When people talk about software, the acronym "KISS" inevitably pops up in the conversation. For the uninitiated, the term means, "Keep It Simple, Stupid." In discussing this topic with lighting software developers, designers, and electricians, there is a constant yearning for simple and intuitive software programs that will allow a designer to devote more of his or her efforts to the creative tasks involved with getting a production ready. The best software becomes as indispensable as a pencil and paper. As lighting designer Stan Pressner notes, "A program becomes a standard because it fills a need, is responsive toward its users, and it works."

Adds Kirk Bookman, a lighting designer currently working at Paper Mill Playhouse, "An LD can't afford to be left behind [in regards to technology], and using software for design and paperwork is critical, even for small productions. Among the benefits of using sophisticated software are an ability to make unlimited and fast revisions and modifications to your work."

There are many software programs geared to lighting design currently on the market. Over the past few months, new versions of frequently used lighting software have been released. Diehl Graphsoft [Editor's note: Diehl Graphsoft has changed its name to Nemetschek North America] announced that VectorWorks has replaced MiniCAD. City Theatrical announced the release of Lightwright 3. AC Lighting announced that version three of the WYSIWYG program was released by developer CAST Lighting. The immediacy of software demos available through CD-ROMs and websites offers users a "test-drive" of software that is hard to duplicate in a written summation of features [see our information box on page 54]. Because this is the printed page and such test-drives are not yet possible, we decided to create a sort of informal discussion among LDs about these three types of lighting software programs and their uses.

For years, the Lightwright paperwork program, developed by John McKernon and distributed by City Theatrical, has been touted as the gold standard of software. Lightwright 3 is specialized software developed for designers and electricians as an aid to managing paperwork and the mass of details associated with lighting instruments, their colors, DMX addresses, circuit information, and locations. "My intention was to develop software that allows one to get the paperwork out the door in the shortest amount of time, with the least amount of trouble," says McKernon. The Lightwright 3 program is distributed on CD-ROM and designed for Windows and Macintosh users; Lightwright 2 was distributed with one version for Macintosh users and another for DOS users.

Mike Lobue, a Broadway electrician on such shows as Saturday Night Fever, provides a few technical clues to the success of Lightwright 3 in tracking the information. "First, the management of the DMX universes: being able to specify starting and ending addresses in different universes, and having it listed as a board output and also as an absolute address. On Saturday Night Fever, I have seven universes, and trying to keep track of everything was a little bit of chore, but with this version of Lightwright, we were able to do it quite nicely."

McKernon, a long-term associate of LD Ken Billington, incorporated many frequently requested features into Lightwright 3 that allow for ease of use and significant timesaving. The largest group of beneficiaries are DOS users upgrading to the new Windows-compatible version with GUI and customizable printouts. Among the benefits are an overall capacity of 5,000 items, with over 2,000 text phrases, a worksheet toolbar to speed frequently-used menu selections, an AutoFill feature that completes the typing of often-used phrases as you are typing them, and the arranging of lights can be manipulated to the order best suited for the designer, not the one configured for compatibility with the numbering scheme.

Other features of Lightwright 3 are the easy assignment of dimmers to phases, the calculating of loads per phase and per rack, and an extensive palette of "error-checks."

A key feature of application-specific software is the ability to import and export as well as cut and paste data, both with and without the formatting information. Lobue clarifies this point: "I use these features (paperwork organization within Lightwright) extensively, along with Microsoft Excel, for all of my layouts, and I export and import continuously between the two programs. Each person uses software in a different way; everyone has his or her own way and customization is vital. For instance, my point, especially with Excel, is to be able to hand somebody a piece of paper and have him or her totally understand what needs to be done. So, the actual information--the channel, dimmer, and circuiting, plus what they need to have it happen (the quantities, "twofering")--any of those parameters needed is right there on the piece of paper. Right now, the only way to do that is to export from Lightwright into something like Excel, and I have macros that I have written that do the formatting. The layout looks like LW, with additional columns and customized space that give me whatever I want. Lightwright does it right now, but not exactly the way I like to have it laid out for the shop."

