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German-based lighting manufacturer Astera continues to walk an intriguing line between cinema lighting and the company’s roots in the event lighting space. Their new RGB Mint Amber light, the 15W PixelBrick is a great example. At first glance, this boxy light would seem to be more at home on a stage as opposed to a set. However, the fact it’s powered by the Titan LED engine immediately gives it some clout in production, and this is thanks to the popularity of the Titan LED tube light with the same engine.
First, a brief note regarding my philosophy on lighting reviews. In general, my method is comparing. How well does a light compare with other fixtures I use daily on set as a freelance director of photography? Here, the PixelBrick throws a curveball. I can’t think of another light with a similar physical footprint or a 13-degree beam angle. In that arena, PixelBrick stands alone.
The exterior design of the PixelBrick could potentially be compared with a less elongated Digital Sputnik DS1, but even so, the comparison isn’t that close. The PixelBrick has a unique look and a name more descriptive than you’d think: it contains one pixel and looks like a brick – hence, a “PixelBrick.”
The rear control panel will feel familiar to anyone who has spent time with the Titan, Helios, or Hyperion line of Astera tube lights. You can control the color and intensity as well as trigger different effects, but my preference is to use the Astera app. The advantage of using the app is you’ll have more fine-tuned control. More on that later.
Everything on the PixelBrick feels well-built and able to hold up to the rigors of on-set work and even life in a rental house. In fact, I’d say the IP65-rated and aluminum-built PixelBrick is hardier than the Astera tube lights, though time will tell. Out of the box, the first thing you’ll notice is that the fixture is flanked on all sides by airline track, and it’s that track system that opens up a whole world of useful accessories. At first, the airline-mounting system starts a bit stiff, though the connection loosens up with use.
As far as the internal battery goes, Astera promises over 20 hours at lower intensities. Unfortunately, this battery is not user-changeable and does require four hours to charge.
I’m most enthusiastic about using a hard light with the same or improved internal engineering of a Titan soft tube light. My Titan tube kit has been a constant and helpful companion on many of my shoots over the last two years. I’ve grown to enjoy the accurate color rendition, easy mounting options, and the system’s internal battery.
Astera makes a $400 device called the ART7 AsteraBox CRMX which gives you the ability to control the most recent generation Astera products over Bluetooth using the AsteraApp. You do not need that device with either the PixelBrick or the recently released and reviewed by us NYX bulbs, for that matter. You can connect to both types of fixtures directly by changing to “App Control” in the rear menu and connecting through your phone. Connecting to the fixture for the first time takes about 20 seconds, and this seems to be slightly faster than the Astera NYX bulb.
If you’ve never played around in the AsteraApp (available on both iOS and Android), I suggest spending some time getting to know it. It isn’t complicated, but the sheer number of configurable options on the tube lights can be a bit overwhelming at first. There being only a single controllable pixel on the PixelBrick does act to simplify things.
Astera does have a helpful tutorial that goes over many of the considerations you might have as a new AsteraApp user:
The PixelBrick can emit a vast array of user-selectable colors, and of course, you’ll be able to hit all the most popular Tungsten and Daylight kelvin options by using the app or rear control panel. Just know that fine-tuning a color is faster through the app.
Beyond Bluetooth control, you can use wired DMX (via PWB-2-86). The light also has a CRMX receiver built right in.
Astera has created many different accessories that work with the PixelBrick and, more specifically, with the airline-track mounting system. Know that I am a huge fan of standardization whenever possible and Astera also has a standardized accessory kit in addition to the 8-light PixelBrick kit. Different types of mounts and grips required for a fixture can complicate things and result in a 5-ton grip truck, that may not be what you had in mind. I asked the Astera team if they planned to continue using the airline-track mounting system, and they said it’s their goal going forward. That’s great news and adds usefulness for all the bits and bobs you collect for mounting this system.
Did you like working with LEGOs or blocks as a kid or, heck, as an adult? You’ll enjoy the BrickTilt, BrickHinge, BrickConnect, BrickMount, and BrickBracket. A major goal of the PixelBrick design, as described to me by the Astera team, is the idea that the PixelBrick can make various shapes for use in the background of a music video or on stage at a concert. All of the previously mentioned accessories allow you to do that in any degree or angle you can think of (a few options are in the video below).
The Airline Mounting system does start a bit stiff, though the connection loosens up over continued use.
Keep in mind if you’re hanging a set of PixelBrick’s, you need to be wary of the overall weight. Each PixelBrick weighs 2.47 lbs / 1.12kg. Astera recommends up to four PixelBricks being hung together from a single point. More than four, and you’ll need to add another safety or mounting point to assist with the weight. Obviously, if any lighting instrument is hung above talent or crew, you’ll need to keep a careful eye on safety.
Adding the PixelBrick to a standard light stand, C-Stand, or combo stand (a bit overkill given the weight) is straightforward when using the removable bracket attachment. Of all the accessories, the removable bracket does wiggle a bit at its connection point, but not enough for you to be concerned it might fall. You could also use an accessory called the “TrackPin” or AX-TP to connect to a C-Stand arm or baby pin receiver.
