a tale of two videos

Happy DaysShoot Out at White Rock
Well, the Homecoming exhibition at the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster, Bristol is now on, the opening night was last night (26 Oct 2007) and was a very successful evening. The exhibition will run until the 22nd November 2007 and is well worth a visit. I was on the selection panel and I must say we have put together a really good and varied exhibition of artworks, based on the theme of coming home. Selecting was hard work, I didn’t realise when I volunteered how difficult this process is, and the responsibilty that comes with it. You have to produce a cohesive show that ties in with the theme, whilst at the same time having enough variation of work to make it interesting. You can’t pick just the stuff that you like.

As I was on the selection panel I was not eligible to enter any work, but did that mean I had less work to do? NO! There were a few audio and digital works in the exhibition, it fell on me to organise the means of playing them and then to set up the equipment etc. As a result I think it might have been far easier for me to just put in a piece and not been a selector!

Of the three pieces that needed attention, the first, an audio track, was easiest to set up. Luckily the SBA has a few MP3 players that we bought for an earlier event, so transferring the audio to the MP3 was easy, set it on a loop and off you go. We realised that if the MP3 was on plain view, it would be stolen, so we originally devised a box to put it in. In the end it transpired that the MP3 player could sit behind locked glass, with a hole drilled for a headphone lead to project. All we needed to do was provide the gallery with enough “AAA” batteries to last for the length of the exhibition. With hindsight, I might do that one differently next time.

The two remaining pieces were both videos, both on DVD, “Shootout at White Rock” by Roy Gallop, and the other “Happy Days” by Helena Efflerove. One option for showing them would have been to buy a cheap DVD player and just set that off. It would have meant either splicing the two DVD’s into one or instructing the gallery staff to change the DVD every so often. This gallery had a DVD player stolen not long after it first opened, and they were wary of DVD equipment lying around. Another method was needed.

So we decided to get hold of a relatively oldish PC and get the DVD tracks transferred across to it, and run them on a loop. We reasoned, how hard could it be? Just rip the tracks off the DVD and play them on a loop in some media player. Set it to start when the PC boots, run full screen, and loop indefinately. Plug in some speakers, Bob’s your uncle. I was to soon find out it ain’t that easy.

The first challenge was when I realised that the PC that I had been given didnt have a DVD player. Looking back I should have just fitted one, but stupidly I had other PC’s that did, so I ripped the DVD’s on one of them. That was the beginning of my mistakes. The next challenge was “what software do I use to rip the video?” I looked at several pieces of software, some free, some shareware, some commercial. Most didnt do what I wanted, or only allowed you to rip a certain amount of video. I didnt want to pay for video software, we are a non-profit organisation and dont have a lot of money. In the end I chose the VLC Media Player. It is free, and is released under the GNU General Public Licence. So now I had the means to strip the video off of the DVD.

VLC is a media player that allows you to save a stream to practically any format you can think of. So my next challenge was, what format? Now I know practically nothing about video, so I am going to get canned here by people who will tell me that I chose the wrong format. But I chose (after several days of playing about and testing) to encode in MP4, using MP4v as the video codec at a bitrate of 2048 and in a 1:1 ratio. I don’t know enough about video to know if this is wrong. It seemed to give me good results. It played full screen with no real dropouts or artifacts. So now I have two video tracks with a .mp4 extension.

The next challenge, what to use for playback? I tried in the testing phase to use Windows Media player. Initially the PC I had was behind in Windows XP patches. Lets say, 120… plus a service pack! So after downloading the right patches and installing what seemed like three different versions of Windows Media Player, I still couldnt get it to reliably start fullscreen and play a playlist of two videos. I realised that VLC could do it. VLC has a wide range of command-line switches that allow you to start the player with a vast range of options. The instructions for command line options are available on their support wiki. I set it to start up when windows starts by adding it into the “run” section in the Windows Registry. This can be found in the registry editor under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Run. Another thing you can do is replace the Windows Shell itself, explorer.exe, with your command line to your video player. I felt that this was overkill in this instance, and besides, you might need an interface for gallery staff if something goes wrong.

So I had the process mapped out, but still hadn’t tested yet on the target machine. That was where it went wrong. When I moved everything across to the PC that was going to the gallery, the video played but there was no output to the screen! The screen was blank. I had forgotten to check what video card was in the computer! The PC was a Tiny, and was about 5 or 6 years old. The onboard video card wasnt up to the job of playing video at all, let alone full screen.

After running around the house panicking (this was the night before delivery) I found an old PCI video card that would fit. This is not PCI Express by the way. This is old fashioned PCI! Circa turn of the century. So fit the card and Yay! It works. Turning the PC off and on, testing, booting, running the VLC player witht the correct playlist fullscreen and everything. I went to be tired but happy. The next day we were due to install the equipment into the Gallery ready for the show opening.

Next morning we deliver the PC and switch on to test. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The PC wouldnt boot up at all. The replacement video card had failed! Aarrgghh. Nothing else for it but to jump in the car and drive around and get a new card. Have you tried to buy a PCI video card lately? They stopped making them years ago, and they are as rare as rocking horse doo doos. Eventually we found one in a small computer shop. The guy said it was his last one, thought he’d never shift it. Charged us £35. We were desperate by that time after having trawled around Bristol. The shop was Personic Computers and were very helpful. I recommend you try them if you live in that area.

So back to the gallery for some quick PC internal surgery, and at last we get the PC booting up. Now VLC started failing. I think because I installed it with the previous video card, and having now swapped it the settings were wrong. So after a re-install of VLC we were in business. All that remained was to tidy up the cables, attach a strong security cable , mount the 17inch flat screen on the wall and plug in the speakers and sub-woofer. We were all set.

On the night everything worked perfectly, with Helena Efflerova and Roy Gallop’s pieces playing flawlessly full screen. All in all a success, but hard work getting there. Would I do it again? Yes.

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