Stage Lighting Focus Guide – Updated

Friday, November 16th, 2012 - Learn Stage Lighting - by:

*Update* Have you ever worked with a Lighting Designer, whether amateur or professional, and wondered what they are doing wandering around on stage waving their arms about? Have you noticed an LD, directing the lighting focus standing on the stage with their backs to the rig, and wondered what they were looking at on the floor? This newly updated article sheds some light (sorry!) on how to focus stage lighting, with an assistant, from the stage. We examine the process from the viewpoint of both the Lighting Designer and the Electricians and get to grips with some common lighting focus terminology.

 

 Stage Spotlight - stage lighting focus
It was Bertie Bassett’s turn up the ‘scope..
Image by PhotoGraham

When you work in small venues with limited resources you may find yourself doing the actual lantern pointin’ yourself. The main reason to not to go up that ladder is:

  • You, the LD, can see how the light will interact with the performers on stage.

Other reasons are:

  • You can clearly see the lighting plan.
  • It is easy to communicate with others in your team.
  • It’s hot in the roof. Get someone else to do the hot knob twiddling!

The Shadows

When the lighting designer is standing facing away from you and squinting at the floor, they are actually looking at their shadow cast on the stage, set and whatever else gets in the way. If their silhouette is in the middle of the beam circle, they know that the lantern is centered on them. If their “shadow head” disappears into the top of the beam circle, the light is too low and needs to be lifted and if they can’t see the outline of their ankles in the beam, then they are not lit all the way to the floor.

Seeing your shadow in a pool of light gives you all the information you need about how you are being lit. Using your hands and arms, you can test where the lit area ends, at the side of stage for example. Using your hand above your head can simulate someone taller or show you how much headroom there is in the focus of a spotlight.

 

Using shadows to get an even general cover.

The secret to getting an even general cover is to get the pools of light from your spotlights to join seamlessly when they are all faded up. You can use your shadow to test this out by walking sideways across the stage and studying the way the shadows appear and disappear as you move between .

If your shadow quickly dips and then reappears as you move across stage you know that there is a “black spot” between the two lights. If, on the other hand, you can see two shadows almost on top of each other then two spotlight beams are overlapping by far too much and should be eased apart.

Watching the opposing shadow angles of your front light change as you move across stage can give you an indication of a large change in throw angles that may well look odd from the audience’s point of view.

The final check for any “black spots” is to hold your hand out just above shoulder level, still facing away from the rig, and to study how the reflected brightness changes on your hand. This is actually easier said than done with a load of profile spots all pointing at you so keep facing away from them.

Backlight

You can use the same techniques to focus backlight and sidelight. When focussing backlight, your shadow should ideally cut off at the top of the seats in the front row. If it extends much higher, the backlight is shining directly into the eyes of the front row of the audience.

Don’t forget…

Using the above techniques you can get most of the lighting focus done without ever having to look directly at the spotlights but there a few focus checks to do before you move onto the next lantern.

Have a peek over the front of your stage to check for spill on the front of the forestage. Also check for spill on the proscenium, tabs, borders or other stage elements that are not meant to be lit. In the trade, the focussing assistant should shutter these off automatically but you still need to check them.

Guide To Focusing Stage Lighting

The following is a guide on the nuts and bolts of planning and taking part in a successful focus session from the viewpoint of both the Lighting Designer and the focusing Electrician.  A glossary of some common focus terms and lingo is at the end.

Lighting Designers

The schedule: You will have agreed your scheduled focus time with the Production Manager. This needs to be your time and not be eaten into by people hammering, sawing or painting things so you can’t walk on them. You also need to ensure that you get to start on time unless you have agreed to move the slot with the PM. Everyone else will be happy to take time out of your focus session to do the things they haven’t finished. You must resist this.

You should understand how many lanterns you have to focus, your time slot and roughly how long you get with each lantern. This stops you taking 1 hour to get the first profile spot perfect, and the second hour doing the 60 others in a hurry. Keep in mind how access to the rig impacts on your time and plan for that. This might be making sure you have two ladder teams working in different places so you can keep going while the other team are moving ladders (in safe lighting conditions).

You should have all relevant information at your fingertips ready for a smooth focussing session. This includes either a full plan or a detail of each bar, with channel numbers and purpose information. You should also double check the correct gel is fitted as you go along.

You will need a pencil and probably a torch in order to make notes, tick off focussed lanterns etc.

The most important thing is the LD knows the rig and has a good idea of what they want each lantern to achieve. The worst LD is one that doesn’t really know what they want. Yes, you can try things and experiment but bumbling between lanterns or being vague is demoralising for the crew and takes up valuable time. Arrive at the focus knowing where you want to start and what the lantern needs to actually light.

