LD On The DL: Rendering My Objections

Executives from the network, scenic company, lighting company, and rigging company stood in a hushed semi-circle in the middle of the giant room. The executives weren't happy, which meant nobody else was either. A few feet behind them stood the various assistants and support staff, attentive but separate, ready to spring into action if their masters called. All stared intently at the ceiling with furrowed brows.

The network had paid for a magnificent, tall event space in Manhattan. Though the room was pricey, producers envisioned breathtaking jib shots which would showcase the Greek Revival architecture, highlighted beautifully by light. The renderings showed the set surrounded by this opulence; based on that the producers and directors had planned their shots accordingly. However real life did not look like the pictures, and staring at the ceiling they realized their previously orchestrated plans would no longer work.

When human eyes or cameras gazed up, they saw something quite different than the renderings had promised. Above the set hung hundreds of linear feet of 12” box truss supporting hundreds of lights. Above the truss rested bulky 1 ton motors and chain bags. Above that, larger gauge super-truss, with more chains extending to the ceiling further cluttered the airspace. Instead of magnificent views, a forest of chains marred the vision the show's producers and directors had sold to their bosses at the network. Any sweeping jib shots would now include a lot of production gak -- chains, motors, large TV lights, and multi-cables ad nauseum. While I marveled at the head rigger's elegant solution, merging the complex lighting design and set design into a space in which it was never meant to exist, the TV executives had another, not so positive perspective. Finally, one of them said, “It doesn't look like the picture.” Everyone shifted uncomfortably. “And why is there so much f***ing truss?”

Few technologies introduced in our industry held such promise - but have caused such heartache - as computer-drawn renderings. Vectorworks (my personal favorite) and other programs have given us amazing 3D rendering options and capabilities. Newer, faster computers with robust cores can crunch complex equations that in minutes create beautiful, photo-realistic pictures of designs not yet executed. I feel we were promised a new era of communicating with clients and each other. Concepts could now be pre-visualized faster than ever before, and by anyone savvy enough to work the software. These renderings would save time and money. They would offer clarity where words failed.

A new era began alright, but its most defining characteristic has not been of clarity. Rather, it's been of refunded design fees and frustration.

Renders are replete with problems in the field. Take a color rendering used to show a particular moment of a lighting design, for example. Anyone familiar with the primary colors for pigment and light will see the obvious, immediate issue. In a rendering the artist can easily create tertiary colors to their hearts delight, adding a subtle nuance to the overall look. In print on glossy paper it looks stunning. However, the artist can inadvertently use colors which may be impossible to recreate with light given real world conditions. Suddenly that deep, velvety salmon which looked so nice in the picture doesn't read. Maybe the light source is too far away. Maybe the spill from the projection screen overpowers the saturated color. Maybe the material the light hits reflects a more brownish hue instead. Maybe the cameras fail to even see it. Now, the client compares the printed rendering and real life, asking aloud why the two do not match. That's an awkward conversation.

The colors don't even have to be complex blends. For example, how does a designer design black in real life? It may be hard to control the absence of light in a given environment ... like Times Square. Green, too, can cause enormous strife. Suppose the rendering calls for a strong green, like the color for TD Bank. Newer RGB fixtures using additive color mixing handle it without problem. However, what if the rig only has CMY fixtures with arc sources? The wimpy greens barely read, which contrasts with TD Bank's rendering that clearly shows a vibrant, heathy green proudly washing the wall or floor. They expected that green, they paid for that green, members of TD Bank's marketing team promised their superiors that green, and now everyone's unhappy.

So what if lighting designers created the renderings? Could we avoid this strife? After all, a lighting designer would know the limits and capabilities of the gear they planned on using. I love that idea, I really do. I just don't live or know anyone who lives in that world. This is yet another problem of renderings. Lighting designers rarely possess the time to complete a series of renderings for a potential, but not yet confirmed project. Furthermore, choosing gear and creating a look based on that gear before the creation of a budget is amateur and a colossal waste of time. The not-yet-booked venue or studio invariably plays a huge role and greatly influences equipment selection as well. Lastly, I know few lighting designers who are really good at creating renderings.

And why should they be? Creating a great rendering and designing a great light plot have little in common. For example, a simple wash system in the real world generally takes several instruments spaced evenly apart. It also means considering an enormous amount of variables such as throw distance, desired intensity, grid height, intended purpose, available instrumentation, available power, etc. In Vectorworks I just plop down a directional light from the tool bar and voila! Everything in my drawing is now washed with a “light” from the direction I set, irregardless of pesky things like physics and feasibility.

