A look at using various software tools to design lighting options for clients
I'm often asked how I come up with the artwork I present to clients — the illustrations that show what the project will look like once it's built and lit. The answer is: I draw up my designs on computers using various CAD (computer-aided drawing) programs. There are a multitude of different programs that do this, and I utilize five different ones myself — often, using all five in the same week. They are: AutoCAD, VectorWorks, Cinema 4D, Martin ShowDesigner, and WYSIWYG.
Here's the story of how and why I started using these particular programs.
In the early '90s I was a lighting programmer hired by many top LDs. I eventually started getting calls to design my own shows. I had ideas, but no experience in drawing. I started with Autodesk's AutoCAD, long considered the grandfather of all CAD programs. I drew primitive 2D drawings that depicted trusses and lights with symbols and fixture numbers on them. These drawings were good enough for lighting companies to understand, but no 3D renderings were available for clients.
In 1995, I bought a program called LD Assistant by Design and Drafting. This was a plug-in that worked in conjunction with what was then called Minicad, since renamed VectorWorks, manufactured by Nemetschek North America. Minicad was easy to use, and I was drawing in 3D in no time. Minicad, now VectorWorks, was more simple than anything else I had tried, and remains so to this day.
While AutoCAD generally is considered the most popular drawing program for architectural applications, VectorWorks now dominates the lighting industry. If there is one program an aspiring LD needs, it's this one. Why? Mainly because it has proliferated so completely that virtually all lighting companies use the software. This means they can easily open and manipulate my drawings for their own benefit.
VectorWorks comes with plug-ins Spotlight and RenderWorks, which supply the user with thousands of 3D lighting symbols and the ability to turn your wireframe drawings into 3D models. All CAD programs draw in wireframe, which means that the drawing is a black-and-white picture that includes the outlines of every object, leaving the surfaces blank and clear.
Last month, I was approached to light a band for its upcoming tour. The first thing I did was to whip out three different truss layouts on VectorWorks. I usually create three so I can get an idea of which direction the artist and management may want to go. Do they want something symmetrical, or not? Do they want something that is easy to construct or artistically original? VectorWorks can render these wireframe drawings to look like artist hand sketches in JPEG form that I can email. (See illustration, p. 16.)
In this case, the band's management liked all the drawings, and asked that I add some lights and render them. By rendering, I mean I transferred the drawings from wireframe to actual full-form 3D illustrations. I added the lighting fixtures to the trusses and adjusted the ambient light level in VectorWorks. At that point, I can simply have the software do the work of transferring the drawings into JPEGS. (See illustration, p. 16.)
I will often print these renderings on photo glossy paper to enhance the artwork, then ship the hard copies to the client. I believe there remains something more personal about holding the artwork in your hand, rather than simply viewing JPEGs on a computer screen.
In this particular case, the artist could not decide between version one and version two, but they hated version three. That taught me: nothing too abstract for this project. It, therefore, became time to take the pictures to the next level through some visualization programs.
There are two programs I use for visualization, meaning I can hook up a lighting console to a computer and simulate what the lights will look like when they are focused, turned on, and colored. I use Martin ShowDesigner, by Martin, and WYSIWYG, designed by C.A.S.T. Lighting and distributed by ETC, for this purpose. They are similar programs that were designed for lighting programmers to preprogram lighting cues through a computer screen, prior to arriving on site. They are often referred to as MSD and WYG. I prefer MSD because it looks cleaner and has the option of effortlessly importing set files drawn in other programs. WYG cannot do this as efficiently, but I still use it on occasion because it has a superior fixture library.
I took my symmetrical version two picture, re-drew the whole thing in WYG, and then I simply turned the lights on in the computer. I then made a few different renderings this way. The time consumption in re-drawing the whole design just to turn lights on can be a drag, but it's necessary if you wish to use WYG for your artwork.
These days, I prefer to use a Maxon's Cinema 4D to enhance my drawings. Cinema 4D can import my already drawn VectorWorks documents and enhance them by turning on light sources, as well as making the pictures crisper. People in the animation field who make movies and cartoons often use this program. My needs only require me to use a fraction of what Cinema 4D can really do.
With Cinema 4D, I am able to texture all my imported fixtures and trusses to look shiny and metallic. I simply insert light beams into pre-existing fixtures and adjust the intensity, color, gobo, and focus of each beam. I could actually draw the whole thing in Cinema 4D if I wanted, but eventually, I would have to redraw it in VectorWorks to send it to lighting vendors to work with.
All of these CAD programs have textures available. By applying a texture, you can take any object and decide if it should be rough or smooth, shiny or dull. You can take an existing floor and turn it into a wood parquet or marble stone. You can paste a JPEG onto a surface that you want to turn into a video wall.
On most of these programs you can adjust the amount of haze in the drawing. By haze, I mean the smoke level onstage. The haze is what makes the actual lights stand out, the same as on an actual rock stage. Setting the proper amount of haze so that you can see the beams, while not hiding the rest of the set, is important for the end result. VectorWorks can add haze, but you cannot see the actual light beams — one of the program's few flaws.
One other software tool I should mention is the one I use to create realistic looking musicians for my drawings — Poser by Curious Labs. This program creates 3D people whose shape, color, clothes, and the position of every bone in their bodies can be manipulated. These characters can be imported into all of my other programs, except WYSIWYG. Most of these programs will supply you with one or two people, but most often they are block figures. I find them to be unrealistic and so I prefer to use Poser.
In the end, the client went with version one of my original drawings — the one I drew in a combination of VectorWorks and Cinema 4D. I recall wondering if the decision came because these drawings were superior to the ones I made in other programs, or if they really liked the design better.
Finally, looking ahead, I've heard about a program called ESP Vision, from ESP Studios, released at LDI 2004, which I expect will take much of this to the next level. ESP reportedly can reproduce pyrotechnic effects, as well as playback realtime videos on a stage screen, while you make a movie presentation of how you will light an entire show. I expect to be drawing in ESP in the near future.
Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events.