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CAST BlackTrax

At Trinity Fellowship Church

by Michael Wells

Jan 2014-1 PictureTrinity Fellowship Church in Amarillo, Texas with a 340,000 sq. ft. main location and 10 satellite campuses in Texas and Oklahoma, sharing their message to over 14,000 members.

The defining feature of the main campus is the Worship Center, a 3,750 seat auditorium set up as a theatre in the round featuring a 46-foot diameter circular stage and four 32-foot HD projection screens on the back walls. We hold three services each weekend to a 6,000 strong local weekly attendance, with hundreds more watching online. Utilizing our up to 12 camera broadcast-grade, Network Quality HDTV suite, we produce a very high quality IMAG experience for the local congregation as well as a compelling online service.

The teaching portion of the service is full-ISO recorded, multi-cam edited, encoded, and delivered after the Saturday night service via the Internet to another 1500 viewers at our satellite campuses for playback on Sunday mornings. We also provide a 24/7 live channel through our website, and our Roku Streaming channel, with thousands of hours of content streamed weekly.

Lighting and filming in the round poses a number of challenges. It’s crucial that our pastors establish a connection with each and every participant, through eye-to-eye contact and IMAG in the auditorium, video in the Satellite Campus Content, or streaming on the Internet. We want each person to experience a meaningful, personal connection with the message being shared.

It’s also incredibly important to control the lighting. In contrast to an end-stage auditorium configuration, it is very easy to blind everyone in the audience with your key, fill and backlight in the round. Using a more surgical approach to lighting is a requirement, so large scale wash lighting designs traditionally used for church environments were not an option for us.

Our initial solution was suggested to us by The Lighting Design Group of New York. They recommended individually set up and controlled follow spots, with intensity and focus controlled by the board operator. The premise was to light facial features in the best possible way without regard to where our pastors were positioned on the stage. Initially, we used a variety of automated spot/beam fixtures and a tracking system, to light the teaching pastors with the fewest number of fixtures possible, and insure they had proper, balanced, and pleasing light at any point on the large stage they would choose to teach from. This proved to be very successful in meeting our goals for light control, lighting quality – even allowing us to capture a “twinkle” in the eyes of the teaching pastors on camera with lighting fixtures and cameras 70’ from the stage.

However, there were certain caveats to the system, like high sensitivity to ambient noise such as when a cymbal would strike during worship and interfere with the signal, and it was quite difficult to setup and keep in alignment. Also, we were limited to three reliable tracking receivers, which was a problem for our larger productions and events.

We read about BlackTrax and observed the system in action at LDI in 2011 and immediately saw the potential. The first serious advantage was found in the system setup and calibration. Whereas a typical calibration for 30 moving lights would have taken two days in our old system, BlackTrax accomplished this in less than three hours. The CAST team provided incredible support and training on site, making the process painless.

BlackTrax allows us to track more performers – we can conceivably use every automated light in the rig as a follow spot. For example, if we have a procession down one of the aisles, we can use over 200 lights and track subjects over the entire main floor. BlackTrax also allows us to be specific about the boundaries of what we want to light; we can tell it exactly where we want our limits.

Another huge benefit that we’re experiencing with our first Christmas production in the round is that we don’t have to use any stage markings since the actors simply wear a very small tracking beacon. They have more freedom to concentrate on conveying the emotional impact of the script and are not worried about being in the right spot at the right time. This takes a lot of the pressure off everyone and also cuts down on rehearsal time. In addition, the 16-bit tracking in BlackTrax is amazingly smooth and fast – there’s no distraction of a missed actor or choppy follow.

But the real benefit for us is what BlackTrax will allow with our other technologies in the future. The next push for us will be our use of media servers and projection with the system to incorporate more situations we call “invasions of the ordinary” – namely something radically different that shakes things up and conveys an important message in a new and powerful way. The range of ideas you can implement when your video projection content can follow your performers is amazing.

We also eventually plan to use BlackTrax with automated cameras. Right now we use up to 10 full-sized cameras with operators, but with BlackTrax we can add more cameras to capture additional wide and medium shots with precision and control. If we were to add manned cameras, we’d be looking at up to $120K per camera. BlackTrax can do it for about $5K each. The system will definitely stretch our production budget while further improving the content we produce.

While our in-the-round situation is certainly unique, many churches experience common challenges that can be solved with the addition of a tracking solution. We wanted to keep lights off of the audience: a lot of churches need to keep the light off of the set and rear projection. We needed to produce a very high quality lighting design for video using a minimum number of fixtures: many churches would see significant savings in operational and capital costs if they could light their pastors with a few tracking fixtures as opposed to a large rig of conventional lighting.

A tracking system is certainly a significant investment; however, it has the potential to make everything work together a lot better. Controlling spill light through tracking allows your existing projectors and visual elements to appear a lot brighter. Tracking your performers with fewer lights allows you to use all of your other fixtures to enhance the production in new and exciting ways. Tracking can truly unleash a new level of performance out of your existing inventory. In this, BlackTrax is proving its value over and over again.

I’m extremely pleased with the performance of the BlackTrax system to solve so many existing challenges in lighting, but I’m even more excited about the possibilities for the future. The potential that BlackTrax provides is not just evolutionary, it’s revolutionary.

Michael Wells is the Executive Director of Operation at Trinity Fellowship Church, Amarillo ,TX
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