If scrim can cause the greatest headaches in lighting fabric, then most other fabrics are far easier to light. Now that our primary interest is illumination, rather than creating a reveal with sharkstooth scrim as discussed in Part One (June 2004), lighting fabric becomes much like lighting anything else. Rather than cover old ground that most of you probably remember from Lighting 101, let's look at some of the problems and pitfalls that one may encounter lighting other fabrics.
LENO-FILLED SCRIM AND MUSLIN
Sometimes, I like to describe leno-filled scrim as “sharkstooth scrim with the holes filled in,” which always begs the question, “Why did anyone bother?” Lighting may well be the answer: the leno-filled scrim has a lovely soft, textured surface that reflects light beautifully, thus making it ideal for a cyclorama or a bounce drop. Like the sharkstooth scrim, it has one surface that is more textured and one that is smoother; in general, we recommend having the textured side facing the audience to take advantage of the extra surface dimension. Generally, this should be lit as any cyc would be: strip lights from above or below. The added texture on the surface of the fabric will help smooth the edges of the lighting and remove some of the scalloping of the light that can occur at the very top or bottom of the cyclorama, where it is closest to the lighting instruments.
Leno-filled scrim is also ideal for projecting abstract shapes and patterns, due to its highly reflective surface. The texture, however, will mitigate high resolutions, and so leno is not the best surface for video projection. Leno is also a thicker fabric than muslin or other fabrics, so backlighting a leno cyclorama may not produce the best results; muslin is a better choice for this.
Muslin is perhaps the most ubiquitous fabric in theatre. Ignoring its use in costumes, muslin is used widely for scenery, drops, and cycloramas — in short, any surface that may be painted or that is being used to reflect light. Pretty simple stuff, really, so what could go wrong lighting muslin?
Well, you might mix weights on muslins and then sew them together and paint them. And, most likely, the different weights will not take paint in the same way. Why is this a lighting problem? True, it's mostly a painting problem, but it may not show up until the stage lighting hits the painted surface: then, it's a lighting problem. This will become most apparent when you have different weight muslin — medium and heavy, for example on a similar hard surface. The medium has less thread in it; the surface beneath will show through more than the heavier muslin. If the surface is especially light or dark, it may shift the color more under the medium weight muslin than under the heavy weight muslin. If possible, offer your advice and be consistent on weights before it becomes your lighting problem.
Seams are another area of question and concern. Traditionally, a seamed muslin drop in the theatre has horizontal seams to allow it to hang straight. Alternatively, in video, the seams will often be vertical, on the assumption that a shot can be centered between two seams and will never show on camera. From a lighting standpoint, seams raise only a few concerns. If sewn properly, and front-lit from the top with strip lights, the seams should barely register to a live audience. Of course, if you are backlighting the drop or cyclorama, then seams become a major issue: they will become black lines across the scene. As a lighting designer, you can't do much about this: move your lights to the front, if the design and space allow.
Once again, lending your advice prior to the production may help. If you have a backlit scene, and the producing organization cannot afford a seamless drop, remind them to carefully consider where the seam(s) will land. If the drop features a cityscape, then a seam right along the edge of the sky may not be as visible to the audience, even if the drop is backlit; the color change from city to sky may help hide the seam itself. Or, if you are again doing a cityscape, but only buildings, then you may want to ask for vertical seams on the drop-all of the lines in the architecture of the city are vertical and may well hide the seams themselves.
Lastly, the color of the muslin itself should be considered. Most often, painters will request natural muslin, that “cream of wheat” color that seems white until compared to the next most popular muslin, bleached white. Often, for cycloramas, designers request bleached white muslin, reasoning that it has a more reflective surface than does the natural and, thus, will be brighter. And their reasoning is correct: the bleached white muslin is certainly more reflective than natural muslin. In fact, I often suggest that it is too much more reflective, while actually only reflecting an additional 7-10% more light, and it has two potential pitfalls. First, as it is bleached white, it will clearly show any dirt, stain, or smudge, and theatres are notoriously dusty spaces. Grime that will barely register on a natural muslin drop will clearly show on bleached white muslin. Second, the extra reflectivity means that any light, anywhere, is likely to create some glow on the cyclorama, which may distract an audience during a blackout: exit lights, aisle lights, backstage running lights, and glowing lighting instruments may all cast light onto the bleached white cyclorama, causing it to glow slightly and destroying the dark void the designer had hoped to create.
Finally, the question often arises: what about sky blue, dark blue, or gray muslin? Each of these can be fine, depending on the application. If the use of the muslin is primarily to create a day sky, then using the sky blue muslin can save you a good deal of paint and time. Similarly, if you're primary effect is a night sky, using the dark blue muslin may save you time and effort. Each, however, also has limitations: the muslins are no longer color-neutral, as the natural or bleached white muslins are, and so limit the lighting designer's ability to create a full range of colors on the cyclorama.
