So, you might as well admit it. You've been thinking about getting into CAD for your lighting graphics. Or maybe you already use CAD, but you're tired of creating all the lighting components yourself. You may be ready for one of the products specifically positioned for the lighting designer. But, there's that nagging concern about the “learning curve” and about how long it takes to get up to speed with a new program. Can you afford the time? Can you even find the time to spend learning a new program with all those features? The websites show beautifully rendered images with moving lights and changing scenes — all very cool — but what you want to do is get a working plot and paperwork out to that theatre four states and two time zones away by NLT Monday at 8 am! And, you'd like to still have time for a bike ride on Saturday afternoon.

Okay, if you're starting from scratch, I'm afraid the bike ride is probably out, but absolutely can get up to speed and learn as you work on a project. In fact, it might even be easier than if you had days and days to poke around in the software. Over two weeks, I explored four different packages: WYSIWYG Design, Vectorworks Spotlight 11, LD Assistant 04, and SoftPlot 3D. I had recently used Vectorworks version 9 for one show, and I know AutoCAD fairly well, but essentially, I started from scratch.

I was able to get to the point of a light plot and paperwork in each program, as well as some work with rendering of looks within just a two-week period. At first, I spent time puttering around and exploring features in each, in some cases being led off onto fascinating tangents, rendering views and moving light animation, but then I remembered the point of this was to figure out how to use these tools for more basic work — designing a show and getting it up in the air. So, I threw together a really basic set and decided to do a standard design for each of the four packages in a single space — our new Ned & Kayla Skinner Theatre at Cornish College of the Arts (LD, June 2004). I kept it simple, putting in a total of 86 instruments with three zones of three-color backwash, two zones of three-color front wash, five standard areas with two lights each, and one entry special. Then, I started figuring out how to draw the space (a matter of importing existing geometry), draw the scenic flats in 3D to interact with the lighting, create the lighting positions, and enter the instruments and data in each package.

I will briefly describe the process and approach in each package. Included are some basic screen shots and images of the finished plots — and please note that in all these cases, the level of finish on the plots and paperwork shown is only a starting point. Each package has the resources to refine and improve the output enormously as the designer becomes more proficient, but it is possible to get to the point of useful paperwork in a remarkably short time with any of them.

I'll tackle them in alphabetical order, LD Assistant 04 and SoftPlot 3D this month, then WYSIWYG and Vectorworks Spotlight next month. Please note: this is not a shoot-out. I won't make a judgment about which is best — designers will find themselves attracted to one or the other because of the way they work. The way to discover that is to take advantage of the demos you can get for each product, allowing up to 30 days with what amounts to the full package, sometimes limited in saving and printing options, but definitely functional enough to get a good feel for how they fit your personal working style. I can't emphasize this enough — if you are going to purchase, or even if you are just thinking about it, you owe it to yourself to grab several of these demos and dig in.

WHERE TO START?

Not so long ago, you probably would have had to spend a lot of time translating the paper plans of a theatre into the computer, but these days, it's the rare theatre that doesn't already have a set of basic CAD plans available. Most often, these will be in AutoCAD “.dwg” or “.dxf” format, regardless of what CAD package initially created them. Dwg/dxf has become a widely accepted, standard file exchange format, and almost any CAD program will be able to import and/or create one of the two. If there is not a CAD file already available, each of these packages includes a quick “room builder” function that will let you quickly and relatively painlessly model the space as a starting point. Alternatively, in each, you can build more painstaking models. Two of the packages — LD Assistant and Vectorworks Spotlight — are actually full-featured CAD programs in their own right. The other two — SoftPlot 3D and WYSIWYG Design — contain more than enough basic CAD functions to be able to “roll your own” basic theatre model, if push comes to shove.

So, if you already have a CAD file of the theatre, you begin by opening (or importing) that file in any of these products. It is advisable to spend some time setting up a layer structure (see sidebar, “About Layers,” p. 41) and either deleting or changing the layer assignment of items in the imported file that you don't really want or need in your light plot — like lobby layouts, excessive text, or unnecessary trim detail. You will be creating new lighting positions in the design software, but if you have pipes present in the existing drawing, you'll be able to use them to simplify the creation of the 3D pipe or truss entities in the plot.

