For those of you who didn't make it to LDI97 in Las Vegas, you missed a show that featured the maturation of the moving light as the standard for the lighting industry. There were so many whirling, spinning, moving, flashing, and strobing lights from manufacturers big and small it was hard to know where to start on the show floor. For me, one example stands out as the perfect illustration of the new status of the moving light: Even the Meyer Sound booth had High End Systems Trackspots(R).
The sight of those Meyer logos dancing around its booth symbolized the new pervasiveness of the moving light. Non-lighting entertainment companies, restaurants, retail, interior designers, caterers, party planners, and architects--not to mention all of the traditional lighting markets--are starting to think of moving lights as an essential component of design and presentation in their fields. LDI97 reminded me that we as a lighting industry are just starting to scratch the surface of the potential of the moving light. As shopping centers, restaurants, hotels, casinos, residences, cruise ships, and trade show exhibits fixate on immersing their audiences in exotic environments and themes, the demand for low-cost, reliable moving lights is only going to increase. It's up to us as an industry to take this demand and return more than our clients' expectations.
It's not enough for us to provide flashing, moving, strobing lights. We have to take these tools, and these environments, to the next level in design and creativity, to further expand these new markets for all of us.
What impressed me the most about LDI97 was the relative technological parity among the major manufacturers. No one company had the clear advantage in introducing its new automated fixtures. This issue's LDI roundup (page 38) may be confusing because it's getting harder and harder to differentiate among lights. With the success of the High End Studio Color(R), there seemed to be an unwritten understanding for LDI97: Show a hard-edged yoke light or get caught behind. And all the majors responded to the challenge.
For the most part the fixtures were very similar. Sure, of all the new hard-edged yoke lights, Clay Paky has color mixing with the StageZoom, High End has gobos in the Technobeam(TM) and the Studio Spot, Martin has a great price for the MAC 500, and Vari-Lite has its tradition of excellence backing up the VL7(TM). But in the minds of most designers (and thus in the industry) these are just incremental differences that don't mean much in the long run.
Take, for example, color mixing. On the surface it would seem that a new hard-edged yoke light would demand a color-mixing feature in it to make it viable in the marketplace. That the High End Studio Spot and the Martin MAC 500 don't have color mixing is less of an impediment than you would think, however. Today's generation of lighting designers and operators has grown up creating amazing shows with the Vari*Lite VL2C(TM) and color changers--fixtures that don't color mix. They are used to dealing with fixtures that can only bump or roll to a new color. Lighting people today have a whole arsenal of tricks to not only minimize the problems of a non-color-mixing unit but also to maximize its creative benefits.
What we're already starting to see is the rise of the generic light plot. In the very recent past, designers had to draw up very different plots for a Morpheus or a Vari-Lite rig. Designers would go out of their way to specify particular fixtures. These days, designers will draw up one plot, specify only generic wash, hard-edged, and mirrored fixtures, then sit back and watch the lighting companies duke it out for the best mix of different manufacturers' lights for the money. Once the bid is awarded it's up to the individual lighting companies to fill the mix of fixtures with the best lights they have in their inventory.
Every lighting company has access to the same technology. It used to be that only the high-profile, big-budget concert tours could afford the new lighting toys. This new wide-ranging availability will create an interesting dynamic within the lighting industry. Business-wise, automated fixtures are going to become commodities, to be bought, traded, and rented. The big lighting companies will rightfully be hesitant to put a lot of capital into instruments that may be obsolete in a couple of years, while the smaller lighting companies will specialize, and gravitate toward certain manufacturers. When the big companies bring in the bigger accounts, they're going to be increasingly dependent on regional and local suppliers to augment their inventory and labor needs.
Much like wheat and soy get bought by different brokers around the world, lights from certain subcontractors will move from one lighting company to the next depending on scarcity and demand. Like commodities brokers, companies are going to have to keep in mind potential demand and potential future rentals to justify current automated fixture purchases. What will be interesting this year is to see if the lighting industry stays a free market where scarce lights go to the highest bidder, or if we move toward a patchwork of interlocking agreements and alliances between the larger and the smaller lighting suppliers to provide favorable terms and delivery schedules.
What all of this leads to is an amazing amount of dependency between the lighting companies and the manufacturers. The perfect case in point last year was Metallica. The Studio Colors had been around for a while and had been on a few tours. But the industry, faced with the prospect of taking on a general wash light that didn't come from Vari-Lite or Morpheus, hesitated at buying into it. Along came the Metallica tour and a partnership was formed between the Metallica leadership, The Obie Company, and High End--the lights went out and were an instant success. From then on, anyone could point to the harsh conditions of free-falling towers, constant pyro dust, and the rigors of the road to justify the reliability of the new fixture. Vari-Lite used the Genesis tours of the past to showcase new technology. High End did it a few years ago with LD Chas Herrington and Dire Straits to demonstrate the "roadability" of the Intellabeam(R). This showcasing of new technology continues to be the most effective marketing tool to capture the fancy of designers worldwide.
