Influential Products from the Past 15 Years of LDI

It is amazing how time flies, as well as how far technology in the lighting industry has come. It amazes me to think that it has been 15 years of the LDI trade show and that it has been 25 years that Lighting Dimensions magazine has been around. Many products have come and gone in this time and many technologies have come along that have made lighting designers', programmers', and electricians' lives easier. Here are some of my random thoughts, in no particular order, on products and technologies that have made a difference over the past 15 or so years.

It is hard to go through the recent history of lighting technology and pick out one or two items. Some of the items on this list are specific products and some are more of a category or technology. One thing is certain: I would not bet against what, at first glance, may seem like an outlandish idea. I mean, how many people are kicking themselves that they took a pass on the Source Four ellipsoidal spotlight?

Like Intel inside, could any other technology be more ubiquitous in the entertainment technology industry? What started out as rental shops' and technicians' desire to pull together a common-denominator protocol that would allow company A's dimmers to work with company B's control consoles has grown the entertainment technology industry by leaps and bounds. This protocol has been the impetus for companies like Artistic Licence, Doug Fleenor Design, Goddard Design, and Pathway Connectivity, which design and create products that make this protocol that much more usable and robust. The protocol has moved from its origins with the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) to joint stewardship with the Entertainment Services and Technology Association (ESTA), where it is up for a revision, as well as making it an official ANSI standard. DMX promises to be around for years to come, with DMX512A due out soon, as well as being used with Remote Device Management (RDM), which promises to be a bridge to the future protocol of Advanced Control Network (ACN). A product that wants to be taken seriously in today's market must at least be able to handle DMX, if not speak it fluently.

Computer control consoles had been around prior to the formation of LDI, but in the past 15 years there has been an explosion of research and development, creeping featurism, and “ours has more channels than theirs.” It is undeniable that computerized lighting consoles have given a much broader freedom to lighting designers. From the early Strand Light Palette, which took over for the old piano boards, through the Kliegl Performer Series, the first small portable console, to the current Electronic Theatre Controls Obsession and Expression families, which are the dominant conventional consoles, computer control has come a long way in a short time. Processor costs have dropped while performance and channel counts go through the roof. Automated luminaire consoles have grown up, from the early Vari*Lite® Artisan through MA Lighting's Scancommander and Flying Pig Systems' Wholehog® family to the MA Lighting grandMA and Vari-Lite's late, lamented Virtuoso. Moving light desks have grown in sophistication and ease of control. The current crop of consoles is now giving designers and programmers the ability to think in terms of color, position, focus, and pattern, and not in terms of “channel 1332 is the pan for the fifth Cyberlight.” Consoles have gone from being large furniture to small tabletop models, some even shedding their conventional skin, like Entertainment Technology's Horizon, which converts a laptop into a powerful control console. There is still a gulf between conventional consoles and automated lighting consoles. Everyone is impatiently waiting for the latest and greatest hybrid console that handles both tasks with ease.

For years the lighting industry was caught in the chicken-and-egg syndrome. No one was developing a really revolutionary fixture without a new lamp and the lamp industry was not designing a new lamp for an industry that was perceived as too small. So, Dave Cunningham decided to do both: He designed a lamp and a new fixture around it. After shopping it around to various manufacturers, some of which, in hindsight, are probably black and blue from kicking themselves, he brought it to Electronic Theatre Controls and turned what was a medium-size console and dimmer manufacturer into a much larger, full-line lighting manufacturer. With a lower-wattage lamp (575W) that produced more light than a 1kW FEL-lamped fixture, and a dichroic reflector that pulled a lot of the heat out of the rear of the fixture, it was a pretty revolutionary concept. Many people were naysayers at first: “You have a proprietary lamp,” “You have a glass reflector that will break,” and “You will never replace the Altman 360Q as the workhorse of the rental industry.” Launched at LDI in 1992, the ETC Source Four ellipsoidal luminaire took the industry, and ETC, by surprise. At first considered a niche product, the Source Four became a product family that broke all the molds, has grown at a rapid rate, and has proven the naysayers wrong on all counts. The Source Four product line has grown to encompass a PAR fixture, a MultiPAR striplight, and the lamp options have grown to include HMI lamps as well as CDM metal-halide lamps for architectural uses. There are any number of accessories built specifically for the fixture by third-party companies, including City Theatrical, who has a number of products for the fixture as well as a large part in the design of the aforementioned MultiPAR. The Source Four range has become the standard fixture not only in theatre; it is used widely in television, rock and roll, theme parks, retail, and in many varied architectural applications. ETC has just shipped its one-millionth Source Four.

