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Show Design and Programming Theory

Following on the heels of post that some people read and apparently enjoyed, I wanted to do another post in the same vein talking about my cueing structure, but also general ideas regarding my design philosophies, picking colors, effects, timing, labelling, etc.

Hold onto your hats, folks. We’re gonna…


( •_•)>⌐■-■


Get esoteric.

YEEEEAAAHHHHHH (The Who plays in the background)

Part I: design theory

This is one of the things I get asked about a lot by younger designers or by people who seem to think there is some sort of “Book Of Rules” for design, with every possible BPM value and lyrical content listed with corresponding lighting looks that you’re “supposed” to use. This is not the way design works, and while I tend to be pretty analytical in the way I approach lighting, I’ve been guilty of having difficulty conveying in concise and approachable language the thought process I use when designing a show.

Oh yeah, I’m mostly a grandMA programmer, but most of this translates to Hog, too.

The concept

There are two main concepts that one needs to keep in mind: one of the overarching show concept, and the individual concept for each song. Generally, the overarching show design will inform to at least some extent the individual song design. If the show design concept is all about a steampunk-inspired re-interpretation of the Star Wars universe (for example) the individual songs should fit into that framework, in whatever way that means to you as a designer. As one designs one becomes more aware of one’s own style, and indeed there are styles. They may be subtle – I can’t watch a show and tell immediately if it was Haplin or Bennet – but embrace them when you notice them.

How does one go about coming up with a concept? There are a few sources we can consider. The first one, obviously, is the performer. How do they conceptualize their performance? Performers can be either the worst source of design inspiration or the best, it all depends on whether or not they actually have a solid idea in their heads. Sometimes, the client does have preferences in mind, but doesn’t know how to express them in a way that’s conducive to building a show. I once designed a set for a Christian Women’s conference, and I gave them five design ideas to consider. They chose one, but when I got on site and listened to them talking about the design I could immediately tell that they weren’t happy with it. One of the main people kept referring to the inverted triangle video set piece as “the Aztec thing”, and while we had done the research on what (we thought) they wanted the furniture and rest of the set to look like, they didn’t like any of it, and wanted some pretty major changes right off the bat. I was able to figure out by listening to bits of conversation, halting words spoken in frustration, and by looking at the furniture pieces they brought in themselves, that what they wanted was way less of a silver truss, sleek polished aluminum and LED look and something more rustic, organic, woodsy and unpolished. I had to go completely back to the drawing board the next year.

When the client doesn’t have an idea in mind, or is open to your ideas, then it’s up to you to do some preliminary research on the client’s aesthetic. Or, sometimes, the client truly wants you to come up with something interesting and would prefer to focus on other things. For both of these situations, I turn to sources such as art blogs and forums, architecture and design blogs, architecture and design books (you should have some of these lying around for inspiration anyway!), and theatrical design books. There are also a few good lighting books out there that are great sources of pictures and ideas. My two favorites are “Light Fantastic: the Art and Design of Stage Lighting”1 which is a bit dated but has really wonderful pictures and historical information, and “Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was: The Lighting & Stage Design of Andi Watson”2 the prose in which leans heavily toward the purple part of the spectrum, but which more than makes up for it with the pictures and plots.

I also find inspiration by looking at other lighting designer’s approaches to design challenges, watching concert DVDs and videos on YouTube. Among other YouTube channels to inspire are “The Creators Project”, anything by the design studio Universal Everything, and music videos of all stripes. But don’t take my word for it: there’s a huge world of design and art to explore, find some you like, delve in, and get ideas.


This is one of the most difficult skills to teach, because it’s so very subjective. What’s helpful for me is to remember to experiment, and to give it time. Lighting shows exist as nothing more than ones and naughts inside what is essentially an off-the-shelf computer stuck inside a fancy case with some fancy software. You can change anything you want, whenever you want while programming, and the undo button will always be there.

