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The SVC Interview: Les Goldberg

Les Goldberg of Entertainment Technology Partners and LMG has made a career of corporate and touring events and he’s here to tell us what it’s like when a live show is on the line.

SVC: Start by telling us a bit about your history in video for live events.

Les Goldberg: LMG is a 35-year-old company that I started with a 3CRT projector—video has come a long way since then. It’s evolved so much in the last 10 years, almost more than it did in the previous 25 years. We’ve become a full-service company with video, audio and lighting and LED, but I’ll focus on the video components today.

Initially we lived in the world where big projected images were beautiful because of resolution and brightness and large vivid screens. Then magically about 10 years ago, the LED world changed. It was no longer heavy, expensive, and inflexible. We got better images out of LED; the costs went down, the manufacturing in China made it more affordable. We started to invest in LED and that business grew. It allowed us to have competing technologies for large display—projection or LED or sometimes both in one show.

At the same time, we were seeing resolution in the signal path going from RGB to HD to 3G to 4K. And then we had multi-head card displays, and then screens that got crazy big with multiple stacks of projectors where there are blended images and scaling. In the LED world, to compete, it became these massive screens and we dealt with having to buy enough of an LED product so you didn’t have batch problems. So the wild world of video wall display has grown and it’s literally something that’s leading the event space now. I think the increased resolution, the opportunity for people to buy LED, has really made a big difference. We now have something like 25,000 LED panels in our rental inventory.

One of the things I think about when I see the word “live” is backups. What kind of backup systems are commonly used for live events in playback, signal transmission and power?

I wish I could say on the power side there were a lot of backups. Some devices use an uninterrupted power supply and we strategically put them in maybe a graphics machine. Certain things are sensitive to power, especially things that might fail if there is a change in power. We back up from the entry point of the playback device with redundancy there; if it fails, you have to be able to do a seamless switch. So if a file gets corrupt or if the device jams, your content still gets delivered. It’s not very common to run dual signal paths to many projection display devices. So we don’t backup every element of the system, but we back up what we would call the problematic ones or the ones that have been known to fail. You typically would backup your display. If it’s a projector you back it up. If you had an LED wall you’d have a backup processor.

In a perfect world, you would have two systems in a room where if one were to fail you can switch on the other one, but that’s just not pragmatic. So it’s about identifying the points of failure and coming up with a plan for those. We nearly always have a live, hot backup projector because our industry is very fatalistic. You get one shot to get it right and you don’t want to fail.

I would think it’s simpler to handle everything rather than having to work with different companies for sound, lighting and so on. It looks like the trend is toward one company handling all of the technical aspects.

What you’re referring to is the full service live event staging company. That’s the company that provides LED, lights and sound, and visual media in a one-stop shop. That works for many, many shows. It’s really about the production team having a comfort level with the company and the ability to deliver high-end, high quality service among all disciplines. I’ll tell you where that formula is different—when you have a show that requires a thousand moving lights and when you get to scale. Not all the companies can deliver at scale for super large events. So that’s kind of the differentiation. As a full-service event shop, we generally do the medium shows. And sometimes when we get into scale for the super large shows there might be individual providers for some of the elements.

Are there shows you work on that have multi-site interaction on a live event?

Yes. We have many, many shows that do actually. There are a couple of types of shows to consider when you talk about interaction. You have the situation where there’s a remote presenter coming in via video conference or Skype or similar, and we do a two-way scenario where they see us and we see them.

Then the bigger aspect is to have two massive general sessions. We’ve done this multiple times in Las Vegas where we have so many people that they have to go into two different venues – like the MGM Grand Garden Arena and maybe the event center at the Mandalay Bay. We run fiber between the two venues and we literally switch back and forth between presentations. A presenter can be in one venue or the other and they can actually be presenting to the live audiences in both venues. With fiber, you don’t have to worry about a lot of delay, though if we go to satellite or other technologies to encode the signal and send it, we may have to deal with the delay issues.

Sometimes we even bring someone in remotely with a hologram. The key element of that is timing. It’s about how the set works and how it all looks together because we want to make sure they look real.

You’ve done video, lighting and sound for corporate events and for live tours. There must be significant differences between doing those two types of jobs.

Absolutely. A tour is something we take on the road for some period of time – weeks, months, even years for some – and it’s got to be packaged in a way that you can load it in—not in days, but in hours. It has to go in and off the truck and fly and be ready to set up very, very quickly. At a corporate event, we generally have a little bit more time and the packaging doesn’t have to be so detailed and we don’t have to be like a race team changing the tires. So it depends on the scale, but the fundamental difference is not necessarily in the type of gear. It’s the logistics and timing. When we start doing a large arena tour, the first couple of tour dates we’re figuring out exactly the best way to load it in and out; after a few performances we perfect how we’re going to do it in the most timely way. The packaging makes a huge difference on the touring side when you’re going for that race team style coordination. In corporate, the pacing is different and it’s about more methodical presentations that a lot of times corporate executives want to rehearse well before.

One of the most crucial parts of these is shows communication during the show. What’s the biggest challenge for communication among the tech people?

For content, timing is very important. We typically have a wired intercom solution. Sometimes we have a multichannel wired intercom, like a Riedel system. Sometimes we have a lot of wireless headsets and we’re dealing with not much area from backstage to front of house. Sometimes there are multiple rooms and with new digital intercoms you don’t even have to be in the same building and you can log in and listen and participate. Typically, before a live event there’s a production meeting and expectations are set by the department heads and the techs. The best success is when people get good direction from a show caller or a director. Sometimes we do use opening modules and closing modules where there’s timecode or MIDI that cues other devices. Like if we have a multiscreen show where things have to happen really to the beat of the music, or there could be something flying in or a reveal happening. At the end of the day the important thing is making sure that people can be heard. In some environments, our camera guys wear double-muff headsets. And it’s making sure that there’s a plan, and everyone understands the plan. Including what to do when things don’t go as planned.

What are the most fun live gigs that you’ve had?

When you say fun that can mean a lot of different things. Fun can be the ones that were the most challenging. Fun could also mean the ones that looked the coolest. And fun can also be the ones that you stressed out the most over, right? But I think where I get jazzed about doing live events is when we create something called spectacle. When it’s not the typical two- or three-screen show with drape and some downstage monitors and a podium. I like when there’s multiple elements of the show and a lot of things have to come together. That kind of spectacle can be scaled. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 people or 100,000 people. Someone comes up with a vision and we all nod our head and go, “Hmm.” And then it happens.

My definition of a fun live gig is something that creates a moment, where people feel like it evokes some kind of emotion and you know you’re experiencing something special. I think the entertainment events are a little sexier because you’re dealing with artists and fans of that artist’s work. For corporate events, it’s about that big product reveal. It’s about demonstrating something super cool that’s never happened. I can recall about 10 years ago when telepresence was being launched by Cisco. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but that would become one of the coolest things that Cisco builds. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a show and don’t even realize that they’re revealing the future. I think those are the kind of events that get your blood pumping. And also, the ones that challenge you technically and we’re able to deliver that show and really meet or exceed the vision of the creative person, that’s what jazzes me. Also, being able to use the latest and greatest technology with 4K cameras and 4K projection, the latest media servers and all this cool stuff. But live events are not for everyone. If you don’t like to have that pitter-patter of your heart beating, hoping things go exactly as planned and you get one shot to get it right…and if you can’t live with not always getting the outcome you wanted, then it’s not for you.

People ask me, “When was your last boring day?” We don’t have any of those. We live in this world of adventure, trying to deliver the best show humanly possible every single day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small or a large one, there’s always an audience to reach.

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