Pre-viz software increases options for lighting designers

For rock group Journey’s summer tour, lighting director Warwick Price designed setups for 42 songs using WYSIWYG at Prelite Studios last spring.

Today's professional lighting designers usually find themselves trying to create pleasing, yet functional stage and exhibit lighting environments on crazy deadlines, while often relying on limited light fixtures and constrained by tight budgets. They are increasingly turning to computer software to pre-visualize complex lighting set-ups via detailed 2D and 3D imagery.

As lighting hardware has evolved to new levels of complexity, the use of computer control systems to operate hundreds, even thousands, of fixtures needed to achieve extremely sophisticated stage-lighting environments has evolved right along with it. The reliance on computer software to play a significant role in designing stage lighting has also evolved significantly, but without as much fanfare.

The reason for this important breakthrough is the obvious advantage digital pre-viz technology has given designers for exploring various setups and alternatives. Like their feature film and television brethren, stage designers are increasingly immersing themselves in the joys of digital lighting design.

“Software has actually been a part of lighting for many years, but for much of that time, it's been imbedded in hardware systems [for control purposes],” explains Fred Foster, CEO and founder of Middleton, Wis.-based Electronic Theatre Controls [ETC], a major industry-lighting manufacturer. “With the advent of personal computers, early programs such as our ETC Edit migrated the software components of lighting systems outside of the console and made offline editing of show data a possibility. Additional software-based tools added support to the lighting design process. Now the development of visualization tools like [CAST Lighting's (Toronto)] WYSIWYG program, allows designers to see their designs before realizing them in the theater.”

The problem, says Foster, with early digital lighting tools was that, until recently, applications from different manufacturers didn't work that well together. Design software, offline rehearsal software, and control software were usually independent of one another and required loads of logistical improvisation in order to move information from one system to another.

“The individual benefits that each package brought were frequently overwhelmed by the difficulties inherent in moving the data from one program or platform to another,” Foster says.

Recent advances have been aimed at bringing all those disparate applications under one umbrella. Most of the well-known tools available to the stage lighting industry consist of separate modules, or options available, for pre-viz, control, and so on.

Still, lighting experts add that while pre-viz in the “plotting” stage has numerous advantages and can serve as a learning tool at minimal cost, it isn't about to replace the organic experience of actually setting up and operating lighting systems any time soon. They the experts add that there is a major learning curve facing designers — many of whom come from traditional theater backgrounds and are not particularly computer savvy — in learning how to efficiently use such tools. In addition, the investment in the computer hardware infrastructure necessary to operate such software is costly and time-consuming.

Many designers have been approaching digital design slowly and warily. To serve the interest of these designers, SRO hereby presents the thoughts and experiences of a few pre-viz software users, designers, and manufacturers, and a rundown on some of the industry's leading tools for these kinds of applications.

Seeing is Believing

Manny Cabanas, house designer and master electrician at the Event Center at San Jose State University, has been designing lighting presentations at that arena for the past six years. Cabanas, who also worked for 13 years as a lighting designer and electrician, is a 10-year member of I.A.T.S.E. (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts), so he understands the ins and outs of designing a good show at the front end.

A rendering from the design phase of U2’s "Elevation" world tour (top), created using WYSIWYG software (v. 3.5). A picture of the actual stage from the tour (above).

“The Event Center is a multipurpose venue, and we light everything from concerts to theater shows to sporting events,” he says. “When it's an in-house production, we'll produce everything from the lighting plot to actually operating the lights during the show. In deciding where the lights are placed, and wearing the hat of lighting designer, I try to visualize the lighting needs of the specific event, and how we can help make the production special. My goal is to effectively and dramatically illuminate the performance space.”

