Stage Lighting Control

Lighting Control – Where Are We Going?

Our guest is international LD, Paul Smith as he shares his dream of a revolution in lighting control and asks if we aren’t stuck in a timewarp of cue stacks and faders. Should we continue to use a style of control that hasn’t changed for the best part of 20 years, or is there a better alternative?

Somewhere out there, right now, somebody exists that is going to create the next revolution in Lighting Control. I couldn’t say whether they are in their 60’s, or still in the womb, but I think we can make an educated guess that at some point in the next couple of decades, there will be a revolution in Lighting Control that will be so huge that it will change the way we work, and in the process, make somebody a lot of money.

Image by Danilo on Flickr

Why do I say that then? Well, while we have lots of controllers, from the best of the most expensive consoles, to the cheapest of the PC Based ‘Virtual’ desks I get the overwhelming impression that we are on the cusp of something better. These days, no matter what control device you use, the process of creating a ‘look’ on stage is much the same no matter the manufacturer. At the top end pro level (and let’s face it, if there is going to be a disruptive innovation, it is going to begin at the top end – they always do) the basic cue creation process is generally a case of physically pressing Intensity, Focus, Colour, and Beam Presets, or moving an encoder of some sort, hitting a key along the lines of ‘Record’ and dumping it to a cue stack or sub-master. No matter the console, it’s been that way for more than twenty years now, time for a change then? I think so.

I venture that too much time is spent looking at a desk, not at the picture in front of us, on stage. I think that the time is coming whereby we won’t have a physical console, as we know and love them today, in front of us at all. Maybe something along the lines of a Minority Report style screen, between us and the stage, where we can manipulate fixtures by waving our hands around a la Tom Cruise; maybe that day isn’t that far off. The company that developed the screens used in Minority Report are a real company that are actually developing products that do the job of manipulating data across just such a screen. Gaming consoles exist now that are capable of monitoring your position in a room, and reacting to your movements, with no gloves or magic wands required to capture your movements.

Image by jurvetson on Flickr

Granted there is still a hardware requirement with my scenario, and no doubt there would be a number of hurdles to overcome, but never say never. I would go so far as to say that the companies that would deliver such a magical device wouldn’t even be the console manufacturers that we know about today, more likely, I would humbly suggest, would be the likes of WYSIWYG, Capture, and ESP, the pre-vis specialists. The whole device in my head essentially resemble a large scale HUD (Head Up Display) as used in fighter jets and some civil airliners, something that would overlay a CAD Drawing of our lighting rig, and then allow us to manipulate the fixtures such that what would these days be the ‘pre vis shaded view’ could, looking through the glass, be the actual look on stage.

For quite a while now, ‘Convergence’ has been the consumer tech buzzword du jour, and something that has only really been mumbled about in the world of Lighting Tech. No matter your console of preference, I believe that while control of LED’s, Moving Lights, Media Servers, and Dimmers has, no doubt, improved significantly over the last ten years, we are still tied to twenty or even thirty year old technology in terms of the basic methods of control. Is it not time then that the software we use to draw the plan, the software we use to program the show, the software we use to drive the media servers, and the process of manipulating all of that data was ‘Converged’ into a device that could happily take care of it all?

Maybe I’m discussing nothing more than a fad then? Is it all nought but a pipe dream? Maybe.

Maybe we all at heart are so comfortable, and dare I say, cynical about new developments, that we mostly wait for the rest of us to take up the mantle of something new; such that it would instantly be dismissed as a gimmick. But then, there were many that said the same of Vari*Lite when the VL-0 was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. In fact, about 15 years ago, I had a discussion with a Director of a well known console manufacturer where we were both in agreement that three, and maybe for the really, really big gig’s four DMX lines would be more than we would ever need. How wrong we both were. On a recent production I had fired 30 universes of the stuff out the back of the console without event thinking about it.

Perhaps we should all start bugging our favourite manufacturers to start really pushing the boundaries with their next product. In an industry that thrives on creativity and innovation, are you not surprised to consider that our basic control interface has hardly changed over thirty years?

