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Lighting Versus Video!

The Blueshift Design Blog has lain dormant for a month or two, due to excessive business designing two shows (including our first Las Vegas residency!) gearing up for LDI, and work on a new podcast. Stay tuned!

Way back in the day, video screens were really heavy, really dim, and prone to really horrible color shifts as the various elements of the projectors converged incorrectly. Today’s LED screens are much lighter, orders of magnitude brighter, and now compete with even the most powerful strobes for the brightest element on the stage.

In any discussion regarding using lighting and video elements alongside each other, it will be important to first clearly define the terms in play. With the proliferation of LED tech, especially fixtures featuring multiple LED arrays, the line because what constitutes “video” and what constitutes “lighting” is increasingly blurred. For my purposes, I consider “video” elements to be made to do one thing, and that is take a video signal and faithfully reproduce it, without any of the other attributes that stage lighting generally has. What we’re talking about with “video” are elements that don’t move, and aren’t intended to be used in any kind of general “stage lighting” role. While there are LDs out there that successfully blend the two – and that skill is something I’ll touch on – we’re talking about a “traditional” conception of lighting and video as separate and distinct entities.

My first tour with Big Daddy Weave, we had a very small couple-thousand watt projectors mounted on our downstage truss, pointing at a screen mounted upstage which we used to display moving backgrounds and lyrics for the songs. It was never bright enough – it was incredibly easy to misplace a wash light beam to completely eradicate the meager light that issued forth from the projector. By the time I was touring with Ronnie Dunn, I had a very light, very bright Linx-18 LED wall – by no means the brightest on the market – competing with powerful effects lights and strobes on the stage. The situation continues today with no sign of stopping. LED screens are now perfectly capable of producing images bright enough to compete with full-on cloudless midday sunshine. LED banks can deliver truly stunning amounts of luminous power, no question about it.

This brightness however, when not tempered with some basic design sense, can be incredibly visually harsh, and in many instances that I’ve seen, video completely and utterly obliterates the stage lighting, destroying not only whatever visual effect the lighting might otherwise be creating on stage, but making it difficult to see the performers. To be clear, we’re talking about two separate issues here: 1) video that is too bright, relatively speaking, for the lighting, and 2) video that is too bright in an absolute sense for the human eye.

Let’s address number one. A basic tenant of stage lighting is that your sources, generally speaking, shouldn’t be orders of magnitude brighter than any others. To put this into practical terms, don’t use 250-watt spot fixtures with 1500-watt wash movers. COB (Chip On Board) LED emitters, which is the way the vast majority of LED screens are manufactured these days, can be blindingly bright, but this brightness can easily obliterate even a Sharpy in open white. This power is so easy to abuse, however, that I’ve seen some of even the biggest touring acts with screens that are so bright they wash out not only cameras, but the dynamic range of our eyes, which is far greater than that possessed by any video camera.

What’s important to realize from a design standpoint is that once the precedent is set at the beginning of a show, the audience and their eyes will adjust to quite different levels of illumination. If your sources match lumen-wise, the human eye will accept quite a few fewer lumens than one might think, and the show will end up looking great. A lighting (or video, or both) show need only ensure that no source is vastly brighter (or dimmer) than any of the others – and once that baseline is established, the audience isn’t particularly likely to notice if you’re using a 575-watt mover versus a 700-watt one. There are limits, of course – light will only travel so far before it peters out, no matter the wattage, so that has to factor into the choice of lights – but the point is that once the level is set, the audience will accept it. This is why when using video screens in my designs, I almost always have them turned down to make them match the illumination of the rest of the set. It’s incredibly annoying to go to a show and have a giant white square of LED bearing down on your retinas all night because the designer thinks that “brightness is always better”.

I noticed this principle being ignored at a recent show in Vegas that I saw. The designer had a very nice rig of lights along with some moving-head audience-scanning lasers. I had played with these lasers previously and knew their capabilities, and I also knew that to get a good look out of them, the ambient illumination in the room would have to be quite low. (These were audience-scanning lasers, not giant aerial effects lasers) And sadly, the designer had a bunch of LED washlights on around the stage in cyan which completely obliterated the laser look. Good design means keeping the relative brightness of your sources in mind at all times.

The second idea I want to address is video (or lighting) that’s just too bright for humans. Some of the higher-res video screens are just impossible to look at in open white in anything other than full-on daylight. It’s important to consider the context of where a screen or display will be used, whether that’s outdoors or as a set piece, and dial the brightness to the appropriate level…which is likely to be less than 100% unless you’re doing golf broadcasts.

The final thought I have is that it’s okay to be too bright – as an effect, and not for too long. Of course, this isn’t just a video thing, it’s a lighting thing too. Extreme brightness can make a great statement, even if a few people in the audience wince for a moment. These moments have to be considered in context, just like sound. Hearing the crack of a snare drum isolated from the rest of the mix would be likely very irritating, but with the rest of the kit and band, it’s an expected (and indeed, needed) part of the experience.

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