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Color Theory for Concert Lighting Designers – transcript

The following is the script I followed – more or less – for my recent webinar, for hard-of-hearing folks, or if you just want to read the words.

Good morning, good evening, or goodnight, whatever works for where you are. Today is Thursday, April 30th 2020, my name is Craig Rutherford. Foremost on my mind is a ‘thank you’ for everyone who’s attending. It all seemed like this could be a big vacation, but I know how busy downtime can become. On the other hand, I know that some of you have had your hours reduced or lost your jobs entirely. We all stand with you in compassionate solidarity, and with each other during a time that is full of uncertainty. And for all of you who are taking time off from your Zoom meetings, and your kids’ distance learning, and all of the housework that you’ve found to do, thank you. It is my privilege to be able to share this time with some of the industry’s most talented people, and I’m humbled that you’ve taken the time to join all of us here today.

For any real scientists in the audience: I realize that I am about to gloss over a huge body of work without giving proper due to the things that you study, and I apologize in advance for that. Time constraints mean I have to gloss over some things I’d really like to spend more time on. What I hope to accomplish to is give younger and aspiring designers a more nuanced understanding of the physiology of color, and some theory of color and aesthetics, and to put that information into practical terms. Real quick: I’m going to use the term “song” a lot here, but you could substitute “scene” or “act” or “performance” and still arrive at the same general understanding. I’m a concert lighting designer for the most part, so I tend to think in “songs”.

Anyway, without further introduction, let’s jump into our topic, which is color theory for concert lighting designers.

And a basic discussion of what color is is an excellent place to start. Simply put, color is a phenomenon that our brain experiences when our eyes are stimulated by certain wavelengths of light. The perception of color happens when we stimulate one or more of the three color-sensitive cells in our eyes, called cone cells, which come in three varieties: those that respond to red wavelengths, those that respond to green, and those that respond to blue wavelengths. All the colors that we can experience are a result of various ratios of excitation coming from these three cells, and depending on the lighting environment, from the other cells in our eyes which are called rod cells, although these do not much (if any) of a role in our perception of color.

Fun aside, there is at least one example in the scientific literature of a functional tetrachromat, having four types of color receptors, but this is extremely rare, though potentially fascinating from a scientific perspective.

How do we describe colors, and how do we produce or control them? These questions are, in one sense, intertwined, because in asking about controlling color, we are for our purposes talking about howlighting consoles control color. There are a few different schemes that consoles use. Two of the most common are, broadly, based upon the two different ways that intelligent lights produce colors, and these two different schemes are additive and subtractive color mixing.

Additive mixing works by adding (as the name would imply) various wavelengths of light together to produce additional colors, and when we talk about additive mixing, we generally refer to three “primary” colors of additive light: red, green, and blue. Usually, when we discuss additive mixing, we’re talking about LED lighting. Many times we add a white emitter, or an amber emitter to the red and green and blue ones, and a lot of new lights add even more than these, including lime, mint, cyan, deep red, and others. There are various ways of controlling them, but for the purposes of color theory, you can think of additive mixing as more or less consisting of red, and green, and blue.

Adding these emitters together in varying degrees of power, one can make any color that one wishes. Most LED-based washlights these days use additive RGBW mixing (The W stands for white) to produce their colors. Adding red and green together makes yellow, green and blue together make cyan, red and blue together make magenta. By adjusting the ratios of any one color, we can cover a very large gamut of colors. We can even make “white”, or a version of white, from just RGB LEDs. Note that some dodgy manufacturers will claim that you can make “any” color from their RGB light, the whites produced by a pure RGB system are generally quite poor, and it makes people look like radioactive mannequins. Adding in a white emitter can help a lot in making mixed pastels look better, but in general, RGBW never really looks “right” to my eyes for front light, especially if you’re trying to approximate a low color temperature, or least it doesn’t until you add an amber to the RGBW system. We’ll talk about color temperature later.

Subtractive mixing, on the other hand, starts with a white light source and uses colored filters to remove wavelengths from the spectrum. Generally, the colors chosen are cyan, magenta, and yellow, though exceptions exist. This is the way most color printing works, starting with white light from the environment and using pigmented inks to subtract wavelengths bouncing off the page. Intelligent lighting that uses subtractive mixing works on the same principle, starting with a white light source – be that an arc lamp, an array of white LEDs, or an incandescent filament – and removes wavelengths from that white source, resulting in a color. Using this method, you can mix yellow and magenta to produce red, cyan and yellow produces green, and cyan and red produces a deep blue. If you remember playing with watercolors or food dyes in water as a child, then you were playing with subtractive mixing. Gels, by the way, are also an example of subtractive color, but one that we use less these days.

