Stage Lighting Equipment

PLASA08 – Show Review

While this years PLASA is in full swing, On Stage Lighting samples free beverages and meets up with old chums. Oh, and looks at some lighting equipment in an attempt to turn this years trip to Earl’s Court into an important fact finding mission.

For the uninitiated, the Professional Lighting and Sound Association (PLASA) trade show takes place in London every September. A chance for lighting and sound equipment makers to show off their latest offerings, punters to prod and poke shiny kit and everyone to talk bullshit of one kind or another. PLASA08 was bigger than ever with the stands filling both EC1 and an extended area of EC2.

PLASA 2008

The trick with a visit to PLASA is to make a mental list of stands/kit you want to see. And make it small. The sensory overload caused by so much waggly lighting, smoke and sound systems can easily turn the casual visitor into a zombie – trolling the aisles, mesmerised by seemingly endless LED lighting products. Other distractions that can seriously cut down your ability to get round include the numerous bars, ingestible handouts and the possibility of running into everyone you ever toured with. (That particular PLASA problem seems to ease every year – the show is so busy, you don’t actually see them among the crowds of carrier bag toting torch collectors).

The On Stage Lighting PLASA 2008 list was typically unambitious.

  • Zero88 – To have a quick look at their new consoles, the Orb and the Jester TL.
  • Avolites – To find out all about their Titan software platform and what it actually means to Pearl Expert users.
  • Cham Sys – They always have something interesting.
  • Media and wacky scenic ideas that I might be able to shoe-horn onto the odd show (not on this years budgets!!!).
  • See what a years worth of development has done to LED technology.

Zero88, the Orb and “The Strand Race”

Zero88 were showing their new models in the theatre lighting console space, the Orb and the Jester TL. A small-mid market Jester, the TL uses a command line / keypad interface to control a larger number of channels than the original Jester 24/48. The Jester range is already popular with users that I know, and a more theatre orientated desk is another sign of a particular bunfight going on amongst desk manufacturers at the moment. Which brings us on the Zero88 Orb.

The Orb is a larger mid-range (?) theatre console with traditional command line control, dimmer channels and moving light capability – all running theatre style stacks and some submasters. This desk is effectively announcing that Zero88 wants what we will call “the Strand market”. Now that Strand Lighting as a brand is currently out of the picture, there are hundreds of theatre users with old 520’s worrying that their desks might not last much longer. The thing about Strand users is they are incredibly loyal to the brand, workflow and syntax of those old theatre desks. And manufacturers know it. ETC have been vying for the affections of theatre chief electricians and big name theatre LD’s while MA Lighting also offers ranges to cater for “smaller” theatre users. Now Zero88 want a piece of the action. ETC (another busy stand) have a brand advantage in this area – many operators in the theatre environment have used Expressions and the new ETC desks use concepts close to their hearts. These concepts have also been alluded to in the Orb.

Zero88 might still have an image problem. They are known for making brilliant desks for the cheaper end of the market, despite making an effort to go “pro” with the Frog2 and new Leap Frog series. Serious theatre users might (quite wrongly IMO) think twice before equipping their venue with a Zero88 desk, based purely on sentiment. Having used the new Leap Frog 48/96 on a gig, I think that Zero are really serious about producing professional level consoles. But does everyone?

Observing “the Strand” race from the outside, it will be interesting to see who wins. On thing is for certain, the nature of theatre users is that they care for and stick with their consoles. This market, like an obscure comet, only comes around every ten years.

Other lighting console stuff

The Avolites stand was runner up in the “completely heaving” awards (second only to the Bandit bar – the free Guiness tipping the balance). Avo always have a decent number of their consoles set up with visualisers, a great opportunity for the young and keen to get their hands on a real Diamond 4. Getting the lowdown on the Titan software, it’s not terribly exciting. Avolites have created a platform across both the D4 and the Pearl Expert which, while adding some useful features now, presumably streamlines their development for the future. Hopefully this will include on board visualisation – something that the new generation of grown up lighting consoles will all need. You can’t expect Avo to keep Pearl users happy, while implementing tons of new features on what is still a “button and fader” desk. There is little point improving the Pearl to the point of changing the interface, operators like it as it is. BTW, it was a little surprising to see the Avolites Azure Shadow still taking up room on the stand (the desk must still have a club following – ahem).

Cham Sys have added a timeline control to their sofware. This horizontal view of fixtures, fade times and other events is becoming more common and is a useful editting tool. Using a timeline to control cues makes sense, especially give the extra complexity of moving lights, media servers etc. Older operators (me) really must force ourselves to using these programming tools more.

Media, Arrays and LED

As last year, the PLASA 2008 show was not for the LED intolerant. Small neat LED units, giant blinding moving LED fixtures and everything in between. The actual LEDs themselves seemed to have improved, particularly their white light capability. Some fixtures from High End included moving LED washlights that could also be controlled as an array, with moving images on the front of each fixture.