With the sky blue muslin, very little actual color is present, so this effect will be less apparent, although it will certainly be easier to move the colors in the blue range. With a dark blue, however, trying to get unsaturated reds or oranges to be a dominant color through the use of lighting instruments will be extremely difficult. The muslin will primarily reflect dark blue (and probably some dark red) light and very little else. Gray muslins were developed primarily for television use, to control the amount of reflected light behind the primary subject. Most light gray muslins will reflect all colors pretty equally at a lower percentage than bleached white or natural muslin.
GAUZE & EFFECT
Like sharkstooth scrim, most gauzes will provide a degree of opacity-to-transparency shift, or bleed-through effect. If you're using gauze to create this effect, light it in the same way that you would a sharkstooth scrim, and remember: angle, angle, angle! Otherwise, you may be using the gauze to soften the look on the stage or to add a feeling of depth to the space in which you are working. If it's the latter, you may not want to light the gauze at all but just light the elements behind the gauze, or you may want to splash some light on the gauze itself — this will help create a “haze” from the gauze and soften and slightly obscure anything behind it.
Finally, a gauze on an upstage window may allow you to change time of day — bright daylight into sunset colors — by lighting a small piece of gauze over the window, rather than a full cyclorama behind the window. Remember, however, that even more than with sharkstooth scrim, gauzes are mostly holes with little surface and so will be limited in how much they reflect.
Masking fabrics should be the easiest to light. For the most part, they are hung to hide something and are designed to absorb light, which is not to say that they won't cause problems if given the chance. The most common issues that arise are differing weights, changing nap directions, and re-dyed fabric. Lets look at each of these.
Without filling another whole issue on weaving technique, let's just accept that different masking fabrics have different weights (thickness) and finishes (surface appearances). As a general rule of thumb, the heavier the fabric, the less likely it is that light behind the fabric can be seen. Use heavier velour, for instance, for a border in front of a light pipe. Cover a dark wall, and you may be fine with a lightweight velour or other masking fabric.
The primary types of surfaces finished for masking fabrics are napped fab rics, such as velours and velvets; calendared fabrics, such as serge; and brushed surfaces, such as Commando Cloth or Duvetyn. The napped surface of velour is perhaps the most common masking fabric in the US. The depth of the nap will vary and will cause the amount of light absorbed to vary with that depth, but overall, this is a highly light-absorbent fabric that will soften the edge or top of a stage and keep from pulling the audience's attention away from the primary scene, while framing that scene and hiding the backstage of the theatre. As the weight (and nap length) varies, however, so will the fabric's ability to absorb light. Mixing weights, then, may cause the velour to absorb light differently. While this may not cause a huge difference, it may be enough to slightly distract the audience, and so should be avoided, if possible.
Of far greater concern with a napped fabric is the direction of the nap. Run your hand along a napped fabric, and you will feel the pile; run your hand with the nap, and it will all lie down under your hand; run against the nap, and it will stand up and darken the color of the fabric. Light hitting the fabric has a similar effect. If the nap direction is not consistent in your masking, the color will appear to vary, even if the goods are all from the same dye lot. Simple solution: make sure that the nap direction is consistent. The standard in the US is to run the nap “down,” or toward the bottom of the drape. For pure practicality, it will collect less dust and keep your drapes cleaner longer. You may decide to have the nap direction “up,” if for no other reason than you feel that the color is slightly richer this way. Again, as long as all of the nap runs in the same direction, you'll have consistency.
While brushed surfaces don't have a nap, they do appear to have a direction to them. The effect of turning the brushed surface in one direction or the other is much less than when using velour, but you still must be consistent. Mixing the direction will cause the fabric to reflect light differently and create a potential distraction to the audience.
The final note on fabrics is completely out of the lighting designer's control. I mention it just to help solve a mystery that may have cropped up on one occasion or another. Usually, black velour is black velour. The dye lots vary widely, but if your soft goods are all of one dye lot, they will all look the same. If light spills on them, they may take on a diffuse, subtle glow of that color light but, for the most part, they stay black, unless the goods have been re-dyed. Sometimes, a batch of velour just isn't the right color, and sometimes, it has been re-dyed, so as not to be thrown away. It is easiest, in fabric, to take a color to black; the black will override any other colors and so, to the naked eye, will appear black, until colored light hits it. Then, it may turn into completely unexpected colors. Did you ever hit your black masking with a lavender gel and have it suddenly pop red on you? Most likely, the goods were dyed red to begin with and then re-dyed black. When the lavender (a mix of red and blue) light hit the velour, the red dye under the black reflected back more of the red in the gel, turning your masking red. The good news is that not all that much velour is re-dyed.
Fabric is just one aspect of an overall scenic design but an important one that a lighting designer must take care to light. It can cause real problems, eating up time better spent on other aspects of design. Hopefully, with a little smart planning, you can prevent these problems from arising at all.