Last October, three students studying lighting with Cindy Limauro at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, took the initiative to use a mix of lighting fixtures from the school inventory of moving lights, LEDs, color scrollers, and conventional instruments, to explore architectural lighting and lighting as a show in itself. Their project was an architectural lighting installation focused on the Purnell Center for the Arts, featuring a five-minute light show accompanied by the music of Klaus Badelt.
The three students, Evan O'Brient, Evan Purcell, and Christopher T. Werner, transformed the facade of the building with color and movement. Their rig included 10 VARI*LITE VL 2414s, two VL 2202s, five Martin Professional MAC 600NTs, two MAC 500s, 12 Wybron Coloram lIs, 15 Color Kinetics C-200s, and nine Color Kinetics C-75s, all controlled by a VLPS Virtuoso DX console. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux queried the young designers to get the inside story on their project.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did you come up with the idea for this project?
Christopher T. Werner: Personally, I am a huge fan of theme parks. I can remember the exact moment when projects like this became interesting and appealing. I had just graduated from high school, and I went on my first trip to Orlando. It was the first time that I saw a show like Illuminations, Reflections of Earth at Epcot. I was completely struck with the emotions they were able to pull from the audience. When the idea was brought to the table to turn our project into a stronger piece that each audience member could connect with, I jumped at the opportunity.
Evan O'Brient: The idea for the project has always been around because there is another group on campus that lights the building, using about 12 PAR cans, for special campus events. I suppose we wanted to “one-up” them, but we also wanted to create an impressive look for the building.
Evan Purcell: The project was developed in response to an opportunity we were given by the School of Drama in the Playground Festival (a showcase of independent, student-produced work). All classes and production work were cancelled for a week while students worked on anything they wanted. The only limitations were a fixed time (less than 45 minutes) and no budget. The deliberately limited production elements of these projects challenged us to create a project to contribute to the festival, while staying true to our interests. We were incredibly lucky in the support and the resources of the lighting department, allowing us to create a totally independent project of this size and complexity without spending any money. The idea to light the exterior of the Purnell Center was originally intended to advertise the festival and to create excitement about events in the campus community. The idea of the show was added later, when we realized that, not only could our project draw attention to the events of the festival, but that it could be an event itself.
ELG: How did you become interested in architectural lighting? Is it part of the curriculum at Carnegie Mellon?
CTW: My early interest in architectural lighting came from simply noticing buildings and looking at them with some design sense. I began looking for books on the subject, and soon after that, your magazine published an issue dedicated to the subject, Lighting Dimensions on Architecture. My interest and curiosity grew, and last February, I attended the Architectural Lighting Master Classes with Evan Purcell and three other students. We were the only students (non-working professionals) at the classes, and we were completely inspired by what we saw.
My interest was encouraged by our lighting faculty and fostered over the summer by Paul Gregory and the design team at Focus Lighting. I worked there as an intern, and I learned new things every day. Architectural lighting is something that is touched upon in our lighting curriculum, but it is not a big focus. It falls within a year of exploration of various genres of lighting, including concert lighting, dance lighting, and opera.
EP: At CMU, we address architectural lighting in a fairly limited way until the second semester of our senior year, at which point we do an in-depth architectural lighting project. We are not only made aware of it as a separate design discipline, but also one that is very similar to the work we've been doing in live theatre. We discuss how ideas of creating tension and focus, movement, color, and establishing an arc can be applied to architecture as well as theatre.
ELG: How does architectural lighting make a “show”?
EOB: In the spirit of lighting and special effects events often seen at theme parks, we designed and programmed a show to a piece of music. Using the building and surrounding grounds as a canvas, we were able to make a stunning nighttime display.
EP: The design of the show was based on the tension within the music itself. We used the architecture and the character of the building as a surface on which to project color, texture, and motion in response to what we heard and felt in the music. Thus, the audience senses not only the lighting changes, but also a connection to the arc of the piece, resulting in a show with progressing emotion.
ELG: Most of the equipment you used is for “entertainment lighting.” Why did you select this particular equipment?
