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Conceptual Design Principles: Fundamentals of Lighting Design for Concerts – 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.

Buenas diaz, trawch-no-na mah, or guten abend, whatever works for where you are. Today is Thursday, August 20th, and my name is Craig Rutherford. First in my heart is to say is “Thank you” to all of you who are attending, again. I am right here with all of you in isolation, trying new hairstyles, doing housework, going through the daily grind, and I understand – or at least, I can imagine – the difficulties you are all experiencing. If I may be allowed the privilege of a sort of brief public service announcement, it would be this: please continue to take care of yourselves. Take breaks, keep a daily schedule, eat good food, and try not to succumb to despair. Let us all continue to stand together, striving to practice empathy in this disharmonous moment. Whether your hours have been merely cut or, like me, you really haven’t had work since February. Seeing the camaraderie of this industry over the past few months has been inspiring. It is again a privilege to be here with you, and I am again humbled that you’ve taken the time to join with me here today. I understand that this is the one-hundredth Martin webinar, so we’re all gathered here on a nice round number, which is an exciting milestone, and I’m grateful to Martin Professional and Harman for bringing us all together in this way.

In my last webinar, we deeply explored the topic of color theory. What I want to do in this presentation is pull back the proverbial camera lens and broaden the topic to the fundamentals of all areas of lighting design for concerts, and talk in depth about what makes an effective lighting design for a performance, and how to use the tools at our disposal to create something truly memorable for our audience. And as last time, I personally think in terms of “songs” at a concert, because that’s a lot of what I do, so when I refer to songs, understand that that term can stand in for any chunk of time, into which you could substitute “scene” or “act” or “performance” and still arrive at the same general understanding. Also, there are going to be things in here that are more “opinion of the art” and not really “hard, established science”. With those things in mind, let us begin.

Our topic today I have titled “Conceptual Design Principles: Fundamentals of Lighting Design for Concerts”.

Our first fundamental concept we shall acknowledge here, is that I believe that we as lighting designers deal in just one currency, and that is looks. A look is a slice of time, however short or long, where our stage has a particular visual appearance. This could be a song, part of a song, the stage for an entire speech of a talking head-style presentation, or anything that could be differentiated from what is before or after it. What differentiates one look from another could be a color, a gobo, a video clip, the focus position of the lights, even a particular sequence of flashes or dimmer chases. It could be a minute, an hour, or a moment.

Years ago I went to see a show at the Nashville Arena. Now, I’m not sure what corporate investment group has the naming rights these days, but people who are from Nashville know the building I’m talking about. This was a big rock show, and the designer had a truly spectacular rig of lights – TMB Flares, pixel-mappable LED washes, Sharpies, everything, and they had them in numbers. And the lighting was noticeably bad. For movement effects, there were a few can-cans, there was a circle bally where all of the lights went the same direction, together, in what looked to me like a canned “circle” effect that had an offset uniformly applied to it, without either randomization to break up the effect at all, or any symmetry applied that made sense, and those effects kept getting re-used. The Flares were all up in my face burning my retinas way too often, the Sharpys made cool Sharpy beams but that was all they did. They had LED wash lights, a model which I know had pixel-mapping or at least some internal animations, and these abilities were ignored for just big beams or wash looks throughout the night.

Now, did the music call for bombastic, in-your-face, even “basic” lighting at times? It did, it was a big rock show, and needed to be programmed as a big rock show. But the lighting lacked taste, a sense of cohesion, and the designer failed to make use of all of the things the lights could do, which I felt ultimately left the lighting feeling bland and unimaginative. Between ostentatious flash ‘n’ trash and ascetic starkness, there is good taste that a good design will occupy, and within this art lies the concept of making the lights not flashy, not overbearing, but visually attractive and interesting in a sense that is complementary to the music or the mood.

I tell this story to illustrate the fact that having a giant rig of the newest cool lights available to you does not mean that your show is going to have good looks. Now, it can be a different challenge to make a small rig look the way you want it to, but merely having tons of lights at your disposal will not produce results without the skill of the programmer. Lighting is art, it is looks, and just turning on lights and fiddling with the dials will likely not produce a memorable experience. Art, that is, looks, require intentionality.

