Skip to Content

[Update: the original form of this essay lumped all of IATSE into “stagehands unions”, when in fact there are many local chapters of IATSE that do not function as stagehands for touring concert productions, such as Local 728 in Hollywood that works on film and television lighting. I was under the misconception that IATSE was only stagehands, and that is incorrect. So, when I speak of the IA in this post, I mean only IATSE stagehands unions, and ones that work in arenas and theaters that cater to touring musical productions.]

By even posting this, I’m signing myself up for hate mail. What I hope happens is that someone engages me on the issues and on my specific gripes, instead of just calling me names. On to the masochism! Just so it’s said – again – these blog posts represent my personal views, and not the views of anybody I work for, or have worked for, or will work for, or pass in the middle of the cereal aisle in the Piggly Wiggly.

I have a fraught relationship of ideals when it comes to labor unions, but never more so than when we’re talking about the ones that I regularly come into contact with, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stagehands and Employees (IATSE, or IA for short), and to a much lesser extent, the IBEW. (I’m looking at you, Local 134.) This post, however, is mostly directed at the IA. One other caveat: of course, this is directed at the stagehands unions that I’ve had contact with: mostly arenas and sheds, mostly in North America.

Before going further, another note: I have never been a member of the IA, nor do I think that joining would do anything for the sector of the production world business that I inhabit. I feel the need to stress, however, that I am not anti-union. In fact, I’m quite prounion. I think collective bargaining is a necessary check on the power of massive corporations, and a check on the power of employers with outsized influence, and a check on the insidious poison of unrestrained capitalism. In an ideal system, the power of employers and unions would find a balance as both sides work toward reasonable goals. In an even more ideal system, the government would use its power to regulate commerce (and to regulate workplace safety, conditions, and wages) for good, so that labor unions like the IA would be largely obsolete. Since they won’t, at least for now, I remain pro-union generally. I have some serious concerns about the IA, however, and there is no way by which I might affect the changes I want to see, so I write this in the hopes that someone sees it and knows that at least one designer hates working with them at least some of the time, and realize that things need to change.

I respect and admire many union stagehands. In venues like The Garden, with Local One, I’ve had only good experiences with experienced stagehands who are professional and polite. The good experiences like this one, however, tend to dry up when one gets away from the bigger cities and labor markets. There are bad days to be had both from inexperience and lack of skill, and in some markets, being forced to work with a power-crazed gaggle of entitled, petulant, petty tyrants. A union like IATSE needs to accomplish a few things – in the sense of our current climate of labor relations – if it’s going to add value to a production, and if the union’s power allows it to provide virtually no value to a production while retaining its own power, the relationship becomes exploitative and abusive.

  • A union needs to provide a skilled workforce

Work around the stage is skilled work, and it takes experience to know what you’re doing. Few of the jobs the average stagehand is expected to do are particularly technical in nature; it’s a lot of listening carefully to directions (and directions about direction!) and having basic spatial and language parsing skills. This holds true for most touring productions; the situation on say, Broadway might be very different, but I can only speak to modern touring concert productions where the majority of the lighting rig is pre-rigged, and most of the rig assembly is matching colors or numbers on looms. And here we find out first common problem, because in my experience the general workforce of many local chapters of the IA are undertrained and under-qualified for the jobs that they are doing. For instance, I am often paid to be a lighting designer. I’m paid specifically because I have lighting designer skills, and do lighting designer-ing well enough that people hire me to come back. The IA, however, selects from a pool of workers who will be fulfilling what role each day. Some chapters of the IA are better about this than others, with stewards who are knowledgable about the skills of their crew and who assign them appropriately. But this is not the way all of them operate. On many union crew calls, I expect that there are one or two who are really good and know what they’re doing, the rest are just fulfilling a contractual requirement that the union provide them to the production, and are good only for pushing cases or being shown exactly what to do and how to do it. I’m not talking about not knowing what “LERR” on an old Martin light means. The problems that frustrate me are basic things, like not putting trusses together backward, knowing basic DMX signal theory, knowing to unlock pan and tilts on moving lights, or making sure that floor lights are put out in a straight and orderly fashion, instead of having to be told to clean up the messy row they just made.