Not that I fault Vectorworks in any way. Without this easy convention, the rendering would take an inordinately long time to physically render. The more light sources the computer has to account for, the longer it takes to crunch the increasingly complex equations. If haze or reflective surface textures are used, forget about it. The directional light tool is a really neat trick, but herein lies the issue. Tricks are useful shortcuts for creating great renderings. They have nothing to do with actual light plots. It's a different skill set which marginally overlaps.

Scenic-types use renderings a lot, and the newer technology means they can create really nice, photo-realistic images. However, the stories I hear on the street are not pretty. A fellow co-worker, Mike Grabowski, related several tales of woe over a conversation about renderings. My favorite - so to speak - was from an event he worked many, many years ago. The scenic designer created a rendering which later caused massive upheaval. The perspective used in the rendering was impossible. The “camera” was positioned too high in the drawing space. For us geeks, that means a high Z-value. In the real world, a person with that view would have been dangling from the ceiling. Somehow this top-down perspective was not adequately expressed to the client, who misread the perspective. Sadly, the client then made very expensive branding decisions based on a viewpoint from a rendering which nobody at the event could possibly see. The wasted money infuriated them. Also, there was little sense of scale in the rendering. The client approved the drawn scenic elements unaware of their relative size to a human. They freaked out upon viewing the scenic elements in real life because they comically dwarfed the size of the speaker. Ultimately, the company demanded the scenic designer refund much of his fee.

Time and time again scenic companies and designers get burned by the subtleties, like the degree of translucency of a material, or the difference between graphics that are rear projected and those that are printed on matte vinyl and front lit. Approaches that in practice are incredibly obvious, but in a rendering are hard to correctly depict. In trying to perfect a subtle look in a rendering (which may or may not accurately represent the real world) clients and designers can easily go back and forth until building the set requires rush charges and massive OT. Given the ease with which the rendering can be passed around via email, a whole chorus of opinions up and down the chain of command can further derail this process.

Email brings us to my biggest problem with renderings. For every rendering I created, I had to sit with the client and explain the entire drawing. For example, I must clarify the blue in this rendering means darkness and not a blue wash. I must describe how much or how little light will catch on a particular scenic element. I must explain relative sizes in terms they will understand, which differ from person to person. I must walk this person, who is not necessarily production savvy, through the nuances of the drawing, and explain how those nuances affect the gear order, schedule, and budget. I must manage what the drawing says and to do that I must be physically there to say it.

With electronic renderings, which transmit instantly to anyone, I lose that control because I'm no longer present. I can no longer manage expectations properly, which means I am no longer doing 98% of my job as a designer. When my client's boss's boss looks at a drawing, they see it without me. They see it without my qualifying statements, without my explanations, and without my caveats. They approve or purchase that gesture without regard or understanding to any number of the million variables in between that drawing's creation and the real, physically executed design. One small change early in the process and that rendering, sitting upstairs in someone's inbox, can blow up costing me money or future work with a client.

Ultimately, renderings really communicate one thing: the software manipulation skills of the artist who created it. A napkin in a bar is a better design tool than a rendering. First, you'd be in a bar. Secondly, you'd be face to face with the client creating an idea together. He or she would come away with a sense of ownership from the beginning. Third, you'd be able to manage expectations from early in the process. Fourth, it's highly unlikely a napkin will ever be emailed to anyone.

Pre-visualizations do have a place in our world. For example when cueing complex shows in the shop before load-in, the current technology blows me away. I brushed up on my MA2 skills at ACT Lighting in New Jersey; it's one sweet setup over there. Seeing the live output of my keystrokes on a screen above the desk really helped flatten out the learning curve. While I understand the mental thought process that goes, “Well since this simpler type of pre-visualization is good, more accurate renderings would be a whole lot better,” I think the body of evidence tells a different story. Renderings don't save time. They don't accurately depict the intricacies of how light behaves or the nuance of a material. They don't showcase my lighting design abilities. They barely communicate an idea, often needing a third party to referee with a litany of qualifying statements.

We've all heard the saying a picture is worth a thousand words. With a rendering ... often ... it's the wrong thousand.

 

Lance Darcy is a Lighting Director with The Lighting Design Group, based in New York City. Special thanks to Mike Grabowski, also of The Lighting Design Group, for his stories and input.

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