Picking colors isn’t always as simple as punching up a few palettes and seeing how it looks. Sometimes the lyrical content of the song determines what colors you’re gonna use. When the song is Taylor Swift’s “Red”, you better bet the audience expects to see some long wavelength colors in there somewhere. Here are some of the rules that I usually stick to when designing:

  • Red and green together mean Christmas. If you use these colors together and you’re not trying to convey holiday cheer, you better have a dang good justification.
  • Green and orange tend to look Halloween-y, especially the more saturated shades. However, I’ve used lime, orange, and yellow together on a tropical beach-themed song to great effect.
  • Please don’t default to blue for every slow song. Mix it up a bit. Then again, don’t be afraid to use a lot of blue. Experiment.
  • Minimum of one color per song3, soft maximum of four. I say “soft maximum” because things like color effects or chases can increase the number of colors in a song, or sometimes you might want to use a rainbow chase, or – for a million other different reasons – you might feel that more colors has some sort of artistic merit. That is just fine. But ask yourself if you’re adding another color because it makes the song look better, or because you just really want to use the color picker.

Don’t underestimate the importance of giving a color palette time to “sink in”. It’s easy to get stuck in a “view” of how a certain song should look, color-wise, because you saw some media relating to the song (a music video, for instance) and their interpretation of the music led them to a certain palette and now you can’t un-see it. Force yourself to pick a different palette and see if it works, but be deliberate about it. Don’t just grab the color picker and swipe your finger wildly to and fro, pick something deliberately and run the song a few times through with it to really get a feel for whether what you chose works. Remember that not everything needs to be saturated. Pair a heavy saturated color with a lighter shade of the same or a complimentary color. Saturates can sometimes look really good close to each each (primary yellow and red have a very punchy look, so do blue and green) but be careful to experiment and see what works best together.

When all else fails, trust your eyes but remember to treat them well. To appropriate (and slightly alter) an old sound guy saying, if it looks good, it is good. But remember, your eyes and creative faculties can become fatigued, and it’s important to remember to go outside, look at some trees, sip some tea, relax, go for a walk, whatever. Tear your eyes away from the electronic media that we become accustomed to staring at all day. Recognize that when you’ve spent the last hour agonizing over a color choice, it might be time to take a step back and visit the big blue room with poor climate control.


Gobos, like anything else that changes the light, have times when they should be used, and times when they shouldn’t. I know a designer who never doesn’t use a gobo. I disagree with this way of doing things. It’s okay to have a pure, solid shaft of light sometimes. Switch it up and don’t let your looks get tired. A lot of gobos look very similar, so make sure you’re using them in an intentional way, not just throwing random patterns in there to have a pattern. Custom gobos, if you can afford / have time to make them, are great. I love the VL3000 Spot, but if I see Alpha Rays again I might barf. Patterns get tired after a while, so rotating through them if you can is a great way to liven up your show. We all love Starfield, but don’t use it on every song.

As mentioned in my previous article in this series, I have several palettes for gobo rotation, including offset rotation wherein half of the fixtures have their rotation reversed. This keeps things from just looking as though you selected every fixture and just spun every gobo the exact same way. It’s a more elegant look that adds a subtle touch of class. At least, I notice when LDs spin their gobos the same way every time – it looks lazy. Also don’t be afraid to spin the whole gobo wheel through patterns when the time is right. This used to be the only thing we could do when we didn’t have rotating gobos, and it’s still a fun effect to go back to every now and then, especially for really rollicking upbeat songs.

Timing and subdivision

This cannot be overstated: timing is everything. It is integral. Timing is the show. So make your timing right. I’ve pulled out Audacity or my tap BPM counter on my phone and looked at the timing for stuff down the millisecond to make sure my hits are accurate before. And at that level of precision you have to take into account the time for the DMX signal to leave the console and propagate to the light. If you’re going to do something, do it right. You might have to run the cues / song dozens or more times before it looks perfect. Learn to enjoy hearing the same ten-second section of a song twenty times in a row.

The concept of subdivision is closely related to the above, different but perhaps equally as important. This is a concept I’ll call subdivision, or knowing when it’s right to break up one cue into others. Put another way, how many times during a given phrase of music should you have a separate cue for stuff?