Not doing these things isn’t what people are paying for when they hire a union. I expect that on most House of Worship shows I will need to be extremely accommodating and show the volunteer workforce exactly how I want everything put together and how to do tasks that are extremely simple. This isn’t what unions purport to do – the claim, the raison d’etre, is to have a pool of skilled stagehands who can figure out that the red soco goes to the red soco on the next truss without being told. This isn’t the case often enough that I’m surprised when I have hands who read labels and apply basic logic when assembling them.

Sometimes, this is a problem of the person running the crew. That’s also a problem I’ve written about, and it’s fair to say that there are many crew chiefs who are simply bad at running their crew. It happens, and I acknowledge this, but it’s not what we’re talking about today. For the sake of our discussion, we’ll remove the crew chief from the picture and assume they’re a good one for the time being.

Take the example of followspots. Followspots are somewhat notoriously staffed by people who are the lowest-ranked and least-skilled people on the call because people assume that they don’t require any special skills to operate. But this is not true: followspotting is a skill like any other, you have to learn the location of the controls, how they feel, how the followspot itself feels in its yoke, how it responds and moves and how to listen to and execute commands over a headset.

I’ve seen bills for labor calls, and seen the line item for followspot operators. We’re talking about making $400-600 for a show. That’s a high price, and it’s high even if the followspot ops are really good, which they rarely are. Automated followspot systems like Follow Me, the Robe RoboSpot, and Ground Control help to ameliorate some of the problem, but not all shows have the cash to carry those, so sometimes you’re stuck with house spots.

Our requirement, then, was that unions that provide stagehands need to provide a skilled workforce – skilled stagehands. In my estimation, this is a mixed bag, and completely geography-dependent. When they fail to provide a reasonably skilled workforce, there’s not a good reason to choose union hands over any other labor company providing stagehand labor, or, for that matter, simply doing the work at hand yourself.1 And other companies that provide labor for stages – namely, Crew One out of Atlanta – do so with much less of the administrative bullshit that many unions come with at a lower cost to the production.

This last point, the administrative BS and “doing it yourself”, is brought into sharp relief when ones considers the more protectionist chapters of the IA. Obviously, reasonable people will disagree on how, exactly, the nuts and bolts of organized labor is to work. There are chapters of the IA (and IBEW) that have draconian rules regarding who can touch what, to the point where the division of labor becomes onerous and counterproductive. More than once I’ve asked a hand to help me pack a console, or push a case to the dock, only to be told “I’m in department X, I don’t do that.” This sort of inflexibility coupled with the IA’s intransigence to adapt their practices to the varying needs of the various productions they work for is a hinderance, for myself and the production in terms of time, and also in terms of sheer exasperation.

On car shows at McCormick Place, for instance, as a lighting lead, I was not allowed to touch any of the cables that went on the truss, period. I was not allowed to push cases. I was not allowed to hang a moving light. The reasons were standard union fare: “you’re taking food out of my kids’ mouths” was a phrase I heard more than once. But was I, really? We had an agreement for a certain number of days they would be called, and a minimum number of hours. Was I, by wanting to do something other than cool my heels on the cold, unyielding cement floor of McCormick Place, truly representing a threat to the livelihood of the hands from IBEW? I have difficulty believing that I was. I realize this isn’t just an intellectual exercise for these guys; they’re probably not making all that much money and at any given moment, some of them probably are worried about their ability to provide for their family. But the answer does not lie in forcing me to stand, hands firmly in pockets, eyes slowly clouding over while my life flashes before my eyes.2

Does this sort exclusivity with regards to work and what type it is and who can do it add value to the production? Perhaps more importantly, does it contribute to the workday of the average IATSE stagehand? I would argue that it does not. I understand the arguments for: it forces productions to hire a certain number of hands for the tasks that need to be done, and then nobody gets dangerously overworked. But why not hire the same number, but get rid of the hard labor restrictions? If two hands are having trouble lifting a case, why shouldn’t a touring crew person jump in to help? If I push a my own case to the truck because I’m just a rogue like that, the loaders are still hired and making money. The entire mentality of “my job, your job” can be greatly relaxed when it comes to unskilled tasks, and everyone can come to the in and out and make their money.

When the minutiae of a union’s bureaucracy become more important than putting a show together and making it work, the union is no longer adding anything of value. It has become an anchor that cannot be reeled back in; a boat struggling to drag a dead weight through the mud on the way to make the audience happy.

