Hirshhorn's 'Chief Tech, Al Masino, lighting matters

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Al Masino has the grand title of Director of Exhibitions, Design and Special Projects at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum -- but you can think of him as Chief Tech.

There are downsides to the job. When a loop of film breaks, or a patron jams up a projector, the buck stops with him.

The job also has its upsides, at least for any guy with a geek inside. Masino gets to buy whatever gadgetry his galleries need. Right now, as the Hirshhorn prepares to move and expand its Black Box video space, Masino is shopping for digital projectors.

Rule 1: They all need to come from the same company, so that there's only one set of manuals to learn and one set of menu commands.

Rule 2: No consumer goods; only machines made for heavy-duty professional use. When he recently tried consumer Blu-ray players -- there aren't really pro ones yet, he says -- they broke after a few weeks.

The last time Masino went projector shopping, he ended up with high-end Panasonics. They were fine, he says, despite customer support that wasn't always supportive. This time, however, he's considering equipment from Christie Digital, a pro-only company that supplies projectors to most of the country's digital cinemas.

For the Hirshhorn's galleries, Masino won't be getting the giant moviehouse models, but he'll be buying the same technology as used in cinemas: Texas Instruments' three-chip Digital Light Processing (DLP), built around microscopic mirrors, instead of Epson's three-panel Liquid Crystal Display (3LCD), which got digital projection started and is still used in many home theaters. Compared with 3LCD, says Masino, DLP has improved blacks and is much more consistent and durable. (And expensive: The Hirshhorn's new projectors will each cost in the neighborhood of $20,000.)

Only a few of his projectors will be high-definition, since not all art demands it so far, and he's found that it's better to run a standard-definition signal to a standard-definition projector than to feed it to a high-def machine. (Surprisingly, his high-def signals will probably be fed, uncompressed, from hard drives, rather than from the Blu-ray discs that are in people's homes -- again, the problem is consumer-grade players.)

The projectors he buys will be bright: a full 6,500 lumens, which makes them bright enough to use in only partly darkened rooms. (You need to darken a room somewhat, he says, or you'll never get decent blacks, no matter how bright the projector. Using a darker screen helps -- for an old Warhol film, in lousy condition, he once projected on black.)

There are brighter projectors out there -- he'll be renting as many as a dozen, at 15,000 lumens each, for a piece that artist Doug Aitken is planning to project onto the facade of the Hirshhorn -- "but in terms of museum standards, these are just about top of the line."

For the first time, Masino is hoping for projectors with centralized computer controls, so he can adjust them from his office and program their on and off times.

As for the future, it's likely 3-D. "I have no experience with that yet," says Masino, "but I know it's coming."

-- Blake Gopnik

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