As the demand for lighting has exploded, so has the array of affordable, sophisticated lighting products.

Lighting has come a long way since the 1800s, when theaters were lit by small lanterns lined up along the front of the stage. Today, concert promoters, theater staging professionals, rental agencies, lighting designers, special event planners and club owners are discovering that the range of affordable, high-quality, visually rich lighting solutions is vast and getting larger by the year.

The pressure is on to create specialized, intelligent lighting. (Photo courtesy of Vari*Lite)

From PARs to lasers, the lighting industry is seeing new technologies revolutionize stages both large and small. Developments in lighting for stages, clubs, events and even mobile DJs make it easy to add high-quality professional lighting to your venue, act or rental offerings. The trends toward increased usability, dependability and affordability that began in the late 1980s have continued to the point where lighting effects cost one-quarter of what they did back then, and the products often come with features that would have been hard to imagine.

“The theatrical lighting industry has been on a long upward sales curve,” says Joseph Tawil, president of GAM Products in Hollywood, Calif.. “I'd like to say it's because we're all so smart, but in truth we're all fortunate to be partaking in the growing phenomenon of ‘theme everything’ — theme parks, theme restaurants, theme hotels, theme clubs.”

GAM makes a wide range of special effects, color filters, patterns and projection lighting equipment used in every venue and project imaginable. “Theatrical lighting lends itself to solutions for these expanding markets, and I see this continuing for some time to come,” says Tawil. “Larger markets have allowed the lighting industry to take greater advantage of today's computer-based technology. It's a good time to be in the theatrical lighting business.”

Whether you're talking high-end systems targeted at theaters and large showrooms or the more affordable lighting solutions for mobile DJs and rental markets, better quality for less seems to be the order of the day.

Intelligent Lights

“Lighting effects will continue to become more sophisticated in the future,” says Scott Davies, general manager of Elation Professional and sister company American DJ, two well-known lighting manufacturers in southern California. “However, we don't believe that this will happen at the expense of the simpler, sound-activated and semi-intelligent effects. These time-proven effects will continue to be popular, particularly among mobile DJs, small clubs, start-up bands, and various users that have relatively straight-forward lighting needs. Why? Because they're user-friendly and they get the job done.

Larger markets have allowed the lighting industry to take advantage of computer-based technology.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “we believe that intelligent lighting is going to become even more sophisticated. We look for lighting effects to become more versatile and continue to flow into the architectural arena. There will also be more specialized lighting effects that will fill a very specific niche in a lighting designer's creative scheme.”

American DJ recently introduced several new products, including an intelligent light called The Reflex, which is an affordable (under $200) dual moonflower effect that bounces, bends and reflects a ton of multi-colored beams off two scanning mirrors to create “dazzling treasure-in-the-dark effects” that appeal to clubs and entertainment venues.

Over at Elation Professional there's the new Color Wash 575 that is part of the CMY Color Mixing system, which utilizes combined colors to achieve new colors that are not available in Gel form. The light comes with a 575-watt lamp rated at 750 hours and a 180-degree beam shaper with a motor that can position the light at 28 different beam angles almost instantaneously.

American DJ and Elation Professional have hundreds of products between them for every effect and venue imaginable. “The trend in DJ, mobile and club special effects lighting is moving toward fixtures that go above and beyond the ordinary, to offer something extra in visual excitement,” says Davies. “The Reflex is a new generation of moonflower effect because it's really two moonflowers in one, plus it offers the ‘dual’ movement of rotating light beams and rotating mirrors. Yet, it sells for a very affordable price that you'd expect to find on a traditional moonflower.”

The Catalyst system from High End Systems combines video and lighting technologies in an exciting, new way.

But Davies sees more fragmentation ahead for the lighting industry. “As lighting becomes increasingly sophisticated, the club market, theatrical market and architectural arena will grow further apart,” he predicts. “There'll be fewer lighting products crossing over between markets, but many more products in the market overall, thus creating tremendous market growth in specialized, intelligent lighting.”

Diversify and Specialize

One company that's ahead of the curve on diversifying and specializing its products by making them more intelligent is Vari-Lite International. Vari-Lite has two separate divisions: Vari-Lite Inc., the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and Vari-Lite Production Services (VLPS), which rents lighting and provides production services from offices in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York, Orlando, London and Tokyo.

The rental and lighting services giant has handled the lighting and staging services for some of the biggest events of the year — the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics, the NFL Super Bowl halftime show, the recording industry's Grammy awards, and the Oscars, to name a few. As for Vari-Lite Inc., its automated lighting products have earned the company numerous industry and entertainment awards, including three Emmy awards for excellence in engineering.

The 2002 MCI Awards show took advantage of Vari-Lite’s lighting expertise.

At the 2002 NAB convention this past spring, the company introduced the new VL 1000 Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight and, more recently, announced that QVC, the cable TV network, had purchased ten of them for use in lighting its television studio sets.

