Convergence isn't coming. It's here. The edge for manufacturers is no longer proprietary equipment, protocols, or connectivity — it's the better-designed product that fits into the palette of the designer, the user, the specifier, or the owner. Playing nice with the other kids on the block — well, at least, talking the same language — is definitely becoming a way to do business in this crazy market.
For the theatre consultant, there are both happy and frustrating challenges associated with the migration away from analog lighting, projection, and control. As a designer, I am in awe of the opportunities that digital light gives me. Instead of an assistant who sits alongside updating the Lightwright™, and Excel sheets on the keyboard, they bring their Photoshop and After Effects skills, and perhaps a digitizing tablet. (Per Sundin talked about his development of improvisational digital gobos for the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest design, graphic designers at his side).
A while back, I participated in a workshop with the effervescent Josh Alemany from Rosco, where we designed and printed gobos at the desk in the seminar room during the presentation. In the olden, golden days, we would sketch something on paper, scan it or digitize it into Photoshop, then send it off to Rosco or Apollo, who would viciously etch it out of a plate of steel. The size and aspect were predetermined, and you had better have that good hang position from which to throw the image when you got it back from the acid a week later. You hoped that the theatre consultant had provided the position, the pipe, the dimmed circuit, and the reasonable throw to make sure that the light was useful when it hit the actor.
Nowadays — when the consultant is using wysiwyg to design the new opera houses and concert halls in which we'll work — the fixed lighting position, and positions worked out for static angles and shots, start to be outmoded. The lighting guru Francis Reid said that wiggle lights were all very well, but they were fixed in space. With High End Systems' DL.2s and Catalyst Pro server, PRG's Mbox Extreme™, and even Spotlight/ArKaos' Video Performer XT and the ARC cradle, we start to have to think — finally — in three dimensions. Just as conventional lighting moved from key positions to blanket coverage, digital lighting, which offers full control of all the lighting variables of intensity, color, texture, contrast, and movement, can rationalize these positions back to key relationships with the stage.
Rose Brand/ArKaos' Panorama and collage generators such as HES ArenaView™ help us think about lighting's relationship to the concert platform differently. Lighting can illuminate the artists, sure, but it can be so much more. Achieving quieter fixtures and placing them into environments that accommodate their heat and fans, such as nooks in acoustic canopies or mini-booths in balcony fronts, should be uppermost in consultants' minds, as these fixtures will be used in concerts, whether integrated or not.
An earlier article of mine looked at the new spaces performing arts buildings needed to embrace the convergence challenges — rooms for server farms and network patching. These are crucial to the effectiveness of digital lighting, but so too are spaces where the lighting designer can create. As we are booted off the production desk when the management has rented the concert hall to a home-schooling cooperative graduation ceremony, the previz environment should be both supportive to the preprogramming of the show and maintenance work, such as preset development or grouping, and an extension of the home the lighting designer should feel exists for him in the theatre or concert hall.
A previz space that is a broom closet where you can barely open up your laptop and fit the evil dongle into the USB slot is not conducive to developing good cues, especially for hybrid fixtures and designs. Although most of the big media server environments call out for the large sexy console alongside, I suspect we will see the previz environment virtualize these elements, and grandMA won't need to be sitting, knitting, next to you in the lighting office. But a decent workspace for the designer and the other creatives — with at least two large 16:9 monitors, if not a projector and screen surface with a bit of air between the desk and the wall, and a means of playing back cues, music, and effects to mimic some of the quality time one gets in the venue itself — will go some way toward helping normalize the production process back to the good old days (without the actual venue).
Key to the usefulness of this production previz office in the larger venues (especially those with multiple stages) is the server farm and centralization of media. Whatever path one chooses with digital lighting, there is a heck of a lot of data to store, algorithms to crunch, and traffic to organize. The robustness of the network is the answer to this, and the major manufacturers have embraced the core needs of lighting network users with ETC's Net3 and Strand's Shownet and fearless adoption of the primary net installs for Cirque, the casinos, and other power users.
ESTA's brilliant facilitating of the ACN development and the adoption by lighting net providers lubricates the convergence process in major facilities. Workspace, server farms, collaborative spaces for sound, video and lighting creators, and the performance spaces themselves become more easily served by a combination of Ethernet and fiber. Rendering and media implementation become easier and faster with the local and remote processing options, and the awesome leaps in core computing technology will further improve the options for designers.
Combining sensible physical design of new performance spaces that embrace the new hybrid equipment and the new way of thinking about design and production, and an integrated approach to information technology design, will support the designer and creative team as they explore the incredible opportunities that leaving the conventional spotlight behind can offer. Previsualization won't replace quality onsite time, but efficiencies stack up and can both improve the staff life at work and beyond and increase creative opportunities. No more waiting for those gobos.
David I. Taylor is the leader of the performing arts sector for Arup, a leading design engineering firm, and a lighting and production designer for opera, dance, and theatre. He can be contacted at email@example.com.