Many consoles use these two schemes to allow control of color – you’ll have a control channel for each of the three primary colors, depending on what kind of light you’re using. If your light has other colors like a while LED, sometimes you can control those individually, or have the light mix them in (more or less) intelligently for you depending on what color the light thinks you want. For instance, the light might add some of the amber emitter as you dip from yellow to red without YOU having to manually dial that in.

Some lights allow you to change their control modes between RGB and CMY or other control modes, or switch between several different modes. Another way of controlling color has nothing to do with how the light produces color, and instead asks the user to think about color in terms of hue, saturation, and luminosity (or brightness, or value), and we abbreviate it HSL, or HSI, or HSV, but these are all closely related. How do we understand this third way of thinking about color?

HSL looks at three aspects of light. The first is hue, which describes the point on an imaginary color wheel. Think of hue as the dominant wavelength. For instance, on grandMA consoles, a hue value of zero indicates red on the virtual color wheel, or another way to think about it is as a 3D cylinder. So, hue doesn’t describe anything about how “dark” or “light” the color appears, it just describes the part of the virtual color wheel we’re looking at. The second value, saturation, describes how much of the pure color we want, from pure saturated color all the way to white. The third value indicates how much luminosity, or brightness, we’re discussing. GrandMA consoles refer to this third value as brightness, not luminosity, but it’s the same general concept. Note that “brightness” in this sense is not the same as the dimmer of the light, that’s usually a separate thing.

All this is interesting, but the point is this: it’s important to understand how your console deals with these color attributes, and different control schemes can look different in terms of stage output depending on how they’re programmed and the fade times involved. Remember that generally, adding more emitter colors will certainly complicate your programming and palettes because you’ll have to decide which palettes get the extra emitter values. Whether you choose to conceptualize and program the colors as RGB values, or CMY values, or HSL values, or paint chip numbers on those little cards from the hardware store doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know how the console is talking to your fixtures and how to produce the color you want.

So in this first section we spoke about important discussions of color and what it is, and how we produce it physically and control it with lighting consoles, and how these two processes overlap in our control systems.

Now that we’ve established a basic working definition of color, let’s move on to a discussion of color theory as it pertains to programming lighting to music. And we’ll start with a basic question: how do you know what looks good in a song?

Well, we have to start somewhere, so let’s start our discussion with an exploration of cultural color meanings, and a consideration of what is thematically appropriate. We must first acknowledge that we’re likely to approach color through the lens of our own cultural background, and for me that means the experience of a white dude from North America. Your experiences might be different. That said, within North American and United States culture, there are many colors that have broad or even very specific meanings understood within a particular context. When I see, for instance, a red octagon, I immediately think “stop”, because that’s a very common road sign here in the US.

Considering the implications of your color scheme within a song or performance is an integral part of developing a palette. In a country music song about tractors, green and yellow might be appropriate because of the recognizable branding of a particular manufacturer of tractors. The audience would understand the color choices, and it would help reinforce themes.

Conversely, consider a song that had the exact same tempo, energy, instrumentation, devoid of references to tractors, but talking instead about love at first sight. Do green and yellow make as much sense within that context? Probably not. Referencing the colors of well-known brands is just one way that we can convey information through lighting, but there are other ways. In fact, there are a few things that we need color to do, and these can exist on a spectrum – pun intended – so see these as general guidelines and know that there are always exceptions to these rules. The audience needs color to:

  • Let them see the performer (or not)
  • Let them see the performance (or not)
  • Communicate something of the emotional or narrative meaning the artist intends
  • Be aesthetically pleasing (or not)

So, how can begin to communicate themes, and intent, and emotion? Well, we can examine colors that tend to be associated with specific themes, feelings, and concepts, and we can call these “color associations”. Let’s examine some of these that we can think of right off the top of our heads.

  • Red can signify: love, danger, anger, passion, blood
  • Orange might mean: warmth, fire, time of harvest, energetic, playfulness
  • Yellow often implies: wealth (especially gold / amber tones), happiness, optimism, sunshine, joy, caution, sickness
  • Green frequently brings to mind: money, luck, jealousy, greed, nature, flora, spring, poison (esp. in cartoons)
  • Cyan can mean: calm, balance, cleanliness
  • Blue might imply: sadness, calmness, medicine, trust (ever notice how many corporate color schemes are based around blue?)
  • Purple often represents: royalty, luxury, nobility, magic. (Note: unusually, the association with nobility and royalty seems to be fairly common across disparate cultures, which I hypothesize is the result of the unavailability of purple dyes in the ancient world, with the exception of Tyrian purple, made with much difficulty from a few particular species of sea snail that are found in the Eastern Mediterranean sea, and once manufactured, generally reserved for nobility and royalty only. But this is my own conjecture.)
  • Magenta can have overtones of: spirituality, femininity, children
  • White a lot of time means: purity, peace, medicine, elegance, but much of this is dependent on color temperature, which we’ll get into later.

