Programming moving lights is complicated, especially when you’re taking those first steps with some hired waggly heads and an unfamiliar console.On Stage Lighting lists 21 ways to make programming easier, more efficient and how to avoid mistakes that waste valuable time.
Based on an image by Jason Gulledge on Flickr
Compared to conventional fixtures, the intelligent light programmer has at least 10 times more information to wrangle. Many parts of the industry rely on the combined LD/Programmer role, meaning that design decisions have to be made by the unfortunate performing the frenzied button pressing. Time to get organised.
1- Be prepared
Turning up with the patch done (at least) saves time on the load in. Get the patch right in the quiet of the office, rather than trying to concentrate on 100 fixtures and their DMX addresses while some noisy chippy is jigsawing right next to you. Being able to slap a file into the desk and get it up and running while the rig is at working height makes the crew feel like you’re on the case. If you can’t access the console before the gig, most have an offline editor of some sort that is easy enough to patch with.
2 – Create a cheat sheet
Cheat sheets come in all shapes and sizes. Some easy to use reference material about your groups, fixture numbers or other stuff you will use regularly. When you develop a “system” to your programming with similar patching and desk layouts, the sheet becomes a routine in your head. You can even create a Magic Sheet direct onto the desk interface.
Another useful cribsheet is notes of ideas, scenes or looks considered during the design process – it’s amazing how your mind can go blank when faced with a “virgin” console. “So many things to program, I just can’t think what they are!”.
3 – Start early
While you won’t make many friends by slinking off to fiddle with the desk while the truck is being unloaded, don’t forget that nobody wants to be here all night. If programming is your responsibility, make a beeline for the console while kit is still being rigged. Depending on the complexity of the entire control system, there might be system issues. This needs to be done while the rest of the lighting crew are still putting barndoors in and colouring up – and the rig is still easily accessible. If the lighting department is just you, starting early isn’t so easy.
4 – Find a decent programming position
This is a lot more important than it might seem. Many final operating positions for the lighting console often have a limited view of the stage or are offset from centre, making programming positions harder. Auditorium centre and high enough to see the stage floor if possible. Seeing the floor gives a reference point for positioning and helps with sorting out beam symmetry. Different venues call for different programming positions – on an outdoor Orbital concert stage, I like to do most of the programming from Down Stage Centre and tidy up “in the crowd” positions from the FOH tower later. Being on stage makes it easier to see what’s going on when programming in daylight and you can check the band members focus by walking a just few metres from the desk.
Time spent moving the console to a good position is paid back ten times later. Just be prepared for a certain amount “no, I am not going to be here for the show” to the world and his wife.
Don’t let anyone hustle you off back to your final resting place until you are sure that most of the programming is done. Be friendly and ask if you can set up your cans (comms headset) and do the rehearsal from this position. Otherwise, those post rehearsal changes are going to take twice as long.
5 – Get comfortable
My inner Occupational Therapist says so (me, sitting on a roadbox typing on a tiny netbook). Chances are, you are going to be stuck at that desk for the next xx days with little chance of parole. Dedicated theatre style production desks are great but a significant number of shows are programmed from upturned Martin cases and the like. I prefer to work standing up if possible, but however you arrange your desk make sure that:
- The console is at the right height so you don’t have to stoop.
- You can see the stage and the desk without too much neck or eye movement. This can involve jacking the desk up a bit on boxes.
- Layout any peripherals/ plans/ keyboards/mice to be easily used without cables being snagged etc.
- If you have a chair, make sure that is the right height/ back is supported etc.
I have been known to spend 20 minutes hunting for boxes exactly the right size to bring the desk to a position that isn’t going to be a pain in the back/neck. The next 4 days went much better as a result.
6 – Check the fixtures
Check all the available fixtures are responding correctly. Pan and Tilt the right way and that the attributes are controlled correctly from the desk – colour1, colour2 etc. Winkling out any heads with an onboard Pan Invert or finding out that you have the wrong personality file version is a lot less heartbreaking at this stage.
Having “started early” you might not have the entire rig of fixtures available, some may still need to be rigged. At least you can check out what’s there. Many of the following tricks can be used with only a partial rig – in the world of corporate gigs and one night stands, you regularly get zero time to program with a full rig.
7 – Save a patch file
Once the desk patch is installed and checked, save a patch only show file with any amendments you have made to DMX addresses, fixture order etc – hopefully in a seperate file to the orginial patch. If you already have some colour / gobo palettes, great, save them too. Any spectacular screwups in the early stages of setting up the desk can be easily sorted by clearing the desk without having to repatching from scratch. Many consoles allow for incremental/ multi file saves nowadays but for the ones that don’t, taking the time to create a new disk/card is well spent. Especially when you realise that you wiped half the patch, thinking that you were programming.
8 – Set up Pan and Tilts
Many rigs involve some Pan/Tilt swapping (for fixtures rigged on their side) and you might like to invert the Pan attributes of certain fixtures for symmetry. Check these and sort them out early on – it’s no good programming position palettes until you are happy with the way the rig responds. Again, in three days time you will wish that you had corrected that accidental Tilt Invert on the second Spot from the left on the FOH truss.
9 – Create groups
Don’t skip creating groups just because your desk has a seemingly easy way to select individual fixtures. If the console has not got a macro to change the selection order (such as Random or Inverse) create some groups for that too. You can create groups without control of the entire rig but check them later.
