One of the most evocative effects in live entertainment is the night sky, that infinite space. In Les Miserables, Javert, the single-minded inspector who has hounded Jean Valjean throughout the show, has his uncompromising principles of justice destroyed by Valjean's mercy. He throws himself through the night and into the River Seine below. As the inspector leaps, the bridge and the background of stars fly out representing his tumbling through the lonely night sky. With relatively simple technology, the star drop helps create a one of the show's most moving scenes.
Designers have many technology options when deciding to utilize a star drop in their environment. Probably the most well known are the optical-fiber drape and mini-lights or pea bulbs attached to a lightweight velour curtain or scenic net drop. Both of these technologies have been around long enough for most designers to be familiar with their strengths and weaknesses. With the latest advances in LED technology, more options have become available. With more options though, comes more difficulty in choosing the correct solution for a given design.
Mini-lights and pea bulbs have been used successfully for a number of years. Wired together into groups that are each a circuit, these pea bulb star drops are as controllable as the circuit groups that they are wired into, also usually occupying a theatre's dimmer circuit and DMX channels. The lamps are also one color, and while the intensity of the lamps can be manipulated, the color will remain unchanged.
The other option for a number of years has been the fiber-optic star drop, the most versatile of the star drop technologies. The color and intensity of the fiber circuits are controllable. DMX and non-DMX fiber illuminators exist that use CMY color mixing, color wheels, twinkle wheels, and mechanical dimmers built into the unit. Fiber optic drapes are typically constructed of commando cloth or a lightweight velour, though other fabrics are used to gain different effects or allow illustrated options. The individual fibers are pushed through the fabric and fastened into place with a special adhesive.
The fibers are light-transmitting polymer plastic extrusions, similar to the optical fiber that transmits data or trans-oceanic telephone calls. Star cloths use end-emitting fiber, but side-emitting fibers also exist enabling a different type of effect. The fibers can be jacketed to contain any unwanted glow. The jacketing allows the fibers to be used behind lightweight, translucent drapes, but this makes the drape stiffer and heavier.
The fibers used on these drapes are typically .75mm or 1mm in diameter. Their small size allows for more detailed patterns to be created on the drape than can be accomplished using pea bulbs or LED points. “This lets designers pack points close together,” says Josh Jacobstein, director of marketing for Rose Brand. “You can layout a complex logo or design. Essentially, you get a finer resolution in the design using the fiber optic technology.”
Fiber-optic drapes are defined in zones and circuits. A zone is the area of the drape that contains the fiber. A curtain can have one or more zones. Multiple zones make it possible to control designated areas of the curtain separately. The stage right and stage left sides of the drape can be defined as separate zones. Each zone can contain multiple circuits.
In a fiber-optic drape, a circuit is defined as the bundle of fibers connected to an individual illuminator. Multiple circuits allow the mixing of colors and intensity within the same zone. Circuiting can also be used to separately control a logo or design within a more realistic star field on the drape. To accomplish this realistic star field, multiple points can be pushed through the fabric together, varying the size of the drop's stars.
“Some of the old effects are the best effects. Take dry ice fog; all of the technology available and it's still a great effect. Nothing can really match it,” says Aidas Gumbatus of Main Light Industries. “Fiber-optic drapes are like that. They have a delicacy that cannot be matched by individual lamps or LEDs. It's a more subtle effect.”
The latest advances in LED technology have also benefited the self-illuminated scenic curtain. With the advent of white, wide-angled LEDs, new lightweight star drops have come onto the market. Because the LED lamps used in scenic curtains are typically brighter and larger than the point of a fiber-optic drape, fewer points are needed to achieve the same perceived effect. LEDs are also able to cut through more ambient light than a fiber optic drape.
The aesthetic effect of an LED-embedded drape can be enhanced with the use of a sheer curtain immediately downstage of the LED star cloth. A dark lightweight drape can soften the usually flat-sewn curtain, hiding seams and the necessarily large holes. The sparkling effect of the LEDs can be enhanced as they are reflected on the loose weave of a voile curtain.
The ShowLED lamp is rated at 20,000 hours and it is nearly unbreakable. The controller used in this drape has eight control circuits and will drive up to 256 lamps. This is enough for a standard density 20'x25' drape. In addition to the standard slow, subtle cross-fading pattern used for a realistic pattern drop, LEDs can also strobe and flash due to fast response time of the LED lamps.
Another benefit of the LED drape is its light weight. Instead of the heavy optical fiber bundle, the strands of LED sockets are connected with a small-gauge twin wire and the controller of the ShowLED drape weighs just a little more than 2 lbs, allowing it to even be hung from the drape itself, so that only the power cable extends from the curtain. This can be of great benefit in either a touring situation or in an architectural install situation, particularly for ceiling covers.
The LED star drop is a multiple-circuit curtain, much like the mini-light curtain, and like the mini-light curtain, each point, while controllable in intensity, currently will not change color like a fiber optic drape. But LED lamp and control technology is evolving at an incredible pace.
Color-mixing LED nodes have changed the landscape of self-illuminated scenic curtains. Products like Main Light Industries' Soft-LED dynamic drape have taken a leap forward from the star drops that preceded them, and created a new class of self-illuminated scenic curtain. Aidas Gumbatus says, “Soft-LED cannot really be compared to a star drop, fiber optic or LED. It's closer to a video wall than it is a star drop. It's like comparing a motorcycle to a boat. They're both modes of transportation, but not much else about them is comparable.”
The Soft-LED drape is fitted with a grid of LED nodes. These nodes are a package of red, green, blue LEDs and a Color Kinetics Chromasic chip. Using the Color Kinetics ChromaCore technology, a combination of computer control and networking technology, the LED nodes can be addressed individually.
Laid out with 4”, 8”, or 12” spacing the Soft-LED drape can be programmed to playback designer-created light shows, static images, animations, and QuickTime video files. The Light System Engine, power supplies, and DMX interface are housed in a rack about the size of a touring amp rack. It is also pre-programmed with stock animations and patterns, including color fades, chases, sparkle effects, and of course, a star field. “End users also have the option of installing optical fiber into the Soft-LED drape, so that you have the option of using the more subtle fiber-optic star field and then blowing away your audience with a light show and animations that seem to come out of nowhere,” says Gumbatus.
Even though the capabilities of this scenic drape are like a video wall, its weight and rigging requirements definitely make it a drape. A 16'x33' Soft-LED drape weighs only 140 lbs, including an installed optical-fiber field. Because it's a curtain, it folds up, stores, and transports in a hamper or flight case and the labor required to hang and strike it are minimal.
Instead of offering designers another option, as with fiber optic or LED star drops, Soft-LED can help designers express their creative ideas on stage. It gives them near-complete creative freedom to explore their ideas, and create their shows.