However, a strong word of caution. These associations are Western, and indeed, North-American centric. In many Eastern traditions (Chinese and Japanese culture in particular), white is associated with death, misfortune, and funerals. In China, until the recent trend toward westernization, brides traditionally wore red for their weddings. It’s important to consider your audience, and the culture they might be immersed in, when designing color palettes for your productions.

It’s also important to note that these are associations only. Colors themselves have no intrinsic meaning, they always derive meaning from context. Yellow is the color of gold, but it’s also the color of bananas and rubber duckies, and without some other context within the performance in question, yellow does not equal bananas or rubber duckies. You cannot assume that your personal associations will work across cultural lines, without context, or explanation. With a plausible context, however, you can really go for broke, as in the John Deere example before. I issue these caveats not as a warning to avoid these color associations, but as a guideline against using them with the expectation that the audience will understand your meaning without some extra clues.

To recap, while we aren’t beholden to these associations, they’re a useful tool. There’s another important point that I’d like to make at this time, and that is that color palettes don’t always need to have any particular meaning with regard to the content of a song. If you can bring to mind the song Shake It Off by Taylor Swift, during the 1989 World Tour that Baz Halpin designed, that song had a magenta and cyan color scheme. What about cyan or magenta has to do with either shaking or ignoring invalid criticism? Probably nothing. This is an important lesson, which is that color can be aesthetically pleasing in itself without needing to imply any particular emotional or conceptual meaning outside of just being pretty.

What are some other tools we can use to develop a palette for a song? We can turn to classical color theory in art, and to the lessons imparted by the study of aesthetics. Since this topic is so vast, and because a formal discussion of aesthetics goes beyond what I can talk about here, it might perhaps be instructive to go back to one of the artists’ most basic tools for understanding and using color: the humble color wheel. There’s a variety of color charts and wheels out there, you can even make your own, but they all follow the same general principle, starting with one end of the visible light spectrum and traveling up or down the wavelengths in a circle.

Here is one such color wheel, this one is from a book called “The Colorist” by J. Aurthur H. Hatt, and its full title is wonderful: “Designed To Correct The Commonly Held Theory That Red, Yellow, and Blue are the Primary Colors, And To Supply the Much-Needed Easy Method Of Determining Color Harmony”, which is just a wonderful title for a book, and it’s from 1908. The whole thing is available on Google Books, if you want to take a look. Anyway, Mr. Hatt gives us a pretty workable color wheel in this book, which you see here. This one is useful for our purposes because you can draw a nice triangle between the two sets of primaries, red green blue and cyan magenta yellow.

An artist’s color wheel like this one provides a great way to come up with useable color schemes for music, using a few different methods that will be familiar to anyone who has taken an art class: adjacent colors, triads, tetrads, and various values of the same color. Let’s examine some of these “artist’s palettes” in more detail:

  • Monochromatic
    • This is perhaps the simplest scheme to imagine and implement, as the scheme implies using just one hue, maybe even the same saturation and luminosity for the entire song. This can be extremely visually striking when done correctly, bathing the entire scene with a single color, with more or less contrast, depending on the mood that you want to set.
  • Adjacent / analogous colors
    • Hopefully this one is self-explanatory. Adjacent colors often look good next to each other, cyans and greens look good together, yellows, reds and oranges look good together, purples and blues look good together. Moving the “points” further away from each other can produce interesting results.
  • Complementary colors
    • These are colors that are directly across from each other on a color wheel. Popular examples include blue and orange (this color scheme has infected many movie posters in the past several years), yellow and purple, and red and cyan. Complementary colors can look very good together, providing a strong contrast to each other. On the other hand, complementary colors on the same subject tend to desaturate each other, leading to a version of white. This is something to be aware of when using saturated complementary colors to light a subject. (Of course, if that’s what you’re going for, go for it.)
  • Triads
    • A triad consists of a particular color with two other colors from the other side of the color wheel, offset to either side of the complementary color. Yellow with purple and deep blue, red and with cyan and lime, purple with gold and chartreuse are all examples of triads, which can be quite visually striking.
  • Tetrads
    • A tetrad is two sets of analogous colors together with their complements.
  • A great tool to help with picking colors that look nice together is the website, which is intended to help web designers pick color schemes for their websites, but which I find to be a useful source of inspiration.

Along with these listed, here are a few more interesting palettes that lighting designers have found they like, simply through experimentation and experience.

  • White with any other color. Warm white or cool white, can totally change the mood of a moment.
  • Deep purple with red
  • And any palette that fits the song or the moment! Remember, if it looks good, it is good!

We can further expand our understanding of the complex world of color and its use in art by searching for inspiration in the world around you, and I find that there are many sources. Seek out that which speaks to you on a personal level, and I suggest keeping a design notebook with you to sketch and write down notes about the color schemes you run across that resonate with your sense of aesthetics. Here are a few sources that I recommend.

