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Stage Lighting Skills And The Myth of Pro Lighting

Taking common lighting complaints of our readers, On Stage Lighting looks at the really vital skills you will need to succeed as a stage lighting professional and finds a surprising place to learn them. We also bust a myth about life on the professional side of the fence. No wobbly buckets, PC console emulators or LED based duvet covers were used in the making of this article.

Through this site and my professional life I have a fair amount of contact with lighting beginners, many of whom are starting out in stage lighting and some of which hope to make it into the business as fully fledged lighting professionals. When discussing their own lighting set up, be it a small theatre, school or church, there is a common theme:  Dissatisfaction.

Old Stage Lighting Fresnel and Patt23 Spots

Opening with “we currently have crappy old lanterns” or “the rigging positions are bad because..” or “If we had some more kit and a few moving lights…”, there is a general assumption that lighting would be better or life easier if only there were access to the comforts of the modern stage lighting professional.

The Myth of Professional Lighting

Last week I was doing a show of the type that I generally call a Scrapheap Challenge. Take one lighting professional, a pile of lighting kit of questionable standard and see if you can get a show together in time for rehearsals in a few hours time. It’s a reasonably common occurence if you work in commercial event lighting and something that I assume I must display some talent for, based on the number of times a month I seemed to be booked to do such a gig 😉

Notable negatives of this particular situation included:

  • A lantern inventory that only partially resembled the one put together by the original Lighting Designer
  • Equipment that has probably not heard the phrase “maintenance schedule” uttered in it’s presence
  • Cracked lenses, missing focus controls, floppy barndoors.
  • A mixture of Source 4 and Strand SL profile spots with a mixture of beam angles not necessarily ideal for the task – all with iffy optics.
  • Socapex multicore spiders that were not all marked correctly
  • A generic rig that was a bit too big for the 18 channels of dimming that turned up, meaning pairing and plugging up all channels at (and over) capacity
  • 2 dimmer channels of the 18 were unusable for various reasons, making the above situation more tricky.Missing infrastructure that meant it was not possible call up more than each 6-way dimmer without repatching the control lines, making the focus a PITA.
  • Not enough colour frames and other shortages that really make your day longer.
  • I’m sure there was more, I just can’t remember what it was.

The marking and infrastructure issues also made fault finding longer than it needed to be but otherwise things were done, problems were solved and by rehearsal time, we had a show and the quality and suitability of the lighting was never in question.

The point of telling you this unremarkable story of yet another gig is to bust the myth that, in a professional lighting situation, life is easier because we all have better kit, newer toys and a whole host of other comforts not available in school, churches and village halls. We don’t. What professionals do have is the experience of dealing these things and a lighting experience nearly always started the aforementioned schools, pubs and village halls.

A lighting professional is paid to turn in the goods, not to complain about the kit. We also have the professional imperative to get the job done.

But I Don’t Have Enough…..

In Stage Lighting on a Budget, we found out that even the biggest shows suffer from contraints such as not enough channels, fixtures, control availablility etc. The article also runs through common solutions to the problem of not having enough of something, take a look.

My Stage Lights Are Too Old

Lately I have spend some of my time working in a school environment to get their stage lighting up to scatch. We go in, strip their rig out, maintain and fault find before re hanging it for general use and giving every lantern a decent focus. More often than not the lighting kit is old and a small amount of it may be electrically dangerous so that gets fixed up or very occasionally condemned. The rest get a check up and a rub down and are good for another few years yet – the solution is very rarely that they need to buy much new gear. The equipment is old but probably hasn’t been actually used a great deal unlike modern hire equipment that has usually seen a lot of use in its short life.

By the time we leave, a whole new lease of life has been breathed into the rig with a small amount of maintenance and an understanding of how to get the best out of what is there, the focus in particular. Despite great leaps in lighting techology, a conventional lantern is basically a metal box of some kind, with a lens and a reflector and a bulb. Sure, some are better than others but the essence of good stage lighting isn’t the date stamp on any fixture – light comes outta the end, we do something with it.

