HereAfterHere: A Modest Budget, a Major Challenge, and no Time to Lose

Ben Jaffe, West End Studio Theatre, Santa Cruz CA
October 2007

I first encountered QLab during a showing of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, several years ago in San Diego. It was a much simpler application back then, and I wouldn't have even dreamt of being able to use an application like QLab for a multi-screen media and dance piece.

I have always used QLab for everything sound-related. Even for comedy shows and short theatre pieces, QLab's simplicity and reliability always far exceeded that of CD players (which always seem to fail only when you need them to work the most). As I started sound designing complex shows, I began to take advantage of QLab's full audio potential. I still remember the day that the Video Cue was released. I was ecstatic thinking of the possibilities.

I first used QLab as a video cueing program for the production "HereAfterHere," an experimental media and dance piece about what happens after death. It was the first performance ever, and we labeled it a "beta test" because we only gave four showings. We are planning on remounting a revised version next year at a larger theater; our theater for the beta test was literally a converted warehouse.

The set included three rear-projection screens. We also had a front projector, which projected on a silk that traveled across the stage in front of the scrim. I used QLab to control the rear projection screens.

Originally, we were planning on using Dataton's WatchOut for the show. Unfortunately, after pre-programming most of the show in WatchOut, we lost access to it, and had to change programs. QLab immediately entered my mind as an option. Of all of the possible programs I was considering, QLab was the only program that could really do what we needed to do. Chris at Figure 53 was incredibly kind with helping us get up and running very quickly.

Construction The Set
Projector Shelves and Steps

And now, the juicy part!

The Hub Backstage Backstage Monitors (Running our favorite program!)

How did the system actually work? Ignoring the front projector (it was a self-contained system), there were five computers involved in the rear projection. Three PPC G5s displayed the video through the projectors, and a Powerbook and Macbook Pro were with me in the control booth, to help me keep the reins on the display computers.

The display computers were each set up identically. They each had a dual-head video card: one output went to a monitor, and the other went to the projector. I had the projector set up as the secondary display, and set the desktop image to pure black. That way, in case QLab crashed, nothing would appear on the screen. The monitor was there so I could watch QLab execute cues remotely with VNC. Each of the computers had their ethernet connected to a hub, which was connected to a run of CAT5 cable which went across the theater and up to the booth. Their audio outs went into a mixer, which then mixed and converted all three into a single output, which ran along a second CAT5 to the front of the house via passive audio/video baluns.

On the other side of the CAT5 runs, the front of house, the MacBook Pro and the PowerBook were used to control the rear-projection computers. I had the MacBook Pro sending out MIDI signals via QLab and Apple's MIDI Network Driver, and the G5s in the back would receive the signals. Each video sequence had a MIDI Trigger, and if the signal that was received corresponded to a cue with a MIDI Trigger, the cue would execute. I used Pre-Wait and Post-Waits to "sync up" the computers with each other, allowing a whole sequence of video interacting on all three screens to execute off a single MIDI signal from my Macbook Pro. Once it was set up, it was very neat. I even made MIDI cues which would tell each of the backstage computers to reset QLab, or to stop all cues. I then mapped those MIDI cues on my Macbook Pro to keys, so I could press the "~" key on my MacBook Pro to stop all sequences on all of the computers, or the "R" key to reset the computers. Programs like Watchout will manage the timings for you, and they have a timeline interface; however, QLab is much, much cheaper, and was not difficult to set up, or to program. The extra level of abstraction was actually a lot of fun to work with, and it added a lot of flexibility. Programming with Watchout at the beginning of the process wasn't nearly as much fun. There was something very enjoyable about doing it myself; with QLab, I was able to build the system exactly the way I wanted it.

I also had my PowerBook in the booth. I used it to VNC into the backstage computers so I could check on their status, and solve any problems that could arise. It was certainly very helpful to have that extra machine, so I could VNC and troubleshoot without disrupting my ability to execute cues. It also allowed me to remotely shut down the backstage at the end of the night without having to walk back there.

I named my Macbook Pro "Mission Control," a name that seemed appropriate to my station in the booth! And yes, that is a full bag of chocolate chip cookies on the left!

From left to right: Media, Stage Manager, Lights, Sound
Mission Control
MacBook Pro with MIDI Cues
VNCing into the Backstage Computers

With the help of QLab (and the chocolate chip cookies), I got through it all with nary a scratch. It is truly a pleasure to use QLab on any show. Even more astounding than the program itself was the help that Chris gave to me throughout the process. I even found a bug, and he fixed it within a few days! Without QLab, this project would have not been possible. Every other option I considered had significant limitations, either of functionality and stability, or price. QLab is a wonderful balance between both, and I plan on using it for years to come.

The Set with the Front Silk Pulled Across