I’ll leave you with that happy thought, and maybe, just maybe, the creator of that next innovation is reading this and inspired…

Thanks Paul, really great food for thought. Make sure you have your say about the future of Lighting Control in the comments section. – Rob

  1. Rob Sayer

    Thanks again Paul, great stuff.

    With gesture recognition functionality, things like the Coolux Airtouch and Widget Designer and other neat interfaces like the Reactable, I can’t for the life of me understand why we are still not much further on from a touchscreen version of a Strand Galaxy. Bit harsh? Well, perhaps.

    I’ve been doing some experiments with LightJams software and two Wiimotes which, although more of a performance/lighting tool rather than a professional programmers interface, does take us away from simple buttons, faders and encoders.

  2. Josh

    More than once during a plotting session for a recent show, I found my self using my arms in a “natural” way to imagine the states before I even started plotting them. I found it quicker to wave my arms around a bit and imagine than to input the data.

    I imagine something using Microsoft Kinect or similar would be a good way forward, placing it on the far side of a desk and wave away.

    Something akin to grabbing the light out of the fixtures and placing it on the stage would be a good start. E.G. pointing at the individual fixtures with each hand, anything pointed at by the right hand is controlled by the right hand and left hand = left control, doing this locates the fixtures and you then move your hands to the position on stage that you want the units. Clench and unclentch your fists to release the units or place your palms up for a HUD to bring up things like colour choice and similar.

    Thats basic interface sorted, then maybe a swipe in (both hands top corners down to centre bottom) to move that cue to the cue stack/whatever in the pit area.

    Just a few random musings, but certainly interesting.


  3. Paul Smith

    My Pleasure Rob!

    As Josh says, I often find myself working out the motion of a live move with the aid of finger and arm movements. Which frequently makes me look like a bit of a nutter if there are people about that don’t know what i’m doing, but i can cope with that.

    I’m not anywhere near clever enough to be able to code or develop something like the system i describe, but here’s hoping the console and software guys of the world see this and we set some cogs in motion 🙂



  4. Mathieu

    Great article. For sure it may inspire console manufacturers to change quite a few things and go back to the drawing board. Personally, I’m exploring two main change avenues to the lighting designer job that may have large impact on the current tools: LD as a live performer and LD as a lighting game designer.

    I would love to see a LD on stage along with musicians. Rockstar LDs 😉 In this case, using Wiimotes and the Kinect really makes sense. And when it comes to creating an interactive lighting installation, since this isn’t a linear world with a timeline anymore, the traditional lighting consoles need to be replaced by more dynamic tools and have to play really well with other tools from the live music and video world.

    In this future world I see technologies/protocols like TUIO to handle exotic multi-touch interfaces like the Kinect and iPad, OSC as the standard language to let music, video and lighting tools to communicate and Artnet (or other network based dmx protocol) to talk to lighting fixtures.


  5. Nick Moran

    hello to all at on stage lighting. interesting article from Paul, thanks.
    I’m thinking along similar lines to Paul, but would like to throw in a few other ideas.
    Most of the time I’m pretty happy with the present generation on lighting desks as play-back devices. Good quality faders and buttons that can be laid out so that the op can stay focused on the stage and “play” the lighting back in response to that nights performance has always seemed like something to be aimed for – and not just for live music gigs either. While there’re might be a new and innovative way of enabling this round the corner, it may be that this part of our lighting consoles has got as good as it needs to be – after all some things do develop and then become standard, such the layout of a piano style keyboard which has remained more or less the same for over 200 years now.

    Where I do think we need innovation is in the programming interface, and I think Paul is right to suggest that something like the minority report virtual screens could be a way forward. Imagine “grabbing” some light from a particular direction and throwing it towards a target – then “shaping” it with your fingers in mid air – adjusting any of it’s attributes with a gesture or through your voice, adding more light from elsewhere, and throughout this whole process never hitting a single key.

    But why stop there? imagine shaping light on stage as a dynamic flux, rather than a set of states

  6. Paul Smith

    Hi Nick:

    I have to say I agree with you. I think that in terms of playback, in cases where the show is called, or at least repeated, a Go button, with a Pause and Back button, and possibly even a rate wheel is all that we need, maybe even a couple of faders for a bit of live intensity tweaking if we have to.

