THE LIGHTING DESIGNER
I have been a lighting designer for 29 years, initially in both the UK and Europe, and for the past 16 years in the US. I have also been a professor/educator and head of the lighting design program at the University of California in San Diego since 1989.
When I started in this business as a designer, my technology knowledge base lasted for several years at a time. Once I learned about the various instruments and desks and their capabilities and drawbacks, I was good to go for a while.
Now, I have to do much more homework just to keep up with the very rapid technological changes in our industry each year. My knowledge base is outdated within six months. I need to know much more about emerging new technology; the new products put out by a myriad of international manufacturers; control protocols; how to “speak” the keystrokes of many control desks and how to achieve exactly what I want on them by way of effects, etc.; what each major moving light is capable of, what it's not, and what people in the industry think of them; and what the major advantages and disadvantages of the various specialist moving light consoles are.
And this assumes I only work in the US. Once I go to Europe, there's a whole new learning curve. I've also had to learn AutoCAD and Vectorworks.
This is very time consuming, expensive, and doesn't happen easily. And my fees haven't increased commensurately to cover this time investment.
Oh, and I have to buy a new desktop and laptop computer every 18 months now, too. I'm constantly told, “You're out of date,” when I find I can't open something!
— Chris Parry, lighting designer/owner
Axiom Lighting Design, San Diego
THE TECHNICAL MANAGER
My current position is technical planning manager at the Adelaide Convention Centre in South Australia, responsible for design, planning, and managing audiovisual requirements for a wide range of events, large and small.
I come from a background as a lighting director for Australian TV and as an LD for concerts, houses of worship, and theatre for a total of around 30 years in the entertainment industry.
I have always kept up with the latest technologies through magazines in the early days and now via the Internet. We have all experienced defining moments in our career paths and will remember those times forever as the things that turned corners for us or opened up new realms of creativity.
One such moment in my journey was when Cats came to my attention because the set was taken out into the house proper, drawing the audience into the entire production, rather than allowing them to be mere observers.
Other developments such as moving or robotic lighting technology (sorry, the term “intelligent” doesn't cut it for me with robotic lighting), opened up an exciting Pandora's box of possibilities, most of which have been fully developed now in strict lighting terms, excluding newer developments like the [High End Systems] Catalyst™ DL series of moving head video projectors.
Time and again, though, I have noticed that the end results will always depend on the combination of technical expertise and a solid understanding of the lighting story one is trying to communicate. It's easy to become trapped in the paradigm of, “It must move to be effective,” or, “The flashier, the better,” forgetting the more subtle nuances of light and shade, depth and composition, position, focus, and dynamics. Hindsight being the wonderful thing it is, I often look back on my early forays into robotic lighting with abject horror but thankful in the same breath that it has been a worthwhile journey, which is now moving through the integration of lighting and video projection. Thus, a whole new toolbox has opened up in design and integration for a range of events.
Unfortunately, however, I live and work in a city not considered to be a hub of entertainment development by some equipment manufacturers/distributors. Therefore, it often takes some time for new technologies to become readily available here. Also, because clients aren't seeing a lot of new technology here, they are sometimes reticent to spend the extra cash to bring in specialized equipment from interstate.
So with necessity being the mother of invention, I have been motivated to develop some simple, cost-effective solutions to providing emerging technology looks to various events, without bringing in the expensive real thing, until full acceptance of the technology has made it an industry standard.
As an example, I have been the LD for a large Easter musical by SA's largest worship center, Paradise Community Church, for the past three years. For the first of these productions, I introduced the concept of video projection of some scenic enhancements over the set, whereby the set designer, Simon Scouller, used neutral paint tones conducive to accepting projected images but still capable of stand-alone looks. I also designed video projection onto the sidewalls of the auditorium — which are 10m (32') high and painted in neutral tones — to project the same scenic images used onstage. This meant that, during the heavier scenes such as the trial of Jesus and the crucifixion, the audience was surrounded by flames licking up the full height of the walls! No one in the church had seen images used like this before, and it was a big hit. Video images and scenic enhancement have been a large part of this production ever since and have also been used by the church for other events.
My life as a lighting designer has changed significantly since I began investigating and using video images to enhance the overall look of various productions. Instead of just immersing myself in the cozy world of lighting instruments and consoles to achieve my goals for each production, I have been motivated to investigate the integration of video images wherever suitable.
The key words are “wherever suitable.” It would be very easy indeed to embark on a journey that says, “Every production has to have video enhancement via Catalyst or similar looks,” or “Every production needs big fat images everywhere.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, and it doesn't just depend on the client's budget, although that is a strong defining factor. Fortunately, this lesson was learned after those early forays into robotic lighting sometimes resulted in overkill instead of enhancement.
