Whether it's a specific image or an abstract design, gobos and patterns are everywhere. Corporate America uses logos and message-emblazoned gobos to emphasize brand identity. Sporting events use images of team names and mascots to get the fans excited during team introductions. Of course, gobos and patterns have long been a tool of theatre lighting designers, often not simply as an effect, but, say, as a substitution for scenery, with everything from trees to windows used as a means of conveying time, era, or location. Indeed, the role of gobos and patterns in entertainment design is bigger than ever.
"It's not necessarily that there has been some drastic new technological innovation that has suddenly made gobo projection more exciting or versatile," notes Josh Alemany, Rosco product manager for color and patterns. "But gradually and steadily over the years, gobos have become more versatile and increasingly more popular."
With so many applications, there is a virtually inexhaustible supply of gobos and patterns from manufacturers and theatrical dealers. Adding to the variety of images is an availability of pattern sizes for every type of lighting instrument manufactured, in steel as well as glass. According to the the Entertainment Design Industry Resources database, almost 100 companies claim involvement in the manufacturing or marketing of patterns to the theatrical community. In light of this somewhat overwhelming wealth of information, we thought it appropriate to provide a primer on what's out there. Because this article is geared toward the beginning designer, we'll be focusing on gobos and patterns for conventional fixtures, and will deal with their use on moving lights in a future issue.
First, a bit of history. According to Joe Tawil, president of GAM Products, the term GOBO is derived from the phrase to "go between" the light and a performer. (He prefers the term pattern, by the way). Before the advent of gobos and patterns, hand-painted glass slides were often used, a process that was effective but time-consuming. Tawil notes that Kliegl and Century were pioneers in the field of metal gobos, developing patterns from radiator grilles and other sources. In the early days, most people knew that having an image in the gate would result in a projection; the challenge was coping with the heat of the gate. Many readers can relate to often-told stories of the creation of patterns from baking pans, often in desperation, and right before opening night. Technology gradually improved, however, and by the early 70s, Tawil, in collaboration with Jules Fisher, created a line of off-the-shelf patterns. Designers were thrilled, but in those early days, their applications were rather basic.
"In the past, gobos were something to help you motivate a scene or structure," notes Alemany, "like a window, doorway, or leaves, or to illuminate a setting, like jail bars and windows. In other words, a tool for a specific job. Through the increased use of moving lights and a general increase in light levels on the stage, designers started texturing the light, especially by adding haze and being able to see the beams of light and what the pattern's definition is on the stage. Today, gobos are used like a paintbrush, adding texture, depth, and dimension, as well as to create an image."
Tawil is a strong proponent of metal; GAM Products offers over 500 stainless-steel patterns in nine different sizes. Tawil's experience has led him to conclude that stainless steel is the most durable material for patterns and that by using metal with a "cutout," heat is not blocked inside the lighting instrument. This is important, he says, since there is a very large installed base of older equipment still in use.
The GAM Products catalog is filled with examples of scenic elements, graphics, holiday symbols, and breakups. In addition, GAM Products "blendables" are a line of specially designed, drawn and manufactured patterns that, when projected, can be easily matched to create a wash or a light motif across large areas. Through the efforts of resident artist Andrea Arden Penn, the company has added 12 more designs to an already diverse collection.
Most designers concur that metal gobos are as essential to the designer's toolbox as drafting paper. "We use metal gobos all the time," notes Pat Gallegos, principal of Gallegos Lighting Design. "They're cheap, readily available, and there's an excellent variety of images. As project needs and budgets allow, we use custom gobos also."
Though traditionally thought of as a mainstay of theatre designers due to cost and ease of use, metal patterns also have their champions in other fields. Ted Ferreira, principal of City Design Group, has worked extensively in the themed arena, including Star Trek: The Experience in Vegas. "Although glass gobos certainly have a place in archectural projects, the higher initial cost is sometimes very important to our clients," Ferreira explains. "The growing popularity of MR-16 and metal halide sources in framing projectors with relatively low gate temperatures allows us the flexibility of using metal gobos creatively in permanent facilities. These fixtures give designers the freedom to access the vast library of theatrical patterns on the market, without sacrificing the opportunity to change our minds once onsite, if something is just not working out for us."