There isn’t one correct answer to this, because there exists an infinite variety of music in infinite combinations of beats, styles, lyrics, and themes. Further, two designers could listen to the same phrase of music and chop it up differently, lighting-wise. My personal style is right in the middle, I try not to go to the extremes of over-cueing or being too static, unless I’m trying to make some kind of artistic statement specific to a song. Here are two example videos to give you an idea of what I’m talking about:

Some general tips to get you started are to divide the song up naturally into sections that already exist. Intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, bridge, chorus, outro. These exist in many (most?) songs and provide a natural breakpoint for the times when the lights should move, change color, or generally do something. When should the lights do something? This is the subject of varied opinions among LDs, but it really comes down to personal preference. My preference is that when something is standing out from the rest of the music, a cool guitar lick, a chorus starting, a big drum fill, that’s the time to do something with the lights.


This is a personal preference, but I never use built-in effects anymore for touring. This is because in my opinion relying on a preset is sort of a lazy way to do things, and because I want my effects to be selective (in the grandMA2 sense) anyway. Building your own is also a great way to learn the effects builder inside and out. I build all my effects specifically for the songs that they are used in, and I divide them up by the fixture they’re applied to and what they’re doing, and arrange them into per-song groups. This makes it really fast to find running effects so you can turn them off or on or whatever needed while programming.

Make your effects different. This one is big – don’t use the same selection order every time you make a dimmer chase, or whatever. Play with things like selection order, fanning or alignment, phase, and groups. These little variations might not be something the audience is going to be consciously aware of, but they will subconsciously notice that every dimmer chase looks the same if you don’t go out of your way to introduce some variation in your programming. When making a movement effect, play with the selection order and direction and size. A trick I love is to make two identical effects, one that applies to the odd fixtures in your selection, and one that applies to the even fixtures, and simply reverse the direction on one of them, so you end up with an opposing effect. This keeps things looking dynamic. You can also adjust the size of one of the parameters – pan or tilt – and make something more like a figure-eight motion, which is different enough from a circle to keep things looking fresh.

As mentioned previously, I build groups of per-song presets, named for the fixtures they reference and what they do parameter-wise. For instance, for a song called “Robots” I might have an effect called “Robots Aura chorus dim chase” or whatever. This allows me to quickly understand what’s happening in a given scene by looking at the off menu or the effect pool. It’s not uncommon for me to have fifteen or more effects per song as it’s the small variations that add up to make a better-looking and visually interesting song. Please make sure that you use your console’s individual fade timing for effects to make sure that they fade in and out with appropriate timing. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve watched shows where individual effects are clearly fading with a fade time way shorter than the rest of a cue. It’s really obvious, and it looks very sloppy. Timing is everything.

Learn your console’s effects functionality to a high level of depth. (Fun aside: “Effects Engine” as a term is still copyrighted by Flying Pig Systems.) Effects can be very powerful, but as their sophistication increases so too does the amount of knowledge required to get the most out of them. I can’t stress enough how noticeable a simple circle bally applied to fixtures and fanned is. It sticks out like a sore thumb to those in the know. Maybe your entire audience isn’t made up of lighting designers, but do your best to make your show look good for everyone who might see it. Please learn how to use your shuffle fixture functions, how the selection order works, how to use the selection order to your advantage, and how direction, phase, and waveform all work together to make effective, er, effects.

Part II: Programming

We come now to the actual “writing cues” part. Here we shift from theory into the more practical aspects of programming. Let’s jump straight into writing cues!

With regards to cue labeling, use mixed-case letters. This means a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, then lower case, just as you were hopefully taught in kindergarten. Please, for the love of all that is good, do not type cue names in all-caps. All-caps text is much, much harder to read, and plenty of science backs me up on this. (Interestingly, one study found that all-uppercase increases legibility among visually-impaired readers because of its sheer size, and for normally-sighted people “at distance”. I don’t know how they drew the conclusion that it’s the all-upper-case-ness that was causing the effect, instead of the increased size. If you need glasses, wear them.) If you type cue names in all caps, I will find you, and I will delete your show files. The one exception to the this is the first cue of each song, which is (for me) labeled “MARK” so that I can know instantly if I’m in a mark (blind, setup) cue or not.