  • Art, and art museums. Spend a day, or two days if you have a large museum, perusing the art at the local museums or galleries. Find pieces that resonate with you, pieces that engender an emotional or intellectual response. Keep a notebook with you to write down details about the art, or take a picture with your phone for later references, and write down the color scheme of the pieces and reflect on how it contributed to your feelings about the art. Try to be specific; think of this like a journaling exercise. Only in being specific about our thoughts can we come to a greater understanding of how we feel about the artwork. While some art galleries and museums might be skittish (though less and less these days) about photography, very few will prevent you from sketching what you see.
  • Another way to experience art, particularly as we’re all quarantined, is through virtual tours and the internet. You can type “virtual museum tour” into the search engine of your choice and be presented with a list of virtual tours to take while we’re all stuck at home. Even if we weren’t stuck at home, we’re talking about some of the world’s greatest art being presented to us, for free, in our homes, so take advantage. There are also some art blogs that I really like, Design Boom, theatrical blogs on Tumblr, Colossal and Behance, and lots of others, too many to count.
  • Nature. My friend Brad Schiller talks about the experience of looking through the window at the rising run and looking at the rich, pure, deep amber color of sunlight that you only seem to see in the mornings, and pondering reproducing that color on a stage. Nature can be an amazing source of inspiration, a walk through a forest in autumn, or summer, or winter, can help you develop an eye for color in new ways, and to become more practiced at noticing things you never have before. I find it especially instructive again to draw the scenes that I see, you might find that sketching can help your recall. Or, taking pictures, or however you want to commit the noteworthy things that you see to memory.
  • Film and television. We’re in a golden age of television right now, with many shows to draw lighting and color inspiration from. Westworld, Star Trek, Insecure. All these shows that have really creative set and lighting designers. There’s a lot of inspiration to be had by watching what these designers come up with. The world of film is vast, and there are really inspiring uses of color in so many movies that they’re almost too numerous to name – but I’ll throw out a few really good ones. Vertigo, Amelie, Moulin Rouge, Grand Budapest Hotel, Hero. Sometimes the use of color in these films is more subtle, sometimes it’s more apparent, but I think each example can be instructive.
  • Books about light and color. There are so many good ones here to recommend: Light Fantastic by Max Keller, Stage Lighting Design by Richard Pilbrow, The Automated Lighting Programmer’s Handbook by Brad Schiller, and Color & Light by Clifton Taylor. Books about the works of of some of my personal favorite artists, like: James Turell, Dan Flavin, Anthony McCall, and Olafur Eliason. (I know, it’s like a who’s who of artists that Lighting People Like) These artists all have large bodies of work printed in books that are wonderful sources to have around you when you need a splash of creative water. Keep them around your house, on your coffee table; you never know when you might need a dose of inspiration.
  • Finally, fashion. I used to wonder about the wild-looking and impractical clothing that we’ve all seen in the runways in Milan, until I realized that it’s truly just art being done with clothing, and finding new and interesting ways to frame the human body. Fashion can be an excellent source of color (and set design) inspiration, as clothing designers are always looking for new ways to catch our eyes, whether the designs are intended to be off-the-shelf practical or simply expressive creations of an artistic impulse.

When it comes to finding color palettes that speak to you, feel free to experiment and use color with abandon. On color pickers, a word of caution: while it is tempting, don’t just take your finger and swipe wildly through the color picker on your console. Think carefully about what color choice you want to make, then set the lights to that color, and see if it works. In this way you will become more adept at choosing a palette thoughtfully.

The second ending remark for this section I’d like to make is this: Josef Albers, in his book Interaction of Color, which I highly recommend, himself recommends keeping a color journal, of sorts, where one keeps clippings from magazines, newspapers, any media that you come across that speaks to you or which you find visually interesting from a color perspective, and I think this is an excellent idea. He suggests taking these clippings and pasting them into your color notebook, to have for later reference. I have a folder on my laptop wherein I keep pictures of concerts and artworks that I come across that are visually interesting, and I find that I return to this reference library all the time during my design sessions.

After you’ve considered and settled on a palette for your song or performance, another thing to consider is contrast and color dominance.

Contrast is the difference in luminance value between two objects or lights, but we can also apply the concept to color. A world without contrast would be dull and lifeless. Two shades of green that are very close do not have much contrast, but primary green next to primary red has a lot of contrast. (And doesn’t look very good, unless you’re lighting a Christmas show!)

We can use contrast to emphasize parts of a scene, while letting other parts recede into the background. Imagine a scene with a band in a deep blue wash, with a singer standing downstage center. We can light the band with an adjacent color, say a different shade of blue, to give them just a bit of contrast so that they’re visible. We could then light the lead singer in a shade of deep magenta, to emphasize their spatial relationship on the stage and make them stand out visually from the rest of the band and background behind them. Different objects in a scene need contrast to help the audience tell those objects apart.

