Working with the VectorWorks Program for Theatre LDs

Until three or four years ago most lighting designers I know (myself included) wouldn't have dreamed of drafting a light plot on a computer. The reasons served as a rallying cry to those of us fighting change: "Computer-aided drafting is too hard to learn; you can draft faster by hand; you can't see the entire plot at once; hand drafting is more subtle and therefore conveys more information; the printed light plots are ugly," etc., etc. Then one day I saw the plot for a new production at Radio City Music Hall. It was beautiful! I was amazed at the subtle line weights and the flawless lettering. I asked who had done the drafting, and if the draftsman had used a lettering template. I was told that the plot wasn't drafted by hand, but was (gasp!) drafted on a computer using software called MiniCAD. I was hooked, and haven't drafted a plot by hand in almost three years.

MiniCAD has since been renamed VectorWorks. VectorWorks Spotlight is part of the Professional Series of VectorWorks CAD programs available from Nemetschek North America (formerly Diehl Graphsoft). It is built on VectorWorks 8.5 (VectorWorks Spotlight 9 should be available by the time you're reading this). Spotlight is designed specifically for the entertainment lighting industry, and adds a number of tools and menu options to the basic VectorWorks package. Those tools have been created specifically to help the theatrical lighting designer simplify and speed up the laborious task of creating a light plot and its supporting documentation. It is available in both PC and Macintosh versions.

VectorWorks has a number of flexible, easy-to-use features. For example, it can import drawings created by AutoCAD. The import process gives you several options along the way that allow you to begin organizing the drawing even before it's created. I've imported dozens of architect's and set designer's AutoCAD files and the process has been almost entirely trouble-free.

VectorWorks can also import any graphic file, such as a production title, corporate logo, illustration, or picture (including color photographs) of a special scenic item and use it in the drawing. In fact, any graphic that has been scanned or created in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator can be imported and placed on the plot.

VectorWorks places the most common tools in floating palettes that can be opened or closed, expanded or contracted, and placed anywhere on the screen to suit your working style. Each palette is comprised of tools that work as a suite--2D and 3D object editing, measuring and dimensioning, etc. Pull-down menus hold the rest of the tools. Palettes and menus can be edited to create a custom workspace showing the tools that you want in the layout that works best for you.

This is standard fare to anyone who is familiar with most graphics programs. Where VectorWorks and VectorWorks Spotlight really shine is in the way that they handle objects drawn on the page and in the tools and menus that have been developed specifically for the theatre designer. Those tools make the process of creating the plot and related documentation fast and easy, which frees time to do what you want to be doing--designing instead of drafting.

The basic organization of any VectorWorks file is similar to a stack of drawings or sheets of acetate. Each user-definable layer contains information that is organized by height and/or some other useful grouping method. You can limit access to layers other than the one you are working on so that you don't, for example, move the proscenium wall when you intended to move a flat. The layers are usually stacked in order of height. Therefore, a typical light plot might have (from bottom to top) layers that contain the theatre, units on the deck, the scenery, lighting positions, and units in the air.

Note that the units layer is placed above the positions layer. VectorWorks understands that when you're looking at a drawing in plan view, objects on higher layers obscure objects on lower layers. If the units layer was below the positions layer, the plot would show the pipe obscuring the unit. However, VectorWorks Spotlight takes this into account when creating a section, and shows the units and hanging positions in their proper relationship. VectorWorks provides a wide range of options when creating and viewing layers. Individual layers can be created with different scales and colors, for example. You can also selectively make each layer visible, invisible, or grayed, and change visibility as you work through a drawing.

Each object on a drawing (line, circle, symbol, etc.) can also be assigned to a user-definable class. Classes work across layers. Their visibility can also be changed as you work. The ability to adjust visibility of classes and layers creates a matrix of options that allow you to view or print only the information that is needed.

The basic VectorWorks software comes equipped with an enormous library of easily edited symbols that can be browsed via the Resources Palette. It includes symbols ranging from shrubs, cars, and exit signs, to tennis courts and toilets. Because the library is so extensive, a useful rule of thumb before creating a new symbol is to browse the library to see if there's already one that can be used or modified.

VectorWorks Spotlight adds hundreds of additional symbols for theatrical lighting. Symbols are broadly categorized as accessories or units. Within each of these categories are smaller libraries sorted by manufacturer or type of equipment. Symbols are selected from the Resources Palette and placed on the drawing. To add an ETC Source Four to your plot, for example, simply use the Resources Palette to navigate to the units folder, open the file of ETC symbols, and select the Source Four you need. Once it has been used in the drawing, that symbol is automatically added to the resources of the drawing you're working on. This means that each VectorWorks file is self-contained and doesn't need to refer to an external file for information.