“Because we have such a strange show format, we may be lighting a musical act for one program and lighting a kitchen set with chef Emeril Lagasse the next,” says QVC lighting supervisor Doug Rae. “With the VL1000 fixtures, it doesn't matter. We can do it all with the same light. The wide angle of the beam is quite impressive. When we aren't using it with the shutters, we can pull back and use it as a wash light.”

Four of the' ‘luminaires’ will be used on QVC's fashion set, primarily to project the logo or trademark of each particular designer onto a different area of the set. Because the fixtures will be stationed within just feet of the program hosts, Rae says it was also critical that the lights operate silently. “The VL1000 ERS was designed such that the fans will not activate under most normal operating conditions,” says Vari-Lite president Clay Powers.

The new ETC Emphasis Light Console is being called the Swiss army knife of consoles.

Indeed, lighting systems have gotten more versatile, quieter and a lot smarter. Once static lamps have given way to automation and animation. Lights now often resemble space-age appliances with effects that are truly out of this world. For the most part, gone are the days of static lights projecting basic colors with manual switches and dimmers. Today automation and computer control via the DMX 512 control protocol — developed in 1986 as a standard interface between dimmers and consoles — are the norm.

DMX, as it's called, started out as a means to control lights and dimmers via back-of-the-house consoles. It has ended up being used to control intelligent lights, color changers, yokes, strobes, smoke machines, lasers, fountains, stage shifting operations and even confetti and fog dispensers. The DMX protocol consists of a stream of data that is sent over a balanced cable system connected between the data transmitter (usually a lighting console) and a data receiver (which is virtually any lighting or special effect). A single DMX port can output lighting control and value information for a maximum 512 channels or fixtures. More and more lights and effects are including the protocol.

The American DJ LPP5 features four lighting effects and the CC500 controller that help wash a wide area with many beams of different colors projected at different angles.

ETC is a well-respected creator of products for the entertainment lighting industry. The company created such groundbreaking solutions as the Source Four ellipsoidal spotlight, Sensor dimmers and the Expression Control Console and knows all about manipulating lights for maximum effect. The company's new Emphasis Lighting Console, introduced at NAB 2002, is being called the Swiss army knife of consoles because it does so much.

The Emphasis Control Console is a control console, lighting design and visualization toolbox, and a networked system — a control system that is fully scaleable to any user's needs. ETC offers it in channel counts from 500 to 5000, so it's easily upgradeable as a venue's needs change. The new system is also a sophisticated lighting design tool that incorporates a totally new version of the ETC, Emmy-Award-winning WYSIWYG! visualization software. With this built-in graphic interface and database, Emphasis takes the user through the lighting design and concept process, into the planning and configuring process, on to programming and realizing the design before and after entering the performance space.

The Intelligent Lytemode System (ILS) from Lightolier Controls is another example of how important and pervasive affordable control solutions are becoming today. After all, a light without a controller is just a lamp. The new system combines intelligent dimmers, simple or complex control and multiple communication protocols to provide a really flexible system for theater and showroom environments, according to the company. The ILS system uses a new technology of distributed and Insulated Gate Bi-Polar Transistor (IGBT) dimming. IGBT is the most advanced dimming method now available. Its dimmers operate silently — with no mechanical noise — so they can be installed right next to their electrical power systems, or loads, in areas that are acoustically sensitive. It's a no-hum solution, according to users. The new product also features a patented ‘Low Harm’ mode that reduces excess electrical currents, which reduces interference with audio equipment.

Lightolier Controls also provides Windows-based programming and control software that allows for virtually unlimited control points — cues, channels, scenes — and pre-show design visualization.

“By utilizing distributed dimming, the ILS system provides a major advantage over conventional lighting control solutions by allowing control of the loads at the dimmer locations (next to the light fixture), making ILS-distributed dimming quick and easy for even one person to setup and test, as well as providing maximum versatility in theatrical lighting applications,” says Gary Meshberg, national marketing manager for Lightolier Controls.

The introduction of this kind of product means that not only are the lights themselves more affordable, but so is the ability to control them.

Integrating Lights and Video

In addition to more affordable and intelligent lighting, the lines between various A/V technologies are blurring. We've already touched on using laptop computers to design, pre-visualize and execute light shows. Another trend is the way video projectors are being integrated into light shows.

Shown publicly for the first time at InfoComm 2002 in Las Vegas June 13-15, the Catalyst system from High End Systems typifies this new breed of product. The new lighting-effect product uses computer technology, traditional lighting and video projection to take stage effects to new levels. Using a Digital Media Server, DMX and a three-chip DLP video projector (Catalyst outputs an XGA signal), users can load stills, full motion video, moving animations and more. Users also can scale, rotate, zoom, edit, morph, color mix, overlay or blend images, video and lights for truly one-of-a-kind effects in realtime. Catalyst has been shipping only a short time, but has won five industry awards and been seen on major TV awards shows.

Catalyst's “orbital movement system” let's you project your image anywhere in 3D space — almost like the hologram of Princess Leia that R2D2 projects in the original Star Wars movie. High End calls this Liquid Light. The mirrored head provides 250-degree movement on one axis and 360-degree on the other two. And the effects unit can be fitted on most high-powered rental/staging video projectors, which rental companies love.

