Bringing the Latest Software to the Classroom

In the 1980s, John McKernon made it possible to do lighting paperwork with a computer program called Assistant Lighting Designer (ALD), later known as Lightwright. It's now quaint to think about doing paperwork by hand. (In fact, my students have never even heard of ALD, although they certainly know Lightwright.) Part of the job of teaching lighting design is to prepare students for the world of work; it's a challenge to keep up with the companies competing for our business. At the University of Florida (UF), we've chosen WYSIWYG Lab in our graduate lighting program.

This is a powerful program, as many readers already know, not to mention the many awards it has received. I wish to focus on how this software has been working in the classroom, its benefits, and the level of change it will cause in the teaching of lighting design practice.

In fall 2001 we purchased WYG Lab 3.5 and loaded it into our computer design lab, but it was not until spring 2002 that we really got it going. We are running it on a PC with 512Mb RAM and a Pentium III 650MHz processor, a dual video card with 32Mb of RAM, and a 19" and a 21" monitor. One disappointment was that WYG 3.5 does not support dual monitors, a significant disadvantage that I understand is corrected in the Learn upgrade that is available now. Screen real estate and sheer computing power is helpful in running this program. We are running our Lab version on a local network and it behaves just fine once a competent network administrator installs it.

So far, I have found this program extremely useful for pre-positioning of automated lighting. For integration of plots, sections, isometrics, and fixture photometrics, it is an excellent teaching tool. The ability to show a student various views and details of what they are creating, and how one element affects another in dimensional space, is an invaluable teaching tool. Many programs can provide this, but the fact that you are simultaneously designing lighting is, in a classroom setting, very powerful. Many common errors made by beginning students can be beautifully illustrated, and a teacher can show a student why a particular choice may not deliver the desired result. You'll need a fast processor speed to run renderings, but this is very useful for doing storyboards, if your production process allows for the time to do this.

It is this theatre educator's opinion that the integration of WYSIWYG into Electronic Theater Controls' consoles [in the new product known as Emphasis] marks a giant leap forward for lighting designers and lighting technicians. It may be a bold statement to say that Emphasis with integrated WYG is as important to the design process as was the move from preset control to microcomputer control, but I'll say it anyway, and we can decide five years from now if it is that revolutionary. WYSIWYG is already changing the way we prepare and teach the process.

At the undergraduate level, one might think that a program as deep as WYG may not be appropriate for young designers and technicians; however, many of our undergraduates are so computer-literate that they can take to a program as deep as WYG without too much frustration. In our particular case, we have been working hard for the last three years to keep our students abreast of the latest developments, and to prepare them to enter the real world. We do not wish to crush them by demanding they become conversant with too many programs. In the last three years, our students have created lighting documents in VectorWorks with AutoPlot, VectorWorks with Spotlight, AutoCAD with AutoBlock, WYSIWYG, and Lightwright. This is unrealistic for a training program.

I imagine UF will always teach AutoCAD, as this is the preferred software for the world of architecture, and we train our designers for both theatre and architectural lighting. Now that WYSIWYG exports DXF and DWG files we will probably drop VectorWorks, unless a student chooses to work in it, since it will allow one to convert to DWGs.

WYSIWYG is certainly not an open-the-box-and-you're-off-and-running operation. It requires training and practice, so educators should look seriously at integrating WYSIWYG into their curriculum. We will devote an entire course to it at the graduate level. After three years in an MFA program or four to five years in a solid BFA program there is every reason to believe that graduates can be quite proficient in all aspects of the software: drafting, pre-focusing, color and template selection, support paperwork, patching, and pre-cueing. Ultimately, a serious lighting design student should be able to produce a full set of accurate documents, and perhaps a visual storyboard showing the primary looks of a production.

As a teacher I have nothing but praise for what WYSIWYG allows us to do. I find that young designers often have very clear ideas about how light should reveal a scene. Helping them develop their style and find their own artistic voice is but one aspect of our job. Often the young designer lacks the experience (i.e., mistakes made in the field) to know how to achieve the desired result. With this software, I can easily demonstrate how the beam from a fixture affects placement and its relationship to a piece of scenery, with a performer in a specific location. It also helps students to understand the intricacies of masking. I can show them these complex geometric relationships from a variety of vantage points, and demonstrate the results of the student's choices before they ever hang a fixture. The ability to teach this in the classroom and avoid costly and time-consuming re-hangs is truly extraordinary. Sure, we have all done this by hand, and those of us with experience “just know” most of the time if something will work or not. For students, WYSIWYG can exponentially shorten their learning curve.

Much of this has to do with compositional and technical issues, points that have little to do with the action onstage. I would submit that if students can handle these technical aspects more quickly and efficiently, they can spend more time in rehearsal watching the play or dance and be communicating with the director — which is the most important use of their time. (As a matter of fact, we should demand they spend as much time in rehearsals with directors as possible.) As a result of this communication, updates to the lighting paperwork become painless, and resistance to making changes to the plot and paperwork are no longer seen as a frustrating or time-consuming activity.

The cost of WYSIWYG has been an obstacle for many small programs and young students, but ETC representatives tell us that a fully functional student version will soon be available for a reasonable price. If this comes to pass, ETC will have made an effective decision. If students and young professionals can afford the software, it doesn't make sense to employ a variety of other products to accomplish the lighting design paperwork and visualization process.

My students might ask, “What has this got to do with getting me a job?” One answer came from Anne Militello this past spring when she came to UF to present a three-day master class for graduate-level theatrical designers and architecture students. We asked her if she prefers assistants who are already trained in WYSIWYG and her answer was yes. A freshly minted graduate student with three years of WYG training might be very competitive as a candidate for assistant work with Militello or other designers. This is the type of work that we all wish for our graduates to secure as they begin their careers. During that master class, Militello and our students went through a WYG training session with George Doukas of ETC Southeast and it became absolutely clear to all of us that knowledge of this integrated software makes the next generation of lighting designers more desirable to some of the busiest and most prolific designers working today. If we want to give our students every advantage in this competitive marketplace, WYSIWYG should be an indispensable part of any lighting design curriculum.

Stan Kaye is an associate professor and coordinator of design for the graduate program at the University of Florida in Gainesville.