This concept leads naturally to a related concept, which we can call color dominance. This is the phenomenon wherein certain colors can appear to recede into the background, and certain colors dominate, or seem to come toward the viewer. It’s a complex phenomenon, but there are a few general rules:

Secondary colors tend to dominate adjacent primary colors. Magenta, for instance, tends to dominate red.

Colors with less saturation tend to dominate more saturated colors

Warm colors tend to dominate cool colors

Magenta is often quite dominant

Lavender is often quite recessive

Pale yellow-greens are usually the most dominant colors in a palette

Color dominance can allow you to play with the spatial relationships of a scene in unexpected ways, for instance by lighting the background in a dominant color and the foreground in a recessive color, and switching them an unexpected times, or using color dominance to subvert expectations about what object is – or should be – closest to the viewer.

For a more thorough explanation of color dominance than I can give here, I recommend Josef Alber’s Interaction of Color, which I must admit is, at times, a dense and intimidating text, but very useful, and Clifton Taylor’s Color & Light, which devotes some really good photographs to the phenomenon. For now, understand that color can affect our perception of spatial relationships, and allow yourself to experiment and play with them.

Next, let us discuss white light, starting with an important truth: there is no one single shade of color, or colors, that can be called white. Every schoolchild know that white is “all the colors at once”, but what exactly does this mean? There is no precise scientific consensus for how we should define white light. However, the CIE (International Commission on the Illumination, and for those wondering, the initialism is out of order because it’s French, and has a suitably unpronounceable French pronunciation) does define some “standard illuminants”, and the one you’re likely to run across most often, and usuallyin relation to video, is called “D65”, which is “intended to represent average daylight and has a correlated color temperature of approximately 6500 K”. This is as close to a scientific definition of “white” as we’re likely to get, and it works well enough for what we do.

If you’ve been around in the lighting world for a little while, you’ve probably heard of “color temperature”, and you probably even have a little bit of an idea about what it means, but here’s a refresher anyway. Color temperature is a phrase we use to describe how “warm” or “cold” lights look. When we talk about color temperature, we’re talking about what color of light we’d get if we heated up a special imaginary material called a “black body” to a given temperature, kind of like heating up a piece of iron in a fire. If you heated it up to 3,200 Kelvin, it would glow more red-ish, and if you kept heating it up, up to say – 5,600 Kelvin, then it would glow more blue-ish. The color of the light is dependent on how hot the “black body” substance is.

Certain materials, like the filaments inside old-fashioned light bulbs, glow when you heat them up, just like our imaginary “black body”. This is called “incandescence”. The thing about heating certain things up like that is that you can tell how hot they are by looking at the color of the light. Most old light bulbs heat up their filaments to around 2,700 Kelvin – over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives off a light that we see as a pleasing “warm” slightly yellow-ish color.

This is what people mean when they say “color temperature”. We know the colors of light that are emitted by materials at certain temperatures, and it works so well to describe certain colors of light that we use color temperature as shorthand for color. For instance, even though fluorescent lights don’t use heat to make light the same way a filament does, the light they give off looks close enough to 4,100 Kelvin that we just say its “color temperature is 4,100 Kelvin”, or whatever the lamp happens to be at. Daylight during a cloudy day has a high color temperature, around 7,000 Kelvin, while a candle burns around maybe 2,000 Kelvin. (By the way, for the sake of accuracy, it’s incorrect to say “degrees Kelvin”, as Kelvin is the scale.)

We tend to talk about reddish light as being warmer, and blue-ish light as being cooler, but it’s important to remember that we don’t mean actual temperature when we say that. In color temperature, the hotter something is, the blue-er it is, but artistically, we tend to think about red colors being warmer, and blue colors being cooler. So be aware of that reversal.

More important definitions of the color white is the perception of white to an audience member, and this is much more malleable than you might at first suspect. Perception of white light isn’t limited to just quote / unquote “white light”. Depending on the scene, there’s an entire range of colors near the center of the color space that could read as white, depending on the other colors in the scene. Under the proper conditions, a color that one would ordinarily read as quite saturated can be “assigned” by our brains to be white. Considering a given scene, our brains generally assign the palest (or the least saturated) color to be “white”. This happens over time, but it does happen. As a personal anecdote, I remember going to a gym when I was younger that was lit with very orange-hued sodium vapor lamps. The orange color was very noticeable when I first walked in, but after I had been there for a few hours, while I could still “see” the orange tint, I perceived it to be a lot less saturated, and it wasn’t until going outside again with full-spectrum daylight (which looked extremely purple for the first thirty or so seconds!) that I realized just how saturated the orange light was.