If sets or furniture needs to move for the focus, have a plan with the SM as to when and what and try to avoid shuffling things back and forth. If a lot needs doing, insist that you have enough crew/ASMs etc. called just to move stuff when you need it and not have to go off looking for help every time you need to shift a sofa.

Electricians

It is your responsibility that the LD has a fully working rig, with all the correct gels and accessories fitted in time for the focus has to start. You also should have a ready stock of spare lamps and anything else (fuses where needed) so that nothing technical holds up the focus.

The lanterns should be rigged exactly as per plan and tightened up to a working tightness (not completely locked off but done up tight), barndoors fully open and shutters out. If you really want to be a star and the LD always starts with a fresnel spotted down, then rig them with them already spotted down (lamp tray pushed to the rear), profiles tight (lenses far apart) and PAR lamps oriented the way the LD wants (horizontal / up down stage or whatever) This happens, it’s not a joke. I do this when I’m a Production LX. Why not be totally ready with as much done as possible before the focus starts?

You will need to have ready control of the dimmers, either using a reliable remote unit or have the desk accessible with an operator. If you have already worked out Fixture Groups with the LD, having these programmed and available is good so the LD can call for the “Blue Wash” as well as checking the focus of individual channels.

Whoever is going to be controlling the desk should be totally conversant with bringing channels and Groups up and down and has a good communication system with the LD. This can be cans / comms or a good shout, but “pardon?” gets old pretty quickly. For good communication, it’s also important that there aren’t additional sounds or distractions in the space such as power tools use or chattering from others not connected with the focus. Poor communication or concentration makes the whole process take longer.

The Focus Process

The purpose of the focus is to direct and control all the conventional light sources as the Lighting Designer and the show requires them. This will involve aiming a lantern, adjusting it’s controls such as focus, barndoors or shutters one at a time. Sometimes the Lighting Designer will wish to review how more than one lantern interact on stage, so will ask to see a group of lanterns together so they can evaluate the light.

Lighting Designers

Having prepared as much as you can including having a clear idea of what each lantern is for, how you think it will be focussed etc. you can grab your plan / notes and a pencil and start.

Before people disappear into the rig it is often a good idea to have a quick briefing as to how you would like to run the focus. This might include information as to how you will call for channels, where you would like to start and maybe even how you like to focus (“All lanterns brought to 80%. I want all doors and shutters out. I will ask for a fresnel to be spotted down on my head first, then we will set the size…”) so that the electricians are clear what they will need to do. You should also ask them if there is anything you should know about the rig such as lanterns that are unavailable because they are still to be rigged or are not working. This is not ideal, but it happens.

Before you call for the working light to be switched off, check you have your first electrician in place and that you have your list or plan with you. Don’t look into any lanterns that are on or about to come on, but check you have the right one and that you are happy to call for darkness. From this point, you should be using only clear instructions to communicate with the electricians focussing or operating the desk. They are acting as your hands on each lantern as if by remote control. They should also keep a wary eye out for things you might not see such as spill on the masking, but it’s not their primary function.

Make sure they are ready to start.

Stand on stage where you would like the first lantern directed, using the system you have discussed with the team such as Spotted Down, Centre On Head or your preferred method. Once you are happy with the initial position, make it clear to the electrician that you would like it in that place. This means that if you decide to move out of the light, they don’t follow you with the beam around the stage like a followspot. Use clear hand signals and your voice and don’t assume that the person focussing can see and hear from where they are. Build up a clear and standard series of arm movements and body language that you use over and over again.

Don’t look into the lantern, keep your back to it but remember that your voice is harder to hear if you are talking directly away from the listener.

After setting an initial position, the next step is usually to set the size and beam edge focus. While you are doing this, keep moving around the area to make sure the unit is lighting everywhere you need it to. For a cover unit, this is usually checking that I am fully lit in the most upstage places I wish to stand, both left and right. Also check the downstage points too so you have an idea of the entire lit area with a person stood in it. Ignore what is happening on the floor if you are trying to light a person. At this stage, you might find you need to move the centre of the lantern a bit until you get into your stride. Alternate between directing the lantern, waiting for it to stop moving and then walking around the space again. If you are trying to join up two cover areas seamlessly, you may wish to have the next area lantern brought up so you can check the join.

Once happy with the position, size and beam edge or focus you can move on to getting rid of spill or unwanted light with the shutters or barndoors. Check every edge. Start with the most obvious such as the front of the stage, the top of the pros. and the offstage masking. When bringing in doors or shutters, indicate with your arm where you would like it to be and the angle it should be set at.

