Is it just me, or has there been a lull in the development of truly innovative lighting control consoles over the past few years? Manufacturers might have my head for saying that, but I am young, idealistic, and perhaps a little impatient, particularly when it comes to how I want to control the lighting I am supposed to be designing.
This industry seems ready for a quantum leap in the realm of control. I hope it's coming soon, and am eager to see the various console manufacturers lead us into what is to become the next generation of lighting control. But until that day comes, may I humbly offer my two cents on what the up-and-coming generation of lighting designers might like to see in terms of control? The progression to the next generation of boards is actually a project I have been mulling over in my mind for a couple of years now. I've dubbed this the “Designer Control” concept: a lighting control system geared to help the designer create in a new way.
It all started when I was asked to track the moving lights for the National Tour of Some Like it Hot (with lighting designer Ken Billington and programmer David Arch). It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn the process of the Broadway lighting designer's interaction with his programmer on an industry-standard control console. In the process, David and I had numerous conversations about consoles, tinkering with ideas about how to improve upon what they can do, what a console should do, and how to work around the limitations presented by today's control product offerings. In the end, we felt the ideal console should have a platform specifically catering to how designers and programmers desire, not how they are required, to control.
Of course, this is not a new concept, and I'm sure most manufacturers will tell you that is exactly what they've always tried to do. But in my opinion, we have yet to see any products that fully reach this potential. My generation has grown up in a time where the notion of compromise is being redefined. We are the generation of on-demand; technology in general has grown to a point where one's personal home computer, with a bit of supercharging, can edit Hollywood features. To me, it only seems logical that we lighting designers be offered a control system that works in a similar fashion. The first manufacturer to successfully execute this will most likely find the greatest success with the next generation of users; as one of those users, let me offer my personal wish list.
Before I begin, a note: Some of the items on my list appear in one form or another in a few of the consoles currently on the market. Unfortunately, they aren't all implemented into one specific desk, and in some cases, aren't as intricate as I'd like them to be, so please keep that in mind if you see something that sounds vaguely familiar.
First and foremost, I think a strong focus needs to be placed on improving the control of conventional lighting — back to the basics, if you will. Lighting designers need to be offered new, more powerful tracking control of dimmers and simple devices. The bottom line is that, despite the increasing ubiquity of moving lights, dimmers and fixed lights are getting the majority of shows lit.
I spoke recently with a manufacturer friend and discussed what their new line of consoles will have to include in its initial feature set. Near the top of his list was a visualizer application. I found this rather troubling; how could a feature so ancillary to the Broadway designer take the forefront over the ability to have new ways of managing channel information? In my humble opinion, the focus should be on developing a strong core for the designer's most used functionality. The majority of the process of lighting a show is turning lights on and off, not imagining what it might look like in real life; most design occurs in the moment when there is the smallest amount of time.
As far as I know, there is not a console today that can tell you, in the kind of detail I'd like, what lights are actually used in a focus group. Few have a problem reporting to you that “lights one through 20 are in focus group one,” but I am unaware of one that is able to say, “lights one through 20 are in focus group one, but only lights one, two, and five are actually used in the show, and this is what they do.” This is something a design team needs to know, something as simple as track sheet in Microsoft® Excel or a FileMaker Pro database is able to answer. I'd love to have that function in a console.
Wouldn't it be great to have a console that didn't make you split a mixed repertory show into ranges of cues, but one that could define the parts of a show separately? Piece One, Piece Two, and Piece Three could be referred to as such and be able to begin with the cue number one, as opposed to having to know that Piece One starts with the 100's cues, Piece Two with the 200's cues, and so on. This represents a step above simply having separate cue lists on separate faders. The suggestion here is that each section is, obviously, detached from one another, but remains related in the sense that the separate cue lists will ultimately be played back as one complete show. In practical terms, this organization prevents simple overwriting and tracking mistakes — something I often get caught up on in the heat of the moment — while offering powerful flexibility.
When it comes to timing, I need every available option to get the various elements into workable relationships. A combination of old and new is the answer for my ideal console. There is no substitute for simply setting a single or split fade time on a cue. For more complex timing, multi-part cues come into play. Most of today's consoles seem unable to define what a particular part's function is. A work-around for the designers and programmers is often to assign between themselves what parts will consistently work for a particular project. Typically this comes down to something like: four parts of intensity, two parts of scrollers, and two parts of moving lights. My “Designer Control” console would have these parts defined with few limitations. In my opinion, there is no need for the designer to keep track of where they are timing the movement of devices when lighting the show.
“If the blue diagonal backlights are at 60%, then the warm front light should be 20% lesser intensity unless that intensity falls below 30%”. This is a very real situation for me; I need the ability to perform real-world translations that are directly related to another aspect of the design. My ideal console could work that out instantaneously, while I get an extra four hours of sleep!
Lastly, a word about the varying ways consoles visually communicate what they are doing. I'd like to see a console that could offer the user varying levels of configuration for all of the users on a system. This way one can specify the layout of screens so that the information is where each individual expects it to be. The console would be able to display the channels organized the way I need them to be organized, with a high level of visually appealing design (the screens have to look good — we are designers after all, and DOS is ugly!).
Those are but a few of the items on my wish list for the next generation of lighting consoles. Who knows, perhaps some of these are already in the pipeline at the major manufacturers; no doubt others may prove to be too quirky to ever be implemented. At the very least, I hope my “Designer Control” concept provides both manufacturers and end users with plenty of fodder for future discussion. We're all in this together, after all.