Call them what you will, automated luminaires, moving lights, wiggle lights, or minor miracles, automated lighting has come a long way since 1981, when the Vari*Lite® Series 100 system debuted at a Genesis concert. For the first time, lighting designers were able to control all the variable parameters of light including intensity, color, pan, tilt, and beam size. Designers' toolboxes had suddenly increased exponentially in size. What many thought would be a specialty or novelty instrument has become common and is used in greater quantities every day. Along the way, we have seen the research and development teams of companies throughout the world developing luminaires like the Clay Paky Golden Scan, the High End Systems Cyberlight® and Intellabeam®, and the Vari*Lite VL5 to more modern workhorses like the VL1000, the Martin MAC 2000, the Coemar CF7, and the High End Studio Color® and Studio Spot® luminaries. It did take some time for designers and programmers to master the new syntax of intelligent fixtures, but the units have proven themselves over time and the increased flexibility that they offer designers has proven to be a huge benefit. It is the rare Broadway musical these days that does not have some intelligent fixtures as a part of the lighting rig. Control consoles that handle intelligent fixtures as a seamless entity have come along, making the integration into a design that much easier. Programmers are still waiting for the one console that handles both conventional fixtures as well as intelligent ones just as easily.

The technology for putting color in front of a light is hundreds of years old and the ability to change color in some fashion has been around for a while. Color scroller technology has come a long way, especially in the past 15 years. One designer has described the technology as “instant gratification.” Also, it saves money; you no longer need to have a crew ascend a ladder to change colors; now you can get multiple duties out of one fixture. (It is interesting that scrollers, like intelligent luminaries, were once said to cut back on fixture counts on shows, since one fixture could do many things, but most light plots have gotten larger over time.) Designers now had the ability to have one fixture with more than one color — up to 10 in the early analog versions — and the number of colors climbed, making color manufacturers that much happier. In the beginning, many companies produced scrollers, including Avolites, Rainbow, Morpheus, and Wybron. Gel manufacturers GAM Products and Rosco Laboratories even marketed color scrollers for a time. Morpheus and Wybron have come up with color-mixing scrollers that mix various densities of CMY colors for infinite shades without having to build a custom gel string. A.C.T Lighting is marketing the Color Q scroller line and Apollo Designs has the Spectra Q scroller family.

Networking, networking, networking: Networking and Ethernet are the current buzzwords for lighting manufacturers. How did we ever get along without this technology? By using a computer industry standard, and, even more importantly, the equipment from a much larger industry, lighting manufacturers are building larger and more complex lighting systems. Strand Lighting's StrandNet was one of the first to get established and Electronic Theatre Controls' ETCNet II is being implemented in larger-scale systems. ETC has EDMX, which encompasses 64 DMX universes for an astounding 32,768 DMX addresses! (I dare you to try and keep track of all these addresses with standard paperwork.) As devices that use DMX add more and more channels, and systems are being designed with unheard-of numbers of channels, Ethernet is going to play a much larger role. Many manufacturers, including ETC and Strand, have their own standards, and others, like Artistic Licence and Pathway Connectivity, have open standards that others can license. All these versions may or may not be replaced by ACN. Wireless Ethernet promises some astounding control dynamics. After watching Rob Halliday, programmer for Oklahoma!, run the Strand 550, all of its peripherals, and the entire rig off an Apple PowerBook with a wireless Ethernet card, I glimpsed a possible future for lighting control and was suitably impressed.

Lamp technology has come a long way in the past decade and a half. Energy efficiency is one of the biggest improvements. Lower-wattage lamps with better output have become the hallmark. The Source Four and the HPL lamp are among the best examples. In the past, everyone discussed needing a 1kW for a standard theatrical ellipsoidal fixture. You only used a 500W or 750W lamp if you were in a smaller space or did not have a big enough budget. The 575W HPL lamp made everyone rethink wattage and output. Now there is a choice of a 375W HPL for lower-wattage applications, a 750W HPL for higher-wattage uses, and a slew of different life expectancies and wattages that allow the Source Four to be a global product. HMI lamps have taken hold in the film and television industries. MSR and short arc lamps are the dominant lamps for the intelligent luminaire industry. Until Vari-Lite came up with the halogen lamp in the VL1000, intelligent luminaire designers were locked into higher-wattage, brighter-output short arc lamps for their designs. Short arc lamps, while requiring a lot of cooling, do provide a lot of light for little voltage. The current crop of automated luminaires is topping out at 1,200W, but designers are looking for brighter and brighter fixtures, so I would not be surprised to see 1,800W hard-edge lights with higher wattages to come. Architectural lighting designers who wanted to put theatrical fixtures into their designs had no real long-life lamp options until CDM/CMH lamps came along. General Electric, Osram Sylvania, Philips, and other lamp manufacturers have divisions that are fast-track developing light emitting diodes (LEDs) as solid-state lighting may prove to be the next A-lamp for many of these companies. The first one to develop a truly usable white LED lamp for architectural applications will make a lot of money.