As an aside, this is also an example of what’s called “color fatigue”, and it’s a fun thing to play with in lighting, particularly if you shift a scene that has been lit in one color to its complement very quickly. The effect can be quite jarring and make the colors seem to “vibrate”.

The practical upshot of this is that colors in a scene are very malleable in terms of perception of white and you can use this to your advantage when selecting colors. You can use subtle tints to give your scene a more interesting color scheme than just “white and some other colors” and paint with hues on performers. Note that not all performers will be okay with colors of key light other than white, so you might expect some occasional pushback. But using subtle tints and shades as a key light is a great way to paint your scene. As Clifton Taylor says in his book, Color & Light, “The lighting designer can decide what white will be in a given scene and build the rest of the color composition around that…white.” While I believe Mr. Clifton is referring here to theatrical compositions, it nevertheless stands as an excellent exercise for concert designers to learn more about lighting as well.

Having defined our terms and talked a bit about color temperature and white lights in a scene, what are the practical implications to lighting songs or shows?

One of the most obvious practical consequences of light having different color temperatures in found when doing video. Cameras can only have one “white point” at a time, so if your scene is lit with an incandescent and daylight streaming in a window, either the incandescent will look very orange, or the light in the window will very blue, but the camera can’t “mesh” the two color temperatures together in a pleasing way. (Another brief tangent, I know I’m doing a lot of those: We don’t yet have an algorithmic artificial intelligence system that does color temperature correction in-camera and can harmonize different sources, but I don’t doubt that it’s being worked on, and no doubt its inventor will see much financial success if they can monetize it.)

It’s so important, when designing with IMAG in mind, to have a plan for (at a minimum) a color-balanced palette on the performer and the rest of the stage. It’s very important for the screens and the performer(s) on the stage to look as close as possible, and it’s important to talk to and work with the video crew on your production to make that happen. You may have to have a discussion about what colors and color temperatures the performer will be lit with in each song (if that changes) and let them know of any extremes that they might have to deal with so they can find a way to shoot the performance in a flattering way.

Speaking of IMAG, we lighting designers love a deep congo blue wash, but it’s basically impossible for cameras to “see” effectively. You nearly always cause clipping on the blue channel. I designed lighting for a Christmas concert once when I was younger, and for this one song I lit the three performers in a combination of congo blue and deep, deep red. It looked gorgeous to my eye, but during the performance my com was buzzing with the camera operators complaining they couldn’t focus effectively in that light. If there’s going to be a song that calls for an extremely deep saturated blue, maybe consider not doing IMAG for that song, or change your palette.

Lighting for IMAG and video could be a book in itself, and a really technical in-depth discussion is beyond the scope of what I’m going to talk about here. If you want further reading, I highly recommend the book Lighting for Digital Video and Television by John Jackman. It goes into great detail about some of these considerations.

One of these considerations is that you should think carefully about how costumes and what the performer(s) wear(s) is going to be affected by the colors chosen for a song or performance. If your performer comes out wearing a day-glow orange outfit, hitting it with a dark green light might not look good. Of course this is extreme example, but if costuming is a big part of your production, it’s a very good idea to have a conversation with the wardrobe designer ahead of time to see fabric swatches (or finished pieces if you have that luxury). Sometimes, despite its ubiquity, a 3200K light can make a particular fabric look dirty and brown. Conversely, 5600K can be stark and unflattering, depending on the context. Play carefully with tints and shades in these situations to find what looks best. The narrow bandwidth of LED sources can make fabrics look vastly different than under daytime light, and this is something to know early in the production.

Finally, let’s talk about one more variable to consider, which is skin tone: different skin tones can react differently to different colors, and this is also something to be careful of when designing concerts, especially in this age of Instagram, where your concert will be on social media the instant it happens.

Be careful of putting saturated colors onto darker skin tones, as the light can react in unexpected ways. At the same time, don’t be afraid to experiment with saturated colors to make a visual statement. The key here is to not try things live without testing them first. Be aware that a tiny amount of tint can make a huge difference. There’s a trope out there in the lighting world, which says to avoid greens or aquas on dark skin tones. Ignore that. The question to ask yourself is, does this tint work for my artist in this song? If that tint happens to be green or aqua and your artist is is a black or darker-skinned person. And if it feels right for the moment; if it effectively communicates the moment to the audience and helps the artist make a connection, go for it. Insecure’s Director of Photography, Ava Berkofsky, lights her actors of color with a variety of saturated tints, and the results are amazing.

The things that don’t work for one moment can work wonderfully in other moments. On Halsey, my artist had a medium complexion that I found reacted very well to a tiny bit of magenta for front light, and worked really well on IMAG (and Instagram!), but there were other moments where a stark white that would have otherwise been unflattering was perfect for an emotional moment. If you have the luxury of being able to experiment with the color on your talent, use that time to find what works and what doesn’t for their skin color.