I: Lighting Design

The ultimate goal of any lighting design is to light the space that the performance takes place in, and to light the people (or objects, hello car show people) doing the performing. Along the way, hopefully we can bring to bear some visual interest as well. So, let’s explore some fundamental concepts to keep in mind as part of our creative toolkit.

A basic lighting design consists of light sources, and a space, generally with some human interaction in the form of an actor, a performer, or some objects. Usually for concerts, we’re lighting humans. Further, lighting design is a visual experience within both space and time, and this is important to remember. At this most basic level of lighting design, understand these properties of light:

  • Light directs attention. The brightest part of a scene is generally the part that people are going to look at first.
  • Light reveals form and shape, conversely, its lack can conceal them.
  • And finally, light helps the audience understand the emotional content of the scene.

To begin to paint our visual picture, we have to understand the tools that we have at our disposal. There are many different ways of categorizing lighting, but I’m going to go with “beam shape”, because I think it’s the most salient for the purposes of our discussion. Generally speaking, we have four different types of lights that we can consider, with two “main” types:

  • Hard-edged. These are lights where there’s an ability to focus the edges of the light into a sharp edge, and usually, we use the light’s ability to have variable focus to do things like have various shutters and gobos and animation wheels to change the shape of the light when projected onto scenery, or change how the beams look in the air when we have haze or smoke.
    • A special case: many times, the profile lights that we use for lighting talent are hard-edged. (ETC Source4, Martin MAC Viper Performances, etc)
  • Wash lights. These tend to have much different optical characteristics than hard-edged lights, and typically utilize a Fresnel or a softer lens system that blends the edges of the beam, but also blurs the shadows that result from an object blocking the beam.
  • And then, there are specialized lights:
    • Beam lights. These are a special type of light that really started with some Clay-Paky products several years ago, and are useful in projecting a tight beam of concentrated light over a long range. Some of them have gobos or patterns and prisms, but generally they’re most useful for shooting massively bright laser-like beams across arenas. They’re also generally bright enough to be seen without haze, which is why you’ll often see many of them on outdoor shows where filling a large area with haze is impractical or difficult. The SuperBowl is a good example of this.
    • Oddball lights. These don’t fit into any other category. They don’t necessarily share any optical characteristics because they tend to be specialized. SVOBODAs, Linnebach Lanterns, which can be used to great effect in your designs, but which are not commonly seen.

So, how do we use these tools to begin to light the performance and the spaces? Together with instrument selection, the first thing that must be decided upon before beginning to create an effective design is your layout. Quick note on terminology here: “lighting design” refers to both the design of the overall layout of the lights within the space, and the lighting design for individual songs, but for this latter use I’ll say “programming” to help differentiate it from the other type of design.

Here at the outset is a good place to discuss one of the staples of lighting design layout, the three-point lighting scheme. This is where we have two lights from the front, and one from the back, with the front two being situated at 45º angles to the subject to be lit, with the back light providing, well, backlight. Studying this basic arrangement can teach us a lot about the fundamentals of lighting. Especially when, many times, we’re lighting humans.

Human bodies, unlike spherical cows, have a lot of little bumps and valleys on them, and so lighting them with a single light from the front makes the features of, say, a human face, look flat and uninteresting. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, it is shadows – the absence of light – that most reveal the contours and curves of the human form. The simple arrangement of two lights from the front helps to give adequate light to our subject, while still providing for the possibility of shadow to help reveal shape and form. The rear light helps to do a few things: most importantly, lighting falling on a subject from the rear helps to light the shoulders and define the shape of the head, pulling the subject out of the background – the face being the thing that we’re going to be most closely watching – and the rest of the body as well. However, while a good three-point lighting design does provide dimensionality for the object being lit, it doesn’t cover all scenarios, and in moving lighting around to other angles, we can communicate mood and setting.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s consider other lighting angles, and how doing so changes the mood of a scene.

