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Equipment – The Curse of Lighting Design?

On Stage Lighting takes a look at the curse of the Lighting Designer and some reasons why it can be more of a danger than ever. But you can resist it’s temptations, and we’ll set on you on the road to recovery. Read on.



Technology has the potential to fill our life as lighting designers, as a market for entertainment industry equipment has sprung up and grown rapidly in the last 30 years. At first glance, this seems like we have been give the keys to the sweet shop, all that possibility, the shiny things, the brightly coloured sugary lighting treats. RGB + White, natch.

As the cost of manufacturing technology has dropped, the sweet shop has been open to smaller budgets, not just a few professional shows. The fact that there is a perpetual debate about buying moving lights for schools is testament to fact that technology that once was cutting edge is now available to all.

Concert Lighting Beams

Who needs stage lighting technology?

The existence of such a market is great for technological innovation, which in turn boosts audience expectation and production demand, and the cycle continues. This is not least due to the multi million pound industry that has grown up around that demand. Let’s just take a moment to look and identify whose interests are irrevocably tied up with the use of technology in show business:

  • Equipment Manufacturers
  • Hire Companies
  • Software Developers
  • Support and Accessory Suppliers
  • Shipping and Logistics
  • Packaging including flight case makers
  • Media and Advertising (including this site)
  • Training and Development Providers
  • Specialist Freelance Staff eg. Lighting Programmers

The above list is not exhaustive, but it does indicate that there are a hell of a lot of people and jobs reliant on your sweet tooth as a lighting designer. But there is a vital element missing, an element not completely connected with your desire for shiny new toys…

The Show

A lighting designer’s role is to work with other key players, the Director, Scenic Designer et al, to create a stage picture or environment that enhances a production beyond that which could be achieved by just leaving the cleaning lights on.

That might involve cutting edge technology. But it doesn’t have to.

There is not rule a written somewhere at ALD headquarters that says “The Lighting Designer shall wrangle all the available technology into submission and mould it to fit the production”.

Nothing is bigger than the show and the audience’s experience. Nothing.

Not you, not the cast, not 20 of the latest nodding buckets that the local hire company has just invested in. Nothing.

Lighting Equipment – Ally or Curse?

Back in the real world, there are often times when as a Lighting Designer you are faced with the burden of equipment. This burden is commonly in two forms:

By others. Having equipment that you don’t need, the show doesn’t need, but that someone somewhere has decided you must use in order to justify their budget. This is more of a professional industry problem and usually stems from the fact that, as a lighting designer, you may be engaged by a lighting hire and production services provider. It’s just life, deal with it. Do your job to the best of your ability and move on to the next show.

But you can avoid the second form.

The second form of the equipment burden is self inflicted and I suspect at some stage in our careers, we’ve all fallen prey to it. It’s particularly obvious when a novice lighting designer at a school or college is given a bigger show, bigger budget, and bigger expectations than they are used to.

Your Worst Lighting Design – ever

The Director/Producer/Client says:

” I want this one to be a spectacular, we’ll give you a ton o’ cash to spend on 30 fancy moving lights, 1000 metres of truss, a Grand MA 2. I wanna see everything, pyro, smoke, dry ice, UV and strobes. I want the entire rig to followspot the main turn, I don’t wanna see a foot of space on that rig – gimme the works! “

Ok, so assuming that the small matter of a bunch of extra infrastructure is gonna be required to control and power just one of yer hired in MaryLite Chunky Boys is not an issue, you might still have a problem.

Time and again, what happens in this situation is that a “saturation rig” plan is produced, the local hire companies shelves are emptied and the limits of the school gym snow loading are tested for the very first time. But the real limitations I’m afraid, are expertise and by extension, time.

You and your team of willing helpers have rigged the kit, it’s taken longer than you planned but no matter. Then you’ve had a few problems, rigging and addressing errors, faults to find, all this has eaten into your time and now you are knackered and suddenly faced with an unplanned overnight programming session. Using a desk you’ve never really worked properly on. At 0300. The desk is a lot more complicated than your usual 2 preset, the Chunky Boys take a lot of dealing with and your workflow would benefit from a bit more polish. It’s as much as you can do to get a few colour washes together, set some specials and create a few palettes (it turns out later, you have gobo information mixed in with the Pan and Tilt – bugger)

Every space between shiny hire kit was filled with your trusty generic fixtures, leaving endless possibilities – apart from the fact that you didn’t really get a chance to focus a lot of it, in the end. A 1K fresnel hangs there, impotently, obviously pointing nowhere in particular, a barndoor half closed.

The show happens. Shows always happen. They happen if you are tired or not, ready or not. You busk together some looks, just something, using all that kit, somehow. Maybe you might even get a few slaps on the back for your efforts. But you know, it could’ve been so much better – better if you’d had more time, if those stupid twonks hadn’t rigged half the main truss back to front, better if you were more comfortable with the Grand MA….