Generally, I keep things generic and descriptive. I want someone to be able to run my show, especially if I’m sending someone else out. This means I keep the labeling understandable by someone who hasn’t seen my show. Here’s a sample:

        1. MARK

        2. Intro

        3. Verse 1

        4. Pre-chorus

        5. Chorus 1

        6. Verse 2

        7. Bridge

        8. Bridge end hit

        9. –Fade

        10. Drum fills

        11. Electric guitar solo

        12. Slow down

        13. Outro

        14. Random strobe

        15. End hit

        16. –FTB

Please note that I never refer to a musician by name, because there is no chance that someone else running my show will know what instrument “Jim Bob” is playing. In a worst-case scenario, at least they could hit the cues with my labeling system, although they might be behind. Cues that run themselves4 need to be marked in some way. I choose to put two dashes in front of such cues, like so:

        1. Hit 1

        2. –Fade

        3. Hit 2

        4. –Fade

This ensures that whoever running the show (myself included) can quickly determine by looking ahead that they shouldn’t hit GO for those cues. Some people use an asterisk, or some other symbol. Whatever works, just make sure it’s consistent.

This next point is somewhat esoteric, but important. On every console, there’s a fade time that the user can input to control the overall fade time of every parameter that changes in a given cue. However, there can also be individual fade times for parameters, and usually when set, these aren’t visible unless you specifically choose to have it displayed on the screen. I know a designer who always sets the overall fade time to 0 on every cue, the individually enters fade times. I disagree with this approach, because I want to be able to look ahead and see what my fade times might be for a particular cue, quickly. My system therefore is to set the overall fade time of the “main” thing that changes in a cue, and set individual fade times for everything else. For instance, if I have a cue that is a 20-second sweep into the audience, but with a faster color change that isn’t as noticeable, I will set the overall fade time to be 20 seconds and set the color change as an individual fade time. This way I can judge the speed of an upcoming look by glancing at it. Of course, there is always some interpretation required as to what the “main” thing that’s happening in a cue is. Your milage may vary. What’s important is that one uses a system whereby one can look ahead and know what a given cue is going to do. Whatever that system looks like for you, pick it and use it.

Pages are generally up to the person running the show. I use one song per page, as is tradition. I keep the “main” fader the same throughout the show, then each page has its own set of other faders that I might use for specials or gags. As I mentioned in my last post, I change pages and start songs using macros, which also changes my pages and buttons for me.

Finally, a word about saving: many consoles these days have an auto-save function that makes it so that you’re unlikely to lose programming. Many older consoles do not have this functionality, so whether you’re on a Celco Gold or a grandMA 2, make sure you save your show early and often. This will save you many massive headaches.

Let me repeat that: save early, and save often.

Have backups of your backups. I was once on a small tour with an ancient Jands Echelon (What would become the Hog 1000), and I was told early on that this particular console had a nasty habit of corrupting show files. USB hadn’t been invented when this fossil was made, so I had to save on the old 3.5” diskettes. I made four show backups, because I happened to know that floppy disks are also notorious for corrupting the data on them. One night about ten minutes before doors, I was doing some touch-up programming and got the (in)famous “I’ve croaked!” message from the Jands. Insert backup disk 1 – corrupt. Backup disk 2 – corrupt. All the way up until I got to my 4th disk, which worked. Long story short: make several backups. Newer consoles have solid-state hard drives which are vastly more reliable than hard drives, and USB drives can go through the wash and come out just fine, but know that you are hired not only to design / program / run the show – you are also hired to ensure the continuity of the data that you enter.

Do you have some favorite design tips, tricks, or inspirational sources you’d like to share? Tweet us at @blueshiftontour and tell us!

1: ISBN 978-3791343716

2: ISBN 978-0811874588

3: That’s a joke, kids.

4: These are not the same thing as multi-part cues.

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