It’s OK to change your mind or ask to look at things again if it means you don’t have to return to the lantern. However, you need to be aware of the time and have done a quick mental calculation along the lines of: Focus Time Allotted / Number Of Lanterns = Rough Spent Time Per Lantern. There is no point getting halfway through your front cover only to realise that you need to start plotting in 20 minutes and everyone still needs a break. The things that the Lighting Designer can avoid so as not to eat focussing time include:

    • Not having the information you need to hand.
    • Unclear direction or weak calling.
    • Indecision.
    • Not moving on at the appropriate pace.

When it comes to the focus, you are the Lighting Designer, you know why the lanterns are there and what they should do. You should know the blocking and the scene changes and have a fair idea of what you and the Director would like to use in each scene. The electricians probably don’t and they don’t need to. They aren’t there to make decisions so don’t keep canvassing their opinion on what lanterns should do, if they think you should extend this one upstage or whatever. You can ask them for information on things such as symmetry or shutter cuts you they can see better than you, but it’s bad form to ask for their thoughts on the design or how you should use your fixtures. Working with a good focus electrician that understands lighting design can be speed things up but, ultimately, the art is up to you.

The Lighting Designer should dictate the pace of the focus, even allowing for the movement of access equipment between fixtures. This means making it clear you are happy and wish to move on and suggesting that you work around a technical issue that has arisen while it is dealt with. While pushing the focus along, you do need to be aware of the problems that a focussing electrician might have such as stuck shutters, droopy barndoors, PARs that won’t spin or even what it’s like to be working in a tricky position. As you get more experienced, you can tell what the issue is by the particular clanging sound or the wobbling of the light on stage. If everything falls silent and there is little sign of a struggle, they are probably waiting on direction from you.

Electricians

The Lighting Designer will lead the focus, but you should play your part in making sure it goes quickly and smoothly. This means not keeping your mind on the task, reacting to the LD and others in a timely manner and communicating well. This also means that if other departments have to continue work they should be asked to work quietly as communication over distance is harder when others are sawing, hammering or talking.

Let the LD know that they have a fully working system, have any access equipment (ladders, tallescope) ready to go and that you and your team are prepared to start the focus. Find out where the LD would like to begin focussing and if they have any special instructions or systems they like to work to. If stage management look like they might need help setting any scenes up for focussing, it doesn’t hurt to lend a hand if it gets you started earlier. Everyone on the electrics team should take their positions and let the LD know they are ready. A big time waster in a focus session can be everyone waiting for everyone else so saying your are ready, or finished with something, keeps things moving along nicely.

Always being ready is also the key to a speedy focus. If you are waiting at a lantern for the LD to finish with another focussing electrician, get the next lantern ready in position and check the shutters or barndoors are good to go i.e fully opened. Tighten loose bolts where required, tidy the cable if you need to. Do something useful while you wait such as tape up or tidy but be ready start as soon as the LD is ready. Don’t get chatting or let your mind wander off, if everyone stays with what is happening then there won’t be all of those dull “What? Oh, hang on..” moments when you are asked to do something.

Work in the way the LD requires, adjusting the lantern as directed. The order for this may be beam position on stage, followed by size and beam edge, finishing with shutters / barndoors and finishing. You should act as the Lighting Designer’s hands at the controls of the lantern but you can add your brain to the procedure. If the LD has just wanted the last three spots a certain size and you can see they need the same again, use your initiative and do things as they ask for them, rather than waiting for every instruction. However, don’t make everything slower by incorrectly second guessing the LD’s wishes. Make an adjustment, stop moving and adjusting and ask “How’s that?” to indicate that you have carried out the last instruction and they should check the result.

If the LD asks for information from your vantage point or to check something they can’t see, be helpful but also allow quiet breaks in between communications while the Designer thinks and stop moving things around and keep quiet. It may surprise you to know that running a focus at a decent pace takes quite a bit of brain power and the LD has quite a lot of thinking to do while you are pulling, pushing and tightening things up.

The main thing is to say when you are done. Then everyone is clear that you aren’t struggling with a barndoor or looking for your spanner and we can move on.

Once the Lighting Designer is happy with the focus of the lantern, they are finished with it. However, you are not. On a unit with barndoors, it’s good practice to “tidy” any doors that the LD didn’t specifically call for. This involves pulling the barndoor in to the point where you can just see the result on stage then backing it out a touch, so it before the dimmer channel is killed This keeps unwanted light spill to a minimum and creates a tighter package that may be less likely to be knocked by flying pieces of scenery. It also looks better and is a sign of good practice when focussing. Take a look at a rig next time and see if you can see wayward barndoors anywhere.