Next, proceed to model the theatre walls and surfaces in 3D, if you wish. You can decide to just use the existing 2D wall outlines you imported with the existing CAD file, but you will probably need to, at least, create a simple stage floor surface using the easy surface mapping tools that are provided so that you will be able to see the light patterns on the floor. Either way, when you are happy with the model of the theatre, you should save it as a template file, so that the next time you work in this theatre, you don't have to do this part over. Finally, if you are lucky, you can import the CAD version of the set from the scenic designer, or you can draw in a simple or complex version of the setting, using layers to control visibility of different acts, configurations, etc. (or, for a really simple show, you can just start adding lighting instruments). As soon as you start this process, you should save the drawing. One key to remaining a happy CAD camper is to save often and “save-as” often. I like to save new versions with the date in the filename every time I open a project.

LD ASSISTANT AC 04

Design & Drafting, maker of LD Assistant AC 04, is an authorized AutoDesk OEM Partner. This was advantageous for me in learning LD Assistant AC, as an AutoCAD user for many years. When you first open LD Assistant, you might think you're actually opening AutoCAD — underlying menus, command structure, and page layout are the same. Any AutoCAD drawing or “.dwg” format drawing output by other drafting software can be directly opened in LD Assistant, as can “.dxf” files, or “.dwt” CAD template files. The veteran AutoCAD user will notice the addition of a number of toolbars and menus. In fact, as you start learning LD Assistant, it is important to avoid using some of the underlying AutoCAD menus (such as the various “3D Views”) because the LD Assistant menus are designed to adjust a number of additional settings automatically with view changes. No worries. All the appropriate commands are displayed in toolbars (floating or docked), so a switch from plan view to section view or isometric view is a click away.

Easing the learning curve, “tool-tips” pop up whenever you float the cursor over any of the buttons on any of the toolbars, and when you float the cursor over a lighting instrument, data about the instrument pops up (Figure 1). The images on the buttons do a good job of identifying the function, particularly once you become familiar with them. Using dual monitors, I like to put all these toolbars, along with the various properties views and libraries, over on the second monitor, leaving the main monitor uncluttered for the light plot. During specific phases of work, you can drag a frequently used toolbar onto the main monitor. You may not need to do so often, because LD Assistant takes advantage of the AutoCAD “right-click” pop-up menu, with the most recently used function immediately available at the top, and the entire LD Assistant menu available from the right-click. Much of the time, this means you won't be dragging the mouse across the screen to click on a button because you can just right-click in place and find the function at hand.

So, I started by opening my CAD file and organizing the layer structure for the light plot. You would either do the same or create a basic room structure from scratch. Entering the layout of the 3D pipe grid is next. At each pipe position, draw a simple line along the center of the position (or you can take advantage of an existing line in the imported drawing), then click the “Pipe/Tube” tool and click the line you just created. A dialog appears, allowing you to enter the pipe diameter. Enter a value, click OK, and your line becomes a pipe. Then you use the “Truss Data” button or right click and select “LDAssistant/Attach Data/Truss” to open a dialog to enter the name and height of the pipe or truss. Repeat for all positions you want to “install” in your CAD model theatre.

If you don't have a CAD file to start with, LD Assistant includes a very easy “create room” button that allows you to enter room and stage dimensions, and the basic room is instantly drawn for you in 3D. Once you have your room and pipe structure established and your set in place, you're ready to start designing (Figure 2).

If you find yourself frequently using pipes or trusses with instruments placed at regular intervals, the “autobuild” tool may greatly simplify the process by letting you define a line and have instruments automatically distributed along it, complete with pipe structure in one quick operation (the “automatic lighting” tool goes one step further and allows you to select an object and have the software automatically hang lights to illuminate it).

If you are building the plot an instrument at a time, you drag an instrument in from the convenient “Block Navigator,” place it on a pipe or truss, then click on the “Light Data” button to assign the instrument to the position, channel, circuit, and so forth. Then, you can quickly focus the instrument using the mouse and see the resulting pattern of the beam and field on the floor or other objects. The beam and pattern can be turned on and off for any individual instrument or for multiple selected instruments. Once instruments have been “hung” and focused, you can use the “LDRender” tool to see the output of the lights on the set, floor, and other objects. You can include atmospherics such as fog or smoke in the beams to create quite nice rendered views of the lighting effects.