  • Directly above. Having a strong light perpendicular to the plane of the floor can achieve a look that is hard, harsh, and can read as mysterious or sinister. (Fun fact, I’m a left hander, and the word “sinister” is derived from the Latin word for left-handedness. Thanks, Caesar.) Anyway, strong downlight places the features into extreme contrast, if you can even see them at all, and by simply tilting the head forward a touch, a performer can shroud their face in darkness but still have a strong halo effect on their hair and shoulders. Think of a trope scene from the world of film Noir: the mysterious stranger, face half-hidden in the yellow glare of a sickly street lamp which shines straight down on them from above, waiting in the foggy darkness for their contact from the world of espionage. We can imply a lot with just a single light source and a color.
  • Low back lighting. Silhouetting performers takes away their identity as specific people and turns them into just shadows, but in this masking of feature, the audience is forced to focus on their movements, the cadence of their dancing, the subtle nods and gestures they make. We see them in a new light in the very absence of light. Using a strong backlight doesn’t just mean lighting for straight silhouettes, however. In the absence of a lit backdrop, we can backlight a performer with some haze, and the performer now engages with the resultant beams in a much more interactive way: their body controls dramatic shafts of light as they spread outward from the point of origin.
  • High back lighting. We can use high back lighting on its own to create dramatic washes and silhouettes, but combined with other sources it adds tint and shade to a scene without changing the colors of an actor’s face, which is often desirable. Up in the air is obviously where we place most of our lighting, because it’s a really versatile place to have lighting. We can point it down, or across the stage to the side, or straight out at the audience.
  • Sidelight. Often seen in dance, side light is particularly effective at revealing physical form. And as with all of these lighting positions, height off of the vertical plane can change the look. Low sidelight, as you might expect, comes from sources that are quite low to the floor, and it allows performers to be lit from head to toe without any spill or shadows on the floor, which can create a dramatic presence. Coincidentally, it also creates very tall shadows off to the sides, which can enhance a production if that’s the look that you’re going for. Shifting side lights higher up creates a more natural look that can strongly suggest late afternoon or early morning sunlight, and again, moving these can completely change the mood of a scene.
  • Lighting from below. This is a not-often-seen direction of lighting, at least on its own. Many productions use shin lights or relatively low-intensity uplighting to help fill in shadows on a performers’ face; think of those classic shell-shaped footlights on old-timey Broadway shows or stages. But on its own, strong uplight can be incredibly dramatic. Part of the reason for this is that we almost never see faces lit from below; uplighting in our day-to-day lives is a rare occurrence. A strong uplight gives faces an eerie, otherworldly appearance that suggests horror, instability, and dread. A perfect example from the world of film can be seen in Kubrik’s The Shining, during the scenes with the spectral barkeeper Lloyd at the illusory bar in the Overlook Hotel. Here, Roy Walker’s set design has lighting running through the bar itself that Jack and Lloyd converse at, uplighting Nicholson’s face and – even though the lighting is soft – giving the audience a feeling of unease. This tendency for strong uplight to make faces (and indeed, other objects) look unnatural can be exploited to great effect in concerts and live events by forcing the audience to question what they’re seeing for a moment, casting the familiar in unfamiliar light.

Therefore, we see that direction is important, but there are other aspects of a given lighting design to consider as well. One of these is evenness, and here, evenness refers to having relatively balanced amounts of each type oflighting available (though not necessarily used or on all the time) across the entire set. You want to be able to have all parts of the set and performance space lit such that the dynamic range works for both cameras and eyeballs, both of which are a huge part of today’s concert experience. But that said, part of the art of contrast is drawing sharp distinctions between lit and unlit, dark and light, and emphasizing spatial relationships with the tools of contrast. So when you hear me say “evenness”, what I’m arguing for isn’t the six o’clock news look, but an awareness of dynamic range, and of the specific use that each light is designed for, and the specific look that it gives.

One obvious way by which we can effect this requirement is by having a mix of lighting instruments and distributing all of our types in ways that make sense around the performance space, and taking note of any gaps that remain, and working to place lighting in that area that helps to fill in whatever is lacking. For instance, consider a simple stage design wherein you have a row of hard-edged fixtures across an upstage truss. This will give you only one “look” of light from one angle, above and behind. To help fill this in, you could add some moving (or even static) wash lights, to help paint the stage with color. Even better, you could place some wash lights on the same truss, and then some others off to the side to help mix some different angles into the mix.