    I think that where i am heading with the idea is somewhat similar to the way i work now, in that the shows are generally programmed on a full size console (in my case, usually a Grand MA or MA2), and come show time the show is generally played back from a smaller version of the same console.

    I agree that the playback interface is probably about there at the moment, the frustrations lie in the programming part for me.



  7. Rob Sayer

    “But why stop there? imagine shaping light on stage as a dynamic flux, rather than a set of states”

    Hi Nick, this is the aspect that really interests me. While I can live with the way we get to a series of cues to play back every night (not my favourite type of show, but..), I’m much more into using more interactive technology to perform lighting.

    For those of us stuck in the dark FOH, it’s still exciting to think that we might find an alternative to faders and touchscreens when it comes to performing live lighting. The only thing I’m sure not many of us would want to do is be the centre of attention due to manic arm waving, perhaps a suitably enclosed space with a good view of that stage would suit us techies… 😉
    Thanks for your comment and let me just say that I think your 2007 book is the ultimate modern stage lighting reference for the basics and I introduce all my students to it.

  8. Andrew

    As someone who’s only just learned how to operate a basic lighting console, I’m not sure I’m qualified to discuss the future of LD interfaces. I’m still not even sure of the basic terminology like washes, gobos, palettes, etc.

    But while I was reading the article and the comments in particular, I was thinking about the interfaces people have been explaining and describing. Maybe I’m missing something but is this really the way forward? I can see that people think “grabbing” a light and gesturing to control it would be good, and I certainly think it would be “cool” but is it a new revolution? Or is it simply a way of doing the same thing we do with current consoles just in a slightly different manner? Aiming a light by “throwing” it at it’s target (and then making adjustments) – how long does it take you to use the console to do the same thing?

    I’m already visualising a (futuristic) VR/holographic projection of the stage with VR lighting that you could easily manipulate but is this a revolution in lighting control, or just a step forward in making the commands we issue to each light more accessible/convenient?

  9. Jake Sliv

    The prospect of designing lighting by waving hands around is exiting in basically the same way as it is unrealistic. I wouldn’t trust a technical solution, no matter how exiting, unless it was 200% solid in hardware terms. It’s still as far away from us as light sabers and I hope that when they do make it work, they’d add the same sound effect to the pan/tilt functions. But then, I’m a theatrical LD, so what do I know about rocking it hard on stage with the musicians? In my world, after I’m done with the show, all that takes to run it is one finger of the LX op, pushing one button. Paul says that the go/hold/back setup is a solid solution, but that’s where most shows are being run form day in and day out. Why should the playback setup remain the same and require one finger when most LX ops have at least ten? Deduct one finger that’s usually stuck up their nose and you still have nine to work with. Many times I’ve revisited plays I designed after just a few weeks in running and suddenly realized that the cue timing has to be tweaked since the actors have changed their pace, not even through director’s initiative, but through a creative process that is called “being human”. And still that thing we call “live performance” is controlled by a coldly accurate computer clock. When I control my own lighting I’ve a habit of using “rate a/b” from a fader or a wheel, to override the preset cue timing. Sometimes you need that extra half a second more on the lower intensity of a fade-in or to let the actor settle down in his spot after a dramatic monologue. So how about a set of spring loaded or motorized levers next to the crossfader area, that can be assigned to different groups and control the timing rate during fades? Then you can set one for front lights, one for back, one for cyc wash and one for specials. Then the LX op can react to the current show pace and adjust the fades accordingly. After the fade is over, the levers snap back to their middle position and the preset timing takes over for the next cue. And until that cue is called, you can wave your hands around pretending you are Tom Cruise. Like most control updates it calls also for a different approach on the part of the LX ops, becoming more attentive and involved in the show, but I think that might be just a little bit easier than the light saber.

  10. Avery

    I disagree. I think in the next few decades we’ll see software controllers be refined and adopted by the next generations of light designers, while the last few generations that insist on working on actual hardware die out.

