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The Art of Lighting Design Part IV

In the last installment we discussed electricity and power. Let’s move on now to the rest of the limitations listed in the second article, found in the January 2000 issue of TWM.


Physical Space and Structure (See Article II)
Set Constraints (See Article II)
Available Power (See Article III)
Available Dimming and Control
Available Fixtures
Setup Time
Manpower for Setup
Manpower for Running Crew

Based on the load calculations done on your space in article II, we can now discuss the limitations of Dimming and Control. Lets start with dimming.

Dimmers can be broken into 3 main categories:

Plug in The Wall
These dimmers draw power from a standard wall plug and are limited to a maximum of 2400 watts per wall plug. They come in several variations. The most common will allow for four 600 watt loads from one outlet. You control these dimmer packs from a control console by means of low voltage control cable, multiple dimmer packs are connected in a daisy chain configuration.

Portable Dimmer Racks
The first difference between a portable rack and a plug in the wall is the source of power. A portable rack requires connection into a fuse box and the services of a licensed electrician are required to make this connection if a disconnect box is not available. Another difference is the number of dimmers which can increase. The load that each dimmer can carry also increases. Typically these portable racks come in multiples of 12, 24, 48, or 96 2400 watt dimmers. Control of these packs is the same as for the Plug in the Wall.

Permanent Installation Racks
The quantity of dimmers available in this category is similar to the portable style. The limitation here is based on what is already built into the space.

Control consoles can be broken down in two ways; manual and memory. The type of console required is based on the number of dimmers you are controlling. As the number of dimmers increases beyond 24 the switch to a memory console becomes a desirable choice.

Manual consoles are easy to learn how to use. Typically they are constructed with two rows of faders that represent two scenes, or looks onstage. Another pair or single fader allows you to crossfade between the two scenes. Setting up a look on scene A and setting up a look on scene B will accomplish Cueing the show. When the time for a cue arrives, you crossfade from scene A to Scene B. When the cue is complete you can set up a new look in the A scene.

Memory consoles allow you to setup looks and record them into memory. Cueing the show consists of creating and recoding the looks, along with the time required for the cue to run. Running the show is generally very easy, all the operator has to do is push the Go button when a cue is called.

A good operator on a manual console can run some very complex cues involving intricate multi-part fades. The operator is doing a lot of work and your design is in their hands to be executed correctly. A memory console can be programmed to do incredible multi-part cueing, along with other even more elaborate effects that run at the touch of a button. The limitation between the two is the skill of your operators, or your skill as a programmer of lighting consoles.

The limitations in the fixture category are based on two basic things. The first is the available power. You can only turn on the maximum number of fixtures allowed by available power at any given time. The second limitation is money, either you own all the fixtures available to you, or you rent fixtures. Associated with the money issue is the quantity of any given type of fixture available. I recommend that you first calculate your available power and then tackle the money issue.

As you are working out the design of fixture placement, remember to take into account how much time you will be allowed to install the equipment. Setup time should be broken down into two phases. Phase one consists of hanging the fixtures and setting up the dimming and control. Phase one is over when you can sit at the console and bring up every fixture or a group of fixtures. Phase one can take anywhere from two hours to a week. This time depends on access to the space, workers, complexity of the design, and whether you have to create the lighting positions as you go.

Phase two consists of focusing the fixtures. It is imperative that during this phase you have the space as dark as possible. Often times this means focusing in the evening after rehearsal. Focusing requires several people. The designer must stand where the fixtures aim and a worker must be with the fixture, directing the fixture and adjusting all the attributes. An additional worker, or workers, can be utilized to run the console, move the ladder, etc. The amount of time required for this phase will depend on the quantity of fixtures and the speed of the workers. All of this work needs to be done before you can start writing cues. Another step that can be included in this time is writing cues without the actors. You will find that if you can lay in the looks you want for each cue before the first technical rehearsal, then the time spent with the actors will be more rewarding.

Manpower can be broken down into two categories, skilled and unskilled. The more complex the show the more you will want to have some skilled labor. An unskilled crew can quickly assemble a simple show that consists of 2 to 4 trees of lights in a few hours. A show that consists of 60 fixtures, dimming, and hanging positions can be assembled by a trained crew in 5 – 6 hours with another 4 hours of focusing time. The skills needed are those of a theatrical electrician. A theatrical technician is trained in an assortment of jobs, from rigging to electrician. If you do not have any available in your church, you can contact your local theatrical supply house, your little theatre, or the local business agent for the IATSE. Generally you can find someone who is able to work freelance to assist in setting up and running your show.

When you get to running the show make sure you have enough people that can be available from Load-in thru Load-out. The more consistent the crew the better your show will run.

That about covers the general limitations that will affect the conceptual lighting design you created from reading the script. Starting in the next article I will start a case study of an actual production that was performed in December of 1999.

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