Having a variety of lighting positions that can all fulfill the two basic lighting functions (hard-edged and wash) will help to keep a lighting design rounded, but this isn’t to say that every position needs to have a mix of all lights to be effective. Remember that particularly in a concert context, we will hopefully have haze to paint with our light on, and illuminated beams in haze can help to fill in spots that might otherwise be dark on the stage, as well. Having bursts of lights around the set that fill only one niche can be visually effective, as well. The point here is not to strive for an even blanket of lights across the “visual canvas” necessarily, but to be able to fill in lighting where needed, and to have the ability to evenly cover the performance space – or surface, if you will – in light. In other words, we want to avoid having a situation where a performer can unintentionally get themselves out of the light; we want to make sure that all possible performance space can, potentially, be covered. Beyond that, we want to strive to make sure that a certain balance is reached between light and dark areas: it’s no good to have large, visually obvious dark spaces upstage that never receive any light and are visual “black holes”, so to speak, unless it’s an intentional choice for the purposes of an effect. The concept of evenness, then, covers a the idea of lighting the entire set…but not all of the time, and not always in the same way. Using a combination of hard-edge, washes, and, critically, accent lighting, you can make sure that every relevant angle of a visual design can have light.

On the topic of evenness, a word about coverage: adequate coverage on all areas of the stage that your talent is likely to travel to is one of the most important aspects of creating a good lighting design, and also one of the hardest to implement. As anyone who’s worked on a concert knows, artists have a toddler-like sense for knowing where it is they shouldn’t go, and then going there. If there’s a dark spot in your coverage, or a sidefill they can hide behind to get away from a followspot, you can bet your bottom dollar they will go there. A good lighting designer will bear this tendency in mind and do their best to ensure all possible areas are covered, and when you cannot, have a serious conversation with your artist about them avoiding areas you have taped-off on your stage to indicate there is no light there. Side note, because I’ve been there: to those of you dealing with the more…anarchic “stars” and precious “wannabes”, I say to you: good luck and godspeed. Of course, a poorly-planned lighting or scenic design can make even a well-intentioned performer have trouble finding their light. Previz software or even a physical model can help tremendously in making sure your lights aren’t being shaded by any errant piece of physical set or a line array, or even another light. Remember that at extreme angles, you need to account for lights that might be shining through other lighting fixtures or projection equipment on the same truss, so account for that then you’re planning. That point bears repeating: when designing lighting rigs, do not forget the line arrays.

Finally, in terms of layout, I want to talk about repeatability, and symmetry. A powerful aspect of visual design is repeated motifs, which we often see in disciplines like architecture and interior design, and are also often used in concert lighting design. Here is a picture of a design by LeRoy Bennett, who designed this stage for the German band Rammstein. Note the repeated motif of the circles of light, which form an interesting visual platform upon which to base the rest of the lighting rig. Repeating it across the stage allows the designer to fill in the visual space with something interesting, and Bennett here is using the large, silver surfaces of the circles as part of the visual statement, not just a container for additional lights. These circles help to add a focus point the visual design, and repeating the motif, as well as its size, establishes it as important in the overall visual canvas. Here are some other examples of repeated motifs, and notice how powerful of a visual statement they can make. We don’t see large matrices of beams of light in our everyday lives, and so the novelty of it can be really quite attention-grabbing. “Lighting pod” designs have an enduring popularity, because repeating lighting effects spatially looks good, and repeating a symbol or set piece forms a point of visual interest.

Another way to add visual interest is through the use of both symmetry and asymmetry. Both are good, both are “correct” within the context of concert lighting design, and both should be used within a performance to keep things from becoming too visually “flat”. Many designers, when they’re first starting to design, automatically assume certain things about the design, and one of those is that symmetry should be a constant. Symmetry can be a powerful visual tool, particularly because it’s uncommonly encountered in large scales in the real world except in architecture. But the reverse can also be true about asymmetry – bringing all of your spots, for instance, to point stage left and all of your washes to point stage right can break the audience out of a state of dulled expectation. While set design is largely beyond the scope of this webinar, the same goes for scenic design, as well.

One final note on the art of creating effective lighting layouts is incorporating crowd light into your design. Personally, I think just throwing four molefays onto your DS truss and calling it a day is the very, very least that one can do, because it looks lazy. Crowd lighting can be easy to overlook because we’re often so focused on the stage, but it’s important on almost all shows that you will do, for a few reasons. One, artists very much like to see the faces of their adoring fans. Two, particularly on shows that use IMAG, giving the IMAG operators the chance to do some audience shots will be appreciated. And finally, in this age of Instagram in everyone’s pocket, providing concert-goers with, at least, occasional opportunities to take awesome pictures of themselves at their memorable event can only reflect well on the lighting designer as someone who takes social media and the individual experience into account.

