If you are turning to this page in hopes of reading the prose of Patrick Dierson, so were we. But apparently he was too busy to commit his witty banter to paper this month. Because he is such a towering literary giant, it takes two writers to fill his shoes. Two writers: one of whom has no trouble expressing an opinion, and one who thinks he is witty.
Today's lighting designers have a wealth of equipment options to choose from; unfortunately, not all choices end well. We are reminded of the old adage “Just because you can, doesn't mean you should,” a saying that is often repeated by parents, i.e.,. eating Halloween candy, sledding off garage roofs, etc. Perhaps it is a sentiment we need to keep in mind when making lighting choices as well.
In the last two decades, the technology and array of equipment available in the lighting industry has grown in staggering proportions, and with that growth has come the need to make more careful design decisions. For the most part, as an industry, we've done surprisingly well. Yet we have all seen those cues, those moments that are dazzling displays of what our industry has to offer technically, yet are completely unconnected to the event at hand. Honestly, how many of us really believe detailed classical architecture looks better bathed in purple?
Color and movement come at you as fast as the programmer's fingers can fly. Don't misunderstand — we doubt there is a designer out there who doesn't welcome the chance to make a decision on creating an effect or a cue using the options available. Perhaps our point was best made by lighting designer Thomas Hase in the article “Looking Back, Looking Forward” in Lighting Dimensions, September 2002. Hase points out, “The color changer and the moving light have changed my career the most. In the first few years these technologies were available, they changed my designs for the worse, as they allowed me not to make concrete choices. The past six years have been spent focusing them as a tool to execute clearly planned design choices.”
He highlights the need for continued vigilance to avoid losing your design to technology as the industry keeps changing: “As much as I hate to say it, video will be the next substantial change in not only lighting/projection technology but in overall design technology. As projectors become more powerful, smaller, and more affordable, they will become more and more a tool as the Source Four is now. I feel strongly that there is a great danger of substituting a printed picture for theatrical creativity in the race to match the other forms of media around us. In the short term, using hundreds of video images can look cool; in the long term, if used unwisely, it is a dead end. New tools sometimes allow one to forget that there is no substitution for creativity.”
We both share Hase's concerns, yet we come at the idea from different sides. Kathy has always been more taken by innovative technology that allows creative lighting using more conventional means and just a splash of the high-tech world. Michael, meanwhile, is very much a “boys-with-toys” sort of gearhead. When confronted with new equipment, our opinions vary widely, as highlighted by a recent trip to City Theatrical. While Gary Fails was giving us a tour through the R&D department, Kathy couldn't get over a small prism attachment that would become the Image Multiplexer, while Michael was instantly drawn toward the latest version of the AutoYoke. This goes on a lot with us. At a show, Michael always get an elbow in his side because he's looking around to see which unit is being used for a cue. Kathy is looking at the stage to see the actual cue and how it affects the production.
The choice of gear isn't just artistic; there is a lot of money involved in this decision as well. More than ever, the design as it affects the production has budgetary ramifications. The traditional conventional gear is often supplemented with the more costly new technology, but the very best designers can choose their equipment with both budget and artistic integrity in mind.
Sometimes we see gear for gear's sake, but even on a Broadway musical, it shouldn't be a given. On a recent trip to Urinetown, Michael and a friend did their usual pre-show inventory of the lighting and were surprised so see no moving lights in Brian MacDevitt's rig. Being a hip young musical, a heavy moving light rig might be expected, but MacDevitt chose instead a conventional path selectively supported by automation with a few AutoYokes. The design had a fresh look, yet served the production extremely well.
That is not to say that Broadway designers, as well as those in theatres all over, haven't used automated equipment in both straight plays as well as musicals to good effect. Beautiful sunset; subtle shifts in time; rich, deep colors have all served the works very well. Peter Mumford's beautiful design for last season's Broadway production of Vincent in Brixton comes to mind. His use of the Vari*Lite VL1000 units was flawless, a wonderful example of how intelligent lighting can play in a dramatic piece. In an interview with Kathy, he explained his choice: “I think what is interesting about using moving lights is that light does move. Light is moving and changing around you all the time in life and they give us a way of bringing that into a theatrical context.” The creation of richly layered cues with automated equipment was a design choice made for artistic reasons, not to use the newest toy.
Garish use of some equipment doesn't serve the show or well represent the product at the end of the day. If not applied wisely, technology may soon be added to the old mantra, “Don't act with children or animals.” As many designers and directors continue mastering this new syntax and applying these new tools to good effect, let's hope there will be less ‘what were they thinking?’ moments and more of a true emotional reaction to the lighting when it works as a part of the greater whole. Fewer examples of detailed classical architecture bathed in purple would be nice, too.
Michael Eddy is the technical editor of Entertainment Design and Lighting Dimensions and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kathleen Eddy is a contributor to both magazines and can be reached email@example.com
All Designers, Technicians, Manufacturers, Distributors, Groupies, Hangers-On, & Entertainment Technology Geeks:
Got an idea you want to share with your peers? An important industry issue you want to address? Or something you just want to get off your chest? Entertainment Design is always looking for more contributors to its monthly On Lighting, On Audio, and On Projection columns. If you can write and want to share your views with ED readers, please send your ideas to David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.