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EMPAC

Eric Ameres
Senior Research Engineer

Artistic Expression Takes Center Stage

Imagine a place where artists, performers, dancers and filmmakers can create any visual, sensory, immersive or theatrical experience they want to with unbridled creativity. And that venue would already be a regular stop for well known artists such as Aretha Franklin, home to immersive multiple screen viewings of Japanese anime and even multi-screen, HD viewing of the 2008 US national elections – all in the same hall used for dramatic haiku readings.

This place already exists. It’s the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, better known as EMPAC, on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy N.Y.

But when you invite creative people to dream big, you can’t have technological barriers holding them back. Whether it’s syncing a display on nine large video screens overhead, projecting images and sound into a 360-degree cinematic environment, or setting up 36 loudspeakers for an immersive sound environment, EMPAC can satisfy virtually any media request. And to do this, they have built a digital infrastructure leveraging many products from Blackmagic Design.

EMPAC uses Blackmagic products to satisfy technical media requests from its diverse pool of performers and artists—including EMPAC artists in residence, celebrity performers, RPI student filmmakers, dancers, video artists and performance artists. To do this, EMPAC has to move video and audio signals wherever they’re needed within its 200,000 square foot facility, and connect between broadcast and desktop video systems.

With no day or project ever the same, EMPAC uses an arsenal of Blackmagic Design products to meet the needs of even the most technically advanced and creative artist. Currently, EMPAC is using Blackmagic’s: Multibridge Pro capture systems for connecting numerous broadcast formats for editing and display; Intensity Pro HDMI-quality capture and playback for both Windows and Mac OSX; Mini-converters for HDMI to SDI and SDI to HDMI conversion; HDLink for monitoring HD/SD-SDI and 2K signals on DVI-D monitors; DeckLink HD Extreme capture cards for 2K, SD/HD-SDI and HDMI editing and effects and DVI Extenders to route HD/SD-SDI signals.

While Blackmagic products represent a small part of their overall video cost expenditure, the Blackmagic products enable the high-end video systems at EMPAC to be used to their fullest extent.  They also contribute to great cost-efficiency across the facility.

Since broadcast video and desktop video systems support different connections and formats, Blackmagic products can bridge between the disparate products so they work together. Because of this, EMPAC can buy and use inexpensive LCD monitors in lieu of expensive, high-end broadcast monitors.

“If we can display HD on a low-cost LCD monitor instead of a more expensive HD-SDI broadcast monitor, that means we can save the money or buy more gear,” says Eric Ameres, EMPAC’s senior research engineer and facility manager.

“Blackmagic Design gives us uncompromised HDMI signal processing; support for multiple HD standards; third party interoperability; reliability for live events; and flexibility,” said Ameres.

Signal flexibility means that EMPAC can connect whatever devices they want to have work together in any configuration. So video and multimedia can be managed and produced at each of EMPAC’s four main venues—the 1200-seat concert hall; 400-seat theater; and two black box studios [3500 sq. ft. and 2500 sq. ft. respectively]—each of which has its own and machine room.

But video and multimedia can also be produced from the facility’s central video production control suite and machine room, and distributed over the enterprise-wide fiber network to feed any suite or device as necessary. Blackmagic products work seamlessly with each other as well as all the other third party video and media systems that comprise EMPAC’s tapeless workflow.

“With support for 3-Gigabit/second processing and HDMI for uncompressed HD, the digital signal processing doesn’t compromise picture quality,” Ameres said.  “This is essential for compelling film and video art presentations and immersive, multimedia experiences. Blackmagic Design products give us tremendous price performance that really helps maximize our operations budget, and we’ll undoubtedly be buying additional Blackmagic products in the future.”

Building With Blackmagic

EMPAC, which opened in 2008, was part of a $1.4 billion capital investment campaign that was intended to raise RPI’s profile as a world leader on the forefront of science and technology.

This transformational campaign launched by RPI President Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson funded three new centers for excellence on the campus: The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies; The Center East Campus Athletic Village, and the architecturally stunning EMPAC.

Among the celebrities that recently performed at EMPAC are:  Singer Aretha Franklin; Jazz Musician Wynton Marsalis; and Grammy Award-winning Violinist Joshua Bell.  EMPAC also produced a video and audio recording of an Albany Symphony concert and presents workshops with and the work of a multitude of established and up and coming independent and contemporary artists such as media artist Laurie Anderson, composer Michael Schumacher, media artist Toni Dove, dancer/choreographer Kathy Weiss, choreographer Wayne McGregor and many, many more.

For artists, EMPAC uses Blackmagic beyond merely live performance, providing a wide range of creative tools, including pre-production, Final Cut Pro editing, desktop video effects, and streaming media over the Internet. They also contribute to cutting edge applications such as stereo 3D video recording and virtual reality.

Since the projects at EMPAC range from 1080/60i, 1080/24p, 1080/30p, and 2K resolutions, among other formats, the multi-standard capabilities inherent in each Blackmagic product are extremely valuable. Many of the products, including Blackmagic’s DVI Extender’s and Multibridge’s, interface directly with a Harris Platinum 3Gbps router, distribution amplifiers and format converters. They also work alongside third party systems, such as the Ross Vision 4MDX production switcher in the central production video control room.

For monitoring conversion, EMPAC uses Blackmagic’s HDLink’s, DVI Extender’s, and Mini-Converters (which are especially inexpensive and portable) to convert between broadcast video equipment, including Sony EX3 HDCAM-EX and Sony HDC X310 HD/SD-SDI cameras, into low-cost LCD monitors. They also convert signals to feed two 2K Texas Instruments 30K lumens DLP cinema projectors as well as a Sony 4K digital cinema projector, as well as many HD video projectors.

EMPAC also uses multiple Blackmagic Intensity cards to capture video from a live HD camera and feed that to projectors for big-screen display.  And Blackmagic Multibridge’s facilitate the transfer and HDMI conversion of media, such as Apple Quicktime or ProRes, into their iSCSI SAN via a 10-Gb Ethernet connection for Final Cut Pro editing.

“Without Blackmagic Design products,” Ameres said, “we would have had to spend much more money or make compromises as to the quantity and quality of the equipment we could buy.”