Deciding where, when, and how to use the big fat images and whether those images should be moving or static is a lot more important than may appear at first, when one is consumed with the passion of using something new and exciting to enhance a mega-production. For me, the question always has to come back to a decision about the aim of the production.
What story are we telling overall? How do we see the story being primarily delivered? What are the motivations behind the use of technology, and is that technology going to enhance the story or usurp it?
Once a decision has been made to use video integration into sets, the room, or both, the next decision has to be how to use it — how far to go with it. This is such a subjective measure that it must ultimately be considered by the director, lighting designer, set designer, and the choreographer in order to get a true consensus and effective understanding of the communication and delivery needs of the overall story.
There is also the need to understand how video and projection actually works. Some years ago, I read an interview with Tom Scholz, guitarist for Boston and inventor of the Rockman series of guitar effects, where he said that, unless one understands how the electronics actually produce the sounds, that musician would be losing out by not grasping the extents to which his newfound tool can reach, thereby limiting his own creativity. That interview has always stuck with me as a motivation to understand how things work, in order to enable me to extract the broadest creative outcomes possible from each tool.
I am fortunate having had such a long time in TV, giving me an excellent understanding of what constitutes good images, composition, transitions, digital effects, looping, and so on. Coupled with my experience in conventions and gala dinners with large format projection, this has given me a pretty comprehensive understanding of the realities of producing those big fat images (and the subtle ones, too).
One of the first things I discovered, especially with the ever-increasing output of super-bright LCD projectors, is that black most definitely is not black! The light emanating from the lens when an LCD projector is sitting in black is very bright, especially when used in a theatre or other similarly controlled environment. Fortunately, a number of DMX-controlled mechanical dowsers are available which are easily fitted to most projectors with only small modifications. Catalyst periscopic heads are excellent for this area of control but not always available in Adelaide and not always at a suitable price. I have sometimes specified lower ANSI-lumen output projectors for various roles, simply because their luminous output won't provide so much obvious extraneous light as a brighter projector and, therefore, less peripheral distraction.
Understanding matrix control of images is a vital step, along with switching and layering with other images and lighting effects. Fortunately, matrixing images is similar in conceptual style to that of group selection and modification with luminaires, so getting one's head around how the images split or combine is not really difficult to grasp. It simply expands one's tool-box considerably.
Slightly more onerous are the differences in actual components and the combinations required for switching and layering, especially between video and computer output (VGA/SVGA/XGA). However, those tools are becoming more extensive and fluid in their capabilities very quickly.
For me, when I am able to achieve outcomes for my colleagues and my audiences that have a significant “wow” factor about them, enhancing the story or performance, and bringing the audience right into the action wherever suitable and/or possible gives me the greatest job satisfaction.
I no longer consider myself just a lighting designer, but a purveyor of images, or an environment builder, as lighting alone can not construct an image as it used to, since the designer is aware of so many other possibilities, such as virtual scenery.
Ultimately, everything we come to hear about as new is simply an extra tool to be used to expand our creative options. All this will eventually become passé, both for the industry and our audiences, but fortunately, we humans are a creative lot and easily bored by repetition, so I'm looking forward to the next innovations in technology, be they baby steps or giant leaps forward!
— Peter Robins, technical planning manager
Adelaide Convention Centre, Australia
THE R&D ENGINEER
My job is to turn ideas and suggestions into products. I design pretty much everything you can touch on one of our products with the exception of the PC board.
Technology has changed my job considerably over the last eight years. The biggest change has been the ability to simulate almost anything these days. I begin by modeling everything in 3D and then putting it all together, so I can see how it will all fit before any actual parts are made. I can then take that model and simulate motion with it. This allows me to apply relationships to parts so that if I move one thing, and it is attached to something else, both things will move just the way they will in real life.
This was very valuable when I designed our iris dowsers several years ago. I could go in and see what all the parts were doing when the iris was opening and closing. I can then apply virtual coatings and textures to the parts for a photo-realistic look at the product. Almost everything we make is black powder-coated metal, so I don't get to go very crazy with that feature. I can then go in and push a button and the computer will tell me how much the product will weigh and where the center of gravity will be. This can be useful when trying to figure out where to put a yoke on a fixture, so that it is balanced. I can then take that same model and put it in a thermal/fluid flow simulator. This helps to figure out where a fan should be placed to optimize efficiency and minimize the airflow, which typically equates to a quieter product.
We also are able to simulate all of the optical components. This allows us to try a bunch of different things without having to buy a bunch of reflectors and lenses, and when we do place the order, we are fairly certain that everything is optimized.
— Russell A. Warnecke, mechanical design engineer