To design an event's lighting in a short space of time, where more than 500 fixtures might be required, Cabanas almost has to use a digital pre-viz approach to get things done creatively and efficiently and on time. The Event Center, for instance, recently hosted a large, two-day Tahitian dance festival. Once the budget was established with the client, Cabanas sat down with them and sketched out some ideas. Then, using Cast Lighting's WYSIWYG program, he rendered some 3D images with various lighting designs, also called “plots.”

WYSIWYG, designed for Windows, has become an increasingly popular option for lighting professionals in recent years. The package integrates control, paperwork/report, and educational modules with powerful design tools, and was designed to be compatible with most of the industry's leading lighting consoles.

Cabanas emphasizes that pre-viz applications like those available within WYSIYG are “being used more and more, but mostly at the higher end of the industry.”

“The major program we use is WYSIWYG, which produces computer renderings of plots as a 2D or 3D color image,” he explains. “You really can see what it will look like before going onsite. The advantages are lower costs on manpower for the client, and it's a real time-saver on programming a show.”

Cabanas emphasizes that the practical benefits that might result from actually setting up lights and experimenting with the various configurations he can now design in minutes on a computer are far outweighed by the fact that it would take many hours, and sometimes days, to experiment on an actual stage.

“Being a good lighting designer/director is about using the best technological solutions, like today's pre-visualization software packages and really listening to your clients,” he says. “WYSIWYG and other programs like it help me give my clients what they want before getting to the venue, which saves both time and money.”

Pleasing Clients

Giving clients more options seems to be the driving force behind these technological advances, and they are also changing the industry by paving the way for new companies wholly dedicated to the art of digital design.

Norm Schwab, CEO of Prelite Studios (San Francisco, New York), emphasizes that quick, efficient, and flexible design capabilities are central in meeting the demands of clients who often have less time and money to spend than in the past. That capability is important to people like Schwab. Already a lighting designer and partner in a company called Lightswitch (San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Orlando), he has long been involved in the art of lighting design, and now with Prelite Studios, he is making pre-viz the centerpiece of his craft.

“Our company, Lightswitch, is essentially a consortium of designers,” he explains. “Our areas of design include architectural, corporate, theme parks, and entertainment lighting. But two years ago, I decided that I wanted to open a new studio to work exclusively on virtual lighting [pre-visualization projects] using 3D computer environments, so I formed a separate company with [designer] Tom Thompson called Prelite Studios.”

In the last year, Prelite has been busy, working for a host of lighting design firms and production companies on major events, including the 2002 Winter Olympics, major concert tours for Journey and U2, TV programs, and other events.

ETC’s Emphasis is a high-end lighting control system used for theater and other live events that now includes various design and pre-viz capabilities.

Both Schwab and Thompson are major advocates of using computers for lighting design. Schwab even refers to lighting design as “a combination of art and science.” He insists that computer pre-viz is a discipline that will inevitably proliferate in coming years.

“As computers get more powerful, and lighting instruments and productions get more complicated, using design software becomes vital,” says Schwab. “It's the ease of use and rehearsal aspect that's the real allure of pre-visualization software.”

Thompson, his partner, adds that “after doing shows for years the old-fashioned way, it's a great feeling to get on location knowing that everything's under control and there will be an absolute minimum of technology issues to overcome due to the pre-viz work that we've already done. It's also great to discuss the show with a producer or stage manager, and show them the look needed. Programming in the lush atmosphere of the studio, rather than in the stressful world of the show site, is also a plus.”

Schwab, Thompson, and other industry veterans cannot emphasize enough the importance of being able to work out problems and solutions in a comfortable environment before you get on a job site, where the cost of the lighting equipment, venue, and labor to install everything is many times the cost of the studio time. “To be able to offer a designer or creative director the ability to explore ideas and see them in 3D before you get on the job site,” says Schwab, “can save money and time correcting problems or miscommunication.”

Both designers point to design work Prelite completed for the two-year concert tour by the rock group U2. Working from a rendered 3D image (see illustration, page 44), the stage and lighting crew executed the lighting design visualized by the image — a design that designers created using several different software packages. The final stage and lights, in the subtle shape of a heart, looked almost exactly like the 3D image rendered on the computer.