Other manufacturers agree with Tawil about the durability of metal. "On the theatrical side, metal gobos are here to stay," notes Allison Mutton, director of marketing for Apollo Design, "since many designers don't have the budget of larger productions like sporting events and corporate trade shows and meetings. This is especially true with the metal standard patterns. Stock metal gobos are inexpensive, accessible, and you can still get some great detail in whatever pattern you want." Mutton says she has noticed many "families" of gobos being purchased. For example, a designer recreating a winter scene would order five or six patterns of different snowflakes; someone working on an Easter pageant might choose religious symbols and a church.
Still other manufacturers agree that while metal patterns are here to stay, glass is becoming a viable alternative. "Metal patterns are an affordable staple in the theatrical market and always will be," says Kerstin O'Leary Vitali, North American product development manager for Lee Filters. "The increasing popularity of glass patterns in the themed and architectural markets is increasing pattern awareness, and opening the pattern market as a whole to the architectural market. Also, the increasing availability of affordable moving lights is increasing the popularity of dynamic lighting and the tendency for lighting designers to explore their options. More dynamic lighting will likely include the use of patterns."
Chad McArver, a lighting designer and instructor at Fordham University in New York who recently worked as Howell Binkley's associate on the musical Parade, likes glass because of its versatility. "Patterns create visual interest," he explains. "When I work with Howell, we have systems of templates, so anywhere onstage we can get the same pattern at the same angle. We layer and get texture and create the sense of depth. A wash without a pattern breakup is visually boring, and it helps to break up space. Breakups add to the space and generally make things more interesting. All of these are reasons to consider using glass."
Rosco is now heavily focused on the glass gobo market, though it is worth noting that its steel range now includes the entire DHA collection and numbers over 800 templates ranging from scenic elements to thematic symbols. "Through colored glass, textured glass, and other innovations, people are shaping light itself, by adding a subtlety to lighting that a steel gobo by itself can't achieve," says Alemany.
"The glass side, at least for us, has been growing by leaps and bounds," adds Apollo's Mutton. "We recently introduced a four-color glass gobo, with images like a conventional color-printing process. We take a company logo, and through manufacturing, the color becomes an integral part of the glass and the image, totally eliminating the need for gel. While more expensive, glass gobos offer outstanding detail and longevity."
Apollo recently initiated a marketing arrangement with Lee Filters, its glass supplier. According to Mutton, "Our swatchbook is a smaller version of their gel book, with 36 colors to choose from; we base all of our colors on these dichroics. Designers can purchase dichroics from us, or we can use the colors from the Lee collection to create a custom color gobo, and match the Pantone Color System. The customer is demanding this, since matching colors is becoming a major element and feature of the overall design."
So are custom templates, be they glass or metal; more and more are being routinely ordered and manufactured. Most companies actually prefer about 10 days to create custom templates, especially since special artwork, very intricate designs, the use of dichroic glass, and matching special colors may dictate a longer turnaround time.
Companies involved in gobo production are striving to add new products, both new designs for steel patterns and higher-resolution products. The introduction of effects materials, including Prismatics by Rosco and Crushed Dichroics by Apollo, offer tools to create an unlimited use of effects. The Rosco Image Glass(TM) is a collection of over 15 different glass gobos that have a texture which creates different effects when light is passed through the gobo. In combination with the use of rotators and conventional templates, animation and motion effects are easily achieved.
Looking further into the future, Alemany says technology is moving toward a high-resolution, multicolor gobo that looks like a slide, in that it has full contrast and full resolution. The objective would be to get higher resolution than a standard black-and-white gobo.
"The future is definitely moving toward color gobos," adds Jeff Speaks, gobo sales associate at Eide Industries. "I've heard that one of the lighting manufacturers is developing a full-motion, LCD-based gobo. The benefits are obvious: you get immediate results, and you don't have to wait for etching and manufacturing. You could even send a file over the Internet and put it into a gobo. Of course, the end user would no longer need a gobo manufacturer."
That scenario is unlikely, as is the notion that metal gobos will go the way of the hand-painted glass pattern. Still, new products mean new tools for designers, and new tools mean more opportunities to create. As McArver notes, "It's very hard to light scenery without patterns, period. The ideal thing is for people's imagination to run away with an image, to visually suggest something that helps send their mind into defining what the set means to them."