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6.6: Tools of a Lighting Designer

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  • All designers have tools with which they work to produce their designs. The costumer works with fabric, needle, and thread. The scene designer works with wood, metal, and paint. The lighting designer works with lighting instruments and the lightboard. To get the different qualities of light needed, he or she can use a wide variety of instruments.

    The modern lightboard, also called the lighting control console, is a highly specialized computer. Its sole purpose is to control the level, or amount of light, that each fixture puts out. By telling different fixtures what level of light to give and when to turn on and off, the designer can control and dramatically change the look of the light on the stage. Light- boards are manufactured by a variety of different companies. Each one is distinct and operates in a slightly different manner. Some are made to control standard lighting instruments, others to control automated fixtures, but all are produced with the sole purpose of controlling the light output of fixtures on a stage.

    The designer can choose from many types of lighting fixtures to achieve different effects. Like lighting consoles, these fixtures are made by a wide variety of manufacturers and have many different looks. However, all of them can be broken down into a few basic categories: PAR fixtures, Fresnels, ERSs, eye lights, and automated fixtures. Each of these types serves a different purpose. Designers must understand what each instrument will do when placed above the stage and then carefully choose the correct type.

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    A Classic Palette II, manufactured by Strand Lighting. This console Is used to control both conventional and automated fixtures. Courtesy of Strand Lighting.

    Hog 4 Lighting Console, manufactured by High End Systems. This console Is primarily used to control automated fixtures. Courtesy of High End Systems.

    The wrong instrument choice can lead to the wrong look for a scene. However, the right instrument can make all the difference.

    PAR fixtures, or parabolic aluminized reflector lamps, are a mainstay of concert lighting. PARs are often referred to as PAR cans. The lamp of a PAR is a self-contained unit. This lamp must be placed in a housing to secure it in place. The term can refers to the round extruded metal housing that absorbs some of the extra light from the PAR fixture. This extruded metal housing looks something like a coffee can that has been painted black. Hence the term PAR can.

    One of the unique features of this fixture is its oval beam, which is nearly twice as tall as it is wide. The direction of the PARs beam may be adjusted only by physically turning the lamp housed inside the PARs easing. The size of the beam is changed by physically changing out the lamp housed in the can. This fixture comes in four main beam sizes: very narrow, narrow, medium, and wide. The width of the beam is determined by the glass with which the self-contained lamp is manufactured.

    The reflector in the PAR makes the quality of light produced by the PAR relatively harsh. The self-contained nature of a PAR makes the light output and the beam difficult to control adequately. The PAR delivers a very bright light. The limited control and the brightness of the light make the PAR a good choice for onstage lighting. The construction of the extruded metal easing that houses the PAR lamp ensures that the fixture is virtually indestructible. This makes the PAR an excellent choice for touring and explains its popularity among designers of concerts.

    The Fresnel (pronounced FRAY-nel) is named for the man who invented its lens—August-Jean Fresnel. He originally invented the lens for use in lighthouses; however, a smaller version of the lens has gained popularity. The Fresnel lens takes a plano-convex lens (a lens with one curved side and one flat side) and cuts curved “steps” into the curved side of the lens to reduce its thickness and weight.

    The Fresnel light is known for its soft edge and smooth illumination. The shadows it creates are very soft and do not have harsh edges. Its light also blends easily with other Fresnels as well as with other instruments. Even with the nice, even, smooth field a Fresnel produces, it has few other controllable properties. This makes it difficult to use in any place other than over the stage. If it were placed over the audience, the scattered light beam would provide too much illumination in the auditorium.

    The ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, or ERS, is the workhorse of the lighting world. The ERS has more features and flexibility than any other conventional fixture on the market. There are several brands of ERSs on the market. However, the Source 4, designed and marketed by ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls), has become the industry standard. The ERS provides for a variety of variations in intensity and focus because it contains shutters that can be used to shape the beam of light. It also has a barrel through which light passes, which can be adjusted to change the quality of light. In this way, the designer can control the sharpness or softness of the light beam. It also allows patterns to be projected when a gobo is used. This is a small template made of steel or glass that is placed in a slot in the center of the light between the source and the lens. The pattern is then projected onto the stage.

    Cyc lights are special lighting units made to light up a painted backdrop or cyclorama. A cyclorama is a large, smooth piece of seamless fabric specially made to catch and spread light, often used as a backdrop. Cye lights are specially designed to spread a large wash of light evenly over the area on which it is focused. These units, often called cells, can come individually or in a group of two to four. Each unit can be controlled individually from the lightboard based on how the designer chooses to control them. While these lights have only a single purpose, they provide a great deal of flexibility and diversity to a designer. A smart designer can create a wide array of color washes and looks with these units, allowing for quick changes of mood and scene on stage.

    Automated lights have been used for many years in concert lighting and are beginning to make regular appearances in the theatre world, both on Broadway and off. An automated fixture can provide a designer with a wide variety of option in colors, gobos, and focus areas all in one instrument. The designer only needs to know how to program one of these lights in order to do the job that it might take ten conventional fixtures to do.

    Like conventional lighting fixtures, automated lights will have specific purposes. Some are designed to be wash fixtures, lights that will east a large, even field of light. Others are designed to highlight specific people or objects at specific times, create special effects on stage, and draw the audience’s attention. These fixtures can carry a variety of gobos, change color, and move with the push of a button.

    As technology advances, both conventional and automated lighting instruments are becoming more and more advanced and efficient. For example, companies have developed more efficient lamps for their instruments. They use less wattage and put out more light than their predecessors. A wide variety of companies are also embracing LED technology. Companies are working to create LED fixtures that are just as bright and controllable as current standard lights but will use less energy. As technology continues to improve, the lighting industry will continue to develop alongside it.

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