Saving Cash

Prelite is not the only industry player moving aggressively into the area of lighting pre-visualization services. Spectacle Lighting Design (Ypsilanti, Mich.) is making similar moves. The company offers complete design, programming, and production services for theatrical events, including product announcement shows, exhibits, award ceremonies, and large-scale indoor or outdoor light shows. Other services include CAD, 3D visualization, illustrations and animations, control system rental, and accurate lighting system synchronization with sound, video, and stage mechanics.

Robert Wertheimer, Spectacle's owner, says it made a world of sense to add pre-viz to the company's service roster, because it allows designers to prove to clients, in advance, that the financial limitations of their job and its creative requirements can go hand-in-hand.

“A lighting designer's first and foremost job is to create and enhance environments using light,” says Wertheimer. “Though some may disagree, I also feel that it's also the responsibility of the designer to provide and [as much as possible] engineer a solution to his own design. A designer that just creates pretty 3D pictures is only doing half the job. These pictures must be doable engineering-wise and be within the client's budget.”

Wertheimer concedes that clients often are skeptical if they haven't been through the pre-viz process before, but after a while, they begin to comprehend how cost savings can be accomplished without sacrificing creativity.

“I think there are a number of clients out there that really don't see the benefits to putting money into the pre-visualization work of a show, and thus, they don't allow designers the amount of billable hours that could save them thousands of dollars when setup crunch time comes,” says Wertheimer. “Even something as simple as a light casting the proper wire-frame beam onto a simplified set in a CAD illustration can speak volumes. How many fixtures are needed? How much overlap do they have and how good is the angle? The information a computer-generated lighting plot provides is invaluable.”

Cast Lighting’s WYSIWYG pre-viz software.

Beyond that, pre-viz also gives even the most seasoned lighting director more confidence about the accuracy of his or her load list (the order of events). Wertheimer has faith in this concept and has been working on it for years.

“In the mid-1990s, I started using a software program called Microlux [from LuxArt (Longueuil, Quebec)] for show pre-viz because I knew how important it was to work in a 3D environment,” says Wertheimer. “Try drafting in 2D with any confidence when you have lights hanging on an angle in two different planes [as from a tent support]. You either draft every single light out, or guess and cross your fingers. I'll take the 3D environment any day.”

But Wertheimer can recall working strictly in the 2D environment back in the days of AutoCad 12.0 in the early '90s. As he recalls, it wasn't a simple process.

“Back then, it was too much of a pain to do things on a computer in 3D, and before that, there was the good old pencil and paper,” Wertheimer says. “In the past, it could take me days to draw out even the most simple plot. Admittedly, I was a horrendous draftsman, but it still took a very long time, and if you made a mistake you had to start all over. Now, with today's software solutions, I can have even the most complicated plot done in a day, and have all the client paperwork looking 100% professional.”

Code Warriors

In terms of the digital weapons available to today's designers, there are a plethora of software packages available on both the PC and the Macintosh platforms for pre-visualization and lighting design at every level of complexity and price. Following is a summary of just a few of the more popular packages mentioned by industry pros.

Chauvet Lighting's ShowXpress software, available only for the Windows platform, is a popular solution. A limited version of the software is available for free download, and that availability has helped many designers experiment with computer design tools — many for the first time.

Chauvet markets ShowXpress by emphasizing what it claims is an easy user interface that, with minimal effort, can permit digital novices to get to work designing complex setups with little practice. The software's pre-viz function is designed to permit users to replicate the ease-of-use of the system's control module. Designers can easily move lights around their computer screen in the same way that the control module manipulates actual, intelligent lighting systems on stage during an actual show, thanks to its reliance on widely used DMX control language protocols.