Media projector/moving light lovechild fest continued this year with DLP waggly projectors of all sizes right up to a huge BARCO fixture taller than a 5 year old. As if squeezing a digital projector into a moving light wasn’t enough, Robe had also fitted arrays of colour mixing LED either side of the lens. Presumably, the ability to project any coloured moving image just isn’t enough.

With all this digital lighting about, you need media – moving images, layers, alpha channels. The media server hardware such as Catalyst, Hippotizer and the Coolux systems were all showing their latest tricks. After some free German beer at Coolux, I had a bit of play with their incredibly powerful system but failed to create great art in the allotted time. The complexity of such systems are a bit more advanced than the “press buttons until something happens” brigade like myself. Although the media systems and digital lighting are the preserve of shows that can afford them, it is interesting to speculate about the skill set required of a 21st century lampie. Lighting technicians (if that’s what they’re even called) will be need to posses a even wider range of skills than at present. Each part of this brave new visual world – lighting, projection and content – do not yet blend together using our current control systems. But they will.

Anything really new?

Ok, so more LED, more projectors, more array panels… was there anything actually new for us lampies? The PLASA Innovations gallery had some interesting kit but mainly improved versions of things we had already. Apart from the rise of “not at all new ideas” cheap moving light manufacturers you’ve never heard of….

A “magic” box that sensed and mitigated the “wobble” of a moving light bar was a genuinely new application for some pretty clever technology, the stand sponsored by the RSC. I was lucky enough to do some consulting on this product some months ago and it seems that the patented idea has still to find a manufacturer. Hardly surprising, given this interesting oddity has an extremely limited market.

Although not a new idea, Total Fabrications were showing a nice truss tracking system that moves a rigging trolley, fixed inside a truss, by computer. This track system was particularly interesting because the box truss corners and track were curved, enabling travel around corners and a 360 traverse of the entire truss. The track system could also be used vertically, another useful feature for the movement of scenery etc. This particular idea interested us because traditional moving lights have only ever satisfied 50% of the lighting design equation. Where a fixture is focussed is only half of what creates the end result, where the light originates from being equally important. The simple answer is to fill your rig with a moving light every 600mm, meaning you can choose your angles from anywhere in the venue. It would be interesting to use less fixtures and be able alter where they were, particularly vertically, creating dramatic changes of angle.

So, that’s it from PLASA for another year – the Spar shop on Earls Court Road can re-stock with haze fluid and all us techies can crawl back under our stones. If you didn’t manage to get down this year, I highly recommend that you make the effort. For anyone interested in stage lighting and keen on freebies, it’s quite an experience.
If you did get to PLASA, let us know about anything that caught your eye or filled your carrier bag. Stick your comments in the box below.

  1. Jimmy

    Hey Rob,

    Sounds like a fun day, hate to have there electricity bill I like the sounds of that fixture the size of a five year old.

    So was the moving rig noisey?

  2. Rob

    Jimmy,everything is noisy at PLASA, lol.

    Peanut. Pictures? ah, yes … ahem. I took a little point and shoot camera with every intention of using it. As soon as I arrived, I ran into someone I haven’t seen for a few years and while catching up, left the camera at the baggage drop off with the rest of my gear.
    There was loads of keenos taking pics and I had a quick look on Flickr – PLASA on Flickr.
    Maybe next year I will commision someone who is more sensible than me to take some decent pics.

  3. Richard Cadena

    I’m right there with you on the media servers. Learning one is challenging – getting familiar with three or four is, well…I think it would be easier to beat Tiger Woods in a game of golf.

    Thanks for your comments.

  4. Sam Burlling

    The bit of kit that got me most excited was displayed by AC Entertainment Technology (formerly AC Lighting). It’s basically an eyebolt that can slide up and down a length of wire rope and can be locked off really simply. Ideal for scenery, projection screens, safetys, all sorts of applications that need height to be adjustable…

    I know it’s a bit sad to get excited about eyebolts and wire rope but there you go!

  5. Rob

    Hi Richard, the direction of modern visual entertainment has certainly got me thinking about the future for technicians and creatives alike. Perhaps the production landscape will look quite different.

    Sam, don’t worry. Eyebolts and steels are the unsexy things that hold it all together. If one of your Showpix falls over, you bin it and do something else. If you don’t have enough shackles, that can really ruin the day.

  6. Jamie R

    I didn’t really think that PLASA this year was all that different from last year to be honest. I resisted the temptation is year of picking up catalogues and freebies from literally everyone. I did get a rather retro head lamp from Hoist UK (as a result of failing their challenge) and another t-shirt from one of the lovely Martin marketing girls 🙂

    All over and done with for another year!

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