If lighting designers only worked with other lighting designers, just about any design software package would do. But in the real world, most of us must work on a regular basis with the mere mortals of the event world--venue managers, fire marshals, technical directors, audio and video production staff, not to mention the clients! They want to know what the lighting, scenic, and production design will look like before they plunk down the big dollars. They want to see photo-realistic renderings. They want to review drawings using familiar, industry-standard software. And, of course, they don't want them now; they want them last Thursday.

Fortunately, a standalone CAD solution has been developed to address these needs. Design & Drafting has partnered with AutoCAD and licensed AutoCAD technology--then streamlined it specifically for lighting and production designers. The result: LD Assistant AC, which provides the functionality of high-end computer-aided design, but caters to the particular needs of the lighting designer.

This package offers unmatched compatibility and ease-of-use for lighting designers and others who are familiar--and not-so-familiar--with CAD software tools and functionality. It also provides renderings, models, drawings, and reports in the standard formats expected by all the people who view, use, and approve design drawings and reports.

Because LD Assistant AC is based on AutoCAD technology, it retains full compatibility, functionality, and capabilities with AutoCAD. This compatibility enables fire marshals, venue operators, stage managers, etc. to easily access files in AutoCAD's industry-standard .DWG format.

It's also easy to use, employing all the basic drawing functions of AutoCAD 2000 but streamlined for lighting designers. A dedicated toolbar has everything you need to do a lighting design, and the familiar toolbars don't include symbols and functions that are unnecessary for lighting work. Once I set up my toolbars, I almost forgot I was not in AutoCAD.

As a test, I installed LD Assistant AC on three different machines--a very high-end workstation, a medium-performance laptop, and a low-end laptop--to see how it would run. Its compatibility with these machines' existing drivers and installed software programs couldn't be faulted. In fact, the only thing holding back the speed of the performance on any of these devices was the performance of the computer itself.

When you open a new drawing, click on the Block Insertion button. This brings up the LD AC Design Center, which contains almost all of the blocks (symbols) needed for your design. While we're on the subject of blocks, I'll say that LD AC offers a large selection, but as in all the other packages I've found, there is room for improvement.

After inserting the block, you then attach to it all the basic data needed to focus that light and check the dispersion. This would include all the information for that fixture--height, color, gobo, unit and patch, etc.

With this information in place, you can then focus the fixture. Using the Focus button lets you turn on the beam and drag it around on the screen to its correct position. A dialog box gives you several other lighting options. You can even mirror the fixture, but the focus doesn't follow, which may be an issue when you're designing a large system.

Changing colors, gobos, and unit numbers is now as easy as a click of the mouse. There are hundreds of Rosco gobos--as well as gel colors from Rosco, Lee, and GAM--to choose from. All of your choices are matched to RGB values to ensure that the proper colors wind up on your screen.

Repeat this process with the other lights in your system, and your completed design will include all the information anyone could need to set up the lighting system.

Use the same process for inserting and attaching data for truss, sound, cable, video cameras, and furnishings. Be sure to attach all pertinent data when inserting the blocks to get the most complete reports and schedules (more on this below). As with the lights, sound dispersions are available when you attach the proper data to a speaker. The sound designer will want to be your friend.

Once your drawings have been completed with all the necessary elements, it's time to have a look at the rendering. Based on my own experimentation, the results are more than satisfactory. Colors, focus, and gobos all looked good. Texture mapping of blocks may be a bit cumbersome, depending on how they were drawn. The resulting rendering is of good quality.

I like to map and render my final drawings in 3D Studio Max and Lightscape (the final mapping and rendering of the top left image were done in Lightscape). In the user guide for LD Assistant AC, there is a command line for LD3DSOUT, which can be used to convert drawings to a 3D Studio Max file. From there, drawings can be imported to 3D Studio Max and Lightscape for further refinement.

Plotting functions work well. Using the multiple page layout format (another neat feature), you can set up each page with the views and layers you need. There are a number of set-up options among the plot functions, as well as an option to plot an electronic .DWF file (Drawing Web Format). This file can then be posted on my website or e-mailed to reviewers. The .DWF file is also easily viewed on my Compaq iPAQ pocket PC.

Now that you have completed your drawings, attached all the relevant data, and rendered the model, you need to generate information for the final design. LD Assistant AC comes with a number of handy customizable reports and schedule features. As a designer, you can use these features to manage last-minute changes — and save lots of time.

Some of the reports and schedules available with LD Assistant AC are: fixture counts, type, position, cable, DMX, circuits, color, gobo/gel count, and cost. Other types of schedules available include: sound, cable, furnishings, and block counts. These schedules also have an export feature that is compatible with Lightwright and Microsoft Excel.

Once you have laid out all the paperwork, it's time for my favorite part of LD Assistant AC. With a few keystrokes and a mouse click or two, you can produce a customizable, electronic HTML Design Report. This report includes any information from the drawing, plus multiple views of the drawing in .DWF format and any renderings you want. Complete show information can be easily e-mailed and viewed--even by folks who may be on the road with slow dial-up connections. It can also be posted on a website, which makes it available to everyone who needs any portion of this report.

For the novice user, most questions can be answered using the Help feature. The User Guide is also very comprehensive and useful, if you feel the need for some bedtime reading.

LD Assistant AC is designed to take advantage of multiprocessing computers, so if you're fortunate enough to run the product on multiprocessing hardware, you get your drawings at lightning speed, much faster rendering than with competing products. Even with the most painstaking 3D drawings, viewing those hidden lines and renderings is nearly instantaneous.

The bottom line is that for around $1,500 you get a lighting design-dedicated software package with rendering capabilities, and because it's based on an industry-standard package, you get unparalleled compatibility. If you already have AutoCAD 2000, Design & Drafting also has a plug-in for you: LD Assistant PL.

John Busing is president of Retinal Trauma, LLC, which he established in June 2000. With more than 19 years of experience in design and production, John spent over 13 years as designer/technical producer for Compaq Computer Corporation. Retinal Trauma's website is Contact the author at