The Dreaded "P" Word

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

Paperwork: Record keeping intended to keep track of everything. Commonly manifested in long lines at the DMV, tax return instructions crammed with hundreds of rules in tiny type, and endless hours spent hunched over piles of paper or a hot computer.

Lighting: A generally fun thing that can influence moods and make people and places look better (or worse) and which generally involves a lot of hard (but rewarding) work to do as well.

Lighting Paperwork: The only way to retain your sanity while doing lighting, with possible side effects including mental confusion and writer’s cramp or carpal tunnel syndrome.

So there you have it: John McKernon’s Dictionary of Lighting. As a kid, my father built me a hand-puppet stage and equipped it with three circuits of colored light bulbs, resulting in my first experiences with puppets, lights, switches, and color. With 12 sockets and three switches, I could do what seemed at the time to be magic: Make everything blue, or red, or green, or magenta, or sort of yellowy or underwatery. By taking out most of the bulbs and putting in a white one and wrapping it in a bit of cardboard, I even made the center of the stage “special”. It was a heady experience, indeed!

Of course, with only twelve sockets, a limited supply of bulbs, and only one performance of each “show”, I didn’t bother to write down what I was doing. After all, every day was new, and nobody ever asked me to repeat the show I did back in January.

My, how times change when you grow up! Today, I design lighting for all kinds of things, ranging from restaurants to Broadway shows, with anywhere from a dozen lights to many hundreds. The two things they all have in common: I have to plan ahead for what I want to do, and when I walk out the door after opening night (or find myself sick in bed during tech week), someone else has to take care of the lighting. Which means paperwork.

My mind is like a sieve: I can’t remember anything except the things that matter in life, which include friends, family, good places to eat, ways to get around town, and decent hotels. Everything else, including phone numbers, which day of the week the trash is picked up on, dimmer numbers, gel numbers, and circuit numbers, fall out of my head as soon as I hear them. Which explains why I have an old computer sitting on top of my refrigerator, for the sole purpose of reminding me to put the trash out every Thursday night. It also explains why I wrote Lightwright, which remembers things for me.

So what is paperwork? What kinds of paperwork are there? How do you keep it under control? How do you keep yourself from becoming a paperwork addict? Let’s look at those questions and see if we can come up with some answers!

What is paperwork?
Paperwork is a way to talk to people, a way for me to tell someone else what I intended to do with the lighting, what I did with it, and what they need to do to keep it looking that way. Whether it’s hand-written or generated by a computer, the basic function is still the same: To keep track of stuff.

Whenever you use a light on a show, you decide what kind of light to use, where to hang it, what color gel to put in it, what circuit to plug it into, what dimmer to plug the circuit into, and what channel on the lighting console is going to control that dimmer. If you have a really good memory, you can get away without writing any of this down. However, if you catch the flu and expect someone else to run the lights for you while you’re in bed, either your substitute will need to develop mind reading abilities or you’ll need to write things down.

What kinds of paperwork are there?

The most basic piece of paperwork is the Instrument Schedule.

It lists every light you’re using, in order, based on where you’ve hung it. Each light gets a Position name (where you hung it – in the ceiling cove or on an overhead pipe) and a unit number. When you stand on stage and look up at the lights in the cove, count from left to right. The first light on your left is #1; the next is #2, and so on. The numbers start from one in each position, so if you look at lights in your side cove, the first one there will be #1, the second #2, etc. The principle is that you don’t need to look at the lighting plan to find out which unit number a light is, you just count from left to right while looking at them.

The Type column says simply what kind of light you hung, and any possible accessories you put on it, such as an iris or barn doors.

The Wattage column lists what wattage bulb you put in the light. If every light in your building used the same kind of light bulb, you wouldn’t need this column.

The Purpose is just a quick shorthand description of what the light’s being used for.

The Color column tells you what brand and number of color you put into the light. Usually this means a letter followed by a number (such as R-33, for Roscolux #33), but sometimes you either haven’t decided yet (in which case saying “pink” is just fine), or you honestly don’t know because you just found a piece of gel in a drawer and put it into the light.

The Circuit column tells you which outlet in the wall or raceway you plugged the light into. It can also refer to a multicable and which circuit within that multi you used.