Effective crowd light will be out of the audiences eyes, preferably coming from the sides and behind, to cut down on glare, and always be much lower in intensity than the light coming from the stage. Part of the psychological expectation of being at a concert is that the house will remain dark – bright lights coming on so that the “house” is seen breaks that expectation, so modulate your crowd light intensity accordingly.

II: Looks

Now that we’ve considered placement and layout as it relates to design, let’s talk about the visual design and “look” aspect of lighting, in the sense of actually pointing lights around the stage and creating a visual display.

To help further illustrate this idea of looks, I want to bring to your attention the musical concept of leitmotif. Bring to mind, if you will, the music of Star Wars. John William’s score for this film is legendary, and part of what makes his work so brilliant is his use of leitmotif. These are recurring phrases of notes that are associated with a particular character, or location, or concept. In Star Wars, the Imperial March (you’ve probably heard the song) is associated with Darth Vader, and the Force Theme is associated with the Force, and Yoda. Hearing those notes is a sound-based cue of association, and we can apply the same idea to the use of lighting.

To build on this theme, so to speak, not only do we create looks in a general sense, we can use “leitmotif” building blocks within those looks to reference certain concepts, beats, dance moves, almost anything. Most of the time, I think, what we tend to do is use a look for each “part” of the song – chorus, verse, solos, and so on, and this is a legitimate use of the concept. But more broadly applying this concept to other elements within a performance, and then, importantly, bringing them back to reference them later, leads to a sense of continuity and progression that can be very satisfying.

It’s also important, before doing any part of the lighting programming for a song or a section or whatever it is you’re considering, to take the time to understand and internalize the emotional and narrative structure and context of the piece you’re working on. Only through understanding these themes and the emotions and feelings that the artist intends their song or performance to engender can we as the designers begin to approach the lighting of the performance. It is our job as the lighting designer to transliterate the emotional language and content from the music and what the artist does onstage to light. 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. 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.

We’ll continue our discussion with three fundamental aspects that I think are most important to lighting design as it relates to programming, and these are coherence, contrast, and coverage. All of these are inter-related and inter-dependent, and we’ll examine each one in detail. To be clear at the outset, when we discuss these fundamental concepts, we can apply them across any temporal or time period – whether that’s a song, a section of a concert, the entire show, or even sections within a song itself. In fact, utilizing a variety of time spans with all these concepts makes for a more visually rich show, and it’s something you should do.

Of importance here is to recognize the power of balancing novelty and similarity. Those of you who are parents know that babies are attracted to novelty – things that they’ve never seen before. Experiments with babies and small children have shown time and time again that we as humans crave that which we have never seen before. For instance, my own youngest daughter, who is just now fifteen months old, has recently taken a fascination to some very colorful plastic utensils from IKEA. We do not grow out of this tendency as we grow older; our tastes just tend to become more expensive, like fancy remote control drones and concert tickets. For the average concert-goer who attends maybe one or two shows a year, the modern rock concert provides a rich backdrop of novel experience in a visual sense; large technically-rich lighting shows not being a part of everyday experience. Playing into this tendency helps to hold the audience’s attention, but pulling out new tricks every other verse of a song will be overwhelming, as well as being creatively difficult – your lights will only do so much. Strive for balance between novelty and, for lack of a better word, sameness. Referencing ideas and concepts consistently helps reinforce coherent themes – for instance, the moment when the astute audience member realizes that “red” represents “the future”, or whatever the case may be, is an intellectually stimulating exercise for the viewers, but it doesn’t work unless you work to set up and reinforce those themes throughout a show. On the other hand, re-using the same gobo morph or ballyhoo will become trite and uninteresting. To put it succinctly, between visual chaos and stagnation is a realm of good taste we should all strive to be familiar with.

To begin with, let us consider the concept of coherence, and an examination of what makes a tasteful programming “come together”. On a basic level, some visual element or group of visual elements should tie a design together spatially, temporally, together with some aspect of the light. This could be a color, a gobo, even something as subtle as a zoom range or a focus position. Let’s look at some examples here, and discuss them.

