When the graduate lighting design program at the University of Florida (UF) decided that, starting this fall, lighting automation had to be taught and integrated into the curriculum, the inevitable question was: with what technology? We wanted to make the right decision for our students as we planned on how best to commit our financial resources.

A little background: The MFA has been on the books for years, but rather dormant for the last six. Last fall an entire new design team was recruited, including myself, as the program was reborn this summer (this fall, LD Paul Gallo will teach a master class). We have been funded for 18 graduate students in design: six each in costume, lighting, and scenery. And we plan to integrate architectural lighting design into the program and work closely with the architecture and interior design programs at UF.

Having moving lights be a part of the program was one of my requirements for accepting the post. We began by asking two very specific questions: What was the best technology both as an educational and design tool, and how could we avoid having obsolete equipment in just a few years? We knew from the LDI trade show that there were many good choices from many fine manufacturers. We did some homework.

We began by talking to each of the major manufacturers about a leasing program. Our thinking was that in a lease we could trade out old technology when new equipment came along, and stay current. Unfortunately, what most companies were really offering was a financing plan.

As everyone knows, renting or leasing has been the only way to design with Vari-Lite until this year. We discovered that Vari-Lite had a real interest in working with educational programs, and Paula Millstone, formerly an account manager at its Orlando office [and, before that, part of the LDI staff - Editor], was honest and supportive. We also had an excellent rapport with Jim Waits, special projects coordinator of Vari-Lite in Dallas.

Paula came to the University of Florida, saw our venues, and helped us out. We were doing a large extravaganza where we rented 10 Series 300[TM] units, six VL7Bs[TM], two VL6Bs[TM], and four VL5Arcs[TM]. Since our students needed training, Paula agreed to loan us a few units for a week just for pre-programming and learning. We had a friendly relationship, which was important to us.

The answers to our initial questions became apparent. Vari-Lite wanted to be in our theatre, and, after weighing the options, we wanted them. Here's why. First, Paula told us that versions of the VL6s and VL5s would become "for-sale" items this year. But this still did not address my obsolescence question. Then she made the best selling point yet, adding, "Vari-Lite does not obsolete its own equipment." This rang true to me: While the 6s and 5s were essentially "old" technology, they were tried-and-true and probably would not become obsolete anytime soon (of course, until LSD's Icon M technology is affordable, perhaps next week, the way things go).

Regarding the best technology, I was very interested in using these units in traditional theatre and dance forms, and not just as "special effects" units. Super-high resolution for both movement and image projection were important to me. A moving-mirror fixture was not acceptable due to its focus limitations and large footprint. The ability to get Artisan[R]-like control via our ETC Expression 3X was also very attractive (speed of movement was less important to us). Reliable service and support were also imperative.

After seeing the sales unit prototypes at LDI99, we were convinced that we would go this route. We received our units in May, serial number 46 on the 2201 (spot) and 4 on the 2400 (1,200W incandescent wash) Although one unit arrived with a forklift puncture through the yoke, Vari-Lite had another one there the next morning: great support.

Both were immediately put to use in our summer season, which was designed entirely by graduate students. A repertory plot was designed; this included about 250 units and the new Vari superscript *Lites, for productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Alan Ayckbourn's This Is Where We Came In. The students placed the spot at the rear of the house on center and the wash on our proscenium pipe on center. We have been running the units on our ETC Expression 3, in mode 10, and so far we are extremely pleased.

Hanging was easy, even though both units have a base that contains quite a bit of hardware usually contained in the MOD racks and the Smart Repeaters[TM] for the Series 300 luminaires (ballast, dimmer on the 2400, circuit boards, etc.). Perforated steel angle stock provides for easy attachment of pipe clamps. We had the units on for a total of three weeks, 24 hours a day; we shut down the lamps, but maintained power. This was not a problem: The lamps fired up beautifully before every performance, and the calibration process was perfect every time. We never had to go near the units all summer. We did discover during technical rehearsals that if you jump through the cue stack too quickly, the 2201 can get confused and require recalibration, but this is easily done from the console.

We are very impressed with the use of the timing channels, which allows for Artisan-like control of the luminaires using a standard DMX console. Vari-Lite's Artisan control protocol allows two-way communications between the console and the Smart Repeaters, and the Smart Repeaters and the luminares. It is this two-way communication, which is not a part of the standard DMX protocol, that gives Vari superscript *Lite equipment such perceptibly smoother movements.

Using the timing channels has indeed given us Artisan-like control. To convert DMX values to seconds, it helps to use the charts Vari-Lite provides. We could move the units very slowly on a dark stage and not perceive a "step" in the movement, which is very important to us. We were told that this has to do with the way Vari-Lite's timing channels emulate the Artisan protocol. The only thing the student designers found themselves wishing for was a timing channel on the iris of the 2201.

On our console, we needed to create inhibitive submasters to override the timing channels during rehearsals, otherwise we had to wait for the luminaires to finish their movements, even though the cue time on our console had expired.

As artistic tools we have found them to be marvelous. All the things you would normally expect from having a great moving light in your plot are there, from being a hero and getting light to part of the stage the director decides to use at the last minute, to color saturation impossible with plastic filters. Even the 2201, with the pale blue or pink from the factory, was acceptable for actor frontlight.

I've found the optics of the 2201 to be quite impressive. Although it has a zoom ratio of 3:1 we found this quite adequate for our 40' (12m) proscenium. We could cover the whole stage as a wash evenly and brightly from a rear FOH position. By combining the zoom, focus, and iris we could create a head shot as sharp as a razor.

I'm particularly impressed with the ability to create realistic clouds with these units. Combined with the glass Vari superscript *Lite gobos and the extraordinary optics, the projected imagery is outstanding. The ability to "morph" gobos is something that these units do extraordinarily well - the focus shifts between two gobos to get the effect. In theatre, this can be used very effectively.

The 2400 is a terrific wash luminaire, everything you would expect in color-changing dichroics. The 2400 was described by Scott Andrew Cally, second-year graduate LD (who lit A Midsummer Night's Dream), as being as "near to a perfect fixture as [he has] seen." I would have to agree.

The size of the 2400 unit is considerable, but when you think of all it can do, it's worth the space. It blended in so well with our traditional units you simply could not tell the difference. We dialed up filter color according to the charts provided and found them very accurate. The unit moved accurately, although a bit slower than the spot, probably due to its weight. A variety of front lenses can be chosen - we used the beam spreader for a 10ø-55ø variable. We found it to be smooth, with no noticeable dips in intensity across the entire range.

While we did not purchase any additional rotating front lenses that allow for the beam axis to be altered like a PAR lamp, I'm sure the near future will present us with a need for this. We can also conceive of using this luminaire for lighting drops in our mid-sized venue; we could easily achieve a full wash with two units up to 40' wide and 20' (6m) high with adequate intensity from a first electric position.

Let's talk about noise - one reason the theatre has been reluctant to embrace this technology. Both of the units in our situation are within 15' (5m) of audience members, and they are pretty darn quiet, but not quite perfect: On the 2201 a fast strobe is quite noisy, and a fast rotating gobo was unacceptable in our open FOH theatre. In overhead electric positions they may not distract at all. Generally, we found noise to be relatively inconsequential.

While the price tag is not low, these units meet our needs for theatre and dance. Our students should be able to translate what they are learning on these units to any other automated fixture out there. What's important is that they learn how to do good design with these tools, and they're doing it with Vari-Lite - the company that came out on top once the University of Florida did its homework.