  • Unions need to provide a safe working environment

This is a mixed bag. One the one hand, things like mandatory hard hats when there are up riggers in the air, or making sure people on the stage and loading dock are wearing steel-toed shoes, are precautions that no reasonable person would have a problem with. Often, however, the local IA chapter is bad about these things, or goes overboard, insisting that everybody who is on the arena floor and backstage anywhere needs to be wearing safety gear. This is silly and counterproductive, as people aren’t stupid and will chafe against rules that pay lip service to vague claims of “safety” but that have no plausibility vis a vis actually creating a more safe environment. That said, by and large, IATSE does a decent job with safety, and more often than not the safety violations I see are on tours, where the road crew isn’t all they’re cracked up to be. While IA (and tours) can certainly improve in this area, I think the union – on the whole – does their part to promote a safe working environment.

  • Where IA Becomes A Petty Tyrant

And here we come to the things that unions do that are actively hostile to the production, or counter-productive, annoying, or otherwise dive straight into the realm of petty tyranny. Certain IA chapters like doing things in a capricious and temperamental manner just because they can. Let us speak of so-called “dark stage rules”.

In many IA houses, the union enforces a period during which nobody can work on the stage, at all. Not only can nobody “work” on the stage, nobody can do anything that does anything on the stage, like say, program the lighting desk. Many unions go so far as to forbid anybody from the tour from being behind their own lighting console during a dark stage period, or editing clips in a media server, or doing anything that the union disapproves of. Doing pre-vis work on your computer in the hallway? Violation. Changing DNS settings on the media server? Violation. I’m not making these up! It is incredible to me that tours acquiesce to these sorts of completely unreasonable, unhinged demands, and I’ve seen productions fined for breaking them. And they are often unavoidable – the union often has complete control over the stage and who is allowed on it and when, and they lord this power over the touring crew in small-minded, uncaring, and demeaning ways.

The stated reason for these rules – when stated at all – is to prevent any one person from “stealing” the wages of another by doing work when everyone else is off the clock, or vague reasons of “safety” or, pushing the sophistry to higher and higher levels, “it’s policy”. Which I’ve come to believe is shorthand for “we feel like it”.

None of these are satisfactory. There is no plausible reason, safety-related or otherwise, why the touring crew should be prohibited from working on their own stuff during times when the union is taking a break. That is simply unacceptable. The work we need to perform is often highly skilled, able to be done by only one or two people on the crew, and would not otherwise involve any union personnel anyway. Why should I need a union wonk standing over my shoulder while I program moving lights? They wouldn’t be at the console anyway, they’d be sitting on the stage playing on their phone. That’s not adding value to the production, it doesn’t add value to my day or anyone else’s day. In fact, I will go so far as to say that “dark stage” rules, whatever their original intent may have been, are simply a way for the union to extort money from productions, either through fines or forcing them to have a member of the union on the clock to watch them work. They are simply petty tyranny; forcing the production into regulations that benefit themselves just because they can, and every justification I’ve heard for them rings hollow. Dark stage rules are categorically wrong, and leadership at the IA should ban them going forward.

  • Conclusions

Where does all this leave us?

Well, it leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth, as a formerly-touring LD, for IATSE. Again – and I feel it’s necessary to emphasize this – I am not anti-union. I’m anti-inefficiency. I’m anti-being forced to go hide in a locked room to do pre-viz so some IA wonk doesn’t go tattling on me. I’m pro-being allowed to go up on a “dark stage” and troubleshoot the DNS settings of a persnickety media server without the tour being fined for violating an utterly useless and unjust rule. I think the IA could enact some reforms that would drastically improve their relationship with touring productions, in no particular order:

  1. End dark stage rules, forever and ever, amen. The tour is allowed to do whatever they want to their own gear, whenever they want.
  2. Be flexible on personnel requests, when someone asks a hand for help downstacking a case, give them help without complaining about what department you’re with.
  3. Provide training for the hands on the latest technology they’re likely to see coming through on productions, rent a PA and let them learn how to pin VerTEC or J boxes or whatever. Rent some Source4s and buy a beach ball and a palm tree and some gel, let one hand be the “designer” where they give instructions on how they want the scene lit and everyone else has to do their best to focus the light. Simple fun stuff to give people a chance to actually put their hands on lights and accomplish something, and give them experience, give them skills they can use at the union or somewhere else. Add value to their lives.
  4. Provide followspot training to all hands expected to run one. Or really, just all stagehands. It’s a marketable skill.
  5. Be kind and reasonable.