    I’m not trying to be negative or anything, I just don’t see any kind of revolution. The job will become harder and more complex but that will stem from the increasing need for software development and programming knowledge. I don’t think the future will be lead by those who sit around and wait for others to create the next great tool. Those people will fade away and be replaced by LD’s that create and modify the tools themselves.

    This is the way it works in most tech industries already, the people making the best products aren’t doing it with the tools of others, rather creating their own tools that allows them to do exactly what they want without any limitations.

    Just my opinion.

  11. Nick moran

    Sorry Avery – You about the people making the best products in most tech indutries, first thing, I’d question the usefulness of thinking about lighting design as a product – but perhaps you are thinking in terms of lighting desks not lighting design. Even then, I’m not sure what “tech industries” you are thinking of: for example, I don’t see many film editors abondoning Final Cut for thier own custom made editing software, or architects re-writing CAD software to design better buildings – or have I misunderstood you. The point about lighting desks is that they should be a means to an end – good lighting design. Only desks that enable LDs to do their job better (in what ever way) count as better, but bare in mind that lots of LDs – in theatre, dance drama – and large scale live music concers too – don’t expect to touch the lighing desk.

  12. Jeff Gooch

    I hate to bring up the ugly spectre of employment….but as designers, if the hardware/ software interface isn’t really complex, we’ll all be looking for a gig. Case in point- NIN toured with Jazzmutant Lemurs that allowed control to be handed off from band member to member and back to FOH. OKGO’s rig is almost entirely homemade using bullet cams and a MAC to interface serially to the rudimentary light rig. Granted, these are still in their infancy, but it seems to me that we need to build in some job security here. My kids can basically play along with Eddie Van Halen with no guitar training waving a rubber guitar. The Wii concept as a controller has already arrived with the advent of QC, Max/jitter, and Isadora. I for one am excited but I’m also a little worried that any ole Joe will be able to be the next Willie Williams…..desks/interfaces/control will need to be radically complex so all of us gearheads can make a living…..

  13. Gavin

    I agree completely. I have worked in computer networks for 30 years plus and setting DMX address in lighting is like using the old Dinosaur of network where you had to set a network card address by moving the dip switches. Great, until you forgot that the address can already been allocated. And what happened when the computer got changed? so along came DHCP which hands out IP addresses automatically, or if you like you can set them by hand. Why do we have to use DMX addressing instead of IP addressing. After all any Lamp, device, Smoke machine etc, is simply a network device. Groups of lamps /devices can have the same IP address to control them together. Different Universes can be on different IP networks. With wireless this become even more possibile.

  14. David

    I agree that addressing a lighting network ought to be simpler. Perhaps the next version of ArtNet ought to mandate an ability to use IPv6 – which is designed to make network addressing simpler. Of course being able to send DMX over the network to legacy devices will still be required. Perhaps each node would just be addressed directly using its automatic IP address and native channels. Nodes for legacy DMX equipment would each have their own universe(s). Some sort of auto-discovery would be the primary way for the console to know what is on the network (with the ability to manually add things that didn’t get auto-discovered.

    As for control interfaces, I think that replacing the screen on the desk with some sort of interactive HUD would make sense. I don’t think we’ll see controllers automatically figuring out which control corresponds to which position enabling point to select; but, we could have electricians program that in as they hang the lights. The big question is how does it add value to the producer? If it enables a more dynamic visual show because the designer is more capable of “performing” with the lights then that can add value to the audience, justifying increasing the ticket cost. Other than that, it would need to reduce the labor or time prepping the venue enough to justify the cost; and I can’t yet picture that happening.

  15. Rachel

    I often find my biggest gripe with consoles is a lack of flexibility in programming fades. I would like the variation within a fade time between two states that can be achieved by an operator working with faders/subs. But I also want the precise that comes with prerecording fade times/ using a GO button.
    A system of setting fade times in a manner similar to setting a fade curve in Qlab would be fantastic.
    Simple. Easy to adjust.

    (I haven’t worked with the latest high end gear so I’m not sure if there is a console out there that does this already. If so, can’t wait for it to filter down)

    Not a dramatic change to the way we work perhaps, but something that I feel would improve my designs for an audience.