Moving lights can be set up and automated using the LDControl window, and the software can output DMX with the addition of a hardware interface, so you can use LDAssistant to design the production, pre-visualize the moving lights, and then control them on stage. The rendered graphics are really quite good; the rendered image in Figure 3 was created using the test light plot and objects from the library included with LD Assistant. In addition, LD Assistant has the ability to pre-visualize projected images as part of a modeled set — you can take an actual graphic image that you will use in a show and render that as part of the model, with a realistic representation of image size and shape given the 3D positioning of the projector.

Various standard reports, such as instrument schedules, color cut lists, etc. can be easily generated and inserted into drawings or exported as spreadsheets. You can easily generate an output text file for Lightwright. There is a full set of pre-defined lighting instrument objects included with LD Assistant, and the package is designed to allow the user to employ any AutoCAD blocks with attributes or to create new ones as needed, so if you have already developed a set of CAD symbols that you like to use, you can easily bring them into LD Assistant and use them right off the bat (Figure 4).

SOFTPLOT 3D

When you open SoftPlot 3D, the splash screen announces it is “the simplest lighting software available.” Don't let that make you think it won't do complex work. SoftPlot is very easy to use. On startup, you are presented with the “Task Manager” which includes icons for a number of components, including a “getting started” section, the lighting plot, calculators for electrics and TV/Film lighting information and a fixture photometrics window with handy information on many instruments. Also included are plan and section views of instrument patterns with adjustable height and distance from the focus point (Figure 5), a contact manager, and the “Cue Editor,” which allows you to build control cues for the instruments you have hung in the lighting plot window. The Cue Editor can also export USITT ASCII cue files once the software is registered.

SoftPlot does not directly open an AutoCAD “.dwg” file, but it will import a “.dxf” file into the open plot. I tested this with several fairly complex theatre ground plans and was able to get a workable plan for building light plots every time. In the absence of an existing .dxf file, you can create your basic room in SoftPlot by using the “Draw/Line” function. Then, you can use the attribute tool to select a line and define it as a wall, with height and thickness. You can even have the wall taper, so it is taller at the downstage or the upstage end. You can also create a stage floor by drawing a rectangle, circle, or polygon and defining it as a floor using the attribute function, which also allows you to set the height of the floor (for defining raised stages or platforms). Lighting pipes and trusses are created using the “position” tool, allowing you to set attributes in advance for length, trim height, angle, and so on. You can also adjust these attributes after the fact — you can convert an existing line to a pipe very easily.

Placing an instrument on a defined pipe automatically updates the instrument attributes to indicate the position, unit number, and height from the deck. This makes it very easy to quickly build a pipe or truss instrument-by-instrument without stopping to fill in data for each one. To focus, you select the focus tool, define the height off the deck for the focus point, click in the drawing on the target point, then click on each instrument you want to focus on this target. So, if you have two front area lights and two backlights, you “hang” all four, pick the point, and then focus them with five mouse-clicks.

There is a “Switch” tool to turn individual instruments on or off, controlling their display in all four views: plan, front, section, and 3D. In the 3D view, the output of the instrument appears with color, if gel is selected, and with intensity, depending on the settings (Figure 6). The 3D view in SoftPlot is not “photo-realistic” but, rather, a representation of relative intensities, angles, and colors. It gives a good idea of a basic lighting look without the time and processing effort of some of the more realistic rendering in other packages.

Instrument schedules and other reports can be generated directly to the printer. Alternatively, they can be exported as spreadsheets or as a delimited text file for import into Lightwright or other databases. You can also export a .dxf file, which will open in AutoCAD or any other .dxf — compatible CAD program. If the external CAD system is 3D-aware, the lighting instruments and pipes will show up as 2D images with some attribute information attached, located at the appropriate height above the stage floor. SoftPlot may bill itself as “the simplest lighting software available,” but it is fully capable of producing good working light plots and paperwork (Figure 7).

In the next issue, we'll pick up the discussion with a description of WYSIWYG Design from Cast Software and Vector-works Spotlight 11 with RenderWorks from Nemetschek North America.

Dave Tosti-Lane is professor and chair of the Performance Production Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. A lighting and sound designer, he is a member of the Audio Engineering Society, a Vice Commissioner for the Sound Commission of USITT, and the associate sound editor for TD&T, the journal of the USITT. He can be reached at dtostilane@cornish.edu.

