TouchDesigner | Previs for Moving Lights

I got an interesting question a few weeks ago about how to use tracking data to control moving lights. If you work with Touch long enough, at some point you’ll almost always end up wanting to drive some object in the real world with information derived from calculations in Touch. Where / how can you get started with that process?! It’s often temping to straight away jump into just driving the physical object. After all you know what you’re trying to do, and you might have a sense of how to get there – so what’s the harm?

That’s not a bad instinct, but I almost always like to start with some form of previs. You won’t always have access to all the equipment you want to use, and more importantly it’s often better to make sure you understand the problem you’re trying to solve before you start driving motors. The additional bonus here is that solid previs will create some opportunities for testing, and planning that you might not other wise have.

This post is going to look at:

  • Planning / mapping out some simple previs for using tracking data on some moving lights
  • Using the Object CHOP to calculate bearings for rotation information
  • Some simple use of custom parameters and bindings
  • Pattern matching for renaming
  • Using the CHOP export method Channel Name is Path:Parameter
Top level look at our setup

As a disclaimer, this is not a great approach for LOTS of lights – but is a great way to get started and make sure you understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

Workspace Setup

I like a workspace where it’s easy to see multiple perspectives at the same time. In this case I’d like to see the the network editor (your typical Touch workspace), the geometry viewer, and a rendered view. We can split our workspace with the icon that looks like a little down arrow in the upper right corner of the pane bar:

Split the network with the drop down menu in the upper right

In this case I’m going to split the workspace left/right, and then once top/bottom. In the pane on the top right I’m going to change the Pane Type to geometry.

Change the pane type to geometry

On the Bottom I’m going to change the pane type to Panel. If we’re working with container COMPs this can be very handy as it lets us see the panel for the container. If you’ve created an interface, that means you can also interact with your controls from here, without having to open a floating window.

A clean project set up like this looks like:

Our blank network

Our last step here is going to be adding a Container COMP to our network. We also need to rename it, and make sure our two new windows on the right correctly reference our net container. Our network bar is path based, so we just need to make sure both of them have the address: /project1/container_previs

Container COMP with our correct addresses

Custom Parameters

I want to control the elements of my previs container with a set of custom parameters. This will help me reduce the places I have to look for making changes, and helps save me the step of building a UI to control this visualization. I already happen to know what pieces I want to add here:

  • Transform controls for a tracked object
  • Transform Controls for 3 lights
  • Color Controls for 3 lights
  • Dimmer Controls for 3 lights
  • All of these should live on a page called “Settings”

In the end, our custom parameters should look like this:

Our Custom Parameters

I’m not going to go into huge detail here about how to set up the custom parameters here, but you can learn more about using custom parameters:

There is, however, one quick thing to point out. The addition of bindings in the Spring update comes along with a handy way to take quick advantage of them. We can use the drag and drop trick to add a set of custom parameters from another operator, and we can also auto assign all of our bindings in the process. Let’s take a look at that process.

Inside of /project1/conatiner_previs I’m going to add a light COMP. I’m going to first open the custom parameters dialog, and then add a page to my previs container called Settings. Next I’m going to grab the parameter Translate from my light comp, and drag it right onto the Parameter column in the customize dialogue. Here’s where the magic happens. Next I’ll select Bind New Par as Master from the drop-down, and ta-da – now your bindings are already set up for you:

Auto-assign our bindings by dragging and dropping

Scene Set-up

To set up this scene I’m going to use a few simple tricks. First I’m going to use a camera and a few pieces of geometry to get started. For something like the stage, I like a single top level Geo, with separate pieces nested inside. The benefit here is that if we scale or transform our top level Geo those changes will propagate to our nested elements:

Inside out stage

You’ll notice a separate wire-frame version of the stage inside of our stage – this is to give us some nice grid lines. geo2 is also transformed ever so slightly above geo as well, so we’ve got some nice clean rendering. Looking at the phong material for the primary stage, it’s got a slight gray emit color – so we can see it even when there’s no light on it’s surface.

We’ll also use a little trick with our camera. I’ve set my camera to look at a null COMP in our scene. This gives us some better handles for adjusting where our camera is looking without needing to manually set the rotation and transformation values. This is often a very helpful and easy way to get better camera controls by thinking spatially, rather than as transformation values.

Finally, I’m going to add another geo and change it to be a sphere. In this case I want some object to represent a moving object on my stage. I’m going to bind this object to my parent’s custom parameters that I already set-up for transformation. This means I can change the position of this geo either from the parent’s custom ops, or from the parameters on the geo.

