Lighting industry veteran Robert Bell, sometimes known as “the father of WYSIWIG,” obviously knows how to write software. He also knows how to write, period. In March, ET Press Books will publish Let There Be Light (ISBN 190403242, available online at www.etbooks.co.uk, 384 pages) a highly entertaining and informative collection of interviews conducted with 10 of the major players in the sometimes quirky, always fascinating realm of entertainment lighting software.
In this exclusive excerpt, Bell has provided ED with teasers from all 10 interviews, including legends like Gordon Pearlman (creator of the first computerized console for Tharon Musser on A Chorus Line) and Dave Cunningham (responsible for a slew of innovative products, including the ETC Source Four), to interesting choices like Mark Hunt (mastermind of Light & Sound Design's Icon board and the coding for LSD's Mbox™digital media server) and Wayne Howell (Mr. Artistic Licence himself and currently one of the industry's key problem-solvers). Taken individually, each paints a vivid picture of a particular world, be it a personal anecdote or passionate opinion. As a whole, their commentary provides a clear roadmap in the history of entertainment lighting software.
“I knew little about computers, even though I'd taught myself to program. I got a DEC PDP-8, which was a 12-bit machine, unlike the early IBM PCs that used a 16-bit word. I got the hardware and didn't have to do anything with it initially. I just started by writing the program. I built a front panel with a matrix of 125 push buttons, one for each channel. It had a ‘10-key’ to access the cues, but not the channels. At first it was 100 channels, then it became 125. It may have had to do with A Chorus Line and what they required. I also put a pot in the center of its travel, and built this really crude mechanical thing with two springs so when you pushed the pot up and let go it would return to center. That was the way you set levels. It actually worked very nicely.”
“Wally Russell lasted until about 1982 at Strand…then he got fired. Wally was always rebelling. First they told him not to do any development, because the British wanted the US company to sell their products. I remember when Richard Pilbrow demonstrated Lightboard (for $250,000) at the same convention where we at Strand introduced the Light Palette. They walked in and looked at it and said: ‘Oh shit!’ because it did the same thing for $20,000. The changes happened simultaneously in the US and the UK, because Richard was working with the British and we were doing the Light Palette. But Light Palette was more successful because it was a $20,000 board and Lightboard wasn't.”
(Creator of Lightwright)
“I have this strange left brain/right brain thing. When I'm writing software code, I'm this person that thinks about nothing but numbers and the minutiae of it all. But when designing a show, I don't want to know about numbers. I can't remember a channel number to save my soul, and don't even ask me about what Lee 205 looks like. ‘Oh, that's the warm that's in the sidelight. Great. I saw it one day when I was holding the gel book up and it looked nice, so I picked it.’ But there is no computer brain going on. Well, there's some…but it's not what I'm thinking about at the production table. I'm not thinking about what unit number is up there except that it's number 1, 2, 3, 4,…ah, 5. Or, to the assistant, ‘find me a spare overhead that can get to that window over there.’”
(Console maven — ETC's Obsession, Vari-Lite's Virtuoso, etc.)
“One of the things that was really interesting on Obsession — and this is something ETC's Fred Foster asked Jon Ide and me to do — was to go back and find the thesis statement of the Light Palette. We didn't want to copy a Light Palette; we wanted to really understand it. What is the one reason, the one underlying thing about that desk that made everyone want to use it? Every product should have that thesis statement. And we found it. This is what I call the DNA of the desk. There should be something that is true to the desk that runs through the entire development of it and keeps it consistent, keeps it true to itself.”
(Co-founder, Flying Pig Systems)
“When Flying Pig started in October ‘91, Nick Archdale and I went out of London to get away from phone calls, and mapped out the Wholehog I. It was the first time either of had used IBM PCs, the first time either of us had used DOS — and the first time I had used C++. We had no idea of how much computing power we'd need to do what we wanted to do. We thought we'd need a computer backstage to do things, a computer at FOH. At one point I think we thought we'd need about five different computers to do the system. Then when I got my first 386 computer, which was 25 MHz or 40 MHz, I wrote up a little program just to see how fast it could do multiplication. It sort of did 2,000,000 multiplications in a second and I thought, ‘This is amazing, we don't need all these computers, we can do this whole thing off one 386 chip.’ Thank God we did because it made the whole design a whole lot simpler.”
