What it does:

Virtual Magic Sheet from West Side Systems is pretty much what it says that it is: a virtual magic sheet. Virtual Magic Sheet (VMS) is a tool that's time has come, especially now with channel counts extending into the thousands, and it answers the lighting designer's wish to get away from numbers. Eric Cornwell, founder of West Side Systems, is a developer and publisher of personal computer products for entertainment lighting design since 1995. Cornwell has been a lighting designer and computer programmer for more than 30 years. West Side Systems represents the intersection of those two vocations. As both lighting designer and assistant, Cornwell has worked from Broadway to Beijing and from the Metropolitan Opera to Las Vegas. In addition to his lighting-related work, he has written software to create animated films, control robotic cameras, and analyze satellite imagery.

“VMS is software that runs on Mac OS X or Windows XP, providing a graphic display of live lighting levels in a screen layout that the user designs,” says Cornwell. “It's basically a drawing program which includes objects that can display live data when connected to DMX. There are a handful of basic graphic objects (line, rectangle, oval, arrow, text, picture), and then the live objects that represent intensity channels, scrollers, RGB, and CMY color mixes, and command channels — channels that do things like select gobos or color wheel positions or turn hazers on and off. Any of these live objects can be placed anywhere on the screen, with graphic objects adding annotation and structure to the layout.”

Several advantages that VMS allows are:

  • Appropriate arrangement: channels can be in any location, not just rigid rows ordered by number.
  • Context: labels and diagrams can be included in the display. Other pictures can be added and used as a background — perhaps a ground plan, light plot, or hand-drawn magic sheet.
  • Non-numeric displays: scrollers and color mixers show actual colors. The command objects turn arbitrary levels into words like “on,” “off,” “reset,” “strobe,” etc. The channel objects can show an analog intensity indicator.
  • Better use of screen space: on a 12" laptop screen you can fit up to 450 channels; on a 30" screen you can see 2,500 channels at once — one screen, no paging, the whole picture.

With the wide availability of Ethernet networks, especially wireless ones, you can use VMS from just about anywhere. “VMS is often found running on the lighting designer's laptop at the tech table,” comments Cornwell. “It uses a wired or wireless Ethernet connection to an ArtNet box that monitors the console's DMX outputs. With a wireless connection VMS can be used anywhere in the theatre. It can completely replace the designer's magic sheet, serving as both a traditional reference for calling up channel numbers, as well as a display of current levels.”

How It Came To Be:

VMS was created due to what Cornwell describes as his own “frustration and my diminishing ability to recall an ever-increasing number of channels. The frustration is with visual display designs that require the designer to adapt to the machine's way of thinking, and which typically range in attractiveness from impersonal to downright ugly. I felt that a display should be able to be molded to an individual user's needs, and that it should look like a designer's tool if it is to have a place on the designer's table. I took what I know about how lighting designers think, combined it with readily available graphic display technology, made some careful design choices, wrote software for a few months, gave the result to colleagues to use and comment on, did several iterations of testing and refinement, and the result is the first release of Virtual Magic Sheet.”

For Cornwell, the conceptual development of the VMS started with some relevant moments in his career that may have planted the seeds. “Twenty-five years ago, I was lighting shows at night and working as a computer graphics programmer at an engineering firm. At that job, I was developing high-resolution color graphics systems to display statistical information on maps. After work I would go to the theatre and punch cues into a Kliegl Performer, which had a black-and-white alpha-numeric screen. I'm still not sure whether those days qualified as irony or farce.

“About a decade later, I had the privilege of working with the late designer Richard Nelson, as an assistant and later as a software developer. The Express-Track product that grew out of the work I did for him on the original production of Into the Woods employed a number of non-traditional solutions to make the lighting track sheets more comprehensible. The product was not a success, but those who used it found the displays refreshingly informative and accessible.

“On my first tour to Japan, I was intrigued to see that every theatre we played had a ‘mimic panel’ in the light booth. The panel showed the circuiting layout of the theatre and had an indicator light at each circuit number. When the circuit was on, the light was lit. The newer theatres had CRTs with a similar display. Cool, but what if you could do that with channel numbers instead of circuit numbers?