CTW: The choices were based on several factors. A heavy influence was having all of this equipment in our inventory, and it was actually available since there were no shows in production at the time. Another factor was our familiarity with the gear. We all had used the equipment as designers, electricians, and programmers. We were comfortable with the functions, capabilities, and limitations of the fixtures. During the entire process, we were working within the limits and guidelines of this project as a “special event,” as opposed to a permanent installation. While we were concerned with issues such as weather, our concern was never about whether or not the units could withstand it, but about our ability to do the project at all.
ELG: Describe the part of the building used as the show “canvas.”
CTW: The Purnell Center for The Arts, home of the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon, sits in a prominent spot on campus facing the University Center. The two buildings have almost identical architecture and form a large, open lawn between them. This area is known as “The Cut.” The Cut was our viewing area, with guests facing a row of 15 columns serving as the primary surface, illuminated with the VL 2414 Wash fixtures. The columns create a walkway along the building with a solid yellow brick wall behind them. This brick wall was illuminated with MR16 striplights hidden behind each column, a pair of VL 2202 Spot fixtures, and a pair of the Martin Spot fixtures.
In front of the columns, there are six trees that we up-lit with Color Kinetics fixtures. We placed four booms on The Cut about 60' from the building with ETC Source Fours with scrollers on each to create rectangles of light between the tops of each column. Between the booms on the ground were four Martin Wash fixtures to provide even color mixing on the entire surface of the building. Thankfully, this area is rather dark at night, and the University assisted us by turning off all outdoor lighting to the building. Just before show time, we ensured that all lights were off in the offices facing The Cut.
ELG: How did the three of you collaborate on the project in terms of designing and delegation of responsibility?
CTW: Almost all of the designing was done “by committee.” We met frequently to discuss the project and the choices that had to be made. We chose just about everything together, from fixtures to positions to music. As for the music, we had some specific qualities that we were looking for. We wanted a dramatic piece of music around five minutes long with a definite arc. We each brought a selection of pieces for the group to hear, most of them from movies. Ultimately, we chose, “Skull and Crossbones,” from the movie, Pirates of The Caribbean.
When it came to preparation, we split up the duties. Evan gathered and prepared all conventional fixtures and scrollers; I gathered moving lights and data cable; Evan did most of the console set-up and created the color palettes for our color-mixing fixtures. We worked together during the install, sharing responsibilities, like addressing fixtures, running cable, configuring ETC Net2 Nodes, and simply moving gear around. We also had help from friends who were willing to do everything from carrying lights to guarding the equipment 24/7 to providing hot chocolate and coffee. I maintained the paperwork. This was my first test-drive of Lightwright 4.
We saw our project as requiring two “shows”: one as general architectural lighting with slow changes for the time between dusk and 11pm (our show time), and another for the music. Evan programmed the console for most of the music portion, and I programmed most of the looks for the building when it was not in “show” mode.
ELG: Describe the installation and programming process.
CTW: The process of installation and preparation was spread over three days and nights. This endeavor began with the gathering and preparation of equipment and expendables. This included everything from loading color scrollers to console set-up. The first equipment we took to the site was multi-cable, DMX, and Cat5.
Most load-in work took place the next day. Almost all of the gear was positioned and tested. All conventional fixtures were focused, and position palettes were created for the moving lights. On day three, the final fixtures were brought outside and put into position. This included all of the Color Kinetics fixtures and power supplies. We programmed that night, in surprisingly cold weather, from a makeshift tent (constructed out of schedule 40 pipe) directly in front of the building. Actual cue writing took until sun-up on day four, with the finishing touches, like timing, tweaked off-line using the console's built-in 3-D visualization features. Time-code scripts from the console triggered the cues.
ELG: It sounds like the project was a big success.
CTW: The project was a fantastic opportunity for us to investigate the process of illuminating architecture as well as produce an outdoor event. This was a very successful exercise in planning, design, programming, and coordination. We created a constantly changing “advertisement” for the School of Drama's “Playground.”
As the event took place during Homecoming Weekend, our installation drew visitors who would not normally attend drama events. We created an atmosphere to showcase the theatre program to the entire university and community. This was very pleasing to both the University and Homecoming committee and raised the bar for the lighting of future campus events.