Barry Abrams, Chauvet's product development manager, says the package includes a useful tool — the Sizing module, which permits show designs and setups to be retained and rescaled for venues of different sizes. Let's say you build an effective lighting show for use in a small room about 10'×50', but the next week, you're in a 50'×100' room. Abrams says the ShowXpress software will permit designers to automatically adjust lighting parameters for the new room's dimensions.

Elation Professional is another leading manufacturer that focuses on low-cost software tools for special event applications. According to John Lopez, the company's product manager, Elation's Compu Ware product, another Windows-based, DMX-based control system, has added design and teaching functions aimed at educating prospective designers on the nuances of the discipline.

“Every function of a lighting fixture is laid out in front of you on one computer screen,” Lopez explains. “3D Visualizer is an added bonus that comes with the software and allows you to set up a light show and get a good concept of what the show will look like in realtime.”

LuxArt's newest version of its Microlux software, Microlux 2000, is another package for Windows that integrates design and control functions. A basic package includes a comprehensive library of spots, trusses, gels, and gobo icons, helping users create fully rendered 3D views and beam representations, and it will even calculate light illumination for designers. The package includes a Microlux Vision module that permits designers to visualize the intensity of a spot on their computer screen, exactly as it will be controlled by the console in real time. The light's intensity can be shown with a beam representation on the plan, or it can be displayed in a table format, thus allowing the software to pre-program a lighting board without the spots.

Microlux 2000 can also read and display information on up to 1,536 dimmers or lights. These capabilities let designers program cues, rehearse a show on their computer screen, and then produce 2D and 3D drawings. The software also allows global assignment modifications, and the importation of images from other CAD software packages.

VectorWorks Spotlight is another well-known software tool, available to designers on both the Windows and Mac platforms. The software merges sophisticated 2D drafting and 3D modeling capabilities with lighting design tools, making it easy to create light plots and visualize design concepts in 3D, according to company officials. In particular, they claim that the advanced modeling features enable designers to create complex 3D forms within Spotlight — using a new module called 3D Power Pack — or to import 3D models from many other applications.

For Macintosh, MacLux Pro, from MacLux, is a complete lighting design program that is available only for Mac and Power Mac G3/G4 laptops. MacLux Pro permits users to create light plots by using pre-made icons, and creating additional icons, representing light symbols and hanging positions on top of imported graphics. Information is attached to the drawing as you work, which means the equivalent of paper plots can be created, printed out, and applied to specific designs. In addition, the software can turn on lights, not only showing light beams, but also actually allowing the creation of show cues.

From Europe, also for the Mac platform, comes Stardraw 2D (version 3), from English manufacturer — a 2D drawing and plot paperwork software with extensive truss engineering and equipment inventory control features. Another solution popular in Europe that has added pre-viz features to long-standing control capabilities is LanBox-LC from CDS Advanced Technology of Holland. It comes with a DMX control module and software that supports both the Mac OS X and Windows XP platforms.

Basic versions of many of these software programs, and others, are now available for less than $1,000. Industry experts insist, the complete merging of digital technology with lighting design, well underway, is inevitable. It's true that the current crop of off-shelf, lighting pre-visualization software tools can't replace good taste and artistic expression, but they have evolved the industry to a place where lighting professionals can now more easily get the most out of two irreplaceable commodities — their equipment and their time.

Tom Patrick McAuliffe is a freelance writer, entertainer, and A/V maven living in Northern California. Contact him at or visit his website at


Cast Lighting (WYSIWYG)

CDS Advanced Technology,

Chauvet Lighting




Prelite Studios

Spectacle Lighting Design

Web Resources

Crescit Software (distributor of many different brands)

Macintosh Software for the Theater (This site is maintained as a public service for Mac-based members of the theater community. It has a wide variety of links to retailers and lighting manufacturers. It also has information on the ways people have adapted mainstream programs for various lighting applications. There are also templates and symbols users share.)

Lightsearch (A great site for searching for information on lights and lighting.)