“Years later, I worked with Natasha Katz on EFX at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. One of my responsibilities was to set cues with the ETC Obsession® programmer during lighting rehearsals. We had nearly 3,000 channels of conventional lighting on that show. Associate LD Ted Mather had put together a booklet to use as a reference when trying to recall, for example, what the channels on display page 25 were. It was the only way to make sense of the display.

“Since then, the amount of data to be watched has grown even more. However, graphics processing power has become more and more affordable. I watched the problem keep getting bigger and the obvious solution keep getting cheaper until I finally got tired of waiting for someone else to put the pieces together and did it myself. And here we are.”

What's Next:

Cornwell sees VMS development heading in several directions. “I am working with a couple of console manufacturers to enable VMS to get level information without needing to translate the DMX outputs. ACN support is also on the list. I am working with John McKernon to have VMS read a Lightwright file and extract useful information. Bob Goddard [Goddard Design] sees VMS as a natural vehicle for displaying RDM messages that equipment sends back to the console — ‘lamp is out,’ ‘gelstring is broken,’ etc. — so we are working on that. But the most interesting direction for me is the ongoing exploration of better ways to visually represent the growing mass of data that a designer or programmer needs to access in order to do his or her job effectively. VMS is a start in that direction, and it provides immediate relief from the sea of numbers, but I see its long-term value as a platform for development of even better lighting data display solutions.”

What End Users Say:

Lighting designer Beverly Emmons has been using VMS on a number of productions and calls it “spectacular.” “Virtual Magic Sheet is the most useful software for the lighting designer since Lightwright,” she says. Emmons has used VMS for six productions so far. Emmons finds the features for color scrollers very beneficial. “If you identify a channel as controlling a scroller it will show what color the scroller is currently at. You feed it the numbers of your colors and it matches it. There are about 700 colors that it represents. It is also great at showing you what is on and at what level.” Emmons sees VMS as a tool that makes the lighting designer's life easier. “It improves life dramatically at the tech table where the stress is the greatest,” she adds.

Lighting designer Richard Pilbrow used the VMS when lighting Where's Charley and Princesses for Goodspeed Musicals. Pilbrow notes that they had a very successful production period for Princesses partially due to “using Eric Cornwell's Virtual Magic Sheet. I consider Eric's development a real breakthrough, and I don't imagine ever looking at a screen of numbers again. I doubt I'll ever do another show without it.

“The Virtual Magic Sheet is extraordinary,” Pilbrow continues. “Its display shows you how bright the light is, you can instantly see what's on; also it is displayed all in the color of the light.” Pilbrow has been bemoaning the obsession with numbers that seem to run the lighting designer's life. “Normally you sit at the production desk and you look at the stage and you think ‘Oh God what's that’ or ‘something's wrong’ and you then look at the damn monitor and you have got 1 to 120. I don't know if I am just getting old, but I can't remember what 67 is, what 82 is, so you are constantly referring back to what the hell is that. With Eric's Virtual Magic Sheet, it's absolutely instant recognition of what it is, etc. It is extraordinary. It is a big, big breakthrough.”

Kenton Yeager, head of lighting design at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has been using VMS for a year now after Emmons lit a show with it at Tennessee. Yeager thought that it was such a good product, he went out and got one of his own. “I think it is the best innovation in a decade that does not actually produce light in the field,” he says. “My job is to look at the stage as much as I can; if I am looking at a screen, I'm not looking at the creative aspects. Anything I can do to reduce my screen time and increase my stage time makes it a better design. Being able to integrate the screen information onto the magic sheet means I can get my head up out of the technology and back into the art much faster. It makes me a much faster designer.” When asked what his favorite feature is, Yeager immediately offers up, “The whole thing is my favorite feature, the fact that it exists. The fact that I'm not looking at numbers in rows; I can shape it to look the way I work. Every designer can shape it for their logic, their work style.”

More information about West Side Systems Virtual Magic Sheet is available at www.virtualmagicsheet.com.

VMS software and ArtNet interfaces are available from the Goddard Design Company, as well as a free downloadable demo: www.goddarddesign.com/vms.html.