“The response Catalyst has received in previews has been overwhelming,” comments Nils Thorjussen, a vice president at High End Systems, which is headquartered in Texas. “Video professionals love Catalyst because they're no longer limited to projecting in one location; designers love it because they now have a powerful new tool; video rental companies love it because it helps them increase their inventory utilization.”

It's just this type of synergy that is helping change the lighting industry and providing audiences with visual effects that are out of this world.

A Bright Future

The fact that lighting products are becoming more affordable and more feature-rich is vital as lighting effects become increasingly more important to both venues and acts alike.

“Sometimes the band rents additional lights and projection equipment or video walls to supplement what we have for an enhanced light show or for a video behind the bands while they play or, if they choose, even in between sets,” says Joe Paganelli, general manager of The Fillmore, a legendary concert hall in San Francisco, Calif. “It's a growing business. So much so that a former employee, James Olness, even created his own company called J.O.E. Lighting, and he usually brings in any A/V gear necessary to do a special show, or project a wide-screen video or whatever the act calls for.” More bands are seeing the importance of lighting, and concert goers paying higher and higher ticket prices are demanding a visual experience as well as a musical one.

In fact, you'll find that behind every great show, in addition to the artists' talent, are solid lighting and visual effects products by companies such as Martin, SGM Lighting, High End Systems and American DJ. These have become such an integral and expected part of all kinds of performances that most PA and sound reinforcement companies are now either carrying lighting equipment in their rental fleets or strategically partnering with lighting rental companies to provide an end-to-end event production solution. And even performers appreciate its importance.

“Good lighting can make all the difference,” says cruise ship headliner, Kenny Smiles. “Today's performer needs to be aware of the power of lighting effects. You need to understand not only music and comedy but also lighting technology so that you can properly direct the ship's production staff. Effective stage lighting and visual effects can make a so-so act truly brilliant. Any time you can visually excite people, it's a good thing.”

When it comes to where the theater, event and mobile lighting industry stand today, perhaps Joel Nichols, president of Apollo Design Technology, a leading manufacturer of lighting products that are used extensively in theater, concerts and other live events, sums it up best.

“The entertainment industry is doing well and going strong,” he says. “Lighting technology is now filtering into other industries. You see it moving into clubs, themed environments, restaurants and even home entertainment. The future will see lighting solutions with even more movement and more color because of greater demand from end users and audiences with high visual expectations. People are discovering how changing the color of an area, scene or song can affect and change the atmosphere.”

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a freelance writer and entertainer living in Northern California. Visit his web site at

Lighting Companies

Altman Lighting
Yonkers, NY

American DJ
Los Angeles, CA

Apollo Design Technology
Fort Wayne, IN

Hollywood, FL

Middleton, WI

Elation Professional
Los Angeles, CA

GAM Products
Hollywood, CA

Genlyte Controls
Garland, TX

Group One (Distributor for Clay Paky)
Farmingdale, NY

High End Systems
Austin, TX


Rosco Filters
Stamford, CT

Dallas, TX

Strong Entertainment
Lighting Inc. Omaha, NE

Dallas, TX

The Language of Lighting

Chase: A group of spot or flood lights that are turned on and off in a rapid sequence. A chase can be as simple as a single string of lights flashed sequentially around a sign by a mechanical or electronic switching device (chaser or chase unit), or by utilizing the chase (or effect) functions of a computer memory console. A chase also can be complex multi-part cues affecting large groups of lights or special effects. A chase can be sound activated or timed.

Dimmer: A device that causes connected lamps to decrease in intensity. Most dimmers for entertainment lighting are some variation of an SCR. Individual dimmers are traditionally arranged in modules of two dimmer switches. Multiple modules are combined into dimmer racks.

DMX: A quasi-computer language for controlling numerous lights and special effects events.

Gel: A piece of burn-proof acetate that is transparent but comes in various colors. It is placed over a light to cast a different color. Gels also come in hard plastic for pin spots.

Gel-frame: A folded sheet of metal, with a hole punched through the center, used to hold a gel rigid in front of a stage or spotlight.

Follow Spot: A manually operated lighting fixture specially designed for following performers as they move about the stage. Most follow spots employ some method for manual control of iris, shutter and dowser, as well as a color gels.

Gobo: An image or pattern that is placed in front of a spot light to project an image. Usually made of etched stainless steel or brass in a process similar to that used when making PCBs. Glass and mesh tone varieties are available. Glass Gobos can use dichroic filters to provide colored images.

PAR: The Parabolic Aluminized Reflector is a type of lamp similar in construction to a car headlight lamp. Provides a more intense beam per watt than other incandescent lamp technologies.

Pin spot: A special type of PAR light that produces a near parallel beam of light that is widely used as a disco effect.

Ropelight: A clear plastic tubing, 1 inch in diameter, usually containing four circuits of low voltage lamps, similar to fairy lights. A controller flashes the circuits in sequence creating an illusion of movement. White and multicolored types are available.

Rigging: A collective noun for the equipment used to suspend PA and lighting equipment but can also cover trusses, stands, supports, portable stages, etc.