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Stage Lighting: A basic manual of the art.

An article from Cue Magazine about the art of operating a lighting board

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This was written- as you might tell -some years ago in 1980 for the now defunct Cue Magazine.

The Dynamics of Lighting Control by Dorian Kelly

a personal view of the art, craft and science of operating a lighting control for theatre.

Dyna.mics: of motive force; of force in actual operation: matter or mind as merely the action of forces. (O.E.D.)

Light, properly manipulated, has an intellectual and aesthetic effect on the brain that we cannot yet measure in terms of the real world, but one, nevertheless that can be interpreted as a degree of 'rightness' or harmony with the inherent or imagined spirit of the performance. This relates not only to the state itself, and its built-in psychology (blue is calm, relative brightness has a focussing effect, etc.), but also, and increasingly more apparently, to the precise way that the changes between the states are performed - the FADE DYNAMICS. Now this is something rather different to cue speed or fade rate: more than just an obscuration here and a revelation there: and certainly more than merely making sure that the right light is in the right place at the right time. These are all vitally important. But the dynamic of a fade is something else.

  • It is a way of working directly into the emotional centres of the mind itself.
  • It is a process of constructing an empathy with the desired aims of the production by the manipulation of our attitudes towards a whole mass of our remembered experience and conditioned expectations.
  • It is a means of reinforcing embryonic emotions and causing them to sweep through an audience: or of killing those emotions stone dead.
  • Above all, it is sublime and can only be employed by one who can be, like a good actor, his own best audience and critical observer, and can simultaneously manipulate and be manipulated by his own actions.

We live in a world structured in a very different way to the one that our forbears perceived. The softly changing shadows and subtle intensities of nature, and even its raw power have been replaced by the aimless freneticism of our cities. Even in our homes television, especially television advertising, has brought us the concept of dynamic vitality as the normal mode of life. In fact television has made the fadein, fadeout and cross fade so much a part of our lives, that we almost seem to miss the ability to perform them in our daily routine. This is our new nature; another nature, another mirror. Just as all great art in any sphere must spring from careful balances of dynamic and kinetic energies, so must we fine-tune our subliminal responses by the same care in our use of fade dynamics.

Much research has been done into the nature of how the brain perceives light and translates it into usable information, but virtually none into how the mind derives its aesthetic satisfactions. It has been shown, however, that electrochemical activity in the relevant parts of the brain occurs only when the perceived patterns are undergoing change of some kind, the three most important being changes of intensity, colour and direction. During periods of 'no change' the neurons of the brain appear to function only in a low-level sample and hold mode which after a moment decays into a condition whereby image retention and concentration become difficult, and eventually impossible unless there is sufficient movement in the eyeball or the subject to refresh the image. (This is not the well-known persistence of vision effect, although it is related to it.) It seems to me therefore that the majority of the effect that lighting has on us must occur during any change of intensity, colour or source, i.e. during the fade which establishes the state, or as a function of the apparent contrast between the present state and any previous state, including houselights and tab lighting; or as the result of the physical substitution of one lit area by another. In the first few moments of the static state the brain must extract any available information, such as the time of day, the apparent source of light, the mood of the piece, weather conditions, and any of the usual parapsychological information built in by any good lighting designer. After this time the static state has one function and one function only. This of course is visibility. This function continues until the next dynamic occurrence. What constitutes a dynamic occurrence? The answer is, virtually anything if it involves causing an apparent change of intensity, position or colour, and in practice this can mean not only a deliberately contrived change of light, but also an apparent change of light caused by actors or scenery moving in and out of light, a piece of live flying, or a change in colour contrast caused by the appearance of a costume of uncomplementary hue, or reflections from a piece of insufficiently broken-down glassware.