With VectorWorks you're always drafting in 3D and with actual dimensions. In other words, what will appear as a 2"x4" rectangle on a 1/2" scale light plot will be described as a 4'x8' rectangle. That same rectangle (a 2D object) can easily be turned into a 3D object by selecting it with the mouse and entering the height into the Object Info Palette.

Once most, or all, of the objects are given height, VectorWorks takes most of the effort out of creating other views of the stage. Through a menu selection you can easily create and switch to a section view, or side, front, and orthographic projection views, or even to a perspective view from any point in the theatre. These views can show the theatre and the objects onstage as line drawings, or it can show them as solids. In addition, each view can be saved and printed.

VectorWorks Spotlight enhances these basic VectorWorks features by adding tools that are customized to suit the needs of theatrical lighting designers. Among the added features are three special tool palettes--Spotlight, Truss, and Scenic Objects. The Scenic Objects Palette contains tools for inserting commonly used objects like drapery, stairs, doors, windows, and columns into the drawing. Each one is 3D and can immediately be viewed in a section or perspective, edited, and customized.

The Truss Palette contains tools for creating straight or curved truss. Adding a straight piece of truss is as simple as drawing a line. You select the truss tool and draw a line on the light plot. Spotlight builds the 3D truss where you've drawn it. You can use the Object Info Palette to modify the dimensions of the truss (changing a 5' length of truss to a 10' length, for example), and Spotlight will make the changes as soon as they are entered.

The Spotlight Tool Palette contains the most powerful and commonly used tools. The Insert Lighting Position tool places a lighting position on your plot. This tool does more than simply place a line or two on the plot, however. Spotlight places a graphic image on the plot that represents the position and provides for interaction between the position and the instruments that are hung on it. This means that there is no need to enter the name of the position for each instrument, because instruments placed over a pipe on the plot are automatically assigned their hanging position.

The Insert Lighting Instrument tool changes any symbol that is about to be inserted into a lighting instrument and attaches it to the lighting position where it is placed. Turning a symbol into a lighting instrument means that the symbol is connected to an internal database. That database records relevant information attributed to each instrument, such as hanging position and unit number, color, and focus. Any or all of that information can be displayed and printed on the plot. This allows you to print plots with different information for the designer and the electricians, for example. VectorWorks Spotlight can also use that information to print documentation such as a hookup or an instrument schedule. Perhaps best of all, the fields in the VectorWorks database match the fields in Lightwright, making data transfer between the two almost seamless.

There are a number of other specialized tools in VectorWorks Spotlight. One tool places accessories on the plot and attaches them to the proper unit. Another automatically numbers the units on each position. Yet another draws walls and allows you to specify the wall's thickness, height, and cross-hatch or fill pattern. There's even one that puts a border around the drawing.

With Spotlight you can also visualize the lighting. Unlike some other programs, you don't have to focus every single unit on your plot. Instead, Spotlight has you place any number of "projectors" into the rendering to provide the light. This means that rather than "focus" each of the units of a sidelight wash from the end of a pipe, you place one projector there to do the job. You can adjust the intensity of each projector, and assign it any color by Rosco, Lee Filters, or GAM Products. Each projector can also have a template from those firms or Apollo. Each of the scenes that you light can be saved, printed, or replayed as a slide show.

VectorWorks Spotlight does have limitations. The Truss tool, for example, doesn't understand the differences between truss manufacturers--it simply draws a generic piece of truss. It also doesn't suggest or limit you to standard lengths. This can become a problem when you discover too late that you've drawn a 12' 6-1/4" section of truss. Since it is intended primarily as drafting, not visualization, software, there are limits to the accuracy of the scenes that you light. And because each scene is lit with projectors that have been added to the plot, not the actual units that you've drawn, it can't export any of the scene information to a console or track sheet. Although it does come with an enormous symbol library, there is not a single 3D human form that you can insert into your sections or perspectives (although there are a number of sketch-like 2D people). It is hoped that these shortcomings will be addressed in future versions, improving an already strong, flexible, and easy-to-use CAD package.

Spotlight is available direct from Nemetschek either on the web at https://secure.nemetschek.net/order/ or through customer service by phone at 888-646-4223. Spotlight is $1,295.

Jason Livingston (jason@cpr-group.com) has been a freelance lighting designer in New York City for more than 10 years. He teaches stage lighting at New York University and architectural lighting at Parsons School of Design, and administers Big Apple Institute for Big Apple Lights. He has recently joined CPR Group as its principal architectural lighting designer. He is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.