This past September marked an interesting moment in the history of incandescent lighting: the European Union’s final deadline of the phase-out of household incandescent lamps. Starting with 100W lamps in 2009, then 75W and 60W lamps in 2010-2011, and finally as of September 2012, all 40W and 25W incandescent lamps were phased out of manufacture and banned from import into the European Union, including the UK. This means that stocks already in the country can be sold, but no new stock can be purchased or imported. Concerned about the need for stage practicals and naturalistic moments, many theatres have been preparing by stocking lamps, and several European-based lighting designers have commented that they also now have closets full of incandescents.
Certainly debates over the merits of such a ban to address energy-efficiencies and balance less power usage against environmental concerns over newer sources’ mineral extraction, manufacture, and disposal will get continuing attention, but in terms of entertainment lighting, it got me thinking about what it is that draws us to incandescent sources. So, as the household tungsten filament comes under increasing pressure, I spoke to a few designers who shared their thoughts on why tungsten is not only loved as a creative tool but also irreplaceable. Neil Austin, the London-based designer, first pointed out the end of incandescent household lamps in England to me; it got us talking about the beauty of tungsten, in general. I also spoke with British LD Bruno Poet and New York-based LD Brian MacDevitt about what proprieties of tungsten they would be loath to lose.
Live Design: What do you like about tungsten and what makes it unique?
Austin: It’s a source that relates to something pretty primal in our make-up. It’s incandescent, similar to fire. At a low level, it’s similar to candlelight. It has a natural quality—warm and glowing that we are all drawn towards—something burning, something that we are keyed into as humans to gravitate towards. Also, it is a full spectrum source. Skin looks great under it. I think it’s a truly poetic light in the way that it dims, color shifts, and relates to the natural world.
Poet: I like that tungsten gives you the full spectrum of color. You see all the colors in the costumes. Pretty much all the wavelengths of white light are coming out. I like the color shift as it dims. Plus, it has such an organic feel to it. It’s one of those sources that you feel comfortable in like fire, a candle. I like the variety of it also—the warmer warm of a light bulb to the colder warm of an ETC Source Four and the different quality of a PAR or a beam light. There is a whole range of different types of tungsten light you can use.
MacDevitt: The color and there’s nothing that can replace the feel. Also, you can’t get an edge like you get with a tungsten unit with any kind of LED unit, and it just doesn’t have the same feeling.
LD: Talk a little bit about the qualities of the dimming curve with tungsten.
Austin: I always say that you choose one color, but with tungsten, you then get 99 other colors. It has become shorthand working with the shift, especially when you want the lamp to go towards that redder end of the spectrum. To find the specific of what Lee 201 does when it is at 30% is quite tough when you are trying to recreate that in another type of unit, like an LED, because it isn’t an exact color that you are trying to match. You need to see the tungsten unit at 30% with L201 to see the weird make-up of it—to see that odd, slightly dirty color. Something like that is almost impossible to produce with any other source. When someone suggests that an LED can match L201, what is that based on? Is that against a white surface, because L201 on a white surface is one thing, but L201 on skin is an entirely other thing, and what about when you dim L201? You can’t reproduce that quality of light that you get from dimming tungsten.
Poet: I think you design and put tungsten into a rig so that you have sources that will shift colors as they dim. It’s sometimes useful to have a moving light with a discharge lamp that, when you dim it, the white light will stay the same. That’s a choice you select for your rig. They’re two different tools that you use for different effects. I think it’s very hard to fake the tungsten shift. You choose a tungsten 5kW to give a certain quality of light, because of how the color works, how it works with filters, and how it works on skin.
LD: Are there times when a tungsten source is a must-have, and are there alternatives?
Austin: Certainly, any play that requires a bare light bulb on stage is going to be a real problem with domestic light bulbs now banned in Britain. Many sets over the years have used bare light bulbs, that very Brechtian source. The naked source is now an impossibly difficult moment. Also, when you are doing a naturalistic play—when you are doing gritty plays—you don’t want your sources to look clean and cheery, you don’t want people to look supernaturally pink, and you want to have a rough, real-world quality to the light. Tungsten helps us do that because it has almost the full spectrum, because you can chose a tiny weird spike somewhere along that spectral curve that can get you your colors—colors that you can’t get from LED because it is made up of such tiny and specific spectral elements. Sets, costumes, and people under LED tend to look a little unreal, zingy, and bright. That maybe fine on a musical, but it’s death on a naturalistic play. Try emulating the light that Zola writes about with LED—impossible.
