Almost every designer has built models of scenery for shows, and some have even tried to light these models to give an approximation of what light and color will do on the scenery and costumes. But until now, most of these models were lit via flashlights, projectors — basically anything that would produce light, but never in a scale equal to the set.

Until now. Charles Kirby, a New York-based scenic and lighting designer, has created Lightbox, a design tool that represents a flexible space that can adapt to a variety of theatres. It can vary in scale, but works best in half-inch scale. The cool thing about Lightbox is that by using fiber optics and focusable luminaires it provides a very close approximation of stage lighting, in scale, that can be colored and patterned; it even has a dimming and control system to allow the end user to light and cue a sequence or a whole show. Even better, it's aimed not only at the lighting designer, but can also be used by scenic and costume designers, as well as directors, choreographers, even actors — essentially everyone involved in the creative collaboration.

“I would describe Lightbox as a tool for designers and production teams to discover and discuss light,” says Kirby. “To not be dependent upon access to the full theatre. A way for students, teachers, and designers to talk about light and demonstrate what they're thinking about.” Bobby Harrell, a New York-based LD, is even more succinct: “Just put your lights where you want them, focus and gel them, then program the board. All in a scaleable format. It's the perfect tool for every theatrical designer and director. The ability to experiment and create has never been more intuitive. This creation of Charles' allows me, as a designer, to talk to a director as we are trained to, with light.”

The key to the scale lighting is fiber optics. Manufacturers are now producing small, focusable luminaires for fiber-optic applications, mostly for retail and museum applications. Kirby ran across the fiber fixtures quite by accident. “I was walking in Soho, and there was a jewelry store lighting diamonds with some of the parts that we now use in Lightbox, the actual heads that we redesigned,” he says. Working with the company Pinpoint Fiber Optics, Kirby has been able to recreate the beam spread of an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight. So far, he has created beam spreads in 19°, 26°, and 50°, as well as longer through units like a 10° range. Other fiber devices recreate strip lights and other fixture types used in the theatre. The luminaires can have plastic color applied or small plastic templates that can be generated from a standard printer. The lenses allow for actual focusing of the gobos. Color, in the form of dichroics, can also be applied at the illuminator end.

Kirby started out in scenic design and later added lighting design to his studies. “As an undergraduate, it was more about being thrown into a black box as a freshman to light because graduate directing students were clamoring to get anybody to light their shows,” says Kirby. “I didn't have the skills or training yet to communicate what I was thinking about light and just had to do it. And as a set designer it was about models and it was all very three-dimensional. For me, coming from the life of a set and lighting designer, I always want to talk in 3D.”

Life in 3D

The concept for Lightbox started to come to Kirby as he began his professional working life. After graduating from Syracuse University, Kirby went to London to work as an assistant and was kicking around a number of ideas on how to discuss design and how best to represent lighting for his scene designs. “In London, I saw some set designers that didn't sketch; they were modeling from the beginning. It was all about form and shapes in 3D,” says Kirby. He followed up his assisting work with graduate school at New York University, where Kirby had more experience with models. “I had three years doing the set and lighting program, and when you combine the teachings of John Conklin and Paul Steinberg with Robert Wierzel and Allen Lee Hughes, you know the advantages of talking in three dimensions!”

Kirby chose to go back to Syracuse, to discuss the idea of developing Lightbox with their help. “I knew I needed a university beta environment to see how all of it would work.” Kirby would build a small prototype with six MR-16 lamps and 30 lights and fibers to demonstrate to James Clark, the dean of the SU Drama Department and the faculty. Clark and design professor Alex Koziara were so impressed with the demonstration that they agreed to help Kirby develop it further. They would craft a grant application and were awarded a $25,000 Vision Fund Grant from SU.

The Lightbox consists of several sub-systems. The first is the framework that consists of an extruded aluminum system. It was originally intended for manufacturing plants assembly lines and tool benches. It allows the unit to adapt to different scales and different theatres. The Syracuse unit was originally intended to represent just the Storch Theatre, the student mainstage space. After much discussion, it was decided to also include the Archbold Theatre, where the regional theatre Syracuse Stage performs as well as the department's black box space. The extrusions allow for adjustable lighting positions, support for scenic elements and provide a portable housing for the illuminator, dimmers, and control console.

The illuminator at SU is a custom-built unit consisting of standard electrical raceways wired to support 250W MR-16 lamps. Using a hot mirror to protect the fiber, a coupler at the lamp allows for fiber bundles to run up to the lighting fixtures in the frame. It is set up as a patching system with a variety of fibers and heads coming off one lamp. You can color the lamp here to change a complete system or choose to color the individual luminaires. Currently, the Syracuse model has 24 lamps feeding 160 heads. The lamps are run off of Leprecon six × 1.8kW dimmer packs, although in newer models, Kirby is using small DMX dimmers from the sign industry “Another important aspect was to go with an ETC Express 24/48 board which is close to our ETC 48/96 in the Storch Theatre for the control, which is overkill for what the Lightbox has to do,” says Koziara. “What is nice about it is that it gets the students used to the same key strokes and the same protocol as the mainstage light board within a classroom situation.”

The challenge now for Syracuse is to create a curriculum around the Lightbox. It is intended for a variety of students. Most notably, Koziara sees the unit best suited for getting students' feet wet right away and getting them to experience lighting outside of a textbook. “I'm finding that with a lot of the directors, latching onto it as something that is going to help them a lot,” says Koziara. “They are working with student designers, and the more they can communicate and collaborate before they get to that theatre the better. Lightbox gives common ground for everybody to quickly get on the same page from a visual design point of view, that ‘this is what we are talking about’ and everyone can see it, so you're not having to struggle thru describing it and later hearing, ‘That's not what I pictured!’”

Koziara is a firm believer in the Lightbox; he points out the unit's ability to do a trial and error with much less economic impact as opposed to moving an actual light; it encourages the process of experimentation. “The students have that comfort, that safety of being able to do that and not getting their tail feathers singed,” says Koziara. “Which happens a lot: a student could be a good student in the classroom and then their first big show all of a sudden they go down in flames because they are not used to the pressure and the fact that you can't change your mind very easily. If you change your mind and say that you want to re-hang that boom, it's going to take four students four hours to do that, so you can't. That's very frightening sometimes for a young designer.”

Each Lightbox can be built to suit a specific theatre as well as having the flexibility to adapt to different requirements. “Each one is designed for your particular space,” says Kirby. “They are infinitely flexible — from flylines to thrust or proscenium to fixed electrics to whatever you want it to be — but essentially it's something that is custom designed for your theatre.”

Kirby has now built a second model, applying all that he has learned from the first unit. “I'm teaching with it and using it in my process,” says Kirby. He is also in discussions with other designers and other schools, preaching the features and benefits of Lightbox. “We are looking for early adopters who want to work with us to design a system for their school and how they teach and to bring it into their process.”

For further information on the Lightbox, check out Kirby's Thematics NYC, LLC website at