While many universities and individuals tried to create computer programs to represent lighting, no one had been able to market a program commercially for the entertainment technology industry. (Yes, there are a few 3D visualization programs in the architectural area.) Cast Lighting's WYSIWYG program finally let you see what you are going to get. Other programs as well have led from 2D into the 3D world where visual design can be represented to many people, thus avoiding that often-heard comment, “That's not what we discussed.” Many of these programs started out with a heavy emphasis on intelligent luminaires, but they are increasingly used for industrials and theatre applications as well. Traditional 2D programs like Design and Drafting's LD Assistant Ac and Nemetschek's VectorWorks Spotlight now sport 3D packages and MA Lighting and Martin Professional now are producing 3D visualization programs. MA is starting to build it into its grandMA consoles and ETC is using Cast's WYSIWYG inside its Emphasis consoles. This may be the future of control consoles, where they become more of an integrated part of designers' lives.

Like visualization programs, many people had taken shots at keeping track of lights, all the associated accessories, essentially everything a lighting design requires, but LD John McKernon's Lightwright program has grown over the years into the standard for keeping track of it all. I dare most assistant designers to manage a large show without it. And I want all of you out there who have bootlegged a copy, and are whiting out the original owner's name, to come clean and buy your own copy. Originally distributed through Rosco Laboratories, the program now has its sales home at City Theatrical. It is one program that has stood the test of time. It has also split McKernon's life in half, making him a lighting designer who can write code and a software developer who lights shows.

Projection in the theatre used to be the almost exclusive domain of the Kodak Ektagraphic slide projector. Then large-format film projectors, from Europe and the opera world, became the dominant choice, including the Pani range of projectors and later the Pigi from E\T\C Audiovisuel. Large-format units are still a standard for projection, but video projection technology has now taken on almost 50% of the projection workload. In the beginning, video projection was not bright enough but the technology has improved by leaps and bounds. Digital projectors available now are in the 12,000 to 15,000 ANSI lumen range. Compare this with approximately 3,000 lumens for an Ektagraphic and you have images that can stand up to normal theatrical lighting levels. Couple one of these high-lumen projectors with the emerging technology of the High End Systems Catalyst system and you have a powerful image design tool. On a lower economic scale is the Rosco Laboratories ImagePro, a system that can use glass or plastic images, some of which you can print from a laser jet printer, to create a professional image. Also, cooler operating fixtures like the Source Four and the Selecon Pacific Cool allow you to project full-color images. Selecon even markets the ability to make your own plastic patterns for its Pacific luminaires.

Somebody got the bright idea to take a fluorescent lamp, build a fixture around it, and market it to television lighting designers. They promised shadowless light, no external dimmers required, low power consumption, and long lamp life. On the television side, the manufacturers included Balcar, DeSisti, and Videssence and on the film side you had Kino Flo. Initially, some designers bought into the concept, as did many more station managers who saw the big money savings. Of course, I was taught that shadows are a designer's friend and that flat, featureless lighting is not an ideal. Many studios that initially put in fluorescent-only lighting systems have been retrofit to a mix or completely back to tungsten lighting. Like all good things, moderation is the key to any tool, but fluorescent luminaries have a place in the video LD's toolkit.

A console in a box, show control has gone well beyond its roots in theme park applications and is now de rigueur in themed retail, museums, just about anywhere a designer wants a show to start running, repeat throughout a period of time, and then turn off. The technology has been around in various forms for a while, but companies like AMX, Alcorn McBride, Crestron, and Richmond Sound Design have perfected show controllers and now most manufacturers like ETC, Entertainment Technology, NSI/Colortran, and Strand have show controllers, and astronomical time clocks are standard in their controllers.

Dichroic color technology, adopted for the hotter intelligent luminaries and for permanent architectural installations, has become a standard method of coloring light. Still priced out of line for everyday use, where plastic colors make their mark, long-lasting glass filters are best for permanent or long installations, exteriors, or where you need more light out of a darker color. With the advent of cooler ellipsoidal fixtures, glass patterns finally came into their own. Now designers can obtain colored patterns on glass, even up to four-color, lithographically produced patterns for an ellipsoidal spotlight. Now, the ellipsoidal, the workhorse of the theatre, can take the place of an Ektagraphic slide projector and project a full-color image in a variety of applications including retail and industrial shows.

Some products and technologies are too new to reliably predict their outcomes. The High End Systems Catalyst system is a very expensive intelligent light, but it is a great way to incorporate images and video into a traditional lighting design. It will be exciting to watch as designers learn its syntax and how to fully use it in a design. Also, LEDs are being hyped as the next great panacea, that they will cure all of our ills. They do hold great promise, but let's take some steps before we run.

No matter the current crop of technology, there will always be something faster, cheaper, lighter, brighter, and much cooler tomorrow. And I can't wait.

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