The truth is, it would have been better if you’d had less equipment. The burden of equipment has sucked the life from you and your creativity. Cash has been spent at the expense of time to do anything meaningful with the result.

Every piece of kit on a show needs time. Time to set it up, to make it work, time to focus to use it properly in your lighting armoury. The more kit you have, the less time every piece of kit gets from you and your team. This is true, even if you are completely au fait with every technical aspect, can perform miracles on the console and have a team of super professionals around you.

So, what can you do?

If the above scenario hasn’t happened to you yet, I’d love to think that reading this article could stop it from doing so. But it probably won’t. The burden of equipment is something we all have to go through as lighting designers, to emerge the other side with a better understanding of what is important on a show by show basis.

You can mitigate the equipment burden by your own approach to planning lighting for a production. Doing something as simple as steering clear of CAD or equipment inventories until you have a full understanding of the needs of a show can be a start. Make yourself. Decide on not looking at a venue plan or a kit list for a specific time period – a week, or two. Use this time to really consider the elements of the show, scenes or whatever, and set them against what you know of the Director’s vision or the audiences need.

And remember the list of whose interests really lie in your sweet tooth. We want more sweets, the manufacturers make ’em, we push production standards and possibilities…. All in all, the whole situation is “a good thing”, don’t get me wrong. After all, without technology in lighting, we have very little to work with.

But don’t think for a moment that it comes without side effects.

Image by Mourner on Flickr

7 Responses to Equipment – The Curse of Lighting Design?

  1. DuncanM November 10, 2010 at 8:59 am #

    I saw a great example of a “too much gear” show recently – Leonard Cohen tour. Grid full of moving heads, floor full of LED washes on the backcloth, GrandMA console. End result – some nice presets, rich saturated washes.

    But… it also had some really ugly colours on the backcloth in the fades between presets. They only really used 6 colours on the backdrop (except by mistake!) And most of the movers never moved. No gobos at all, no subtle colour fades, no dynamic effects of any kind (except for a cheesy scrolling effect across the backdrop in the encore).

    That’s all fine, of course – not every show has to have smoke and blinders and lots of waggly lights. But the show could have been lit by par cans and scrollers, and a laptop running freeware. Actually, you probably don’t even need the scrollers. And doing it that way would have: a) saved a very big pile of money; and b) avoided some really ugly transitions. Or they could have used the toys they had to make it nicer without going over the top. Too much money, not enough lighting design…

  2. Dee November 11, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    Stage lighting is such an art, that is why you can go to college to study it in theatre production. Stage lighting is used in so much more than theatre productions too as you pointed out and as an individual looking to make a job out of it, there are some great resources on the web to get the best stage lighting equipment available for you work.

  3. James Loudon November 26, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    Great article Rob
    “The show happens – the show always happens…”
    No doubt!
    I have seen far too many shows where the overall scheme of things seems to be “dont use one lamp when you can do the same thing with 10”
    I blame TV shows for the over use of kit. Nobody is impressed with moving lights any more per se, but punters and producers continue to be impressed with sheer scale. Shock and awe!
    Yes, I’m looking at you, U2
    Luckily, its not a problem I have had personally lately.

  4. Derek Gutteridge December 21, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    Hi
    Good article about light technology. However, my beef is the sheer quantity of light on professional stages.
    There was a time when many 1 Kw & 0.5 Kw lanterns were used to light a show with perhaps a 2 Kw key light. Now, the lanterns are 1 Kw & 2 Kw with 5 Kw key lights. I went to a see a play in Basingstoke and needed sun glasses because it was so bright. When the interval came, the house lights were so dim it took several seconds to adjust my eyes and see properly.
    Clever moving lights and spot lights that automatically follow principal actors are fine – just turn the levels down!

  5. jeries hosin June 15, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    20mx25m stage theater we need the design for the stage lighting

  6. Vanessa January 27, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    So TRUE. I did, in fact, learn this lesson. I had gone through about 4 shows as an eager, shiny, brand new lighting designer… and those were, by far, my crappiest shows. Not because I wasn’t talented or I didn’t know what I was doing, but because we had equipment, people! And it MUST ALL BE USED! LEDs? Yes! Fogger? Yes! Follow spots? HELL YES! (And the first two were in blackboxes… and I used spots… oh, the shame.) Floods and intelligents, throw them in there, too. Not until I had a discussion with my professor on a completely different tangent did I realize my mistake… She said this, and it always stuck with me:

    Always ask yourself, “Are you using it because you CAN? Or because you SHOULD?” My shows immediately improved. I use what’s needed, not what’s wanted or expected because it’s available for use, and my shows reflect a much higher degree of professionalism because of it.

  7. PIERRE MILLIEN July 8, 2016 at 6:42 am #

    shows reflect a much higher degree of professionalism because of it.

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