What it all comes down to is the computer industry marketing concept of "mindshare." Which fixtures will win the hearts and minds of the lighting industry and become the next big thing? Which fixtures will become the "must have" fashionable lights for 1998 and beyond?
In a world where the new hard-edged fixtures are so similar, all you have to do is look at the ellipsoidal to find the answer. For the most part, an ellipsoidal is an ellipsoidal is an ellipsoidal. Sure, ETC's Source Four line has set new standards in ease of use, brightness, and the ability to double up fixtures on dimming. But once that fixture is up in the air, what determines the feel, texture, and quality of that light most is the gobo. And the primacy of the gobo goes triple for every automated hard-edged yoke and mirrored light.
Until the Holy Grail of being able to project video through a moving head is realized, and if other things like price and reliability are more or less equal, the manufacturer that will win the race is the one that most closely works with designers to realize their vision. Lighting designers are by definition highly trained, visually oriented people. Their visual sense is informed not just by their work and the work of their colleagues, but by the explosive new visual design going on in commercials, music videos, computer graphics, and graphic design. We are constantly being bombarded by visual material that we can't yet truly realize in lighting. And these days, it's not just the gobos--it's also the prisms and all the overlay effects that are now possible in automated fixtures that determine the final look of the beam coming out of the light.
In the fields of graphic design, video editing, and special effects, the tools to create these visuals have become easier and cheaper. What could only be done by specialists on an optical printer a decade ago can now be approached by a very persistent programmer on a desktop PC or Macintosh. Essentially, it is now possible to play with the new technology.
As an industry, we have yet to develop the tools that let designers play with the new optics being introduced in this new breed of automated fixtures. There should be an easy way to quickly draw up a potential gobo or image, overlay it with another, and play with prisms on top of that to try to get to whatever final vision the creative person has. Perhaps High End is closest with its new pop-out plastic gobo holders. But even with that technological evolution, it is still too difficult to experiment with what is possible with the new effects.
The Mac revolutionized publishing because it let users play with fonts, layout, and photo retouching. A mistake made was only a click of an undo button away from correction. These days, a mistake made with the wrong glass gobos can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. High End started with its LithoPatterns(R) line to bring to the attention of the lighting world what is possible with textured glass gobos. A manufacturer that finds a way to let designers sculpt their own temporary textures, try them out in lights, and work to create new and exotic textures will win the fanatical devotion similar to what the Mac enjoys to this day. The first company that successfully moves glass and prism design into the hands of designers and lets them play with the new textures will win their hearts and minds.
Two other trends bear keeping in mind this year. The first is the power of the internet, which has allowed us unprecedented means to support technical and creative people around the clock and around the globe. Perhaps more subtly significant is that newsgroups, chat rooms, and discussion forums give individuals the power to publish opinions internationally. Our business has long operated on the buzz generated by stories and innuendoes surrounding new technologies, projects, and people; never before has the power of an individual's voice been given such sway over the buzz. A crewmember's voice can now be heard around the world. The successful lighting company and manufacturer has to start paying attention to these voices and be ready to counter when it comes to providing a truthful representation of the facts.
And finally, it is easy to overlook the power of the creative mind with a vision. It's easy to see High End as a monolithic company that churns out lights off their assembly line. But, to see the High End guys at their reception the Saturday of LDI weekend, playing their hearts out on the Hard Rock Hotel stage--I could barely imagine the immense pressures those guys went through to get the Technobeam and the Studio Spot ready for LDI. I can just imagine the go-for-broke attitude the engineers at Clay Paky had to not only release a color-mixing, hard-edged yoke light, but to release four new yoke lights. And this is representative of the entire industry--it's the visionaries who stick to their guns and their long-range goals that move us, as a whole industry, forward. It's these people who deserve our undying respect. The lighting companies and the manufacturers that hold on to these visionaries are the ones that will beat the competition.
My last word deservingly goes to the guys over at CAST who co-won this year's entertainment product of the year award for WYSICAD, a component of WYSIWYG 3.0. As I said, the winners in the next round of skirmishes in the lighting industry are the ones that make it easier to get the job done better, more efficiently, and more creatively. The guys at CAST stuck to their long-range vision. In the often isolated world of computer programming, they were able to bring to market a real-time, offline, visualization and programming tool that ties into a 3D CAD program and reporting capabilities. The 3D images on the fly look gorgeous. Congratulations, guys--thanks for making our lives a little less complicated. So, what does 4.0 look like?
Arnold Serame is a freelance lighting programmer and designer whose credits include Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, and the Batman & Robin film. He also designs websites, including The Light Network (http://lightnetwork.com) and The Obie Company (http://www.obieco.com). A former director of design for Obie, and a current instructor on the Animator and Wholehog consoles, he believes knowledge should be shared, not hoarded. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.