Bill Berner Tells What He Likes and Dislikes About the Latest Development in Moving Lights

When presented with a challenge, lighting designer Bill Berner seeks out the right tool for the job. For the Sun Microsystems JavaOne developer's conference at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco in March, Berner was asked to light the stage for the keynote speakers. The major scenery, besides two large projection screens, consisted of two 120'-wide (36m) by 20'-high (6m) ribbon sweeps that curved throughout the space. Berner used 50 of the new Vari*Lite® VL1000 automated ellipsoidal fixtures to illuminate the ribbon backing. The VL1000 ERS, in one of its first major projects, allowed Berner to light right up to the edges of the screens without any color bleeding onto them.

“All in all, it was really quite smooth,” says Berner. “I was incredibly happy with the fixtures.” He was favorably impressed with the color-mixing and shuttering capabilities of the VL1000, adding, “There are issues that they need to resolve on the lights, that they are in fact resolving.”

Berner, programmer Rodd McLaughlin from RGM Productions, and production electrician David Hatch split the units into two systems of 25 luminaires each. Those in one system worked as wash units, using the shutters and dialing in diffusion. The second system added pattern and texture on top of the color. With the truss located 20' from the target, a 30-35° beam spread was necessary. A 10-12' (3-3.6m) beam was needed from each light to cover the area.

The Up Side: Colors, Shutters, and Zoom

Berner feels that “the color-mixing on the light is unbelievably good. The colors are so vibrant; they are really gorgeous. For this particular client, I used a large range of magenta through blue and out to aqua and teal.” (He adds that he worked with show producer Pedersen Media Group on the presentation.) “The frost capabilities were critical. I only wanted a fixture with variable frost. The intensity from the VL1000 ERS is quite remarkable, and the colors are unbelievable.” Berner says that the units mix color well, “albeit, for the moment, rather slowly, but [the staff at Vari-Lite says] that they are working on it in software. They are just being conservative in how quickly they let the motors go, for the sake of accuracy. They really mix the entire field. You don't get any of that strange sense of color coming in off the corners or coming out of the centers. You really feel that the entire field is shifting color at one time. And they don't mix through bizarre colors to get from one to another.”

Berner was also very happy with the shutters on the fixture. “The shutter performance is extremely good; very repeatable. I was pleased,” he says. “That's why I put these lights on the job to begin with — because I had these big pieces of scenery with screens right next to them that I had to cut off. Because of its shutter capabilities, the VL1000 ERS was able to cover the entire area, yet avoid the various video screens that were also being used.”

Zoom was another big factor on this project. “I would never have put up a zoom conventional for something like that,” says Berner. “The light had to have a big zoom because of where the truss had to hang and based on what had to be lit,” says Tom Thompson, account executive of Island Creative Management, contractor and a supplier of automated lighting for the event. “The zoom range on the fixture is quite amazing — you can certainly get out ridiculously wide,” adds Berner. “We never remotely used the entire zoom range.”

Berner was also pleased with the brightness of the quartz VL1000s. “They are incredibly bright for quartz fixtures. I did have two of the VL1000 arc units. I used CTO to bring them together. The arc units are about two-thirds of a stop brighter. I had plenty of level out of the quartz units. I was throwing a good 20-30' [6-9m]. They were really punchy.”

Room for Improvement

Although Berner was very impressed with the VL1000 ERS, he did have a few issues, most of which the on-site tech addressed or took back to the factory for further investigation. “My biggest single issue with it is that the field is so flat,” says Berner. “I was lighting one 60'-long [18m] piece of scenery and when I overlapped the fixtures, I found blending to be tricky.” The designer thought about another approach: using a piece of frost, with the center punched out, to get a hot center with a faster fall-off at the edge — which would make blending easier. Then again, he says, “This is the same issue that I have with ETC Source Four ellipsoidals.

“Another interesting similarity to Source Fours is that at 36°, when you run the barrel in, you could never get a template out of focus,” Berner continues. “I'm finding this to be the case with the VL1000 at similar focal lengths.” When using automated luminaires with templates, the LD generally goes with an equivalent of an ellipsoidal barrel-in focus for the sort of double-edged or doubled images that you get when the pattern is out of sharp focus. “We had to zoom in to a tighter focal length in order to get that effect,” says Berner.

Berner and McLaughlin also had problems with the gobos. “When you started the rotation of a gobo, a horizontal shift occurred,” says Berner. “You'd see the gobo kick a little to the side, then start rotating.” McLaughlin adds, “The wheel would shake as the belt drive took up tension. The Vari-Lite tech on-site also fixed the issue of the gobos only ‘half-framing’ in the gate.”

“The final issue,” adds Berner, “which didn't affect us but I could see it affecting others, is there is a significant reduction of field size when you bring a gobo into the field. I have seen this as well on the [High End Systems] x.Spot, but it is a bit more marked [in the VL1000]. You really take a chunk out of the field. As long as we were not rolling gobos live, we resized our field — we would get our focus and resize the field so it was right with the gobo and those moves all happened in the dark.”

Summing Up: Service Makes the Difference

As this was the first big project for the VL1000 ERS luminaire, and given the fact that a number of the units were coming right off the assembly line in Dallas, Vari-Lite sent along some support from the factory. In addition to P.J. Turpin out of Vari-Lite Los Angeles, Vari-Lite field service manager Ken Hergenrader and field service technician Walker Keene were on-site to resolve any issues as they arose and to make sure any changes or requests got back to the factory. “The tech service and support from the factory was absolutely fabulous,” says McLaughlin.

“We had 50 of the brand-new VL1000 ERS fixtures; it was a scramble for Island Creative and Vari-Lite both to provide them,” says Berner. In fact, Island Creative did sub-renting as well. Other dealers that provided Vari*Lite equipment included Alumifax, California Stage and Lighting, Hollywood Lights, Live Light Inc., and Take Two.

Berner concludes that “the movement of the fixtures was pretty quick. We did not have them whipping around in the show — in fact, for 75% of the show they were in a fixed focus. The shutter performance is extremely good.” McLaughlin says, “we were favorably impressed with the VL1000 fixtures. They are application-specific and we had the right application for them.”

Contact the author at meddy@primediabusiness.com.