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.
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.