LED is really an interesting source in its own right, though I’m not keen that it’s being proposed as a replacement for tungsten. LEDs really have wonderful uses. They’re a fantastic tool, and I look forward to—within a decade—being absolutely wrong about their limitations. The state of invention in the LED world could mean that they advance faster than I think. At the moment though, try to find me an LED replacement for the beauty of those 1kW beam lights on Evita, those fingers of light through the haze. Try to find me an LED replacement for what the DHA Digital Light Curtain does, especially when it has the marine searchlight in it—the 45/45 lamp—which produces a tiny finger-like efficient beam of light. The industry is concentrating on replacing the wash lights and the profiles, but there are all sorts of other lights that we have built up over the last 50 years. Losing that variety of lanterns and sources would also be a great shame.
Poet: It will be difficult to do candlelit scenes, a period show where you are supposed to have a bare light bulb in the room. Certainly, you aren’t going to want to hang an energy-efficient light bulb in a show set in the ‘50s. It is going to get tricky. I have yet to find a discharge moving light that does a warm face light. I think discharge lamps are great for cold colors but not really for warmer colors. With LEDs, it’s the same. Like many designers I know, we can’t imagine working without tungsten. Of course, I can remember back when moving lights came out, and everyone said, “Oh they are good for rock-n-roll, but they will never catch on in theatre,” and now every show is full of them. So, in time, I might be the old git who was wrong when I said, “Without tungsten, it will never work.” Things change, and I’m sure as more equipment comes out, we will find useful things working with LEDs.
MacDevitt: I think anything that has a foothold in naturalism is a must. You are trying to make someone believe that this could really happen, and it’s in a real place. I would always prefer a warm source. I never, ever bought HMI as being natural. A lot of people, for 10 or 15 years, thought, “HMI is a daylight source.” Yes, it is, on video or film, but in real life, it looks thin and discolored. For me, it was always a good tool for disturbed reality. I never saw HMI as sunlight. One of my favorite depictions of sunlight is using ACLs at a close range. If I have a large window, I will use an ACL for every 7"x9" windowpane and just blast it. I’d buy that as real sunlight.
I feel that a big signature of my work has been using tighter beam, bigger lenses—a 10° at a close throw and at a low intensity to get that color, that purity of color. There is the heat, but to me, if it doesn’t emit heat, it doesn’t feel like nature. You cannot really create that with LEDs. You can try, and there are some tricks that can work, but it’s not the same feel.
LD: What about recent shows that had very strong tungsten moments, actually award-winning designs like Red [Austin] and Frankenstein [Poet]?
Austin: Red was my love letter to tungsten. Rothko was using tungsten theatre lights in his studio when he painted. He cut out the daylight, and he used tungsten scoops so he had control over the quality of light. When we’re in the situation where we ban the tungsten bulb, and we try to recreate that, there’s something entirely lost in expressing and understanding what he was doing. There are always things that get lost in the progress of things. What we call progress often means losing essential elements of periods, like oil light, gaslight, and limelight. Certainly period pieces in general, but also pieces about moments in time, like Red, will become quite difficult.
Poet: In Frankenstein, we had a wonderful piece overhead that used more than 3,000 bare bulbs, varied between a 100W and 25W, and the majority was between 25W and 40W. The original idea for the large run of bulbs was to have glass globes with LED lamps inside them so you could have all different colors, but I really felt that the Frankenstein myth is about an earlier age of energy and more organic. An LED source would have the wrong quality of light. We did make a sample with a bunch of LED color mixing lamps and also a bunch of tungsten light bulbs. As soon as everyone saw the tungsten light bulbs dim down to the glowing filaments, we just knew that was absolutely the right thing for the show. That particular element isn’t intended as a primary light source for the show, though the show was lit primarily by tungsten sources, which I feel was the right choice for the production.
LD: Since it was Austin who inspired this conversation for this article, we’ll give him the final thought.
Austin: What Bruno did with Frankenstein—that extraordinary tongue of light bulbs and that natural, fiery feel of tungsten—was absolutely perfect for that production about creation. When it was dimmed, it was this beautiful warm color, and then when those light bulbs came to full, suddenly there was a wave of heat that shocked the audience. You felt it was going to singe your eyebrows. It was dramatic and incredibly effective. It confirmed what I believe: I don’t ever want to see tungsten replaced. It is irreplaceable and to me simply the most beautiful and poetic of light sources.