Color is an obvious way that we can express coherence, within a song, a chunk of a song, or any other period that we want to consider. Setting all of the lights to the same color across a stage provides a consistent canvas across with to begin to play with color. A deep discussion of color is beyond the scope of this webinar, but Martin generously allowed me to do a webinar on color theory for concerts previous to this webinar, so if that topic interests you, you should go check it out.

Coherence can also be expressed other ways, say through movement. We could, for instance, have a specific sweep that we do across the stage or through the audience to indicate the emotion of happiness, or a specific time period being expressed in a song, or a physical place, or the more general concept of “conflict” – by building specific visual “leitmotifs” and repeating them across time, we reinforce the theme. This last bit is the key to making the concept work – repetition across time. Repetition equals importance. Repeating visual motifs or “cues” across time is how the audience comes to associate the visual cue with the lyrical or musical cue. Expressing coherence through uniformity of angle of lighting, of color temperature, of color, of movement – even chaotic movement – is a powerful tool for the expression of meaning and emotion. While it might seem obvious, a reminder here about the backdrop of all this poetry in light: the music. People usually come to concerts knowing at least some of the songs, or even most of the songs, so allow the audiences’ knowledge of and love for the music factor into the calculations you make with regard to the balancing act of coherent programming.

This brings us to our second fundamental concept to consider, and that is contrast. Often we speak about contrast in terms of color, but we can apply the concept more broadly than to just hue. Think of contrast in terms of using the lighting instruments to differentiate not only color and brightness, but also in terms of opposing pairs of qualities: do we have both light and darkness? Saturated color and pastels or white? Movement and stillness? Texture and flat washes? Gobos and smooth shafts of light? Narrow beams, and fat beams? Hard, crisp focus, and soft pools of ethereal light? This is not to say that every scene needs to be a study in opposites, but what every performance should have is a study of contrasts over some period of time. Is one part of a song bright? What is that brightness contrasted against? Perhaps the first half of the concert is devoid of gobos and pattern, the next we texture every available surface. Again, an important precept is that we approach and consider lighting design in two ways: in both a granular sense on a case-by-case basis within songs or bits of performance, but also as “chunks” of the performance that reach around and beyond individual songs and encompass “sections”, however big you want to make those. Further, we have to reach our consideration beyond those chunks and consider the performance as a whole, as something greater than the sum of its parts.

Some other practical areas that we can apply contrast to, are for example, brightness. Contrast in brightness can make a statement, either in its liberal application or its relative lack of being in a particular scene. Maybe for part of a song, you want to apply a very flat, six-o’clock-news look to the stage or performer, and another part of the performance calls for deep shadows. Contrast in pattern can be very exciting, mixing different gobos, morphing them back and forth to create alternating patterns, putting patterns with a strong linear component adjacent to patterns with strong circles or breakups can make a strong statement.

Contrast in a more concrete sense of the qualities of light that our fixtures output is important as well. Different optical systems and lenses create different looks of light, and nowhere is this more evident than in the differences between a proper wash light and a hard-edged light. The difference really cannot be overstated, and it remains a fundamental of making lighting designs look balanced. A proper Fresnel wash light has a softness about it that makes it look very different from the light cast by a hard-edged spot. It also looks much more different (and better) than a so-called “hybrid” light with a heavy frost optic across the output. The contrast between soft and “hard” beams, a sharp cut-off vs a gradual fade off, is one of the most powerful tools a lighting designer has because, other than gobos and shutters, is one of the few ways we can truly alter the shape of light. There is a vast difference in mood between a person lit with a dramatic shaft of textured hard-edged light, and a person lit with a dramatic shaft of focused-yet-soft Fresnel light. Plano-convex lenses provide additional ways to shape the light to our liking – the PC lens option on the Vari-Lite VL3500 Wash is a great example of this. It’s not a wide wash, but it also is not a spot, it’s something in between, and it has a different look to it altogether than either of those. To remind you: we as designers deal in looks, and the ways in which we alter the light to suit our needs is the currency of visual design.