So to recap this section, we spoke about how to come up with interesting palettes for your songs or performances, including using emotional and contextual associations, using the traditional artist’s color wheel to synthesize pleasing combinations, finding potential color palettes in the worlds of art, nature, film and television, fashion, books about art, lighting and color theory, design and art blogs on the internet, and the myriad of Intstagram posts that exist on the topic.

We also discussed color temperature and what the Kelvin scale means in terms of the color of light, and how we can alter and play with the perception of white light in a scene. We also briefly discussed color dominance theory as conceived by Josef Albers, and finished with a contemplation of how different materials, including skin, react to different lights.

Now let’s move away slightly from the abstract discussion of palettes into how we should use color in our songs and performances. Some of this will be basic programming, and some will be a bit more abstract.

The first question to ask when you sit down to start designing is: what do we want the audience to feel during this song? I truly think this is the most important question, because all the other choices that we will make derive from this one fundamental piece of information. Other important questions to ask ourselves before we begin programming are:

  • What is the content of the song? What feeling, or concept is the artist trying to convey with their music, and how are they going about that?
  • Is the song happy, sad, hopeful, nostalgic, angry, or some combination of these?
  • Again, what do we want people to feel, not only in an overarching sense of the entire piece of the music, but also at specific moments during the piece?

There are, of course, other considerations to bear in mind. Do the colors in our song fit into a larger conceptual framework within the show itself, and if so, how? In early versions of a concert concept that I pitched to a client, I argued for keeping everything completely monochromatic until the fourth song in, and then exploding the stage into vibrant chromatic brilliance. Perhaps the artist, or you, has ideas about what sort of story you want to tell across the time of the entire concert, and that might inform some of your color choices per song – restricting you to a certain limited palette, or even taking things monochromatic for an entire section. This slide (46) shows the evolution of color throughout The Matrix films, famous for their use of color. Note how the sickly-green world of the Matrix changes to dark blue hues in the “real world”, Zion is represented with earth and red tones. Shows can also follow this cinematic experience, telling a story that combines the use of video, music, light and color to drive the narrative. By the way, this graphic comes from a post titled “Exploring chromatic storytelling in movies with R”, by Tommaso Buonocore on Medium. It’s a great read.

Throughout all this discussion and theorizing, remind yourself not to allow the lighting to overpower the artist, or in other words, aim to be distraction-free. Even in the craziest and most insane EDM show or closing ceremonies of the Ultra or Tomorrowlands or whatever Unicorn Giggle Bubble Forest Laser Eyeball Assault desert festival the kids are into these days, the lighting and the artist or artists need to complement each other and work together in a symbiotic way so that the audience is transported and the message – whatever that is – gets communicated. Perhaps sometimes that message is “lighting is awesome”, but more often than not that message is something the artist has considered in a thoughtful way, and the lighting needs to support that message, not overpower it with high-tech awesomesauce.

Let’s support this discussion with a little practical programming theory, and the main point I want to discuss is the concept of subdivision, or the idea of parceling out the various sections of a song. This is obviously applicable to all areas of programming automated lighting in general, but it’s still worth mentioning. One of the initial things when you’re approaching a song for the purposes of programming is to break down the song into parts that we want to emphasize. Let’s try an example.

I hope everyone here knows “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift – Alex, I picked this for you – because that’s the song that we’re going with, and obviously I can’t broadcast it, so either imagine it, or listen to it on the platform of your choice. Let’s consider that opening drum part before the vocal. That opening drumbeat, which is surprisingly complex, has four or five distinct sounds and already establishes the mood for the song. It’s upbeat, peppy, bright, and it’s not going to be somber. There’s the big deep drum, the snare, the hand claps, the open high hat, and the closed high hat hit. Maybe there’s a pair of claves in the background, it’s hard to tell. But there are elements here that we might want to emphasize.

The first verse then starts, with a baritone sax in the background, and Tayor’s vocal. Note that at this point the song is musically sparse. It isn’t until the pre-chorus “But I keep cruising…” that more band elements start to come in. We don’t need to break down the entire song here, the point that I’m trying to make is this: all of these little musical elements, these parts where an instrument is more dominant in the mix for a moment, or a unique drum pattern, or the vocals reaching a crescendo, are moments that we might choose to make a color change. (Or, again since this really applies to programming in general, any sort of programming change.)

And once you’ve broken your song down, the next step is to choose an overall color scheme for the song, bearing in mind all of the things that we’ve talked about up until now. It will need to look at least somewhat different in terms of color than the song before it, generally speaking, unless you have an artistic reason for keeping things the same. There are legitimate reasons to do that, but for most concerts that I do, most songs have a unique color palette that helps to identify and separate them from the rest of the show, and that’s a good thing. That said, if by keeping the colors the same (or even going monochromatic, or mono-hue-matic) you’re making an artistic point, by all means, go for it.

