Admit it. There was a time when you thought Vari-Lite was dying.
If the latest lights from Vari-Lite are any indication of the company's possibilities, then it is on a comeback in a big way. And doing it in the best way possible: By delivering lights with features that no other manufacturer can offer, it's building on the technology that built up the company in the first place, and providing for customers' needs. A couple of the latest examples, the VL2402™ and the VL2202™, are fixtures that offer features and effects that no other light out there can. I love these lights. And the highest praise I can offer them is the highest praise any lighting designer can offer: The VL2202 was the only light I was not willing to substitute for any other light on my current project.
Vari-Lite has a couple of great lights on its hands. The VL2202 and the VL2402 have taken the original tiny housing of the VL6™ and put a 700W lamp in it. The VL2202 is the hard-edged light, the VL2402 is its wash light twin. The numbering system is tough to remember until you think of the VL2™ (the old Vari*Lite spot) and the VL4™ (the old Vari*Lite wash light); the second number in the name will tell you which is the wash and which is the spot.
What they have in common is a 700W lamp, a color wheel with 11 colors, and a strobe and dimmer. The VL2202 also has two other gobo wheels. One wheel features six rotating, indexing gobos, the other 11 static gobos. There's also a three-to-one zoom, different lens systems for different beam width ranges, and remote focusability. The VL2402 wash light has full CMY color-mixing on top of the color wheel. It's a surprising amount of features that the Vari-Lite engineers packed into a very small, bright light.
You don't need one person's review to tell you what a spec sheet can. What I can tell you is my personal experiences with the lights: These fixtures are very bright for their size. If you check out Madonna's Drowned World DVD (lighting designed by Peter Morse) and look at the fixtures underneath the central spaceship, those are all VL6Cs™ and VL2402s (the VL6C is the rental version of the VL2202 — virtually identical to the VL2202 except that the VL2202s are native DMX and have a base). Because these fixtures hung lower than the rest of the rig, they formed a lot of the personality and defined the looks through most of the show. This is an amazing fact if you know that the rest of the overhead rig was full of 1,200W lights. These tiny little 700W units not only held up fine against the rest of the rig but formed the basis for much of the show's lighting energy.
Normally, a tiny body means measly light output — not so with the VL2202 and the VL2402. Because the small fixture size allows you to hang these lights on only a 17" center, as opposed to 22" or 24" for most other automated lights, you can create a much denser pack for your banks of units. On an 8' piece of 20" box truss you can pack in as many as 10 VL2202s or VL2402s on two straight chords of truss. Most other lights, with 22" or 24" centers, only allow you to put up to seven fixtures and then you have to go up to 30" box truss and you also have to stagger the lights. With their smaller sizes, the VL2202 and the VL2402 give you many more hanging options that define the structure and shape of your rig without having to drop down to a 575 or 350W fixture.
That little extra bit of room allows you to create fans that are more substantial. That was the secret to the looks that Peter Morse created on Madonna's show — because he was able to pack more lights into the same space, the fans, the chases, the movements generated by the VL2402s and the VL2202s as a group were more substantial and more punchy and graceful than would have been possible with other lights. The groups of lights were able to create walls of light that unfolded from one look to the next — an essential part of any Peter Morse light show. The smaller centers let you create unified walls of light, color, and pattern instead of collections of individual fixtures.
The Mary J. Blige Tour
On Mary J. Blige, I used the VLs' smaller sizes to create a less obtrusive presence for floor lights and fixtures mounted to the set. Bruce Rodgers had designed a beautiful set of risers and two verticals to hang lights from; I wasn't about to pollute the look with big, bulky fixtures. The VL2202 and VL2402 look good in and of themselves and their small size makes them less obtrusive.
For concerts, the patented fast, crisp bumps on the color and gobo wheels give you instantaneous changes to accent rhythms and beats. This, for me, is the defining and differentiating characteristic of both of these lights. On the VL2202, the hard-edged light, you get a color and a gobo wheel that can bump through several colors or gobos faster than the eye can perceive the change. When color-mixing, most other lights can only offer transitions that, in comparison to the VL2202 and VL2402, look like crossfades. In effect, this gives you many more options to accent musical beats instantaneously other than using the strobe. You can create driving lighting beats with color and gobos in addition to the strobe. The VL2402, though lacking the gobo wheel, also has the color wheel, in addition to the color-mixing system, that can create those fast-moving effects.
Having the same color-wheel system in both the wash light and the spot cannot be underestimated. These days, most rigs have two entirely different sets of fixtures for washes and spots, sometimes from two different manufacturers. This is okay until you want to coordinate dimmer chases, color chases, and strobe chases in perfect synchronization. I'll never forget the night when we were programming Madonna when Peter asked for a coordinated color roll between two sets of hard-edged and soft-edged lights. David Arch, another programmer on the show, and I were prepared to come up with something elaborate to look like they were identical and synchronous. I will never forget how pleasantly surprised we were when we wrote the basic color roll and it all worked exactly the same way, because the color systems on both sets of VLs are identical. Dimmer and strobe chases between the two lights are identical. If you have a show where that kind of perfect synchronicity is important, you have to look at these lights.
There are a few caveats. One is that these lights are not for long-throw situations where they would compete with 1,200W fixtures. You can get different lensing for different throws, but don't count on them in this application.
On the VL2202 you don't get color-mixing. If you have a show where it is vital that your hard-edged lights mix color and you can only have one type of hard-edged fixture, you can't use this unit. For this reason only, as much as I love the light, the VL2202 is one of two types of hard-edged fixtures I have on Mary J. However, the speed of the color wheel partially makes up for this deficiency. You can bump through five or six colors and the color system is so fast you don't see the intervening colors.
On a day-to-day reality — and this may be different for people in different situations — my experience has been that these lights operate flawlessly when brought out by a Vari-Lite crew. When crews from other lighting companies take care of the lights, I find there's a breaking-in period where the “weaker” lights have to be weeded out from the herd before you get a reliable system. Also, there tend to be some starter problems with the current batch of lights, but the fixes for these are well known among techs. Sometimes the lights just require a little more attention.
Hopefully, when Vari-Lite reads this, they'll move on improving these things. Besides all that, I love the VL2202 on the show I'm on right now. And I would have loved to have the VL2402 out here. You gotta check them out — they're one of the best kept secrets in the lighting world right now.
Arnold Serame is a freelance lighting designer and programmer whose current work can be seen on Mary J. Blige's world tour. Come by and say Hi or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.