And this brings us to coverage, the final piece of the puzzle in our three fundamental concepts. Coverage I define as being able to light all of the areas of the stage, but beyond that, being able to light our areas with each type of light and different purposes of light, so that we can effectively create the mood we want, in the places on the stage we want it to be. We already briefly discussed coverage when discussing layouts, and we return to it here when to discuss types of coverage. These four types I conceive as:

  • Directional or spot lighting
    • This is when we point at light at something to light it, specifically, irrespective of how anything else on the stage is lit. Examples include a dramatic shaft of light shining onto a performer, a row of narrow PARs focused at a car, etc.
  • Wash lighting
    • Wash lighting or area lighting I think will be intuitively understood by most people: it’s lighting meant to cover a large area. Rows of washes zoomed out to cover a stage is an obvious example, but hard-edge fixtures painting a gobo pattern over a large portion of set can, in this instance, also be thought of as wash lighting.
  • Beams
    • Beams of light shining through haze or fog, which might or might not be focused at any one thing in particular, but the primary purpose of which is to create dramatic shafts of light in the air, not necessarily to light an object.
  • Accent lighting
    • Lights, generally on the smaller side, which are meant to highlight bits of scenery or people in a small, controlled way. Lots of times accent lighting remains hidden from view; its purpose is to reveal the form of scenery or small bits of set.

Let’s take each of these in turn, keeping in mind at the outset that lighting can serve more than one purpose: a bank of spot lighting could serve to wash an area, as well, so these “purposes” are not at odds with each other; rather, I think it’s helpful to conceive of these in terms of percentages. For instance, the purpose of that bank of spots shining down is 75 of the time spot, 25 percent of the time wash. This sort of thinking helps to highlight the interdependent nature of lighting purposes.

To dive deeper, let’s start with directional or spot lighting. We intuitively understand, as humans, that pointing a light at something indicates its importance on a stage. As we said earlier, our eyes are drawn to the portion of the stage that is lit the brightest; intensity of illumination as a proxy for relevance on a stage. Pointing lights at specific places is like a giant finger pointing at them that says “Look at this!” and it’s a powerful tool to direct attention to places you want to, and – conversely – using its absence to get people to ignore places you don’t want them to look, during set changes or the like.

Combining this idea with that of contrast, and you can begin to see how a scene in which we layer different intensities works: the most important parts of the scene are brightest, but layering different intensities gives us contrast to provide visual interest and illuminate the rest of the performance.

Moving on, let’s discuss wash lighting. With wash lighting, we can paint large sections of the stage with splashes of color, which, as the name would imply, is one of the primary uses of wash lights. Units with Fresnel optics can create a dreamy or hazy look by creating soft-edged shadows. However, we can wash large sections of the stage with hard-edged fixtures as well, which gives a totally different look than by using wash fixtures with Fresnel or stippled optical characteristics. You can accomplish a stage wash with zoomed-out gobos, and apply a textured wash to large areas. Wash lighting is also a good way to play with contrast, as the concept implies applying lighting across large areas of scenery and performances. Stages often have a lot of contrast across their visual fields, and using a lot of wash lighting can help reduce the contrast as an effect, by blanketing the area and making everything smooth and even.

Our third type of coverage is beams, in which we use the lighting not to light a specific something or someone on the stage, but rather use light simply for its own sake, and intentionally light the haze in the air to create dramatic sculptural forms out of light. There is a real art to doing this, because by mixing and matching the types of lighting and the effects (gobos, irises, shutter cuts) that you’re using, you can get a variety of interesting effects. It’s important not to over-light with beams, because things can quickly get messy and over-lit. Turning lights off can make as powerful a statement as turning them on: the lessons of minimalism are really applicable here.

Finally, we come to accent lighting as a form of coverage. Accent lighting can act as the real secret sauce of a lighting design, pulling in disparate elements by allowing you to use lighting to bring them together. Generally, we use accent lighting on set pieces, but you can also use it on people, in the right contexts. Accent lighting is, as we said, generally hidden from view, but by lighting set pieces with it, you can add dimensionality to your programming. As the fixtures chosen for accent lights are generally small, they’re usually less expensive and easier to implement in large numbers around your stage than larger moving-head fixtures. Think of accent lighting as a way to play with dimensionality: it gives clues about visual depth to the audience, giving them a greater sense of the depth of the stage and how far away individual elements are from them, which can help to erase some of the “flatness” caused by viewing everything head-on. It also allows you to color entire regions of sets, which adds dynamism and visual interest to your designs.