THE PRODUCTS:

LD Assistant 04 by Design & Drafting is available in a number of versions. LD Assistant AC 04, the “stand-alone” version with its own CAD engine, was evaluated for this article. Plug-ins and hardware interconnects are offered on the Design & Drafting website to expand the functionality of the software. Academic pricing options include multiple license installs for university learning labs. (www.design-drafting.com)

SoftPlot 3D is the latest release by Crescit Software, distributed by Stage Research, the makers of SFX theatrical sound playback software. There is academic pricing available for multiple licenses. You can find information on the software and links to download a fully functioning demo (limited in that it will only print the first 12 lighting fixtures in a plot) on their website. (www.stageresearch.com)

To be discussed in detail in Part 2:

WYSIWYG Design

Release 9 by Cast Lighting Limited is one of several versions of WYSIWYG (which stands for What You See Is What You Get). Discounts are available for educational institutions, faculty, and students. Multiple station licenses are also available. (www.cast-soft.com)

Vectorworks Spotlight

Release 11 is produced by Nemetschek North America (formerly Diehl Graphsoft). Add Renderworks to the package for realistic rendering of lighting looks. Discounts and multiple license agreements are available for educational institutions, as are discounts for full time faculty and students. (www.nemetschek.net)

Learning Curve: About Layers and Classes:

Layers (or layers and classes) are the names for the organizing structure of a CAD file. Of the four products discussed here, one, Vectorworks Spotlight, has both layers and classes and defines the terms a bit differently than the others, which have only layers. I'll talk more about the distinction between layers and classes in Part 2. Here, I'll describe layers and why they're good to use.

Layers work like containers with special controls. You define and name the layers, either using an industry-standard naming convention or a convention you devise yourself. For a light plot, you probably won't need a huge number of layers, but if you were drawing a skyscraper, you'd want each of your contractors to know what layer to look in for a specific type of item (i.e., fire control systems are always on a specific layer, doors are on a specific layer, and so on). First, there is generally a default starting layer, often called Layer 0. This may be the only layer established when you open a new drawing. Many first time CAD users just draw everything on Layer 0, but that robs them of a great deal of control. Each layer in your drawing can be individually turned on or off, hidden from view, made to display in a different color, or made to show up only on screen and not on a final print. Also, you can usually lock a layer when you want to be sure you don't inadvertently change something on it, but you still need to see it as you work on other items.

So, you create (or rename) layers for each of the groups of items that you might want to be able to control in this way. For example, you probably want your basic 2D theatre ground plan to be on its own layer, so that you don't mistakenly grab one of the walls and move it along with a lighting instrument. To do that, you could create a layer called “2D Plan View” and switch all lines in the drawing that are part of the ground-plan to this layer. If you subsequently build 3D representations of the theatre architecture, you may want to turn off the 2D lines so they don't show up on a drawing. In that case, you'd build those 3D walls on their own layer, so you could also turn them off if you wanted a simple 2D plot. This is a handy way to represent a multi-set production in the theatre - you just draw each different set on its own layer and change sets by turning layers on and off. Now, if you could patent that for the real stage, you'd have something! You can control layer visibility while drafting and also while printing, so you can print one scene, change the layers, and print the next. Typically, for a relatively simple plot, I'll have a set of layers defined for the theatre itself and then create a separate layer for each change in scenery, one for the lighting positions (sometimes several, depending on complexity of the space), one or more for lighting instruments, and so on. Then as I'm working, I can de-clutter the screen or the page by adjusting layer visibility.

You can always reassign objects from layer to layer or even make copies of an object on each of several layers, so you can move them around on each. If you have three chairs and a table that play in different positions in each scene, for example, you can duplicate them on each of three layers and turn on the appropriate layer to view or output a ground plan with the furniture in the right place for each scene.

You can also try “what-if” ideas this way — if you suddenly have an idea for a completely different way to handle a scene but don't want to erase the work you've done so far, just shift the instruments you want to change onto a separate layer and freeze or turn it off. Then, you can create “plan B” on its own layer and look at the two different scenarios very easily.

In the next issue, I'll introduce the idea of VectorWorks “classes” and describe how the Layer/Class system differs from the basic layer system.