X10 to the Rescue! Remote-control Units Help Country's Biggest Student Film Festival

BestFest is a film festival for high-school and college students from all over San Diego County. Over the last five years it has become the biggest student film festival in the U.S (over 300 films were submitted in 2004). It is sponsored by the Visual Arts Foundation and as with many non-profit organizations, funding is tight and much of the work is done by a few dedicated volunteers.

This year BestFest was held at the all-digital UltraStar theater in Poway, California. Students got to see their films on a full-size movie theater screen in full surround sound. As you can imagine, this is truly exciting for these young film-makers, their families, friends, teachers and the general public.

When I arrived at this year's event, stage lighting had been set up by Gerry Willams, our volunteer audio-visual technician. He had placed a lighting station on each side of the huge theater screen and a spotlight in the back row of seats. The lighting stations were 500W studio lights on tripods with adjustable “barn doors” which were used to illuminate the stage area during the awards and announcements. A 500W spotlight in the rear of the theater highlighted the presenters, award winners and sponsors.

The theater was darkened while each student film was screened, and the stage lights were turned on as each film was introduced and the awards presented by BestFest Executive Director Dave Larson. The plan was for three volunteers to operate the lights, each wearing a walkie-talkie headset. A fourth volunteer, Bonnie Kristell acted as floor manager, directing the lighting volunteers when to hit the lights. She also communicated with the projection booth to control the audio levels while she videotaped the entire event. BestFest volunteers wear many hats!

This setup worked fine, but it quickly became clear that it was tying up four people and four headsets just to turn three switches on and off. We were already shorthanded due to some volunteer attrition, but this seemed like a promising application for some X10 devices. Fortunately the theater was in a shopping center with a Radio Shack® only a few doors away.

I purchased two 500W Appliance Modules to cover two of the three lighting stations, and a Mini-Remote Control Center to operate the modules. One appliance module was connected to the left-side stage lights and the other to the spotlight in the rear of the theater. The Mini Controller was plugged into an outlet strip next to the right-side stage lights. Luckily for us, all the outlets in the theater were on the same circuit or this arrangement would not have worked. In this case, X10 was truly plug and play. I set the modules and controller to House code “A” and switch code 5, plugged everything in and it worked on the first test. Total setup time was literally a matter of a few minutes.

One volunteer wearing a headset sat at the front of the theater with the Mini Controller as the sole lighting technician. When the floor director said to hit the lights, he pressed a button on the Mini Controller to turn on the left stage lights and the rear spotlight, and he pressed the master switch on the third lighting station. Voila! All three light stations under the control of one volunteer.

The two volunteers who were previously “stuck” turning the lights on and off were freed up to cover other duties, which helped BestFest rack up another award-winning season. Total cost for parts was about forty-five dollars, and we will re-use the system each year. See you at the movies

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