating a range of versatile fixtures that allow us to enact these techniques.”

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So, kind of along the same lines- has pixel mapping changed the way you approach your work as a designer?

“Well, as I mentioned before, pixel mapping is a tool that should be used when appropriate. I certainly take it into consideration when beginning a stage design, just as I would consider using a profile fixture for its gobo capabilities. It all comes down to what’s trying to be portrayed. I am careful not to overuse mapping though. Sometimes a Nexus panel looks perfect in a solid color. It’s like a moving light — just because you can do a ballyhoo doesn’t mean you should do a ballyhoo throughout your entire show. I like to save the tricks such as mapping for a moment in the show when it really stands out and makes a solid impact artistically.”

Are there common mistakes that you see being made with pixel mapping?

“That’s hard to say. Design is a very fragile topic, because so much of it is based on opinion. If your client is happy with the results then you’ve succeeded, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. I think the only ‘mistake’ designers can make with pixel mapping is when they allow it to become more of a headache than it needs to be, or when they use it for the wrong reasons.”

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So can a show then have too much pixel mapping?

“I think the short and simple answer to this would be ‘yes, a show can have too much pixel mapping.’ However, there is much more to it than that. It’s sort of like asking if a show can use the color blue too much. The easy answer would be yes, but look at a show like Jack White… the whole thing is blue and it works perfectly. Would I light an EDM festival in nothing but blue? Maybe… but probably not. I can’t stress it enough though, the answer about ‘too much’ always depends on the application. Pixel mapping allows for such a range of looks and effects that some shows may be able to get away with using it start to finish.”

How do you see pixel mapping changing in the next two years?

“In the next two years I would assume that at the very least, pixel mapping software and control systems will be easily available to everyone working with lighting — meaning all consoles and software will have some form of mapper built in (if they don’t already). I think it will be easier for new designers to learn pixel mapping and I think we will see a lot of fresh ideas come through. I would assume we will continue to see great new products come out that will push the boundaries of design. 3D pixel mapping, which allows for content to be mapped throughout 3D space, will probability become a major contender in the production design world as well.”

Any of your projects stand out for pixel mapping?

“I don’t think any of my projects specifically can be defined by the use of pixel mapping, but I can think of a few that we really got down and dirty with it. I just finished a show at Red Rocks, and we pixel mapped across about 60 large faced LED washes. Watching a rig move and blink in such a seamless and organic way is really something else, and that’s what’s really neat about pixel mapping. It creates such perfect continuity when spaced properly, it’s like there is a whole other scene back there and the lights are your window into it.”

Does pixel mapping make your job more fun?

“It’s a fairly new technique so of course it’s fun! It can be a challenge when you have a very specific idea in mind, but one of my favorite things about programming is coming up on what seems to be an impossibly complicated task, working through it, and admiring the final creation. I love being able to take a vision and see it come to life, full scale in front of everyone. There’s nothing better, and pixel mapping is just one more way to make an idea a reality.”

Do you think pixel mapping is going to make certain types of fixtures less relevant?

“I don’t think pixel mapping will make any fixtures less relevant, but rather provide new ways of using them. Let’s take a conventional par can for example. I worked on a project where we pixel mapped 275 no-color pars and it created a whole new look. We used a classic fixture in a way it was never intended to be used before and I think that’s where we are headed. There really is no limit to pixel mapping. If the instrument you are using can receive a value of some sort, mapping can be applied to it.”

Any other comments?

“I think to sum things up, pixel mapping is a great creative tool, but should be utilized in a way that works with your show. It can seem like a challenging process, but I think new designers shouldn’t be afraid to dive into it, play around and see what methods work for them. Have fun with your creativity. If you are able to achieve your desired look and keep your client happy, you’re doing it correctly.”