  16. Peter Rodda

    OK, here are my 4 cents…

    On performing lighting, I have also been working on this and looking for new ways to make this possible for a long time. 90% of the concerts/festivals and bands I work with are busk type shows – even when the set list is certain, there are always artistic differences in each song’s performance, and that requires full human hands on control of the lighting states.

    I’d love to see things like MIDI controllers becoming more supported by lighting consoles. Then lighting operators would be able to build up their own control surfaces with all sorts of trigger pads, foot switches, pots and encoders, keys, midi guitars, and basically anything… and relatively cheaply compared to the price of most lighting console control surfaces.

    On the programming and creative side of things – Graphics artists are creative people, but they sit behind a computer the whole time and that is their tool… maybe they use stylist pens, and maybe a few other tools, but are they also looking for better ways to express themselves? I think they are looking for their tools to be more controllable, more precise, more able to directly put down their creative ideas. Waving their hands around might be more fun and give them more exercise, but in the end I think they would be looking for more detailed control of the finer things… and quicker ways to do the big things.

    I would also like to see a console that used more of a visual time-line like video editing software for lighting programming…

    And finally, I do usually walk away from a gig wishing I could have used my rig even more. I feel like the vision I have in my head of what the lighting rig could do is really difficult to realise with current programming and operating methods (with 2 different subtle cues for every note played by every instrument – or something like that). I see 10 cues in my head of lights whooshing and accentuating every beat, then look down at the board and after writing one cue and 3 min has passed, the magic that was in my head has faded. Maybe I need to spend more time in front of a visualiser – I don’t know… Are visualisers not a huge breakthrough in the way people program? Paul says that things are basically the same as 20 years ago, but I think that’s a huge leap forward.

    If things are to change massively, I think the best new control method would be for me to close my eyes and let the lights read my imagination… forget sound-to-light… try, imagination-to-light!

  17. Nick moran

    Two really interesting and thoughtful comments – I found myself feeling the same as both Peter and Rachel.

  18. Paul Smith


    Me and you really need to meet up for a Coffee at some point! i think we have some very similar ideas about Lighting and Control.

    In so far as some of the comments go a few of you appear to be looking too deeply into what i am saying and reading between non-existant lines. I’m just throwing out some theories and offering my thoughts. I have no idea whether or not they are feasible, or event wanted. I’m merely offering one persons perspective on what the future could hold.

    The requirements of Theatre, TV, and Structured vs Busked concerts are all rather different. Fred Bentham, many years ago, found that performing lighting with his ‘Colour Music’ wasn’t exactly the revolution that he had hoped for. I happen to think it was an idea that was simply way ahead of its time, more suited to the modern concert touring industry rather than the TV and Theatre market that Fred inhabited. All prior to Moving Lights too.

    These days, we seem to be aiming for a one desk fits all scenarios situation, with just about every manufacturer claiming that they can deliver a desk that suits Theatre, TV, Rock and Roll, and everything else. I happen to think that the future holds more specialised consoles, suited to perhaps some sort of future ‘Colour Music’ as well as the catch all consoles as we have today.

    So. Try not to get too bogged down in the specifics of what i said, and think more about what i mean 😉

    Incidentally, I had a long phone conversation with Gil from Cast Software a few days ago. The new Black Box and Black Trax products are going to go a long way towards allowing multiple different products across different disciplines to talk to each other, hopefully freeing up more time for being creative and leaving the technology to handle the more complex stuff. I suspect Cast are on the verge of yet another major Game Changer technology, and i sincerely hope it succeeds. I’ve a thousand ideas for it already.



  19. Nick moran

    HI Smiffy
    It would be great to meet up. When do you find yourself in London?
    ALD drinks at the Coach & Horses in Covent Garden (near the Opera House) This Friday 27th (Sponsored by MA)

  20. Jerry J

    As someone who makes most of his living writing software, I’ve always thought of this as an interesting problem. I’ve been a theatrical designer for a while, but alas its rarely been my primary income.