We Have The Wrong Fixtures

LIke “bad” weather (vs. the wrong clothes), you could question whether there is such a thing as having the wrong lights. There are fixtures that suit a particular purpose, purposes that suit a particular fixture and rigging positions which may or not suit both of those. The thing is these are the fixtures we have, what are you going to do with them. A common complaint starts along the lines of ” We only have PAR56s so….”. A normal PAR 56, last time I looked, spewed light from the end of it like anything else so in my book that’s a perfectly good fixture, especially if you are trying to pretty up a pub band.

If the director wants a tight spot and you only have cyc floods, there could be a problem. It could be resolved by trying to find out the required end result of this spot and suggest a lighting alternative you can do. Or maybe not being able to have a tight spot could be flagged as a must-have in which case the Production Manager will have to be approached for the budget to hire one.

It’s their call, all you can do is the best you can with the equipment you’ve got.

Our Rigging Sucks

This is a common one: “We’ve only got a couple of wind up stands” or “We only have two bars over stage” etc. I’ve done a ton of lighting using wind up stands and still do in the events market. They are quick and very flexible as you often have a number of options of where to put them and half of the lighting design equation is where each fixture is placed (vs. where it points). Only two bars over stage? How about zero bars overstage, then? That’s not a far fetched scenario, last year I lit an 8 metre stage presentation using the only viable positions in the venue which were crosslighting from either side of stage at about 5ft from the deck.

In every rigging situation there are things that you can do, things you can’t and things that “it might be nice if..” In lighting, it’s part of our job to dream up innovative and safe ways to get light sources where we want them or, quite often, to think up an achievable lighting alternative.

My Venue is Special Because…

Everyone likes to think they are special. Equally, everyone likes to think that their venue is the only one in the world that has x, is only as high as y, or you can’t do z lighting in. While every venue is unique, it’s not an option to throw hands in the air and exclaim that everything would be alright if only we were somewhere else. Even purpose built venues seem to come with their own purpose built foibles (which makes them even more frustrating), so the thought of one day walking into the perfect venue for lighting might have to be put on hold for now.

There is a common theme developing: this is the venue we are working in, this the kit we have, this is where we can put it. THIS IS IT.

The Solution? Good Lighting Skills

The solution to this ghastly world of the wrong kit, in the wrong place at the wrong time is lighting experience. The knowledge of what and what isn’t possible. What’s important and what’s not. What works and what doesn’t and having more than one answer to every question.

Basic lighting skills such as a familiarity with lighting angles such as side light and back lighting, the effect of different positions, shadows / reflection and making decisions when you don’t have enough of something are what really counts. While it’s tempting to overdose on finding out about automated gubbins, ethernet control, pixel mapping and learning software version 16 of the GrandHog MaxMA Pro Expert VII, light is still light and (we assume) always will be.

Where Do I Learn Good Lighting Skills?

I can remember the first stage lighting rig that I played with when I was very young. At my local village hall, under the supervision of my dad, there were two bars over stage, a couple of low perch positions Front Of House. Oh, and I think we had one push up stand. Control was done using two banks of domestic light switches (at least it was electric). I can even remember the lantern inventory: 8 x Patt 137 floods, 1 x Patt 23, 1 Furse  fresnel (in Hammerite blue with an orange mains lead) and our new pride and joys, 2 x Strand Minim fresnels (no barndoors). There weren’t too many different things you could do with this rig so Dad kept things pretty simple but always managed to work some creativity into the productions, perhaps the odd gobo hire.

After that, I went on to learn lighting skills in youth theatres, schools and other places associated with a general lack of lighting wonderfulness. All of my current colleagues in professional lighting did the same, finding out how to deal with lighting situations in an often simple environment, without the aid of sizeable budgets, shiny toys or fantastic kit inventories. Instead of deciding that your lighting kit is too old, point your attention using all your available skills to get the best from what equipment you have.

Maybe one day you hope to be in the exhalted(!?) position of a professional lighting tech or designer, getting paid for your own personal contribution to the lighting Scrapheap Challenge that is life day to day gigging.

If you are looking to learn good lighting skills to prepare you for such an undertaking, you’d better hope your learning enviroment encompasses shoddy equipment, lack of facilities, ridiculous deadlines and the general feeling that this time it really is going to be impossible. If you look around and find yourself in such a pitiful situation already, congratulations.

Welcome to the best place to learn stage lighting skills, have a nice day.

Before you complain about old lights, poor rigging positions and the wrong kit, think what wonders it’s doing for your lighting education.

