Designers looking for solutions to tricky lighting problems can go straight to HELL--Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd., that is. From Howie battens and water ripple effects to fiber optics and flickering flames, Howard Eaton specializes in the design, building, and installation of special effects for productions from the West End to Broadway and beyond. Candles from HELL have lit the way for more than a dozen of the opera's most famous phantoms (Eaton manufactures the plastic flame tip and injection-molded canister for Lighting Technology's flicker candles). Disney's Beauty and the Beast, the Museum of London, and various opera houses have also encountered HELL's devilish influence, and Eaton had a hand in setting Martin Guerre afire, adding a lampshade to Lulu, and keeping Starlight Express on track.
A 14-person company located in Lewes, East Sussex, England, just a stone's throw from the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, HELL came into being in 1988 when Eaton rented an outbuilding on a local farm and hired his first employee. Working as an electrician for Andrew Bridge on Phantom of the Opera, Eaton built much of the specialized lighting equipment in the show. "There were no specialized shops around," he recalls, "so the electricians built the custom stuff then and there." As a result of his knack for the unusual, Eaton started making products at home. "I built more and more things in the garage, and in the living room as well when it got cold and I had to move indoors," he says. In the nine years since the move from the garage to the first farm building, Eaton's firm has grown to fill all the surrounding buildings, barns, and even the cow shed.
Born in 1954, Eaton made his backstage debut as a stagehand at the age of 14 in his neighborhood theatre, the Ashcroft, in the London suburb of Croyden. There he met Paul Pyant, who also lived in Croyden. Their friendship led to Eaton's employment at the Glyndebourne Opera, after just one year of college in Newcastle. "I studied engineering, but also ran the light board at the local theatre," Eaton explains. Within the year, a full-time job at the University Theatre in Newcastle-on-Tyne replaced college. By the time he was 21 years old, in 1975, Eaton was working full time as an electrician, and for two years worked at Glyndebourne during the summer and at trade shows and freelance jobs over the winter.
Eaton still lives and works near Glyndebourne, but after his two seasons at the opera festival he went on to London and worked as an assistant to Joe Davis for three years. "He was the English Tharon Musser, and the personal lighting designer for Marlene Dietrich," Eaton notes. "I met huge numbers of people in the industry working with Joe. He lit almost every West End show in those days. Doing Joe's shows, there was hardly a theatre we didn't end up in." This was at a time when memory boards were just introduced and as Eaton remembers, "five bars of light on a play was news. Today that would be minimalist. We had old mechanical dimmer boards and slow, ponderous lighting sessions. You couldn't do then what we take for granted today."
In the late 70s Eaton served as production electrician for the original production of Cats, as well as the New York and Sydney versions, and the American tour. With lighting by David Hersey, Cats has reached the status of longest-running show in the West End, and to celebrate Eaton spruced up the lighting. "We added some DHA light curtains," he says, referring to a product designed by Hersey. "We also put in some pop-up footlights, some uplights were built into the deck, and we added some UV fixtures with scrollers. It's a bit more festooning to pump up the show."
Called back to Glyndebourne on occasion, Eaton worked with set designer George Tsypin to create a series of over-sized glass bottles (the tallest one stands 16' high) for Handel's Theodora, directed by Peter Sellars with lighting by James Ingalls. Eaton solved the design quandary of creating five bottles with the look of restored Roman artifacts by building jagged shapes of polycarbonate plastic and translucent epoxy. "The trick was to make them look like glass," says Eaton, who sculpted the edges of the plastic. "It was an interesting challenge, and the bottles became very light-o-genic objects."
Also at Glyndebourne, for a production of Lulu, Eaton designed a lamp with a shade measuring 4' (1.2m) in diameter which had to track around the stage in a 20'-diameter (6m) circle. HELL created a circular track and rotating beam from which the lamp, and its large 800mm fresnel lens, was suspended. Back in the West End, Eaton supplied fire effects for the musical Martin Guerre, providing a substitute for a straw and fabric scarecrow which has to burn briefly, then self-extinguish. Using solid silicon woven fabric dyed to look like the original, Eaton added flame gel to cover the areas that have to burn and put a metal aluminum basket in place of the woven basket in the torso. A motor-driven dowser in the mouth puts out the fire in the metal interior, while the flame paste burns off quickly.