Before you are done you need to check a few things including locking the lantern controls and bolts off tightly and checking the safety bonds and accessories are all still fitted correctly and cable is hanging properly and isn’t going to be heated up or crushed etc.

Stage Lighting Focus – Common Terminology

Flood / Flood Out – Beam width larger. Also can use “bigger”
Spot / Spot Down – Beam width smaller. Also can use “smaller”

Long Door – Widest two of the four barndoor leaves
Short Door – Narrowest two of the four barndoor leaves
Barrel – The lens tube, often rotable on modern profile spots.

Shutter to… / Long door to… – Indicated with arm or similar.
Sharp to Shutter – Focus so that a shutter edge is focussed sharp. Requires at least one shutter pushed in.
Hard / Soft – Beam Edge
“The Other Side Of Sharp” – indicates the soft side of sharp with the lens away moved in opposite direction. Due to Chromatic Aberration of the lens, there is a detectable blue tinge or a brown tinge and some LDs will ask for the Blue side or Brown side.
Blow – A term sometimes used to describe the softening of focus on a profile. “Blow the focus on that breakup gobo”

Run The Barrel – US expression for blowing the focus to one side of sharp or the other.  Or general lens movement on a profile spot.
Flag – When an LD says “flag it” they mean move your hand back and forth across the light output so they can see where the edges are more clearly.
Peak – Adjusting the peak/flat control on a profile spot.
Hotspot – The bright point in the centre of a spotlight beam.
Kill – Turn the channel off
Check – Used as “reduce” including Checking the channel (turning it down very low while a lantern accessory or is being worked on so as not to

Spin – Rotate. Often Barndoors. Spin the bubble / lamp / lens
Swing – Pan the lantern / Horizontal direction movement.
Lift / Drop – Tilt / Vertical direction movement

Lock It Off – Tighten everything up and move on.

Calling Up Channels

An LD might want to see a lantern on it’s own or with the previous one or it’s “partner”. When calling up channels, everyone should be clear which is required. A term taken from lighting boards is “Rem Dim”, but it’s just important that the LD is clear on “with channel 50” or “as well as” or “just channel 72” on it’s own.

Directional Terms

Usually it’s better to describe direction using relative terms rather than absolute terms: On Stage / Off Stage / Towards Centre / Downstage of the treads etc. instead of Stage Left / Stage Right etc. This is because then it doesn’t matter which way anyone is facing on stage and also because the person focussing might be hanging upside down! Saying “this way” isn’t helpful if the lantern operator can’t see which way the LD is pointing.

General Tips

Bring up the new channel before killing the old one to avoid darkness and so the LD can still see the plan.
Fading up channels with the wheel heats the lamp element slowly and reduces wear and blown lamps. With larger wattage fixtures it also reduces the likelihood of tripping a circuit breaker or blowing a fuse.
Don’t get tasty with a stubborn lantern, control knob or accessory with the dimmer up full. Check it (reduce the intensity) to 20% before whacking things (20% means you can use the light from the lantern to see in the gate etc.)

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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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5 Comments

  1. Jake Sliv:

    Great article, Rob! I’d like to share a couple of tricks I use, that are handy especially when touring and having to focus with electricians that don’t speak a common language with you. When shuttering profiles I get a stick (even a broom can be used) and place it on the floor in the position and the angle I want the shutter to be. I always keep a laser pointer at hand, since combined with the local word for “there” it saves a lot of time and hand gestures.
    It’s also useful to check if your practiced hand signals aren’t actually rude or offencive in the country, you are visiting (that actually happened to me in France and almost let to a fight with one of the stagehands).

  2. Ross:

    Jake – I have to ask – *what* hand signal was that ?

  3. Justin Durnford:

    Great article. I think you pretty much have it all covered. Focusing lights is easy as soon as you get all of the terminology and understand what the stage should look like.

    You should also always try to backlight if the presentation is being recorded or imag. This helps highlight the presenter and cancel out shadows.

  4. Jake Sliv:

    Well apparently the Israeli gesture for “wait a second” – pinching together all fingers on one hand in shaking the result slightly, is interpreted in southern France as “stop what you are doing, you bloody idiot!”, or something of the sort. We learned that the hard way, when one of our crew, directing the load in of the set, came close to being run over by a forklift operator for gesturing to him: “wait, you are about to run me over”.

  5. Rob Sayer:

    Ah, I think we may have found the French / Israeli translation problem. Perhaps I’ll explain via Facebook LOL

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