Taking a look at ETC's new integrated design/control software concept

Editor's note: Electronic Theatre Controls' Emphasis is an all-in-one control system that includes the light plot and all associated paperwork in a computer that is integrated with a lighting console. On paper it sounds great, but what do end users really think? Here's a report from one of them.

ETC's Emphasis is a step forward in console technology, combining an ETC Expression 3® series console with a PC-based WYSIWYG software environment. Plotting, paperwork, and worksheets are seamlessly updated in real time while setting up, teching, or running a show. The Emphasis system allows multiple-face-panel control plus two-way communication with ETC Sensor dimmers. The console can be easily updated and upgraded and is extremely flexible.

A liberal arts institution with a strong professional theatre training program, Viterbo University, in La Crosse, WI, is potentially a prime end user for a system like Emphasis. The college offers seven different theatre BFA degrees and manages three professional performance facilities in its Fine Arts Center. They include a 1,100-seat main theatre (proscenium/concert hall), a 175-seat recital hall, and a 144-seat black-box space.

As an Emphasis beta-test site we became familiar with the system over an extended trial period. Since the school year began, we have used Emphasis on four shows: two in the black box and two on the mainstage. We have also continued to use WYSIWYG for most lighting projects in both theatres. And we have used Emphasis's WYSIWYG abilities to create the first true 3D drawings of our theatres. Basically, we have played with the newest, coolest toy — and we have several strong reasons for continuing to use it.

The good news: speed and integration

The integration of the plot and the visualization software in Emphasis allows LDs to quickly make specific presentations of their design ideas. (Having rendered many designs, we now wish for even faster processors to expedite the rendering process.) This is technology we can no longer live without. When we recently lit the play Between Daylight and Boonville in our black-box theatre, the director wanted a hyperreal scenic and lighting design. Using Emphasis, we created and rendered several cues from the show a month before the hang. After presenting them at a production meeting, we easily tweaked some color, then re-presented them. When we went into first tech, the director knew what to expect from the lighting; we spent less than an hour on cueing during tech week. Even that time was mostly spent fleshing out the dimensions of some props and scenery and not on basic illumination and creating cues. This allowed us to concentrate on the actors and their integration with the scenery and lights.

We now have a greater appreciation of the advantages of 3D previsualization. Until now, classroom projects were limited to 2D, and students had to realize a design — using a theatre console, physically hanging and re-hanging instruments — before they could begin to play with cueing. Unlike other PC-based light boards, Emphasis still has a traditional interface with submasters and specific buttons for programming. That means students can play with the console, get a feeling for how it operates, and see what their ideas will look like in 3D. They can easily design entire shows, including cueing, as part of a project.

Emphasis solves the big problem of young designers realizing their first designs: the collision between theory and the realities of the space. On paper, students always forget about the third dimension and are forever placing lighting units in positions that can't possibly make the shot. With Emphasis and WYSIWYG, however, they learn to think about every aspect of scenery and lighting and how they interrelate. They're not the only ones to benefit; touring-show designers new to our space can use Emphasis to set up and fine-tune their shows.

With a system like Emphasis, the production process has been changed forever. Off-line editors have always had their limitations; with Emphasis, you can design a show at home and bring the disk to tech week. The time an LD is needed on-site is reduced dramatically, as are labor costs and space rental. Moving-light programming time is also reduced significantly, as you can pre-establish the focus points and link focus points to scenery. To utilize this feature, programmers must add and subtract CAD layers during a performance; nevertheless, it adds to a moving-light design a level of sophistication that has been previously unavailable in traditional rendering software.

Managing your paperwork

The paperwork integration features of Emphasis/WYSIWYG are excellent. We have worked for years with Lightwright and MacLux but WYG takes their capabilities a step further by integrating the CAD workspace and the paperwork. When the user moves a unit in CAD, the paperwork automatically updates, and vice versa. Tech-week paperwork updates become automatic, and the assistant LD is freed up from hours of extra effort. When this feature is extended to Emphasis, hours of troubleshooting time in the space are saved. The dimmer response technology of ETC Sensor® and WYSILink pinpoint which units are out and what is wrong with them. In addition, the user can easily select the desired unit in CAD or data view and instantly get information that previously would have necessitated sending an electrician out on the catwalks or precious minutes of paperwork cross-referencing.

Emphasis comes in a variety of levels, and works with several extant ETC Express and Expression consoles. You can buy a basic 500-channel, 2D system to work with your Express, or a 5,000-channel, full 3D system. You can purchase the basic level and upgrade as budget allows. You don't even have to buy a new face panel. Simply load new software into the old one. [Editor's note: Only existing Express, Expression 3, Expression 2x, Insight 3, and Insight 2x consoles can be upgraded to Emphasis.]