Bookman especially likes the customization features of the program--and insists on the program's use, even in smaller productions. "Today, even a small show has 150 lights; there's nothing simple about having two sets of templates, six colors, and all the lights. The minute you take shortcuts, you get in trouble. The stakes, especially with limited tech time, are just too high. Mistakes cost money, and that type of information tracking can't be done on yellow pads." Many designers comment on the note-taking ability of Lightwright, the easy editing of information, and the subtle blending of database and spreadsheet capabilities. Pressner, long associated with avant-garde productions at Brooklyn Academy of Music and Lincoln Center, explains the appeal of Lightwright and its customization features: "Each person on the crew uses paperwork for a different purpose."

While AutoCAD remains a standard in the architectural community, VectorWorks, the latest version of Mini-Cad, is frequently used in the design community. The versatility of the newly released VectorWorks allows for a variety of time-saving features, many keyed to the usage of layering in the initial drawing phase and the integration of the geometric elements within the layers. The SmartCursor feature easily enables endpoints, midpoints, centerpoints, and tangencies to be automatically identified and placed. Layering information allows the space and its components to be linked into a single model, or viewed separately, even printed as individual drawings.

The visualization features of Vector Works have been developed as extensions of the drafting process. For example, after a lighting instrument has been retrieved from the symbol library and placed, the degree can be changed, all associated lists are instantly updated, and the program automatically calculates and renders the correct beam and field in both a 2D and 3D version. Toolbars can be customized, much the same way that function buttons on a lighting console can be re-mapped. An extensive process for assigning shortcuts was also added. Scaling is easy, including "A"-size paper (8-1/2 x 11), and there is capability for isolating segments of the plot for printing. VectorWorks is fully compatible with .DWG-type files through AutoCAD 2000, and any image file within VectorWorks can be exported as a QuickTime movie for easier presentations.

As most readers know, design starts with a concept. Ken Billington says, "Nothing is hand-drafted anymore, except by me sitting at the drafting board designing the show because that's the easiest for me--just to sit there with a pencil, paper, and yellow trace and go forward. Then VectorWorks is used for the actual drawings." While Bookman is familiar with VectorWorks, and all of his designs are submitted after being drawn with VectorWorks, an assistant does the actual drafting.

Pressner, however, does use the program, adding that it never interferes with the creative process. "As compared to other computer-aided design programs, the short learning curve enables drafting that is easier and more intuitive, thereby allowing a designer to focus on the creative elements and not get bogged down in the technology."

Recently, John Broderick, president of Entertainment Lighting Force, utilized VectorWorks to create the Japanese-inspired setting for Madonna's opening act at the Grammy Awards ceremony. The accuracy of the designs allowed him to position cameras within the digital model, and view the set from the camera point of view. In addition, the layering capability enabled Broderick to assign a different function for each layer--five were used, each with its own "Z height. Layering, for those unfamiliar with CAD programs, is useful in separating information along the "X" or "Y" axis that represents the drawing paper. For instance, layer one represented the audience level with a Z value of -3, since its placement was 3' below the stage, the stage is layer two, with a Z value of zero. The set had a Z value of zero since it was located on the stage and would be known as layer three. Broderick placed the sidelights on layer four, and their Z value was 10'. Finally, layer five comprised the lighting grid and was located at 26' (Z value). The rendering capability of VectorWorks allowed for the visualization of the final design and the relationships between the set and the cameras.

"The use of 3D CAD helped me dramatically improve set designs by making it possible to view the design from any camera angle location," says Broderick in a case history piece produced by Diehl Graphsoft. "This makes it possible to evaluate and improve the set from any desired perspective, which was difficult to accomplish in the past. CAD also improved communications with other people involved in the creative process by providing a clear understanding of what the audience will see and clearly delineating lighting mechanics."

