“Lighting is not about function. It’s much more about the mood and the emotion that the playwright and the director are trying to create. Our job is to support their poetic direction.”
The Incandescent Era
Once upon a time, I was on my way down to Cal-State Fullerton. I had been asked to recreate a lighting design and it was a sweet gig. I got paid, I got lunch and dinner and I got a ride. As I rode for that long hour I thought about how I would transition this piece to a different stage and with different lights.
It was a good piece, a dance piece. The last I heard, it was touring on a company in Canada. I got paid for that too but I didn’t get to go to Canada!
Have you ever been in a house that had, instead of light switches, a dimmer slider? And if you pushed the slider only halfway up or less, the lights had a warm glow? One of the elements of my design was doing just that; except it was with two thousand watt lamps and with ten inch Fresnel lenses. And there were a bunch of them.
The look of this part of the design was a long eight minute fade up at the start of the twelve minute piece. These lights would start with that grainy barely-there texture and then slowly shift to a sepia like in the old time photographs and then they would find their warmth, giving the dancers a very healthy look and then finally at the end, a very bright clear light.
Cal-State Fullerton is twenty miles from Disneyland. Their lighting courses specifically train the students to be programmers for moving lights. When they graduate, they are funneled to Disneyland to work in the parks. I would guess that many move on to Imagineering in Burbank, it is a good program.
Moving lights, many like to call it Intelligent Lighting, some call them “wiggle lights” began in 1979 when the rock group Genesis commissioned a sound and light company in Lubbock, Texas called Showco to make a moving light for rock and roll. Their product was called a Vari*Lite. It could pan, tilt, change colors, iris in and out, a set of patterns that could change and rotate; all operated by a custom computer board.
By the mid-eighties, other companies had caught up and were making their own versions of the moving lights. They are expensive but, as time marches on, becoming more common and seen in many venues like churches, theaters, dance clubs and more.
Moving lights use a short-arc for a light source. It doesn’t dim. They use a shutter, like a door, to open and close to let out the light. At ten percent is the same color as full, because there is no filament it can not go through the different stages of warmth.
Riding down to Cal-State Fullerton, I thought about my experiences with the moving lights. I’d been there and felt that while they are awesome for effects in rock and roll, the programming time is painful. Each instrument does so many things and if you have a lot, then it takes time. The fan of moving lights is not only a disciple but an apostle.
What was it like, back in the early 1900s, when the new incandescent lighting equipment showed up? Before then, they were using gas lighting. Burning gas has life, it uses energy, it moved and it was alive. It was warm. The newer lights could “throw” the light with reflectors and lenses but it was flat; terribly flat and boring. How awful it must have felt!
I would guess that I’ve spent about 60 percent of my life in medium to small theaters. Maybe 10 percent in the big halls that seat thousands and about 20 percent in the “Hollywood store front” theaters. The rest would be in the odd spaces like alley ways, parking lots, art galleries, libraries, installations and site-specific works.
The “Hollywood store front” theaters are the hard core design spaces. Perhaps an old dry cleaning business is bought and gutted, the windows painted black, the floor sanded and painted (black, of course) and a few rows of seats for the audience. Old dry cleaners have lots of electricity, ready to go. Designing in these spaces is incredibly intimate, the performers are just ten or fifteen feet away. Just a little bit of light can go a long way, a single source can be powerful and you are as interested in the shadow as the light. The audience is likely knowledgable and intent on each facet of the dance, from the sound to the silence, from the movement to the stillness.
The Incandescent Era lasted for 100 years. While the intruments will still be around forever, it seems, the use of gradual change or the interest in shadow is gone. The live show must be documented and recorded, edited and put up on Youtube. I totally understand the need for this and agree that we need plenty of light for recording.
But, I’ll miss those long days in the theater, moving and adjusting lights so that they honored the performer in the space for a live audience with eager eyes.