You can also turn your Emphasis face panel back into a traditional light board. We have found this helpful, as our main theatre's console is an ETC Obsession II and not all traveling shows have an Obsession II show disk. Many times we have borrowed the Expression face panel from Emphasis for a day. We also use this feature when, on tour, we don't want to pack the additional monitors and PC tower. When we brought Emphasis upstairs from the mainstage to the black-box theatre, the software conversion for the Ethernet nodes took about five minutes. We networked the Emphasis console and used the ETC Expression RFU [Remote Focus Unit] — a little gadget we couldn't live without — throughout the theatre.

Although not perfect yet, WYSIWYG and Emphasis play well with other programs. This is important because, as a roadhouse, we often export to DWG files to send to touring shows, and import CAD and Lightwright files to WYG.

Room for improvement

The drawbacks to Emphasis are few. Although Emphasis/WYSIWYG meets all lighting CAD needs well, it can be difficult to create complex scenery. WYSIWYG imports wireframe drawings fairly well but it has some problems importing true 3D objects accurately. The drawing functions inherent in WYG are basic and await several important tools, such as the ability to make and import blocks. It takes time to draw complicated scenery accurately enough to be useful in a rendering (although, for most renderings, simplified scenery suffices). On Boonville, it took a lighting assistant six hours to draw a 3D wireframe of a 20'x15'x8' mobile home split in half on an angle, mounted to a wall, and tilted stage left 8°. After he had successfully drawn it, he still had to map textures onto the wireframe. The same assistant originally drew the same piece in AutoCAD in two hours before we discovered that it wouldn't import accurately. ETC and CAST Lighting are already on this: The primary theme of the latest WYSIWYG and Emphasis release was the refinement of import/export features.

We'd also like to see improvement in the function allowing the user to enter house or rental inventory into the program and drag instruments onto positions directly from it. This feature seems wonderful but its execution is less than satisfactory. The flightcase can be buggy, and basic layout is not user-friendly enough. Too much of the wrong information is available, and to use the flightcase properly you have to give up most of your drafting screen.

How do we feel about the Emphasis learning curve? Our students have little problem quickly mastering WYSIWYG. Among them, the average time, from starting the program to outputting a plot, is about 10 hours. Of course, many of Viterbo's students also have basic AutoCAD experience, but even those who don't can learn the program quickly.

In truth, you can't work with today's feature-rich consoles without some basic training. However, in an educational setting it is sometimes important that the least skilled worker can turn on a light or run a console. The integration of the Expression face panel helps with the learning curve here, but it takes an intermediate knowledge level to train someone to troubleshoot the console connections, and to utilize all of the numerous available features. ETC does provide extensive initial training for this console, but that only happens once, and students rotate every year. We are advocates for specifically trained technicians in every theatre production job, and our program allows this, but smaller educational programs will have to consider this system's relative complexity.

Furthermore, although we haven't had a problem with the system crashing, we are always slightly paranoid about computerized consoles, having suffered through such problems with other brand-name products. Like it or not, this is a Windows XP environment and the Emphasis software must negotiate it. ETC plans later this year to introduce a new take on redundant-backup solution, just in case.

With any complex, high-tech device it is a great benefit to count on reliable customer/technical support. ETC has always been accessible whenever we had questions or problems. ETC's tech support staff always know the answers or have enough understanding of their product line that we can solve a problem together. Not only are they helpful, they are also gracious and indulgent when we have done something boneheaded.

The verdict

Even with a few minor problems, we love this new control system. Emphasis has broadened the capabilities of lighting directors and producers and has enriched the educational potential of a scholastic lighting program. At press time, we are preparing for an elaborate children's show with a tight production schedule — only three days in the main theatre. The director is lighting-aware and has specific needs, among them that we “make the stage extremely colorful, while keeping the actors lit almost white,” utilizing mostly conventional fixtures. The actors will move, sing, and dance through a cavalcade of changing environments, thematic colors, and changing moods. To accomplish those aims, our student designer has rendered the entire show in advance for the director to approve or alter. We plan to hang and focus with extra care and use detailed WYSIWYG focus charts to ensure that the performance reality matches the renderings. From our experience working with Emphasis, we are completely confident that the execution of this show will match the advance work. Such a level of conceptual precision (and confidence) was impossible before Emphasis. We predict it will soon become the expectation and the standard in both the professional and educational industries.

The authors are, respectively, production manager and dean of the School of Fine Arts at Viterbo University. They can be contacted at dhempey@viterbo.edu or pdsannerud@viterbo.edu. For another perspective, check out lighting designer Craig Pierce's review online at www.lightingdimensions.com.