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Recreating Visions – Pixel Mapping with Sohail e. Najafi

Posted on November 4, 2014

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Creativity is a funny thing; given the chance, it will just expand and expand, picking up a force of its own each step along the way. Lighting designer Sohail e. Najafi, of Najafi Design Group in Los Angeles, views pixel mapping as just such a creative liberator, giving visions locked inside an LD’s imagination the technical key to break out and transform an entire design in the process.

Anyone who saw Najafi’s impressive work with pixel mapped Nexus 4×4 panels on the Rx Bandit’s Gemini Her Majesty Tour would be prone to agree that this new technological tool can liberate some powerful creative forces. In the second installment in our series of interviews with pixel mapping masters, Najafi shared some of his views on the subject, ranging from how to explain the new technology to how to avoid overusing it.

We understand that when planning Rx Bandit’s Gemini Her Majesty Tour, you talked the band’s manager from a planned flat LED curtain to pixel mapped Nexus 4×4 panels. This raises the question, how do you explain pixel mapping to someone who’s never experienced it before?

“Though it may seem difficult to explain or communicate what pixel mapping is to a client or producer at first glance, I have found the following analogy exceedingly helpful: pixel mapping is just like your TV at home but just applied to a customizable display. The technology is the same, taking images, breaking them down into bite-size pieces (i.e. pixels) and then assigning each piece in order onto the fixtures to be mapped so that at the end we see the whole image recreated on our custom canvas.

“Basically we are taking the TV image and superimposing it on LEDs on a screen or fixture or series of fixtures aligned so they ultimately create the unique composition desired. At this point, the benefits speak for themselves; namely the ability to create a truly custom display for your images, textures, effects, and video.”

RX Bandits at The Fillmore shot by Photographer Jason Miller-9

What do you like to pixel map? Abstract graphical images? Text? Video? Are there different challenges when you pixel map different things?

“As a theatrical designer at heart, I pixel map whatever will be most effective for the specific design and application. For concerts, I like dynamic motion effects of color and texture, while for architectural installations, such as the nightclub we just designed in Hollywood, CA, I enjoy video and images.

“The challenges for pixel mapping arise when one wants to represent an image or text in its original discernible form on a non-linear pixel-mapped surface. For example, one effect we sought to achieve for our 2014 Rx Bandits tour design was to have miniature ‘Rx’s falling from the sky over the larger ‘Rx’ Nexus panel structure.

“Because of the resolution, we had to play a lot with text size, placement, color, effect rate and direction to get the effect to read to the audience. Another instance was our preshow look, which featured the cover art from their latest album. I pixel-mapped the artwork directly over the ‘Rx’ structure so that it would seemingly blend into the larger printed drop that was hung upstage. In this case, the resolution and non-linear distribution of our fixtures, and consequently our pixels, meant the artwork did not read as the image itself, but instead blended the form of the panel structure into the surrounding background, softening its appearance before the show began.”

RX Bandits at The Fillmore shot by Photographer Jason Miller-4

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

“I like dedicated pixel mapping solutions, such as Madrix, due to their efficiency, ease, and speed of programming. With these specialized software solutions, you can dump images and video natively into your programming, so there is no need to assign parts of the image to parts of your pixel mapped surface. For more complex designs, integration with traditional consoles, such as the grandMA2, is key to sync up all forms of content making up the design.”

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

“I absolutely agree that the ability of a fixture to pixel map will increase its utility and, ultimately, desirability. Everything from pixel mapping sections in a wash strip fixture, to dedicated pixel mapping fixtures, to moving heads like the Chauvet Next NXT-1, if a fixture allows you independent control of its pixels, it becomes infinitely more useful. The only limiting factor then becomes design and programming time.”

A semi-related question: does pixel mapping change the way you approach your work as a designer?

“Yes and no. The availability of pixel mapping has not changed the things I like to do when designing, just made them more feasible within the time and budget constraints of a given project. The effects have always existed in my mind; I am just able to actually recreate them in reality now, and for that I feel blessed.”

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

“Yes, like all great advances in design technology, there can always be too much of a good thing. If a design’s use of pixel mapping goes beyond reinforcing the overall visual aesthetic and intention of the design, it just becomes ‘flash and trash.’   Just like all effects, chase sequences, beam effects, strobe, video, cryo, pyro, atmosphere, if one overdoes it by over-implementing it in such a manner that it overwhelms all other aspects of the design, then it loses its special nature and ultimately loses its captivation of the audience. Basically by over-utilizing any effect, you desensitize your audience to it, and the effect loses its ‘magic and mystique.’”

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

“I see pixel mapping being integrated into all new LED fixtures with arrays of multiple diodes. I have seen designers using pixel mapping to add eye-candy effects to the face of all of their LED-based wash lighting systems and see this trend following onward to mapping the actual beams of light created by these fixtures. Instead of just mapping the face of a fixture, like is done on a TV display, I see designers (myself included) using pixel mapping to add a new dimension to beam air effects.”

What’s the reaction of bands like Rx Bandits to pixel mapped shows?

“I feel they are excited at the growing possibilities to create a visually stunning show. Though I feel this is not as large a leap as the automated lighting revolution of the 1980s and ’90s, this new trend will definitely help expand the look and feel of concerts beyond the usual myriad of beams dancing in the air around the band.”