Stage lighting systems can contain numerous components but the elements of the system are the same. On Stage Lighting goes a quick and dirty tour of the basics of stage lighting system. If know much about stage lighting, or take things too seriously – look away now.
Stage Lighting Power
Despite advances in the efficiency of stage lighting systems, they still need electricity. Power for a stage lighting rig can be a simple as a domestic socket on the wall, to a full blown, 3 phase system distributing thousands of Amps to the whole system. Large amounts of power are shared out amongst the equipment using “mains distribution” units (we call them “distros” in the UK) that protect the lighting crew and equipment from electric shocks using Residual Current Devices (RCDs) and Circuit Breakers. Events outdoors powered by large portable generators are common. As is getting muddy and smelling of diesel.
Sound, vision, cameras, caterers, wardrobe all use electricity. Historically, the stage lighting system includes the lighting department providing power for everyone else. And everyone else complaining about that power.
Stage Lighting Cables
Cables, cables and more cables. If a “lampie” tried to work out how many cables they had coiled up in their career, it would give them a headache. Power for the lighting system, dimmer feeds for the stage lights and control signals to all the waggly, wobbly stuff in the roof makes for a lot of cable. Cables are easy to identify – thick cables for large amounts of electricity, really thin ones for digital control signals such as DMX. Cables can be trailed across fire exits as a method of winding up the Production Manager and getting the show shut down if you have a pressing appointment in the pub.
Cables have a personality of their own and only like to be coiled in a certain way. To avoid tangling, the lampie must be able to empathise with a cable and tame unruly cables with subtle movements. The best practitioner of this is called “The Cable Whisperer”. This may be covered in a future article “ Zen and the Art of Cable Management”.
Every stage lighting system has a control centre. Known as “the desk” it spits out digital control signals, such as DMX512, to all the other equipment. The poor lighting technician detailed to look after the lighting control is called a “Board OP”. This is sometimes correctly mistyped as “Bored Op”, referring to the tedious pressing of the “Go” button between snoozes during theatre shows. These Ops were replaced by a magical and expensive entity known as the Moving Light Operator, who spent most of the fit-up tapping buttons and muttering about “fixture personalities” thus avoiding too much physical exertion. Today, the modern lighting system is much more inclusive and every lighting tech is expected to be able to control intelligent lighting. After unloading, rigging, hanging, cabling, testing, flying and focussing – of course.
Dimmers fade stage lights up and down to give fine adjustment of the brightness of the lighting rig. Each “channel” of dimmer control is the sent out to each lantern via a cable. Stage lighting dimmers can be small single channel unit, or large modular “dimmer racks” providing many channels of lighting control. The dimmer racks of touring show are cluster in an area know as “dimmer city”, often near the power supply.
Lighting technicians say “I’m just going to patch the racks”, meaning that they are about to slope off and hide amongst a cluster of boxes while their team mates get roped in to unloading something heavy from the truck.
The metalwork that holds all the lights, speakers and other system components up the sky is called the rigging – as is the actual task of hanging the stage lights. Lampies are straightforward folk of few words.
Rigging is hard work. Starting early, finishing late (“first in – last out”), getting hot and dirty while lifting heavy objects. Setting up of large structures to hang a stage lighting system is not for the faint hearted and thus is something that the Sound Department studiously avoids. They are responsible for hanging speakers – in the way of your lights!
Or Lanterns. Or Luminaires. Or Fixtures. Or….Ok forget what I said about lampies being folk of few words. After a page of other stuff, the stage lighting system finally includes lights. Intelligent lights or conventional “metal with a bulb in it” (these are not called dumb lights), we are here to provide light it comes out of these babies. Mostly pointing toward the stage, the lanterns are carefully selected by the Lighting Designer to cause maximum blinding and discomfort to the performers (called “turns”) while heating the venue.
The most important part of the stage lighting system is the crew. They must be constantly fed, watered and kept in dark conditions in order to prevent them from thriving in the outside world. The lighting crew are attracted by the bright sunlight shining from the “scene dock” but the suns rays are harmful to all theatre technicians, particularly LX techs. Some specialist outdoor festival lighting crews are bred to withstand the sun, although this is not a consideration in Great Britain.
A stage lighting system without a crew is just a pile of expensive kit. We have developed intelligent lighting – stand by for the development of intelligent lighting engineers.
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