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The show must go on: key issues in theatrical lighting


Lighting’s been crucial to the theater and the performing arts since their inception, when the Ancient Greeks ingeniously exploited the sun to light their dramatic productions. Later, when theater moved indoors during the Roman Empire, dramatists employed a variety of torches and other blazing instruments to render their effects. 

Renaissance theater saw a leap forward in the state of the art, with theater personnel manipulating complicated arrays of candles and oil lamps to light their productions (the predictable result was that theaters tended to burn down with some regularity). The 17th century saw the advent of the first dimmer; the 18th century the debut of limelight, not to mention, later on, gaslight. Finally, Thomas Edison set the stage for the modern theatrical lighting, as well as the cinematic and television lighting, we’re all familiar with.
 

Lighting isn’t only about illumination, of course. It’s also key to complementing what’s unfolding onstage, fostering atmosphere, stimulating emotion, directing audience attention, and stoking audience excitement. In some productions, it’s an integral part of the storytelling, as important as the action or the dialogue.
 

Here in the 21st century, thanks to the introduction of LED and digital lighting, theatrical lighting’s possibilities are more expansive than ever. Lighting is like painting, with the light itself standing as the paintbrush, with a variety of colors, shades, and effects tending towards the final result.
 

Any theatrical lighting professional needs to take into account the following considerations when working with either permanent or temporary lighting applications.

Does it look good on TV?


Since more and more shows are now televised, theatrical lighting needs to look great on TV as well. The challenge for lighting designers is that it’s important to create lighting effects that are going to be observed the same way by the human eye located in the theater and the human eye that’s watching the broadcast program on a screen.

That’s the case whether what’s at issue is functional lighting – the basic lighting apparatus that illuminates a set and the people and products that appear on it – or what’s for professionals the more challenging lighting used to produce additional visual effects (more challenging because effects lighting can interact with existing fixed lighting to create flashing, glare, or even flicker effects that can wreak havoc on a performance and its broadcast). It can be a challenge for a director to find the right camera settings, ones that record the show in a way that truly reflects what he or she is seeing.

 

Philips’ Strand TV studio fixtures offer a solution to this challenge and make scenes broadcast- ready. They score high on the EU broadcasting union’s television lighting consistency index (TLCI), which indicates how much recoloring and rebalancing is required to offer TV viewers the same visual effects and colors onscreen that they would see watching an event live. The Philips Strand 200F boasts a 94+ score on the 0-to-100 TLCI index, an indication of how faithfully its color can be reproduced via a screen.

Silence is golden


Lighting fixtures for use in sensitive operations – basically, all productions except for pop concerts and others featuring loud amplification – need to operate in silence. That can be tricky with LED technology. That’s because LED equipment has to operate at precise temperatures to provide maximum output, to last to the complete extent of its lifetime, and to fully realize its efficiencies. All this means that it usually requires fan mechanisms to cool it.
 

What’s needed are LED fixtures that allow lighting designers to change fan speeds, and thus noise levels, on a variable scale. In other words, the noise level drops as the light output does. The result is scene-to-scene light programming with full flexibility: you can provide more light when more is happening on stage, and less light (with less noise) when less is going on. A late-night scene, then, or a scene characterized by an atmosphere of pitch-black mystery, can be lit in complete silence.   In general, you can tune a fixture’s noise level so that the fan speed stays at a safe medium level, and the fixture will automatically balance the LED output to match the fan’s cooling ability at the speed in question.
 

Philips’ VL1100 LED fixtures, built for more traditional theatrical applications such as plays, opera and ballet, feature a new user-controllable function of the sort we’ve discussed above.

Making it easy on the road crew


Weight and especially size are key factors in lots of show business lighting.
 

That’s especially true now that concert touring has evolved into a leading revenue channel for artists and record companies – and that shows and spectacles, like certain popular high-concept circuses, are increasingly taking to the road. The amount of technical gear that concert and theatrical tours use has increased considerably – not just basic lighting packages but also video walls and elaborate moving set pieces.  This preponderance of equipment puts tour “truck space” at a premium. What’s more, all this gear has to be unloaded from the trucks, rigged, de-rigged, and then reloaded, often on the same day.
 

So in addition to functioning reliably and providing sufficient output, the stuff had better be easy to handle.  Lighting professionals should buy fixtures that can pack into flight cases in pairs and still be of a weight that they can be easily pushed around stages and loaded into trailers in the standard “4 cases across the trailer” formation.
 

Your fixtures should also conform to the modular truss rigging systems from which they hang during productions. In fact, if they’re sized correctly, they can even travel in their trusses from show to show rather than disappearing again into their packing boxes.

Philips’ VL2600 Spot, Wash, and Profile fixtures are good choices when it comes to fulfilling these criteria.

The show must go on: Key issues in theatrical lighting

The quality of the illumination


When it comes to quality of illumination, it’s important to distinguish between two types of lighting. First, there’s the lighting that illuminates the set, establishing ambience and mood. Then there’s the lighting that creates the additional visual effects that the production uses to help tell its story.
 

What are the key attributes of the former that lighting professionals need to keep in mind?
 