WYSIWYG, currently available in Version 3.1, offers a visualization of lighting instruments and their characteristics, even with the color shift that occurs when dimming incandescent luminaires, and a real-time simulation, and photo-quality rendering with animated sequences. Through the data interface--ethernet or DMX--the software is linked to the lighting board. The programming of the lights is done via the board in the usual manner--with DMX being output to the computer for visualization of the lighting sequences.

Another approach to this is a totally integrated and internally linked arrangement with the Rosco Entertainment Technology Horizon program, which enables both software programs to reside in one computer. This enables Horizon to be used for the programming and the real-time simulation to be viewed via the WYSIWYG on a separate monitor. Such an arrangement is particularly suited for moving light control, as the focus groups and palettes can be selected, accessed as a group, and displayed with accuracy, including the associated templates and colors.

"I have used WYSWYIG, and it's most useful when there will be a crunch and it's easier to get something prepared before I walk into the site," says Billington. "For example, for [the Broadway musical] Footloose, I did all the moving lights for the opening number--about 75 light cues--in the office with my programmer in advance. I anticipated three days of programming in the theatre; instead we finished in one day. So it was very helpful, and this includes throwing away 20 light cues that didn't look very good and starting over."

While the initial cost of visualization software may appear to be high, in comparison with the cost of a tech, and factoring in times and the patience of the performers, "precueing" a show can be a real bargain. "You don't have six weeks to tech a musical (generally), and to spend two or three days lighting a six- or seven-minute number is excessive," says Billington. "Of course, the show can't suffer due to a compressed timeframe, and I don't feel that Footloose was negatively impacted by a compressed schedule. I feel that we had more time to fix everything else, and while we only had two weeks to tech, we were able to concentrate time on reviewing all of the important numbers of the show. When you get to the dress rehearsal or first preview, it doesn't mean you're finished. You have a good idea, a template of what the show would be, and you, as the LD, have to clean it up and make it perfect."

Beyond the imagery and the aesthetic appeal of renderings is accuracy of the visual image. It goes without saying that the process begins with complete and accurate drawings of the venue. Pressner bemoans the fact that visualization requires a re-measuring of an already built facility. Billington notes that he has frequently had to send a team to conduct field measurements of theatres new and old.

Beyond the users' investment, Robert Bell of Cast Lighting, the WYSIWYG developer, notes, "Accuracy of the lighting instrument is critical. We model and measure the units and frequently have manufacturers offering us their models, based on designers seeking to model them in WYSIWYG." Bell also notes that there are auto-tracking features to the program--meaning you can increase the quantity of an item, i.e., color on the drawing automatically results in a corresponding increase within the report side of the program. "As you build the plot, the lists change instantly," he says, adding, "There is a whole system of user preferences, and each user can get the information sorted to their own preference, even with their own fonts."

Still, Billington adds, "While visualization software is a great time-saver, it is not the be-all and end-all" for him. "Lighting is still done by my eyes," he says. The designer notes that you still need the basic lighting design skills before you can successfully use any software program. "If you're not a good draftsperson on a piece of paper, you're not a good draftsperson in VectorWorks or any other CAD-type software program. The software doesn't make you better, it makes it cleaner, probably a little more efficient when you want to make changes--actually a lot more efficient. But if you don't know how to draw, having a machine do it does not make you a good draftsperson. If you don't know how to lay out a page, you don't know how to lay out a page. It will still be confusing, but now it will be neat."

The sampling of products below represents several other approaches to lighting conceptualization and flexibility in addition to those discussed in the story. Many of these programs have extensive websites, demo CD-ROMs, and disks available for examination, and developers have embraced the idea of cross-platform software. Check 'em out.

AutoBLOCK 2000 Website: www.mszdesign.net; distributed by MSZ Design Simplicity, speed, and compatibility with AutoCAD 2000, AutoCAD R 14 and later, and LT97 are among the features of AutoBLOCK 2000. Users of ACAD will recognize the term "block," a designation used to define a complete pictorial representation of an object. Through the fixture library, importing of complete blocks are fast; full rotation and hiding capability is provided. There is complete exporting of data information, and free upgrades of new symbols, macros, and toolbars are provided every three months to registered users.

