New tools permit lighting designers to perform video jobs.

For years, theatrical productions have been departmentalized. Events were produced by a group of people, all working in synch. Set designers planned and built sets. Lighting designers drew light plots and programmed looks. Video directors sorted out the images on the screens, and so on. Occasionally, one designer might design both the set and lights for a particular event, or the lights and video footage, but by and large, this was not the norm. Lately, though, this paradigm appears to be shifting, especially where lighting designers are concerned.

Quite a few lighting designers, including myself, have found themselves designing sets, along with lights, for their clients. Similarly, many set designers now include pictures of light trusses and beautifully lit renderings when they send set design artwork to their clients. On more than one occasion, I've had a client show me artwork of a set he wants me to light, including an illustration of where my lighting trusses will hang. In other words, set designers are now starting to include lighting design in their proposals.

Evolution

None of this is brand new. But I have noticed a big change lately — lighting directors taking charge of video presentations. I've seen this phenomenon at both corporate events and touring productions recently — lighting people, using tools owned by lighting companies, running video presentations.

I'm not talking about popular LDs like Carol Dodds or Dave Davidian, who made their mark lighting concerts, but who have now switched over and reside behind video consoles. Rather, I'm talking about scores of no-name lighting programmers who now find themselves editing video footage from behind their Whole Hogs.

That's right, folks. Even a wacky lighting designer like myself now needs to perform as a video director to stay current in this business. How did this come about? Part evolution, part necessity.

About a year ago, John Wiseman, VP of worldwide sales with High End Systems, invited me down to the company's Austin location to showcase its revolutionary new video playback system — the Catalyst. He explained that the company had found a new way for the lighting director to pick out his own video footage, manipulate those images, and project them anywhere in a room via a moving mirror head mounted to a projector. Or if I wanted, I could simply send the video content straight to a video wall, plasma screen, or any projector. Initially, I was skeptical. All of this, with the exception of the moving mirror head, I was already doing through video guys. Wasn't this their gig? Why would I even want to have anything to do with this? Why was I going to Austin in the first place?

Because it was just too cool, that's why. I sat down behind a Whole Hog 2 lighting console that was using 50-odd channels to manipulate an image coming out of a projector. The Catalyst was stocked with plenty of ergonomic movie files. I could access one and then adjust the speed, scale, and color of each movie file. I could loop the end of a movie file to the beginning of it and have one continuous moving image. I could choose where in the room I wanted to project that image.

On top of that, I could choose from plenty of “wallpaper” images or tons of stock gobos that came with the Catalyst. Each of these images could be rotated on any axis, scaled down to a pin spot, and blown up to cover a wall. The Catalyst also came with the ability to mask an image — shine an image through a gobo. I could project a frame of, say, a leaf, and play the video footage just on the leaf, without any spillover. With my expertise on the Whole Hog line of consoles, it was all too simple.

Right away, my mind started envisioning lots of cool stuff — options previously unavailable to an LD. I could actually project a movie onto a singer's T-shirt if I wished. Or project fire inside a corporate logo. Or design my own gobo image, put it in rotation, and use the light output as I would any other moving light. So if I wasn't using the instrument to project an image on the screen, it could double as another moving head in the light rig.

Acceptance

When I returned to my office, my head swirled with countless possibilities and shows that could really benefit from such a tool. I next tried to explain this new “lighting device” to the people who normally hire me. It seems they had the same skepticism I originally had. They were lighting people — leave the video to others, they said. “We have enough new toys to invest in without getting into video,” they lectured. I stayed calm, thinking to myself, “wait until they see this is in real life. Explaining it verbally does not do it justice.”

Sure enough, LDI came and went, with a lot of people impressed by the new toy. A month later, I walked into Upstaging Lighting in Chicago, a shop where I do a lot of work, and there were no less than seven brand new Catalyst units there. John Huddleston, Upstaging's GM, had already booked them onto plenty of gigs, and he told me I had better learn how they work. That was one of the reasons why I decided to get into “video” production.

The other reason was quite simple. Although there are plenty of brilliant video directors out there, there are plenty of mediocre ones as well. I worked on the design of two different concert tours last year, where the act wanted to use video LED walls behind them. They wanted to use IMAG (image magnification of a speaker or artist on a big screen) for the benefit of people in the cheap seats, but more important, they wished to have cool graphics and sorted movie images playing to correlate with the lyrics and mood of each song.

On both of these tours, the video rental company sent out a guy to act as video director. These guys showed up on site with no extra footage or special effects to play. They just assumed they would play back footage the band would give them and punt through the show with some tasty camera shots. On both occasions, the band ended up shelling out thousands of dollars for stock footage, such as waterfalls and flames. It was all stuff I could have downloaded from the Web and some relatively cheap computer programs.

Therefore, I decided I would rather have clients pay me to find this extra footage, as well as just use a lot of the stock stuff that comes with the Catalyst and whatever footage clients hand me to play back for them. It's simple to convert their stuff into QuickTime movies that I can manipulate and play back at the same time, on the same console, as my lighting cues. It was an easy choice for me.

Mind you, the Catalyst does not replace a video crew, by any means. You will always need someone to direct camera shots and someone to ride the camera iris and manipulate IMAG images, not to mention a technical team to keep the video walls, projectors, and screens operating smoothly. But regardless of how the crew duties are divided, such technology has led to a major change by firmly putting two separate departments — video and lighting — into bed with each other, whether we like it or not.


Nook Schoenfeld is a 20-year veteran of the concert touring industry. He divides his time between teaching lighting and designing lighting for concert and corporate events. He can be reached at nookld@aol.com