Be aware of special moments, and remember to hold back when appropriate so the crescendos of the music and lighting have space around them to breathe. For instance, A Day in the Life by The Beatles follows a path toward a huge symphonic and instrumental build-up, which happens once after the first verse, but doesn’t resolve, and then happens again, but much larger, with one of the most famous sustained chords in music history, a huge E major chord. This moment would certainly counts as its own musical “moment”, and the surrounding lighting should be subdued slightly to allow this huge end moment a space to expand into

Related to this, you must also consider whether your color choices fit into the overall color scheme of the show – if one exists, but also, you must think about these colors making sense from a more theoretical perspective vis-a-vis the song’s intended meaning, or from an aesthetics perspective. Different parts of the song should look different, and breaking the song into, for example, verses, choruses, bridges, and endings can help to give you a starting place – not a final place, but a starting place – for deciding when color changes or other programming changes need to happen.

So to sum up this admittedly brief section, we spoke about some of the basics of programming, subdividing, and learning about when to make changes to the stage output. We also considered an example song, and hopefully started some further consideration about how emphasizing distinct elements within a song – whether by a color change or something else – can help to emphasize those elements to the audience.

Color mixing systems

Finally, a word about color mixing systems, and their limitations. All color mixing systems, regardless of whether they are additive or subtractive, have limitations in regards to speed, smoothness of the color in the beam, trades-offs in saturation, shades, and how zoom and focus affect all these. All of these factor in when automated lighting engineers and product managers are designing their lights, and no mix system can be perfect. It is incumbent upon the lighting designer and the programmer to understand the limitations of their tools and adjust their programming and expectations accordingly.

One major consideration is that across different manufacturers, you’ll see different hues as the basis for their color mix systems. One manufacturer’s cyan might be more green, another’s more blue; yellow can tend more toward red or more toward green. One thing all designers and programmers must do when they get on site (or with physical lights ahead of time, which is even better) is go through all the colors used in the show and update them so that they all match each other. If your LEDs are outputting a redder version of orange than your MAC Vipers are, you’ll want to adjust one or the other. Not matching sources makes your show look sloppy. I highly recommend spending some time to get this right.

Another limitation concerns the zoom and focus, for hard-edged lights particularly. While engineers try their level best, it’s not always possible given the limitations of the physical space inside of a light to find the “perfect” place for the color mixing glass to be at for all zoom or focus values. With many if not all spot or profile lights it’s possible to put the focus and zoom system into a situation where the color-mixing unevenness in the beam is exaggerated, this is particularly noticeable with half-mixed or pastel colors. This is something to be aware of when programming, and either adjust your color or your optical train to accommodate the issue, or perhaps use a fixed color.

Finally, what if your lights don’t color mix?

This is a special case when discussing lights that we use on smaller scale shows, and there are a few ways to deal with it. Many years ago on a small Christian music tour, I had a rig of Martin MAC 250 Entours, which are a smaller light that does not color-mix. However, the individual color filters on the fixed color wheel didn’t have any space between them, and were removable. What I did was to sit down and remove the fixed color filters, arrange them into a palette that worked better for my show, and then re-inserted them into the lights. When programming, I would use slow fades on the color channel to “slide” the wheel to the left or right, and tried to avoid situations where the lights needed to pass through two or more colors, and if they did, I’d do it when the lights weren’t outputting. I don’t think anybody noticed on that tour that my spots didn’t color-mix, and I had a great experience using an excellent light that had a limitation that I wouldn’t have chosen, but found a great workaround. (Of course, I did this with the permission of the lead tech at the shop where the lights were rented from!)

So using slow fades between adjacent colors is a great way to get milage out of non-color mixing lights, and using effects that slide or bump or whatever through adjacent fixed colors can add an interesting look to your show, even in lights that do color mix. One of my favorite looks that I stole from my friend Nate Alves was a bump that he did on his color wheels in his VL3000 spots, he had a song with a strong beat and he used an effect that started the spots in white, and then on the beat the fixed red would slam up into the beam, then slide down. It looked wicked cool and I’ve used that effect many times throughout my show.

To wrap up, here we discussed some limitations of color-mixing systems that you need to be aware of, as well as ideas for getting color milage out of lights that don’t color mix.

Which brings me to the end of my presentation. I’d like to thank everyone who attended, I hope you found the topic and the webinar engaging and I look forward to this pandemic being over so we can all get together in Vegas at LDI or Germany at PL+S and have some drinks in person. Again I’d like to thank my friends Brad Schiller and Laura Lawrence at Martin, and Martin for doing these webinars. And with that I’ll turn it back to Laura to field some questions for discussion.

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