Professionals have long recognized that color temperate has a big impact on ambience. That’s just as true in a theater application as it is elsewhere. Cooler color temperatures can create an alert, awake ambiance; warmer temperatures, an ambiance of coziness and warmth. Each ambiance has its own effect on an audience, signaling and communicating different emotional states.

 

We shouldn’t forget, either, that theater light illuminates not only the stage, but also the actors themselves. That’s where light comfort comes into play – in other words, how comfortable it is for an actor to function under the lights. Performers should be aware of what’s going on around them, lighting-wise, but even when they’re in the brightest spotlight the light shouldn’t overheat or distract them.
 

Another issue is how the light falls on the floor and how uniform its effect is. A spotlight shouldn’t always create a hard, super-defined bright spot where it hits. It should be gracefully layered, fading away gently towards its edges.

Quality of visual effects 


Visual effects, whose primary function is to enhance the impact of the event taking place on the stage, can be both permanent or temporary elements in a particular lighting concept. If they’re to enhance the performance, they need to cut through any ambient lighting, such as stage and set washes and video screen projections. Just as in the case of ambient illumination, lighting professionals need to take into account a variety of considerations here – and let’s not forget that different effects have different requirements.
 

Take beam effects.  To create the desired impact, narrow beam effects that pack a big punch are often required. The beam needs to be of a sufficiently high quality that it doesn’t produce undesired halo effects around its edges. Yet these effects need to be delivered by small, compact fixtures, and that can be a challenge.
 

Philips’ Platinum series lamps have been specifically designed to meet these varying demands. The product family’s soon-to-be-released VL10 BeamWash fixture will represent a revolutionary step forward in terms of meeting these demands. Philips Fast Fit MSR lamps like the VL6000 beam fixture also delivers high-quality beams for use in visual effects. This is a unique beam fixture, using a 1500w MSR lamp to produce a collimated “fat beam” of light exceeding 60,000 lumens in output from a unique-looking optical system. This is the fixture, in fact, that delivered the big lighting punches when Lady Gaga performed at the 2017 Super Bowl. The fixture has also lit world tours for Depeche Mode, Bruno Mars, and the Foo Fighters.
 

And then there are LED pixel effects. As LED entertainment lighting technology has progressed, LED pixels themselves have collectively come to form visual effects surfaces themselves: think of pixel mapping, the visual display technique available via LCD monitors. In fact, as technology progresses, the disposition of LED pixels is becoming more important, and more deserving of manufacturers’ attention.
 

The pixels of the Philips Showline SL BAR720ZT are arranged in such a way that when multiple such fixtures are arranged end to end the pixel pitch between them remains the same. The Philips Showline SL BEAM 500fx, for its part, has a grid formation of 37 pixels making up its face. The pixels have been arranged in a hexagonal manner across the face of the product in an aesthetically pleasing manner, so that they form clean vertical and horizontal lines across the fixture. 
 

LED optical system advancements have also made it possible to create fixtures such as the new VL800 BeamLine. This fixture features a new optical system that resembles a single blade of lights, but that can still be used in a pixel-mapped mode, with a single front-looking pixel housing 12 individual collimated beams of light.

One fixture, many functions


Flexibility and the option of integrating numerous effects and features into a single product are important in lighting. Fixtures should be capable of crossing over from show to show – not to mention into other applications altogether.
 

Which brings us to hybrid lighting fixtures. “Hybrid” can mean different things depending on the manufacturer. In fact, many manufacturers try to make multi-functional Swiss army knives, so to speak, out of certain hybrid fixtures. This often results in fixtures that, while they do many things, do nothing very well.
 

Though it’s a multi-purpose fixture, the Philips VL4000 BeamWash combines features that are critical for premium venues and theaters. The VL4000 BeamWash combines stunning wash capabilities with intense beam functionality as well as with the ability to produce a powerful collimated shaft of light. This single fixture can serve multiple uses without your having to change lenses or add additional components. 

Shining it where you want it to go


As lighting has evolved, it’s become more easily controllable. That’s key, because during a show, you want to shine light only where you want it, and not where you don’t. Any lighting professional will tell you that darkness can be just as important as light.

That makes dimming capabilities and controls systems highly relevant. Using dimming to drive attention to a different area of the performance space can be effective, but you have to engineer a smooth transition towards darkness. The human eye shouldn’t be able to perceive the steps in a dimming progression, because it can ruin the moment and knock the viewer out of his or her immersion in the spectacle. The same goes, of course, for gradual illumination. In both cases, you’ll profit from specialized controllers like DMX controllers, which enable smooth transitions.
 

For better or worse, DMX is the industry-leading protocol used in fixtures today – even as Ethernet is now used to transmit the data that fixtures need to operate. That’s because a performance stage might be equipped with luminaires – and other gear, such as a lighting desk – from multiple manufacturers.
 

In sum, lighting is integral to show business productions – they couldn’t exist without it. Lighting, in addition to providing the basic function of making the production visible, is tasked with establishing atmosphere, directing audience attention, making sure that the show comes across faithfully to the millions of people watching on TV, making performers comfortable at the center of the spectacle – and more. That’s why lighting professionals need to choose their lighting gear carefully. Luckily, the state of the art is now such that the gear exists to make their choices pay off, and to render their indispensable labors that much easier to fulfill.