AutoCAD Website; www.autodesk.com; distributed by Autodesk and authorized dealers AutoCAD is one of the most popular of all design and drafting software programs, especially in the architectural and construction industries. Many scenic designers and fabrication shops use AutoCAD; swapping of files is commonplace, as is their ability to be exported to other programs (including many on this list). AutoCAD 2000 includes new productivity tools that aim to shorten design cycles and improve drawing efficiency.

CompuCAD Website: www.compulite.com; distributed by Compulite CompuCAD is a Windows-based 3D lighting design software program which features 2D and 3D wireframe viewing and printing, full dynamic rendering, full ray-trace rendering, and project management. Other benefits include: rendering of lighting looks and cues, easy light plot modification for changing venues, off-line revision capability, full moving light support, and a graphic feature that displays numerical or spreadsheet information when a luminaire is selected. CompuCAD is ethernet-capable and can link directly to any Compulite console.

Light Shop Website: www.crescit.com; distributed by Crescit Software and authorized dealers Light Shop is designed to calculate and view photometrics for over 1,500 lighting instruments. Unique to Crescit is the bundling of software; the educational bundle features SoftPlot, which creates lighting plots and generates paperwork, and features SFX for the creation and playback of sound effects in a live entertainment environment.

LD Studio Website: www.design-drafting.com; distributed by Design & Drafting Services

LD Studio is an intuitive cross-platform set of sophisticated software tools designed to work with the VectorWorks (MiniCAD) drafting program. After using the CAD program to input the dimensions of the stage and/or facility profile, LD Studio provides many time-saving features in the Lighting Design (Plots), Rigging, and Paperwork sections. The software, which automatically updates paperwork fields as changes are made to the plot, includes a large and up-to-date instrument library.

Lightwright 3 Website: www.mckernon.com; distributed by City Theatrical

MacLux Pro Website: www.macluxpro.com; distributed by Claude Heintz Design and authorized dealers MacLux Pro is designed and specially configured for the Macintosh and Powerbook laptops. It uses very little RAM and allows a designer to bring his or her "drafting table" to the set, or work while commuting, or even while on tour. The software combines plot creation (MacLux symbols can be drawn on top of imported CAD files), paperwork and cue-setting features. Version 1.7 features expanded color and template lists, a new electronic swatchbbook, easy accommodation of multi-segment numbering for striplights, support for Apple Guide online help and reference.

Martin Show Designer Website: www.martin.dk; distributed by Martin Professional The Martin Show Designer software is a lighting visualization and control software that offers advanced lighting simulation and integration of design and performance. It has CAD features, an extensive library of luminaires from Martin and other manufacturers, and, via the photometric data of the units, an accurate simulation of the stage or environment can be created. The software also allows for easy integration of architectural drawings for the viewing of lighting effects in the virtual environment.

Microlux 2000 Website: www.luxart.com; distributed by LuxArt Conception and authorized dealers Microlux 2000 is a fully integrated CAD lighting design software package that combines CAD, paperwork, and modeling, along with control features. The basic package contains everything needed for creating presentation-quality plots, plans, and complete schedules/reports. There are fully rendered 3D views and beam representations, and "built-in" illumination calculation and beam-spreading capability. Additional modules are available to program, rehearse, and control a live performance. Microlux is compatible with Windows NT, as well as Windows 95, Window 98.

VectorWorks Website: www.nemetschek.net.; distributed by to Nemetschek North America (formerly Diehl Graphsoft)

Virtual Light Lab Website: www.future-light.com; distributed by Future Light and authorized dealers Virtual Light Lab software allows lighting designers, teachers, or students to experiment with light, shadow, and color effects in a simulated lighting studio. A model and backdrop are selected, (or scanned into the program); lights are then positioned around the model. Moving a light or changing a color is as simple as dragging and dropping a light icon or a color swatch with the mouse. Virtual Light Lab features highly realistic images that are displayed immediately, without adding the spatial data needed for a conventional 3D drawing system.

WYSIWYG Website: www.wysicad.com; distributed by AC Lighting