“I had a really bad experience doing a gig for a band called Sky (Francis Monkman was the keyboard player). He wanted to automate the keyboard mix using an Apple II computer. He wanted somebody to do the analog bit of controlling levels, where somebody else was doing the digital bit. I messed that job up quite a lot because I didn't really get what the interface between digital and analog was going to be like and how to avoid problems with it. At that point, I thought that these computer things were not going to go away. I was going to have to deal with it or I wasn't going to have a job in the future. So I bought a computer called the Compukit UK-101. You got a power supply and plugged it into a television. I built this thing from the kit, and it didn't work, which was probably the best thing that could have happened because then I had to find out why it didn't work.”
(High End Systems programmer/RDM protocol expert)
“I don't get the interface with the end user [in the way] that I think I should. I think it is very necessary that if you're developing software/hardware for people to use you definitely have to be aware of what they want. That is something I try to point out to people higher up in the food chain. We could possibly make our products better and more efficient if we have more access to the end user. I also wish we had time to do a heck of a lot more testing. In many respects, things are infinitely complex and you can only test a small subset of that infinite space. It's very easy to account for the fact that something just got missed. Unfortunately, on an initial release, that may leave a bad taste in the mouth of a customer and you may have to fight to get them back again. If you give us more time, you get better products and everybody has a good taste in their mouth and ultimately you sell more products. There is the other side of things in that you have to start selling things to bring in money to write pay checks. You try to hit a good balance. It would be nice to hold something for five years and then you get a nice rock-solid product, but then you would never sell anything.”
(President, West Side Systems)
“What's weird about this business is that people will pay me as a lighting designer hundreds of dollars a day to sit in a theatre and talk on a headset. And people will pay me hundreds of dollars a day as a software person to figure out why their motion control system is not working. But nobody will pay me hundreds of dollars a day to write software for lighting! As I've developed my own products, I've been very cautious about what the ‘perceived’ feature set is going to be. You have to make sure that you don't accidentally inflate expectations beyond what you're intending to deliver. This isn't even about hype — this is about accidental hype. It's about making this thing that I think is cool and somebody else thinks does something different. Therefore it's not cool because it doesn't do what they thought it was going to do. It's a dangerous thing.”
(Lighting designer, Modelbox programmer)
“Theatre has an approach to commitment that I've rarely seen anywhere else; particularly in a commercial sense: ‘Three years from today, on this particular day, at 7:30pm we are going to open this show.’ They make those kinds of guarantees and stick to them. Whereas, when a building is being built, it usually opens two years after they said it would. I think it is a unique thing in the theatre that we actually have that approach. Everybody involved in the theatre invests in that concept and does whatever they have to do to deliver that product. I think a lot of us move on from the theatre and take that same ethos into the world and you frequently find other people don't understand it.”
(Managing Director, Artistic Licence)
“I'm sure that over the next five to ten years we are going to see a significant move toward reforming the current patent system — particularly if you add into the equation the copyright problems that come with emerging economies. The whole concept of intellectual property, patents, trademarks, and copyrights need to be addressed globally. Patents aren't meant to be a protection racket. Patents are meant to be there to engender advancement of design. You are meant to find ways around the patent, because the concept is that we will advance mankind's technology. And sometimes it works, but unfortunately most patents are used as a blunt instrument, wielded by the company with the largest lawyer budget!”
A founder of CAST Lighting Limited, Robert Bell now heads Shock Lighting Limited, a lighting design and software consulting firm based near Toronto. He also works with Horizon Control Inc. and Entertainment Technology (a Genlyte Company) building the Marquee lighting console. He is a member of ESTA's Control Protocol's Working Group and the Electrical Skills Working Group, co-chairs the Automated Lighting Task Group, and works with the ACN Task Group.