Astera makes two plastic lenses or, as Astera calls them, “filters,” which transform the native 13-degree beam of the fixture to either 17 degrees or 30 degrees, and those easily pop into place in front of the lamp. The tabs of my plastic filters were cut differently and in different shapes, and this I chalk up to it being a sample kit I was sent.
I love the idea you can make shapes with the PixelBrick. Obviously, nothing too intricate like, say, a company logo. For that, a custom gobo with Leko will still be your friend. The other potential issue with the idea of making shapes on stage or set is you’ll need a bunch of $425 PixelBrick’s and corresponding accessories, which might get expensive. The 8-light kit retails for $4,000, which could be a good starting place for those most interested in this design feature. Renting is an option as more rental houses begin to stock the 8-light kit.
If you’re having trouble keeping track of all the different accessories, that’s to be expected. The point is I couldn’t think of a mounting option that wasn’t possible with this array of accessories and if you feel like I missed one, let me know in the comments below.
Let’s dive a little deeper into PixelBrick use cases for Cinema. In my opinion, this isn’t a key light, which is absolutely fine. If you really, really wanted to key with this, I would build a 4×4 or PixelBrick 6×6 grid using connectors and then punch it through various types of 4×4 ft. diffusion. Or you could double break the diffusion. That would work really well, but you could also throw four Titan tubes in a Kino 4-foot housing and accomplish a similar and perhaps, softer feel.
Where the PixelBrick really shines is as an accent, hair, eye, or specialty light. Use a BrickDome accessory and expand the beam angle to light up a dark corner in the back of a shot or pair a PixelBrick with a Lightbridge CRLS 25cm panel for complex product work and light up the corner of an object. The light is small enough to hide behind art objects and to extend the work of an in-shot practical.
I did notice the RGB Mint Amber chip in the lamp does break apart into individual colors (even at 56K) if you place it too close to your subject or if the beam happens to clip a wall too close to the fixture itself (see the below pic). This is something I’ve seen in other RGB-style fixtures that require a certain mix of colors to create a particular kelvin temp, so know it isn’t unique to the PixelBrick. If you want to accurately register your intended color or kelvin without getting color fringing, be careful placing the fixture too close to your subject.
In a modern or industrial scene, the PixelBrick also plays well as a practical and acts a lot like an accent light for art that you might find in home design stores. A few PixelBricks also transport well in a Pelican 1650 (about the largest hard case that can fit comfortably in an overhead bin of a plane).
Keep in mind that beam angle can heavily influence output when compared to other fixtures. I grabbed a few measurements on my Sekonic C-700U Spectrometer (now updated with the C-800U) to see how accurately the PixelBrick handled color temp (kelvin) and output (lx) from a distance of 3 ft. Here are my readings with a target of 5600K with the native beam angle of 13 degrees with an output set to 100%. I had no accessories attached for these readings.
A reading of 5834K with a target of 5600K is excellent and well within a normal range. Here’s a measurement from the Astera PixelBrick with a target of 3200K – again at 13 degrees with output set to 100%.
A reading of 3344K with a target of 3200K is excellent and even a little closer versus daylight.
In short, both these results are very good and hopefully will give potential users a bit more insight into how this fixture handles color and overall output. No red flags here from my point of view.
The 15W PixelBrick has a total power draw of 12W and conveniently uses the same power cable that charges the Astera Titan, Hyperion, and Helios tubes. As mentioned previously, you will want to factor in a hefty charge-to-full time of 4 hours into your daily planning on location. Of course, the fixture can be used while charging, so it might be worth picking up a few additional power cables for safety.
Astera claims a total of twenty hours of battery life but doesn’t give the intensity level of testing. I went ahead and cranked the intensity of one of my PixelBricks up to 100% output at 56K and set a timer. It ran for about five hours before running out of battery. This is an impressive amount of time, and the battery life indicator on the rear display panel was spot-on the entire time, showing 5 hours of battery life to start and then counting down over time.
In many ways, the PixelBrick is a light I didn’t know I needed, but now with me on most of my shoots. The small compact size, narrow beam angle, and long battery life mixed with the Titan LED engine I was already a huge fan before working with this light, and the wide variety of well-thought-out accessories make this another hit from Astera.
At $425, the PixelBrick is on the pricier side. You have to decide how often you’ll need it to make fun customizable shapes. The build quality means I might feel better about renting out a PixelBrick kit versus a Titan tube. The ability to recoup on your investment will factor into your buying decisions.
Wirelessly controlling the PixelBrick without needing another expensive accessory is a plus and means it fits nicely into my ecosystem of Astera products like the NYX bulb and Titan tubes I already use on set. While it isn’t my field, the PixelBrick is likely a plausible purchase for folks working in event lighting. For those like me who work in film & TV production, the easily controllable and mountable PixelBrick is a welcome surprise that’s simple to pack and can be thrown right into the mix on set.
What do you think about tiny cube LED lights and more precisely, PixelBrick? Did you have a chance to work with those before? If yes, please share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.
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Emmy winner, Graham Sheldon, resides in Southern California, where he works as a producer and director of photography. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America and ICG Local 600.