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The Reality Triangle: Cheap

Part two of three in our series about the so-called Reality Triangle.

Budgets are fickle things. At times, it seems as though budgets expand to fit the gear required, and other times, the client will pick nits like some sort of nit-picker. “A parking pass for your crew members? Are you joking?” And still other times, its as though the end client doesn’t really know what to expect in terms of what production costs are. This is somewhat understandable if you don’t work within or with this industry much; the average person wouldn’t know a moving light if one dropped onto the hood of their car, much less have even the slightest inkling what one should cost or the vaguest understanding of rental gear pricing structures.

Unlike the other aspect that we’ve already looked at – time, and the time needed to accomplish a given task – the question of money has existential implications for chunks of the industry. Give you gear away for free or mismanage your company and you’ll find yourself going the way of Epic Productions. (Fun fact: years ago I was in talks with Epic to source some gear for the Ronnie Dunn tour, and the dude on the phone was either completely oblivious to the fact that his company was about to go under or the best liar in history, because after talking to him on a Friday, I had no idea the company was going to be insolvent on Monday.) The question of costs is important to all aspects of our industry, and I want to explore a few ways in which the drive for low costs, in particular, affect our industry.

We’ll start with the knucklehead-level insight first: cheap gear eats up more time and resources and tends to look worse than expensive gear. Exceptions exist, of course, but this holds true in a general sense. As a designer and general “lighting guy” who’s been kickin’ around the biz for a few years, I’m often asked my opinion about various pieces of gear with a specific eye toward price. Whether the request is for an analysis of of a particular piece of gear, or to consider the budgetary constraints of an entire production, the answers always revolve around the time and quality trade-offs the production is willing to make for cost.

An simplistic version of this questions pops up perennially on r/lightingdesign, coming in the form of (and I’m paraphrasing here) “I have $3.50 and some burnt matchsticks, can I buy a console that has 20 banks of flying faders, a free visualizer, a powerful effects engine, and command-line scripting?” The answer, of course, is “No, those features cost more money than you have / are willing to spend.” This response tends to generate pushback, often in the form of complaining about $Company_Name’s pricing structure.

Obviously, the adults in the room realize (or should) that professional gear costs money to R&D, tool and re-tool, test, re-design, test again, write the software for, manufacture, and support, all while paying your employees for their many years of laboring under the weight of crushing student debt and economic uncertainty. A Martin MAC Ultra represents the culmination of many, many years of combined expertise with moving fixtures and serious research into creating a great LED engine. The same arguments hold true for grandMA consoles, Lycian followspots, and Vectorworks – which, granted, is from a monopolistic company that hates their users.

This is perhaps where the Reality Triangle as a framework breaks down in some instances, because the metaphor assumes that you can “choose only two”, say, cheap and quality, and this will merely result in more time needing to be spent to achieve the same results. This is not necessarily true, because cost and quality are inextricably tied together. A cheap LED engine has worse – for our purposes – spectral characteristics than an expensive one, because quality scales somewhat linearly with time in the tech manufacturing sector. There’s simply no way to use time to your advantage to get around the deficiencies of poorly-made products, when you’re dealing with electromechanical tech with specialized factory-made components like a moving light. It holds up better when it comes to things like consoles and software. Even taking proficiencies into account, an equivalent show could take longer on a Hog verses an MA because of the powerful CLI scripting system and Lua integration that MA offers which nobody else currently does¹.

Astute readers may recognize that I haven’t condemned the use of “cheap” lights on shows, and this is because I don’t think that’s helpful. There are many use cases where using less expensive lights might be the correct thing to do for the budget and the people working on it. There’s a company that I work with frequently in the town where I live that, tired of renting aging and fickle MAC Vipers from the company across town, decided to buy their own framing shutter fixtures. They did not reach for an equivalent to the Viper like the Encore or something similar, but instead went with the ADJ (Formerly American DJ) Focus Profiles. Was this the wrong move? Absolutely not. For the sorts of shows that this company does, this is a great light. Reasonably bright across the distances they’ll be shooting, comes with framing shutters, real True1 (-style) connectors, and a TM-30 score high enough to be passable for most of the the audience. Is is a relatively cheap light? Yes, but it’s also the right light for this use case. There are also cheap lights that essentially commodity products where every manufacturer has one and they’re all at technological parity with each other so who cares if you use the RGBW LED PAR from ACME or the RGBW LED PAR from Chauvet?

How rental houses might choose to rent that RGBW LED PAR to customers, however, is a more interesting question. Professional gear is not inexpensive (due to the aforementioned reasons) and stocks of equipment along with storage represent one of the two major cash outflow avenues that a production house has to endure.

And yet, I observe disconnects in many of the companies I’ve worked with over the years where company set their prices lower than the break-even point. The reasons for this are probably varied; if I had to guess it’s probably larger shows subsidizing the smaller shows an attempt to attract a customer and then gradually raise the prices, or just out the goodness of their hearts because they believe in the cause or whathave you.

Rental houses would do well to be careful doing this, however, because customers are more savvy than they might sometimes be given credit for. Clients shop around for the lowest price all the time, and they typically know when they’re being given a deal, and they also know that being given a deal gives them some amount of leverage down the line. “I’ll be needing that same deal that I got last time, or I’ll take my business across town.”

Long term underpricing can also subtly shift the market in pernicious ways. I saw some of the strongest evidence of this in the mid-2010s, before VER was bought by PRG to save them from Chapter 11. I had friends who worked there who warned me that the low prices I was seeing for rental gear – which were crazy good – were going to cause the company to go under, and they did. Similarly, another separate Nashville company that I did several years of work for struggled to get bigger because they priced themselves into a hole by having their one large client subsidize, to a large extent, the rest of their shows, and so only had leftover gear for everyone else. This set up a situation where they struggled to attract new clients because their gear stocks that weren’t on their biggest show was always older, slightly crappier, and in need of maintenance.

If there’s a point to this sort of meandering analysis of the financials of the industry, it’s this: don’t sell yourself short. Of course, there’s also the obvious observation that even cheap lights can be useful, but I hope everyone knows that by now. It is also, perhaps, a touch of cautionary tale to be careful about subscribing to overly-simplistic narratives like the Reality Triangle. Industries and productions are complicated and have multiple related interdependencies. The Reality Triangle is a model, and to quote George Box, all models are wrong, but some models are useful. (To a point.)

1: The CLI scripting is where MA is, currently, in my opinion, untouchable.

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