What I’m not saying here is that the production should just be allowed to run roughshod over the employees of the union, or take advantage of them in any way. I believe in mandatory breaks, I believe in not subjecting people to unsafe working conditions “just this once”, and I believe in people making a good, solid, wage so that they can support themselves and their families. I’m arguing for fairness, on both sides, and to do away with the antagonistic and most egregious protectionism that characterizes so many of my experiences with the International Alliance.

1: Of course, there are very few times that alternatives are going to do a better job running spots than an IA person. It’s a surprisingly skilled job.

2: Further, and particularly with regard to the IBEW hands, these guys were slow. Like, deliberately slow. It takes five guys standing around gazing lovingly at a case of soco before someone can figure out how to start running it. We don’t have to run at a breakneck speed, but there’s no reason to move as though submerged in molasses.

Note: my reviews are highly opinionated, longer than your average Costner film, and prone to digressions. While portions of my reviews appear in print, the versions that appear on this blog represent my own personal opinion, and not the opinion or views of any of the magazines I write for. Think of these as expanded reviews to break out of editorially-imposed word limit for the magazine articles.

Our collective taste for novelty is the great driving force of the entirety of the production industry. The musician’s craft is built around innovation of sound; rhythm and harmony made modern to tantalize our auditory tastes with The New. Filmmakers tell tales as old as time with fresh perspectives. And we, as purveyors of visual experiences, strive to captivate our audiences with that which they have never seen, and to do that, we need originality in lighting technology.

Years ago, industry engineers tried to create the ultimate so-called “digital light”, a fixture that would produce the lumen output of a conventional 1200-watt arc-source moving light with the versatility of a digital projector, an idea that been tried before but with limited success. This was, of course, the Barco DML-1200, which, in the words of project manager Mats Karlsson was “Without doubt the most complex and most frustrating product I have been involved in developing and my reason for starting with Barco. The project stretched over 4 years – mainly due to the laws of physics and certain external stakeholders not quite cooperating as expected.”

The success that this product enjoyed was probably less smashing than was hoped for, because, as it turns out, putting powerful digital projectors into moving heads and having them work the way you want is quite difficult. Lackluster performance aside, this idea remains as compelling as ever. Today’s fixture, Martin by Harman’s MAC Allure Profile, is a fascinating re-imagination of this core visual concept: that in controlling individual sections of a hard-edged light beam, one can create powerful and unique effects. This is not video as projection, neither is it a pure hard-edged moving light, but an amalgamation of the two, from a company known for innovation in their lighting effects.

The MAC Allure has a familiar form factor: a moving head and yoke on a base. The light source is a sealed LED engine developed in-house by Martin, and is user-replaceable as in the Quantum Profile. Here we diverge from the concentric rings of white emitters that characterize their other hard-edged LED offerings. Looking down the lens, one can see that there is a honeycomb-like pattern of seven segments. Each segment has an RGBW LED source driving it; there is no subtractive color mixing in this light. The RGBW chips are topped with a light pipe which guides their lights toward the output. These segments are optically separate from each other, so that when the light strikes a surface, the same honeycomb pattern with definite but subtle separation between the sections is revealed. The central “pixel” is hexagonal, while the outside sections have rounded outer edges that give the beam a traditional circular shape when all the emitters are on. The light pipe system and combining optics do a decent job of homogenizing the beam, but the raw output of the individual pixels do display a somewhat unevenly-colored field. Given that the optical system is designed to focus at least somewhat on the actual LED dies, this is probably unavoidable, but not really objectionable. The goal with this light is to create aerial effects, not to be a key light on actors.

This segmented, controllable beam is the Allure’s innovative conceit; a pixelized hybridization of video and hard-edged lighting. The LED segments can be controlled either via DMX or added as a fixture into Martin’s own P3 video processing unit, by placing the fixture’s “pixels” on top of the video output. Run this way, the output becomes an eruption of pixels in the air, which can be shaped and modified like any other hard-edged fixture. The fixture can switch or cross-fade between DMX control and P3, so as not to limit the user to any one control scheme.