Light Set-up

Depending on the order you’ve done this, you may have already created lights to set-up your custom parameters. If you haven’t done that yet, now’s a good time to add some lights to your scene. I’m going to use three for now. I’m also going to use a table to hold the transformation information for our lights. I’m using a table here because I’m thinking of a situation where my lights aren’t going to move – theatrical lights are usually transformationaly stable, and instead just rotate. If you’re lights are going to move in xyz position, this isn’t the most optimal set-up. Next I’m going to convert my table of positions to CHOP data. In my Dat to CHOP I want to make sure that I’m using a channel per column, and that my fist row and first column are marked as names.

Convert from DAT to CHOP

Next I’m going to use an object CHOP to find the position data for my target (that sphere we set-up in our scene). I’m going to plug my datto1 into that a second object CHOP, and my first object CHOP into the second input. Next I’ll make sure that I’m computing bearing, and on the channel page I want to change the output range to be start/end. I want to change that to samples instead of seconds, and then make sure that I start at sample 0 and end at sample 2.

Object CHOP -bearing calculations

So what’s this all about? What we’re doing with this second object CHOP is calculating the rotational values that will tell us the how to look at our target with each of our lights. We can then use this to set the rotation of our lights so they follow our target object. We could also do this with a chain of Math CHOPs… but having done it both ways, they’re almost computationally identical, and this you can do with fewer operators. So now we know the rotation values we need to set our on lights to make sure they’re looking at our target.

Now, we could certainly write some complex references for these values, but we can also learn a handy trick that I don’t see used too many places. Here we’re going to look at another CHOP export configuration. Before we get there, we need to flatten out our CHOP data. To do this we can use a shuffle CHOP set to split all samples:

Flatten out our CHOP data

This is swell, but if we don’t want to go through the process of exporting these one by one to our lights, what can we do? Well, it’s handy to know that there’s another way to use CHOP exports. There happens to be an export method called Channel Name is Path:Parameter. What that means is that if we change the name of our channel to be formatted so it’s the path to the operator followed by a colon and ending with the target parameter the exports will happen for us without any extra work.

Let’s take a quick detour to see how that works in isolation first. Let’s first add a constant CHOP, connected to a null CHOP. Finally let’s add another geo COMP to see how this works.

First steps to understanding another export method

Next let’s name some channels in our constant. I want to add the following:

  • geo1:tx
  • geo1:ty
  • geo1:tz

Next on my null CHOP I’m going to go the common page and change the export method to Channel Name is Path:Parameter. Finally, I’m going to turn on the export flag for the null CHOP, and ta-da. You’ve not exported values for tx, ty, and tz to your geo.

Exporting CHOPs with Path and Parameter

Okay, now if we go back to our flattened rotation info, we can imagine that if we just change the names of our channels we won’t have to do lots of dragging and dropping to get our exports sorted.

Let’s add a rename CHOP, and we can use some fancy pattern matching to do the renaming for us. In the From parameter we want r*[0-2]. What on earth does that mean? Well, any channel that starts with r, then has any character next, and then has a value of 0, 1, then 2. This happens sequentially, so we do all the r0s first, then the r1s and so on. That matters because our shuffled data is all rx values, then ry, and finally rz. We have to make a pattern matching schema that works works with that pattern.

Okay, so in our To parameter we want to use the pattern light[1-3]:r[xyz]. This means we’ll change our name space to be something like light1:rx. Again, this happens sequentially, so we’ll do all the 1s, then 2s, then 3s. What we end up with changes our original names like this:

Next we should be able to connect our null CHOP, set it to export as Channel Name is Path:Parameter, and we should be off to the races with all of our exports set up.

Our Container

By the end of all of this we should have a handy little container that’s set-up so we can change the position of a target geometry, and have our lights automatically follow it around our stage. If you’ve gotten stuck along the way, check the bottom of the page for a link to a repo where you can download just a tox of the finished Container, or a whole toe file with our workspace setup.

Our little follow spots

Other Considerations

What we haven’t talked about is getting your measurements and scaling right, or how to convert our rotational values into pan and tilt measurements, or how to convert that for controlling something with a protocol like DMX. Those are big concerns in their own right, but with a solid visualization you will at least have something to compare the real world against so you can start pulling apart those challenges.

Happy programming!


If you want to download this and look through the set-up you can find it on GitHub here.