As lighting for shows gets larger and more complex, there is a lot of data to manage. Assistants have always kept track of this data, and with the introduction of the FocusTrack program, their lives have gotten a lot easier. With Version 1.3 about to be released, we thought it was a good time to take a look at the program that many designers, programmers, and electricians have been embracing.
Created by lighting designer and programmer Rob Halliday, FocusTrack is already in use on a range of productions, including Mary Poppins, Guys and Dolls, Billy Elliot, Miss Saigon, Frost/Nixon, Evita, Edward Scissorhands, and Les Misérables. It made its Broadway debut with The Woman In White. If you deal with large productions — and the associated data — download the demo of FocusTrack at http://www.focustrack.co.uk/download/index.html.
What It Does
“FocusTrack provides a method of documenting the lighting and of analyzing how equipment is used,” explains Halliday. “Its main uses are in productions where the lighting needs to be maintained over a long run, recreated for transfers or tours, or recreated on a regular basis, like for repertory companies. Unlike pre-visualization tools, it is intended to provide a record of what the lights are actually doing in the real world so you have a way of correcting back to that, whether you swap out one light and discover its position doesn't quite match up or you have to switch to a whole new type of light. That means you can remember precisely what each light was doing at each moment in the show for recreating or maintaining the show accurately.” FocusTrack can also show actual photos of each cue for a detailed visual reference.
FocusTrack can be used manually — with the programmer or a tracker filling in details of focuses as they are created — but “it works best when used with a compatible lighting console, which, at the moment, is Strand's 300/500-series,” says Halliday. There are plans to have FocusTrack read files from MA Lighting's grandMA, as well as the ETC Eos. “With the Strand consoles, you can import a show file into FocusTrack, which will figure out which lights are used when and for what. It will present you with a list of preset focus positions that are actually used in the cue range you specify.”
For each light, in each position — what FocusTrack calls a “lamp-focus” — it will tell you which cues use that light and what else is stored in that focus — for example, beam edge or shutter shape. At the same time, RigTrack, the rig-management module, imports the show patch, including important, but often overlooked, details such as whether pan or tilt are inverted and dimmer profiles. RigTrack can also import information from Lightwright, VectorWorks Spotlight, and other sources, or you can add information manually to create a complete, accurate, and detailed record of the rig. The program is available in versions for Mac OS 9 and X, and Windows.
How It Came To Be
“When I first started programming lighting for musicals, I was convinced I could remember everything about every light in every cue,” says Halliday. “While this might once have been true, it's become less so as shows have become more complex with more moving lights, as I've had more than one show running at the same time, and as my memory's gotten poorer with age! Even if I knew what a light was meant to be doing, I wouldn't be at the show every night and so I needed some way of conveying that information to the crew.”
For years, Halliday created custom databases to record this information. “I'd have to gather the information by hand — always really dull and tedious — first adapting the database to each show, then trawling through the lighting desk and figuring out what was used where, and then focus-plotting the show with pencil and paper,” he remembers. “I thought, ‘This is crazy; there must be a way of getting the computers to do all this.’ I kept trying to persuade manufacturers that they should provide the tools to do this since the console already had all of that information.”
Halliday started experimenting a few years ago, starting with simple shortcuts to reduce typing, “but once I started, I just kept thinking, ‘If I can do that, surely I can figure out this,’ and on it went,” he recalls. “Strand made it possible because they have a utility, Showport, that converts their proprietary showfile format to a variety of text-based formats. That meant there was enough access to start pulling the information out in useful ways.
“The most gratifying day was when I got the show processing working — FocusTrack could automatically figure out which presets were used where — and used a show I'd already processed manually to test it,” Halliday continues. “FocusTrack was finding more focuses used than I thought I had, and when I went back and looked, it turned out it was right and I'd missed things in the manual version!”
Halliday notes that, just as all software products evolve into newer versions with more features, FocusTrack will keep growing. “The main priority for the next version is to start reading showfiles from consoles other than the Strand 300/500 range, particularly since they've now been discontinued,” he says. “You can use FocusTrack manually, entering information by hand as moving-light ‘trackers’ have long done, but it's much better if it can figure things out automatically. The key is being able to get at the data, which means either console manufacturers allowing you to write out the show data in a text-based and reasonably logical manner or providing documentation as to how their show files are structured.”
And Halliday has a dream to have FocusTrack built into consoles. “That would be a very powerful tool, indeed,” he notes. “Why shouldn't a lighting desk be able to take a picture of the cue when you press the Record key?”
What End-Users Have To Say
“With the massive volume of intelligent fixtures and focus points in Mary Poppins, cataloging the data on paper would have been both problematic and difficult to access,” comments Kevin Barry, electrician/board operator. “If a unit has a problem, I have the time to make changes to cover for it. I use this feature the most, and it is extremely valuable to me toward maintaining Howard Harrison's lighting design. Being able to see pictures of the units in their individual focuses is the easiest way to reproduce the designer's work, and FocusTrack organizes all of that information in a simple, easy-to-use manner. For a long-running show, I wouldn't mind seeing a simple stripped-down version, maybe even a read-only version.”
Lighting designer Neil Austin, who used FocusTrack on Frost/Nixon on Broadway, chose it as “the only total documentation solution” to leave proper documentation with a show or to document a show before it transfers and is recreated. “When I leave a show, I know that it is properly documented and that the focus of both static and moving lights is able to be maintained without me. In due course, I would like the range of desks that it can work with to be expanded.”
Vic Smerdon, moving-light programmer who used it on The Woman In White and Billy Elliot, wanted something that would easily communicate with her Strand showfiles and Mac. “It's the only product of its kind on the market. It makes my life a whole lot easier when it comes to focus-plotting moving lights,” she says. “I don't have to trawl through showfiles to find the information, and getting that information to the lighting desk for photography is extremely easy. I'd like a function that matched focus groups: if one focus group had exactly the same values as another, which is quite common with some shows. I would also like it if this function extended to inform me if it is crucial that this group is programmed from an existing position — if it is part of a live move — and what that position needs to be.” [Halliday responded that these functions will be available in V. 1.3.]
Richard Pacholski, a Sydney-based freelance lighting associate, is currently in São Paulo relighting Miss Saigon and dealing with equipment changes from previous versions, “but I was still able to easily focus the swapped moving lights, along with all the others, in one day,” he says. “We have over 1,200 photos stored in the Miss Saigon database. It makes touring a big moving-light rig so much easier and more accurate. And since we are using a Strand console, all the showfile data is in FocusTrack. So finding out how many times you use a particular gel frame in a scroller or a gobo in a moving light is now easy. It also makes it easier for the crew to look after these long running productions. They now have an accurate record, and photos are the best way to convey that information.”
“I chose to use FocusTrack on my current production of Guys and Dolls because of the success I had with the software on My Fair Lady,” says Andrew Greenwood, chief electrician for the UK tour. “The software makes keeping track of moving-light focuses a much easier task. Before FocusTrack, I had to rely on several folders of information to relight a tour. The function I find most useful is the QuickFind, which allows you to search any category quickly. This function can be invaluable during a show when you need to update a cue live. What I would like to see improved is the setup. The current process is straightforward but a little time-consuming. Overall, FocusTrack is a great piece of software that can take hours off a tight fit-up schedule. With touring shows using more and more moving lights, I would like to see FocusTrack on more shows.”
For further information, please visit www.focustrack.co.uk.
Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.