Each “pixel” is a separate 60-watt LED package, for a total LED draw of about 420 watts. I measured the open white output of the Allure at 3,183 lux at five meters at 50% zoom. (This was a fixture at a Martin event that had been running all day, so I was unable to measure any thermal droop.) Dimming is very smooth, with the four user-selectable curves closely following their ideal curves. It was, for some reason, set to use a linear dimmer curve at the presentation, which I didn’t realize until after I ran my meter data at home. I’m sure the rest of the included curves function just as expected – Martin has always done an excellent job with the dimming curves on their LED products. I measured the color temperature of the raw output at 7,410 Kelvin, which adjusts via a color correction channel and measured from 2,410K to 10,100K. An included strobe channel provides shutter effects, including synchronous strobes, random strobes, and pulses from 2Hz to 20Hz.

Like other Martin additive LED fixtures, the Allure comes with its LED packages factory-calibrated, and this calibration cannot be disabled. In some previous Martin lights, having color calibration on prevented deeply saturated colors from coming out of the system, because the other LEDs would always be dimly glowing to keep the hue perfectly consistent across fixtures. On the MAC Quantum Wash, Martin introduced a mode called “Extended Color” which keeps the white point consistent across units, but as the fixture approaches 100% saturation, the fixture fades the calibration out. With this method, you can get true, deep colors with full saturation while still having the advantages of calibrated whites and pastels. I am not sure if this also applies to “pure” mixed colors like yellow, cyan, and magenta, but it would be really nice if it did. The Allure also includes a digital “Color Wheel” which uses the pixels to emulate physical glass rolling through the optical field, which is a neat trick, and can then also be “indexed” and “rotated” via the internal effects macros. Color effects are a very strong point of this light. Chases and effects with the color and dimming look spectacular, especially when combined with gobos or the included prism. The light includes a “gel color picker”, which I have mixed feelings about. Generally, I think gel color pickers are not all that useful, for all the reasons outlined here, and while I think it’s okay to say “this value will give you light pink”, attaching a Lee filter number to it is going to be misleading.

Mechanical effects for the Allure are housed within the light permanently. Somewhat unusually, Martin has chosen not to put the motorized effects on a removable module, which the company tells me is due to the small size and limited amount of mechanical features.  This includes the gobo system and iris, and a prism.Time will tell whether this gamble works out for them…I fear that mechanical aspects of the optical system will be annoying to service, but perhaps the light is easier to take apart than I realize. (As mentioned, I was only able to look at this light at a Martin event, I didn’t have it in my “shop” at home for extended examination like I normally do.) The Allure features six rotating and indexable gobos plus open, and in my opinion they tend toward being optimized to support a predominantly aerial use, rather than as projections on scenery. Gobos ride in the familiar carriage system, and are user-replaceable. While there is no separate fixed gobo wheel, the fixture has a gobo “overlay” wheel, which is a separate plate permanently attached to the rotating wheel, and gobo positions two and three have fixed gobo overlays for morphing effects. These fixed gobos are replaceable or removable. There’s an iris for beam reduction effects, and a four-facet indexing and rotating prism. Zoom adjusts smoothly from 12º to 36º, and covers its range in less than ~0.5 seconds. Pan and tilt ranges are 540º and 268º respectively, and both axes of motion were extremely smooth. The fixture completed a full-range pan motion in ~3.1 seconds, and a full-range tilt movement in ~2.4 seconds.

The MAC Allure Profile accepts power in through Neutrik PowerCON TRUE1 in and pass-throughs, and accepts data in through either 5-pin DMX in and pass-throughs, or Neutrik EtherCon ins and pass-throughs — which are passive, so that if the fixture loses power, it will continue passing data downstream. The fixture also accepts DMX via ArtNet and sACN, as well as P3 data, over the EtherCon port. Control schemes from 32 channels in Basic mode to 68 in Extended mode. The Allure stands 60.3 cm (23.74 inches) tall, with a base 385 mm (15.16 inches) by 232 mm (9.13 inch inches) wide, and weighs 17.6 kg (38.8 lbs).

At a glace: Martin by Harman’s MAC Allure Profile showcases the promise of the most creative uses of LED technology. New forms of artistic expression have always been preceded by new forms of technology making such expressions possible, as it is here. The MAC Allure continues to advance the state of the craft, toward a future where focusing on individual diodes can be used to create dramatic colored sprays of aerial pixels. It helps push the distinction between video and lighting further into the distance, without sacrificing performance as a spot / profile moving light. As both a solid hard-edged fixture and a cunning effect luminaire, it offers both solid performance now, and intriguing future development.