The Dimmer column says which dimmer in the dimmer rack you plugged the circuit into. If you have more than one dimmer rack, it can also include the name of the rack as well as the dimmer number. If your system uses DMX, you’ll usually put the DMX number here.

Channel refers to which number the lighting console is going to use to control the light. If you have a simple console with say 24 channels and 24 dimmers and channel and dimmer numbers are the same, then you can do without this column.

Almost every other kind of paperwork contains this same information, just rearranged differently. A dimmer hookup lists everything sorted in order by dimmer number, to make it easier to see what’s in dimmer 14. A channel hookup is everything sorted by channel number, and so on.

Every time you do something with lights, you’ll hopefully be looking for a way to make it easier and more straightforward: Hang the light (once), focus it (once), and then cue it into the show. There are some other kinds of paperwork that people have invented to make their jobs easier:

Cheat sheets are a shorthand way for the lighting designer to see what channel or dimmer number he needs to call for to bring up each set of lights. Sometimes they are simply lists that resemble condensed hookups, other times they are miniature floor plans, with arrows, colors, and channel numbers grouped according to lighting “idea”. They tend to be very personal, so if you decide to make a cheat sheet that resembles your grandmother’s Easter bonnet, go right ahead. Just be sure it’ll be easy for you to use during those rehearsals when time is short and everyone is waiting for you to create art and beauty!

Cardboards are a popular tool among electricians. To make a cardboard in its simplest form, you take a copy of the light plot and cut it into pieces, one piece for each hanging position, then glue or tape those pieces onto bits of cardboard that you can then carry around with you, fold in half, and tuck into your waistband while climbing up ladders. Most electricians add channel, dimmer, twofers, and circuit info to each cardboard, or write that info on the cardboard as they hang the show. Once the hang is done, they use the information on the cardboards to update their master instrument schedule and other paperwork.

Focus Charts are an expanded version of an Instrument Schedule, with room added to write down in an organized way where the light points and what shutter cuts were made on it. The “Broadway” method is to choose a point, usually down center, to be the “zero-zero” reference point. When the designer focuses the light, they write down on the focus chart where they were standing when the light was hot on them. For example, 4L @ 3, which means 4 feet stage left of center, and 3 feet upstage of the zero-zero point. If they made shutter cuts, then they make a note like “SL cut off black legs” or “Top cut off Cyc”. Even if you’re not working on Broadway, where people go on vacation and crew changes are common, you may find yourself needing to break focus on a light while changing its lamp – and then wondering where it was supposed to be pointing, and oh gee, the designer isn’t’ around, and was it shuttered off the doorway or not?

Follow spot cue sheets are a funny thing. Everyone uses them, but almost nobody agrees on what is the best way to write them. Most people use something like a spreadsheet, with a column for each spot and a row for each cue, with words describing who the spot is supposed to pick up and in what color and how big a circle of light. The hard part is knowing how much information to include: Too much, and the spot operator will be bogged down reading your novelette instead of watching the stage. Too little, and that same operator will be wondering which scene his cue is supposed to be in!

How do you keep it under control?
If there’s anything worse than not having any records at all, it’s having too many. A zillion pieces of paper, in a dozen different cramped handwriting styles, none of whom agree with each other, are more confusing and will waste more time than having only one incomplete piece of paperwork. So decide who will keep track of which kinds of paperwork, and be sure it’s updated at the end of every work day.

A computer program like Lightwright can help you keep things organized, but if you use any kind of software for your paperwork, be sure to make a backup copy of it every day and store that backup someplace outside the building. And don’t simply write over the previous day’s work, because as much as computers can help speed your work, they’re also a very good way to screw up a whole lot of data very quickly! Instead, make a separate backup copy for each day of the week and rotate through them. That way, when things get wooly, the most you will have lost is one day’s worth of paperwork changes.

How do you keep yourself from becoming a paperwork addict?

Actually, becoming a paperwork addict is a very good thing. It means you’re organized and understand the need to document your work, and that keeping good records makes your job easier in the long run, thereby making it more fun.

The hard part is keeping paperwork from taking over your life. It’s easy to become compulsive about paperwork, worrying more about getting the details “just right” instead of seeing what the lighting itself is doing. Always remember that friends, family, and “the real world” are more important than lighting. Take lunch and dinner breaks, go home at a decent hour, and give your loved ones a hug. If you’re a happy human being, the paperwork will be easy.

After that, the rest is just lights.