    It would be cool to wave your hand to select a light, then use some motion to control it .. whatever ..
    The issue for me seems to be it has to more efficient than the current system.
    In a theater tech, I think a decent board op can type a cue in quicker than someone waving his hands around, looking at some heads-up display.
    Off-line, before you get to the house, perhaps you could use one of the visualization programs available using a more user friendly system.

    Now live control perhaps is a different opportunity. Then perhaps you ‘grab’ the lights you want, and move them with a wave your hand, real time .. or something …

    Anyone that has ideas, and needs a software guy … 😉

  21. Lovel

    The best possible high tech solution i see especially for live performances would not be the usage of waving your arms and flapping around like a bird because honestly i only see slower operation overall since you have only 2 arms against 10 fingers.
    Controlling a whole rig by using your thoughts or better brain waves, so you would put on a silly hat which deducts brain wave patterns which could be translated to movement, coloring all parameters, basically you would think of a nice looking scene and that should translate into your fixtures going to the right position, right colour gobo etc.

  22. Peter Knowles

    I do the lighting for a drama group and have a Sirius 24 with DMX. Colour washes have recently been obtained using LEDs but these use up 6 channels on the board. It can be limiting, to say the least running lighting for,say, a panto or in the round with 18 channels of “real” lights. I am completely in love with by Sirius board but would give it up for a pc/keyboard/touch screen with suitable software that gives me similar hands on control of scenes, chase, flash buttons, timed memory cues etc. Moving heads may be a consideration, for panto in particular, but the Sirius board is unsuitable for this. Does anyone know of a tried and tested software package that will answer my prayers? Preferably free, of course.

  23. Johan

    LxConsole, TouchOSC, Lemur, NintendoWii control, Samsc, MAX, Qlab, anything MIDI, Apple.

    Your own imagination is the limit to what and how you can create your very own lightingconsole.

    Lightingconsoles in the industry will change when the lights in the other end so require. When every beamer is a videoprojector youll see new approaches to lighting consoles as well.

  24. Kevan Shaw

    Wow. Interesting thoughts. I am looking at this from a time warp. I was a rock and roll lighting designer in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Our principle lighting tool was the PAR 64, a lot of them, a few lekos (antique Source 4 profile) and a few other things largely with Tungsten halogen lamps. Desks were simple, two presets with flash buttons and a pin matrix that allowed you to patch channels to a set of master faders. Other patching was done at the mains end and sometimes another pin matrix between desk and dimmers. desk channel counts were 24, 48, 60, and 84 if you had enough space for something 2 meters plus long!

    Now the operation was entirely hands on. Pretty much every cue needed to be initiated about half a second before the effect was required due to the thermal lag of the big 1 Kw filaments. So the human was needed to effectively predictively synchronise to the beat of the music and hit the cue at the start or end of the piece.

    Oh, our principle “moving lights” were follow spots with human operators who responded to verbal instructions ( just like Alexa:) Typically they were more positionally accurate than the early moving lights then coming to the market.

    Now it is rare to see fully musically synchronised lighting, certainly beat perfect, unless there is a click track that the musicians are playing to and the designer / operator has not spent many hours programming ahead of time. Basically all the electronic / mechanical equipment doesn’t help, shutter speeds, movement speeds, colour change all happen at different rates so synchronisation of visual effect becomes way to complicated to programme accurately, hence the predominance of “effects” “pattern generators” etc and resultant, often haphazard, combinations and sequences used to create “lighting”

    Back in the old days a basic ability to follow a song and some visually rich colourful presets allowed a very reasonable professional show to be delivered with sometimes no rehearsal. So the ambition for a new “user interface?” I think a significant simplification of the lighting instruments is needed first, also rigs with only one or two fitting types so that synchronisation stops being an issue. The interface becomes a couple of of wheels for colour and pattern a ball for movement and faders for group selection and control pre show programming consists of setting movement limits, key focus positions. allocation of colours to groups of instruments and you should have something simple enough to do effective visual busking with 2 hands and keep eyes on stage to watch the action and judge the cue timing.

    Really the rig and desk needs to be simple enough for digital control and we only have 10 of them!

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