Image by Toholio on Flickr.

  1. cha0tic

    Word Brother.

    As the saying goes, it’s not the Gun, it’s the Gunner.

    Time should be a great teacher. Remember what worked that one time & use it again (and again, and again) If you’re working with someone else see how they do it and steal their ideas, then act modest when you get complimented on that ace look.

    Another handy hint is Label, label, label. If you’re working with strange shoddy gear mark stuff up so you can understand what’s going on.

  2. Brian

    Great post, working with less than perfect equipment certainly does take a person out of their comfort zone and forces them to concentrate on the technique of their craft instead of depending on having the perfect equipment.

  3. Alex

    I read this just before going up to Birmingham to see the University of Birmingham’s version of Sweeny Todd. The show used older lanterns yet it was superb as a piece of lighting. It provided:

    Division of areas

    Key elements for a lighting design in my opinion. Whilst watching the show it just reinforced the article and showed the skill of the lighting designer. The units were simple there were 5 colours in total but it created a superb bit of theatre and added to the drama of the production.

  4. Rob Sayer

    Hi Alex, sounds good and I expect the LD would be pleased to know you appreciated their work. It’s always a bonus to know that people who understand lighting think you did a good job. The positive feedback that I remember most has been from other lighting designers.

    Thanks for your comment and good to work with you this year.

  5. Yoken

    Thank you very much for a well written article. I believe that if you can get decent results from old and tired lighting stock you learn how to get more from the brand new units, should you get your hands on them.

  6. Darcy

    I Quite like having problems like, now lx bars to hang off, dodgy lights, etc, it makes the job interesting – gotta love a challenge. If everything was how we “wanted” it, i believe the job wouldnt be as attractive to me as what is now with all the challenges….

  7. Kevin McKeon

    Hi Rob,

    I think it’s great that you have such a positive attitude. It’s hard to work around people who bitch all the time.

    I will add this- I found that people who welcome crappy gear with open arms, will always have plenty of it handed to them.

    Sometimes it’s beneficial to tell someone straight away it’s junk. The shoot looks like shit and all anyone seems to remember is you were the one making the “shit” happen. Professionals don’t use junk.

  8. Scurrie

    So I think what you are saying is, there is no way around it, I really DO have to make this rig work! 🙂

  9. Emily

    Hi, am a newbie to all this (albeit a mature one) so a friend at my local community theatre told me about this site. Just wanted to say that I love the article, (we have old kit but at least its well maintained) and judging by the number of links on the page, it looks like I have plenty of reading to do!

  10. Ben

    Hey everyone,
    I am a new lighting designer at my high-school. We have a very intense theater program (we win the New England drama festival quite often). I have been put in charge after our old designer quit, and now I am in charge of redoing all our lights into a better plot that includes 10 areas and incorporates 10 Etc source four lights. What I have been thinking of doing is using 3 lights from the cat walk. Two likos at 45 degree an Etc light at 50 percent straight on. Also in the first four areas I will incorporate side light. Is this good enough? WIll this work?

  11. Rob Sayer

    Hi Ben. Without knowing your venue seating in detail, it strikes me that you don’t need 3 spots per area, the straight on one is pretty redundant if you can get 2 at 45 degrees either side. 3 point lighting usually involves key, fill and BACK light, something to see if you can squeeze in if rigging allows.

    I would generally only use a straight on frontlight if a) I didn’t have enough kit for 2 front fixtures per area or b) I was running a very sidelight heavy show and just needed a little something to fill in (like dance or a band gig). HTH

  12. Colin Wilson

    I used to light for TV in a previous life with a bit of amdram on the side, but left the industry several years ago. 2 years ago I started lighting for our local amdram group in the village hall. After reading this article I feel truly blest! We have 2 overstage spot bars, 1 FOH bar and 2 FOH vert side bars. There is a 2 x 6 dimmer pack and a 2 x 12ch DMX board. The only fixtures provided are 2 x Parcan 64. The first production was lit using the parcans and a few ES PAR lamps (yes, the domestic type reflector lamps!!) but since then I have built up a collection of fixtures courtesy of ebay amd Usedlighting’s clearouts.
    I must commend you Rob on this amazing website. There is a vast wealth of information and it has been a great help in the catch-up process for me. Many Thanks.

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