To bring this section to a conclusion, remember that nearly every look, nearly every visual that you find yourself putting together on a stage is going to have all of these in some combination, and in fact, nearly every visually effective design or scene is going to have more than one of these in some combination. We will usually need at least some wash to help define the space, some accent lighting to help bring dimensionality to our scenic designs. Sometimes if we have a lot of beams, it might be visually interesting to turn off all of the washes for a moment. Visually effective moments could have just a striking scenic design illuminated by only accent lighting.

This is also a good place to talk about letting your programming breathe, and not to get too carried away with having every light on all the time. In fact, depending on the number of lights that you have available, it’s a good idea to keep at least some of them off for each song, to force yourself to use things creatively and not get into the bad habit of having every light on all the time. Far from wasting the potential of a rig, this actually enhances its utility, both by forcing you to be more creative in using it, and by not allowing the audience to get too “used” to any one look of a light fixture or beam type. Keeping some lights off when you most want to turn them on can force you into new ways of seeing things.

Finally, let’s talk about the special case of lighting your talent. An effective lighting design will usually (there are few exceptions) be based around the idea that what most people are most interested in seeing is their favorite performer, as good as they possibly can see them. With this in mind, it becomes clear that perhaps the most important light is the “money” light – the light on a performer’s face and body. Do not skimp on lighting your talent, because while you may have programmed the most beautiful lighting design to end all others, it matters not one whit if your talent can’t be seen by the people, or indeed, by the many, many cameras – both yours and other people’s – that will be capturing them. At a minimum, for good photography light, aim for two sources of light from either side at between 45º to 60º off center, and some good strong backlight to pull them out of the background with some shoulder and hair light. These ingredients are critical in making sure that your talent stands out from the rest of the stage. That said, there are artistic or other reasons why you might not want to this All The Time. Perhaps you want a silhouette look, or a particularly flat and low-contrast look because it fits the theme of the song or section of the concert. Those are valid, but be aware that these artistic desires must always be balanced with the desire of the audience to get as close as they can visually, and have a psychological connection with their artist.

As for instruments, I’m a huge fan of automated followspots for lighting, by which I mean taking a conventional intelligent fixture and either disconnecting its pan and tilt and adding a handle and DMX for control, to the more advanced options of something like the PRG Ground Control system or the Robe RoboSpot. These systems allow the LD perfectly synchronized and manual control over the brightness levels, colors, iris, or any other attribute that the light has, and in the hands of an attentive operator can be about the least visually intrusive option that there is. I say “intrusive” because I think followspots are bad (in a visual sense) because they are a distraction and they break up any sort of look that you have going on stage. To that end, I prefer more followspots run at lower intensity to cover artists rather than having just one or two Big Beefy Bois shining in all their glory clear across an arena. Running at lower intensity means the light interacts less with the haze, which can help clean up a look. Really, until Rosco invents a gel that makes a beam of light invisible to haze, we’re going to have to live with the problem of lighting talent with followspots. I’m also a fan of automated backlight followspots, because you can create some truly lovely looks using that technique. Of course, if your budget allows for something like BlackTrax and a team of engineers to implement it, I salute and envy you.

A last word about artist light: don’t be afraid to get artistic with it – strong sidelight from one or both sides, backlight only, or if it works, bathing the entire stage in sea foam green. But program in moments throughout the show to give your artist a real blanket of beauty light – a nice balance of warm and cool from different directions, as good an approximation of a photography studio as you can – because that is the photograph that’s going to headline any article or social media post that gets attention.

To bring it all home: we as lighting designers deal in just one currency, and that is looks. Our looks define the flow of the show, the narrative, it defines how smoothly we slide from one song to the next. Looks are the thing we create that have value to the artists that we work for, and the audience that spends their hard-earned money to come see a show.

And with that, I come to the end of my presentation. I hope that despite this perhaps being a bit more on the abstract side, you learned something or heard a concept that challenged or helped you. I want to again thank Martin Professional and Harman for inviting me to come give this talk to all of you, and I want to thank all of you for taking time out of your day and schedule to spend a few minutes chatting with me about this thing that we love to. Finally, I want to thank Mallory for being our master of ceremonies, so to speak, and with that we’ll open it up to questions from the audience.

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