10 – Create palettes
One of the fundamentals of moving light programming, palettes for colour and beam effects can be created early on (if not before) and should ideally be of the “universal” type. These apply to any fixture of that type (even those not patched yet,) meaning you can program the palette with only one head running. Adding more fixtures, they assume the programmed palettes too.
11 – Create a See Me position palette
Depending on the console position, you may not be able to see beams on the floor well . A position on the cyc, ceiling or other plain surface that you can see clearly and use to sort stuff out on. Create colour and beam palettes in this position, using it send a fixture to to check the colour or prism alignment during programming.
12 – Set up a quick “Director” look
Despite the fact that you have a mountain of things to get sorted before creating great art, it is a fact that if you linger near the desk for more than 5 minutes, the Director/Client/Money Man will come over and ask you to show them some looks. Swallowing the urge to tell them to leave you alone to get on with it, the best way to get shot of them is to have prepared some big n rough looks that they can gaze at while the Production Manager comes over to steer them off to catering and leave you in peace.
13 – Create some “Focus” looks
Once at the desk, the crew will delight in shouting for test channels, conventionals to rough focus and other general tasks. If you are using a programmer based console, you can placate the shouters by playing back memories that don’t interfere with your programming. It avoids the sinking feeling when you find that you have recorded some random Source Four into the last 20 memories.
14 – Minimise hand movement
Economy of hand movement and streamlining workflow are two useful tactics in programming of moving lights, particularly with large numbers of fixtures and cues. Different desks have different time savers, but just considering how much actual “doing” of stuff you can cut out is a start. On the GrandMA full size, a lot of economies are found by creating custom buttons and macros on the right hand Screen 3, near the encoders. One of the attractions of command line data entry is is the physical economy of entering data in one small area.
15 – Get “Herding” your heads
One of the biggest indicators of an inexperienced programmer is treating each moving head as an lovely individual to be nurtured and tended carefully on a 1:1 basis : Starting off – select 1 spot – move it into postion – set colour ….like focussing conventional lighting.
Think of them more like sheep. “Herding” fixtures into toward the stage, tilt up the entire back truss , tweak positions save a palette, set ALL colours to red, set half the heads to amber before quickly running through tweaking focusses.
The key point is to try to perform the big adjustments, before splitting the rig into chunks, then smaller chunks, then maybe opposite pairs before finally tweakin’ the odd head or two. When controlling a whole bunch of fixtures, get them all doing the same thing by winding an encoder (like Zoom/Focus) all the way down until every head hits it’s 0 point. Winding them all back up again, the parameter is now in sync. Or you could hit a nearby palette to line them up before adjusting once more.
16 – Use the mirror or fan function to position multiple fixtures
If you set half your symmetrical rig to Pan Invert, you can speed up the positioning of sets of fixtures by controlling them together. Use a Fan or Align (MA term) function to tidy them up in the same direction. The great thing about this method is that you can (and I have), program and entire rig with only half of it working (outdoor gig, wet distro, only six channels of hot power, don’t ask) as long as you can see at least one of every “pair”. If you prefer to have all your Pan set the same way across the rig, you can still use Fan or Align functions to wind fixtures into symmertical positions.
17 – Build looks from other programming
Cut and Paste whatever you have already to build palettes, looks and new shapes. No point in doing things twice. This applies at show level too – many LD’s have “previously enjoyed” showfiles based on certain fixture sets that they can use as a major building block for a new show. Already having the basics laid down give you more time to create.
18 – Use the tools
Whatever labour saving devices the console has, use them – Shape Editors, funky selection tools,mapping from video, whatever. We are all impressed by your ability to program 100 step Mexican Wave chase but we have computers to do that now – thank god!
19 – Keep lists
I note down everything that still needs sorting. Things that need tidying/fixing or programming that needs removal. Ticking things off on a list is satisfying and, if you have a memory like mine, vital.
20 – Discourage visitors
Some production desks have a big jar of cookies that create a hub of what we might call “connectivity” today. Directors and Production Managers need to constantly connect with the rest of the team – an LD/programmer often just needs to be left alone. The 1st law of programming is that within five minutes of sitting down at the desk either a) Someone will come and talk to you and you can’t get away or b) Someone will come and talk to someone else and stand in your line of vision.
No need to be antisocial, just make sure that your programming area is not the social centre of the universe and isn’t next to the tea making facilities.
21 – Get an iPod
I picked up this idea from a RnR programmer about 10 years ago, before the Ipod was the byword for personal stereo. This guy used to program the desk with a Walkman, supposedly listening to the next band he was LD’ing. I was struck by the genius of this plan – it cut out all extraneous noise and meant that you left him alone. The tinny sounds of Thrash Metal coming from the earphones and the cable dangling down to his pocket contstitued the subtlest of “F*** Off!, Go and chit chat to someone else” signs I’ve ever seen.
So, over 2000 words and we haven’t even programmed a decent look yet. So far, we have spent time checking stuff, fending off distractions, hunting for furniture and recording memories that probably won’t be used in the show. Still, start early enough and maybe we can fit in some programming!
Hope the desk is the first thing off the truck
If you have any favourite ways to make life easier when programming, put them in the comments below.
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Rob is a freelance Lighting Designer and Moving Light Programmer currently lecturing in technical theatre production at Bath Spa University in the UK. He is also the Editor of On Stage Lighting and runs workshops in stage lighting practice.
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