For Starlight Express, which premiered 14 years ago, Eaton has gone back several times to add technology that didn't exist when the show opened, including 24 Intellabeams(R) and 16 Dataflash(R) units from High End Systems and 36 Rainbow color scrollers. He also updated the lighting under the stage floor with MR-16 and 12V bulbs. When Beauty and the Beast opened in London last year, its flaming torches, radio-controlled lighting, and blooming rose came from HELL. As the rose flowers from a bud, a tracking mechanism pulls it back into a sleeve to pull the petals open. They then fall via servomotors. Eaton sprinkled fiber optics in amongst the petals to make the rose sparkle onstage.
In creating a star curtain for a tour of Les Miserables, Eaton opted not to use fiber optics, which can be heavy to handle, and instead used hundreds of tiny bulbs on a web of strings. He even provided traveling bags to help move the curtain around. For the same production, Eaton solved a positioning problem where some of the instruments didn't hit the stage correctly. "We used custom beam diverters for the ETC Source Four units," he says. "The requirement for the under-floor uplights was resolved by modifying 10-degree units into custom-wheeled frames fitted with adjustable mirrors."
In a departure from his stage projects, Eaton has installed fiber optics and lighting specials in museums. At the Museum of London, he had to find a way to light marble Roman busts standing in a stone niche with no apparent position for fixtures. He solved this dilemma by using thin stick lights with fiber-optic tips and a tiny mirror to reflect the light onto the busts. "We do one-offs and specials when people need something they can't find in a catalog," says Eaton, who has also installed dimmable fluorescents at Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House, and the Welsh National Opera, and designed the stage lighting for shows aboard several Holland America Line cruise ships.
When Disney's animated film Hercules opened in Europe in late 1997, HELL designed the lighting, sound, and video for a four-car train that visited 55 cities. "There were three walk-through scenes from the film built into each car," says Eaton. "It was a miniature theme park." The small size of the installation called for small lighting instruments, so Eaton used dimmable fluorescents and fiber optics as well as HELL's Lightsticks and lots of MR-16 and MR-35 bulbs. He also used Slimlight luminescent film and fiber to outline characters that fade in and out behind a two-way mirror.
HELL currently turns over approximately 1 million British pounds ($1.6 million) in business per year, although Eaton admits the figure fluctuates with the health of the musicals in the West End. The company has diversified into the installation of DMX control distribution networks (at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House), and Eaton is looking to develop a line of standard products, as well as more business in permanent installations and trade shows.
HELL also represents Slimlight, a range of products manufactured by Light and Motion in Vienna, including electroluminescent multi-contact film and fibers. Other products from HELL include Lightsticks, miniature cold cathode tubing for theatrical, architectural, and retail uses, and DMX tools including DMXInspect, a compact DMX512 transmitter, receiver, and data transmitter used for testing, and the DMXPatch of optically isolated data buffers. Eaton's company has also developed SoftCUE, a stage management software package with total recording, playback, and fault reporting facilities. A 24-way version of SoftCUE has been installed at the Kalong Theatre in Singapore.
Eaton comes from a British tradition where lighting designers and electricians like unusual sources of lighting and make them up if they can't find them elsewhere. His training in repertory situations gives him a certain speed and hands-on practical skills. "You have to know how to refocus a rig three times in 24 hours. Lighting is more than a pretty picture," he notes, stressing that practicality is important. Seventy percent of his jobs include custom product design to solve a specific problem. "The core of my business will always be theatre," Eaton insists. "I am a t heatre person. But what makes any job interesting is doing something I don't know how to do. I like taking old ideas and applying them to new situations."