Production company Wizard of Ahs sets up a video display at the Playhouse Square Theater in Cleveland, Ohio.
Whether it’s Coachella, Lollapalooza or SXSW, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major music festival that doesn’t feature larger-than-life video displays accompanying performers on stage. From the resurrection of departed rapper Tupac Shakur via hologram at Coachella 2012 and Natalie Cole’s long-running “duet” with archival video imagery of her late father, Nat King Cole, video displays have become an integral part of many acts. And with more manufacturers getting into the game of mass-producing sophisticated display technology, smaller local and regional festivals are finding it more affordable to employ them as well.

While a robust video display market offers music festival organizers a plethora of choices when it comes to the look they want for their productions, the sheer number of displays available, combined with the rapid pace at which display technology evolves, can make it difficult to know where to start when working with these systems.

SUGAR, SPICE AND DIODES

These days, Light-Emitting Diode (LED) displays are the most popular way to showcase video at music festivals. With their relatively low power consumption, longevity and ability to offer rich imagery even in direct sunlight, they are ideal for such applications.

More than likely, anyone tasked with installing an LED screen display will be dealing with a discrete system. The choice of display, then, comes down to either a single-screen solution or a modular system. Benefits of single screens include greater simplicity of installation—as many of the screens can be mounted on a vehicle and driven to the festival site, or even come built into a vehicle—and greater image continuity. Drawbacks include a fixed size and resolution.

Owing to their inherent scalability, video panels offer the advantage of being more customizable, allowing users to set up video walls of virtually any size, resolution and aspect ratio.

IT TAKES ALL KINDS

LED3, a company that provides LED displays and services for a variety of applications, including music festivals, supplies both traditional square-shaped LED panels, along with more unusual shapes.

“When you deploy the type of LED we sell, you can use it for either image magnification or theatrical dressings,” says LED3 president Bruce Neff. “As some of it is flexible, you can wrap it [around objects on stage] and do concave and convex screens. We even have LED that does 90-degree corners, so you can essentially dress out a particular design stage in a way that gives you a lot of creativity.”

Some other companies that manufacture LED screens in less-than-typical shapes include ADI.tv, Barco LiveDots, Daktronics, GoVision and Upstage Videos. These are just a few examples—virtually all makers of quality LED panels can offer multiple types of shapes to fit the aesthetic of a particular festival.

Modular LED panels have some drawbacks. These include gaps between the panels, though generally this is not a problem with LED panels, as well as the potential for higher power draw and heavier overall weight. Recognizing these issues, some manufacturers, including Absen (sold in the U.S. by LED3), Chauvet, Elation Professional, Lighthouse and PixelFLEX, among others, offer lighter-weight, more efficient panels.

Another maker of lighter-weight panels is Barco LiveDots, a manufacturer of video display systems, along with image processing and content management technology, for the rental and staging and permanent installations markets. Two of the company’s lightweight LED screens are the V14m and V9m. The V14m weighs 28.15 pounds per tile, while the V9m, weighs about 28.9 pounds per tile.

A video wall display at a recent ZZ Top Show.
SAILING THE SHIP

Once one has determined the type, size, weight, pixel pitch and resolution of a display that will work best for a particular music festival, it’s time to consider how to fly and/or build it. According to Self, this process isn’t too much different from flying any other staging element for a festival.

One pitfall of setup, however, is timing. John Grasso, managing owner of ACIR Professional, which provides A/V systems to a number of different markets including the music festival circuit, says that because video displays are relatively new to the concert-staging process, people often overlook the time it takes to set them up.

“There are only so many hours before a show, and every element of staging and setup must be carefully planned, so that you are not impacting anyone else’s tasks,” he said.

One thing that can really put a damper on a concert is any kind of RF interference between different types of wireless gear on and around the stage. While the video display itself is wired, it will emit RF interference, which could interfere with wireless mics and wireless instrument packs. “It’s best to look closely at placement so you don’t interfere with that stuff, because on any given festival, you may have 50- 100 channels of wireless going on, and if the video wall is spitting out RF interference in that range, it just makes everyone else have a bad day,” says Self.

MERCURIAL MOTHER NATURE

Most music festivals take place outdoors, so once a video display is in place, the biggest concern with its operation is weather. Wind is especially dangerous, as video displays are typically hung at the extreme edges of the stage, where they are most vulnerable.

If possible, Self recommends going with a video display that has a blow-through screen. This type of screen features alternating slats of LED and open space, allowing air to move through it. As a result, the wind can blow through the screen, decreasing the chances it will topple the structure.

There are certain weather conditions, of course, that require immediate action, because they represent potential danger to human safety. If there is lightning, for example, the best course of action is to clear everyone out of the festival until at least 30 minutes have passed without any lightning sightings. Many of those handling the gear for festivals keep a close watch on the weather, often hiring special weather companies that alert them immediately to signs of storms, high wind or any other potentially hazardous conditions.