20 Aug 2021

Upstaging with Absen LED

by Jason Allen

A.B. Paterson College is a non-denominational, co-educational private school at Arundel on the Gold Coast. Its Dawn Lang Performing Arts Centre, named for the second Principal of the College, seats 388 and boasts both a fly tower and an orchestra pit. Theatre Head Technician Alex Fox has made it his mission to ensure that the theatre is kitted out with industry standard tech, including a new Absen LED wall.

After 10 years as Head of Lighting at the Gold Coast’s HOTA, Alex moved over to the College in 2018. “My role is to run all the admin for the theatre, as well as operate audio and AV on the bigger shows,” explains Alex. “I have a few casual crew who do most of the day-to-day ops, which is drama and dance classes during the week, college events at night, external hires, and end-of-year functions.” 

The lighting rig boasts a respectable, professional inventory, comprising 12 Acme XA400 spots, four Acme 300ZR2 washes, four Robe Robin 600 LED washes, 20-odd generic LED pars, and a bunch of ETC Source 4 conventionals. Control is via grandMA3 on PC going out through an MA3 Port Node.


Audio is similarly polished, with a DiGiCo SD9 with D-Racks running a Nexo Geo D line array powered by Camco amps. Students and hirers get mic’d up with Sennheiser 100 Series radio mics.

Which brings us to video. Alex and the team had issues with projection, previously the only way to get video onto screens or the upstage cyc. “We don’t have room upstage for rear projection, and front projection always cast shadows and irritated everyone,” he states. Alex knew that a LED wall solution was going to be the answer.

Alex measured up the upstage space between the legs and the border, and determined the dimensions needed for a screen would be 11 metres wide by five metres tall, with a bit of overlap out into the borders for a seamless look. After demoing various solutions on the market, Alex narrowed the field to Absen PL Series, in 3.9mm pitch, distributed in Australia by Audio Visual Distributors. They put the order in for 120 panels.


“I’ve known Audio Visual Distributors’ Blair Terrace through the lighting industry for years,” Alex says. “He handled the demos, and worked out a viable price for us at the College. When we took delivery, Blair came in and taught us how to build the wall, tested it all, and then handed over. The service and the product have been rock-solid.”

It’s not just the theatre that’s going to benefit from the new LED capabilities. “The processing for the screen is NovaStar VX6S,” Alex continues. “We bought two so we can take 30 panels off the theatre screen, pop them in roadcases, and wheel them into the Sports Hall, hang them off their bar, and use the second processor. The Sports Hall always had issues with its large windows and natural light. Projection screens would get washed out by the light and moved around by the breeze. Text was illegible. It was the dual benefit to both sport and the arts that really got this purchase over the line.”

Despite the delivery of the screen being slowed down by the blockage in the Suez Canal and a COVID outbreak in Shenzhen, it turned up a week before the annual school musical, which this year was Guys and Dolls. Alex relished the opportunity to test the new screen out before unleashing it on the students and staff.

“We decided to use the screen as a backdrop to set the mood in each scene of the show,” informs Alex. “Our arts staff produced different still images and I’d get a Photoshop or Illustrator file, take it into Adobe After Effects or Premiere, and bring it to life with animation. My gaming laptop runs the Adobe suite, and I’ve networked it to a computer running QLab. That sees the gaming laptop as an NDI source. QLab then outputs Premiere or After Effects from the network, so I can edit on the big screen, move and resize on the fly without going backwards and forwards between computers, which is a tremendous help.”

Alex sends signal to the screen via a Blackmagic Designs ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio, which sends programme out and six auxiliaries. The screen is run in parallel with a projector, and the ATEM can turn the projector on and screen off or vice versa at the push of a button. QLab handles mapping, resizing, and virtual screens.

“The new capabilities of the screen have seen the director, set design, and graphic design all keen to work on new ideas,” enthuses Alex. “In the past we’d done false floors and built and painted sets. We’ll still do that, but the screen gives us more ideas and options. With 120 panels, the screen can break into any design we want. We’re looking at LED legs for the next couple of shows. There’s a whole range of options that we hadn’t thought possible before.”

It’s not just the staff who are excited. “The students came back from holidays last Saturday,” Alex adds. “I got them to sit in the audience, lit up the screen and pulled out some neon sign graphics from the show. There was a big united ‘Wow!’ from the students. Everyone loves the LED screen. The kids want to do new things with it that they couldn’t do before.”

Visually, the Absen PL Series is outperforming Alex’s expectations. “The colours are rich, and the contrast when you get down into greys and blacks is really nice, which is what I was hoping to achieve,” he evaluates. “Every image, night, day, or otherwise, looks beautiful. The brightness of the output is great. I’m running the processor at 50 or 60% so it doesn’t overwhelm the lighting rig. I was originally concerned that the indoor model wouldn’t have the power I needed, but we are overshooting what we need and still have power to spare.”

Manual handling is easy for staff and students, with each panel a modest 13kg. “They come out of the roadcase and onto the hanging brackets with no problem,” reports Alex. “The quick connect locks make it very easy to piece together. All the modules are magnetic within each panel, so if there’s ever a problem with section of pixels, you can pop it out and replace it easily without having to dismantle the entire screen.”

After spending 2019 bringing the theatre’s technical standards up, then pausing due to COVID in 2020, Alex is ready to bring quality tech education to the College. “Industry tech education is the next project I’d love to tackle,” he affirms. “Students need to learn on industry standard platforms, and should be taught on equipment they’ll go on to use in the real world.”


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