It devolves upon the board operator, as principal agent for the visual scene, to reproduce with total accuracy all the lighting balances as set by the lighting designer and, very importantly, to create and control the dynamics, and therefore to control the responses of the beholder. It is also necessary to monitor closely all the dynamic occurrences from other sources and adapt to them at least to the extent of minimising the unpleasant ones, and to attempt to integrate the rest into the scheme of things. A sensitive operator will instinctively feel the 'waves' made by the artistes, the orchestra, the sound and the audience and modify his response so that the whole becomes something very much greater than the sum of the parts. Just as the lighting designer is the expert in creating the lighting and colour balances and in defining the fade rates and dynamics, the operator should be the expert in working them to best effect and in interpreting the intentions of the designer. In an ideal world the operator would be a fully trained and experienced professional, not just (as often as not as the run progresses) any odd member of the L.X. team that happens to be available. Obviously there ought to be a bond of trust between the operator and the designer, but here a problem of communication often arises. In no other field of art does the creative artist find it necessary to abandon the product of his art into the hands of an unpredictable, motley bunch of people (who range from the utterly brilliant to the utterly incompetent) and expect to have them reproduce it as an original work of art eight times a week with no more instruction than can be defined by the use of the English language and a handful of numerals, if that vital spark of non-verbal communication is not present.

I can I remember with despair how I attempted to get a thoroughly competent but unimaginative operator to phrase a series of lighting changes to the cadences of a piece of poetry: a cue sequence which should have been magic but was eventually cut by me as meaningless because the operator could not see them as anything other than six crossfades in a row to be done as neatly as possible, on cue, and accurately. What could say to him, this wizard of the Grandmaster? What could he make of my odd, personal, private and very vulnerable knowledge that if the cues were to be done "just so", I could help the poet to reach his hearers to the point of inducing tears?

Sooner or later, every operator of someone else's lighting has to meet with lighting so inappropriate, and so disgustingly ghastly that he has to either close his eyes and hope to God that he doesn't have any friends in the house, or refuse to do the cue. No operator can take the latter course and expect to keep his job under most circumstances, but occasionally one has the opportunity to do what one can to make the transition from one undesirable lighting condition to another relatively painless. What can you do when there is a requirement to fade down from 'too bright' to 'too dark' in too short a time? Obviously you must do the cue as given, and as best you I can. If it becomes apparent to the lighting designer that the cue is not working he will take steps to correct it. If correction is impracticable due to external factors, then start to use your professional expertise to make the fade as subtle and as near to the designer's ideal as possible.

There are a number of tricks we can employ to make an awkward fade work well. Sometimes it is possible to reduce the intensity of parts of the stage faster than others to create time and 'elbow room' to allow the final part of the fade (which is often the bit that shows most) to proceed in an unobtrusive manner. Properly handled, this can enable quite massive moves to have all the subtlety of a much longer fade. There are all sorts of cunning ways of getting a lantern out without the audience being aware of the change, and most of these rely on orchestrating the move to something external, taking for example a lantern down or out as the artiste steps out of the beam, which can be totally undetectable provided that it is done with care, and provided the beam does not hit anything else like the wall or a chair where its sudden absence would be noticed. Under this circumstance there must be some light left behind, perhaps from other sources, or, again it would be too obvious. Another way of cheating utilises the principle of distraction. An artiste screaming and jumping up and down stage left can be an opportunity to smoothly subtract light stage right, or the ubiquitous revolver shot, offstage crash, etc. can catch an audience napping. A third way is the use of mutual contrast. This is useful if an actor is standing in front of a window or open backlit door. As the actor arrives in position, some light can be removed from the backing and the human eye will interpret this as a dark adaptation effect, provided the amount of light on the face does not decrease. Always remember that an audience is never supposed to see a lighting effect in operation, and indeed, will resolutely refuse to do so unless forced -by you- to see it. So look out of the control booth window. You may think that that is an unnecessary thing to say, but you may be amazed by the number of people that don't. While your right hand is working the masters, or minding the ratefader speed control, your left hand should be constantly chipping away at the individual circuits, leading here, perhaps lagging there, taking the edge off any of the hotspots or shutter shadows that may appear during intermediate levels during the fade. And always learn the rig, as you have not the time to consult the plan during the fades, especially in the degree of darkness that you really ought to be working in. I must stress, however, that following this advice needs care, and can lead to precisely the opposite effect from that intended! A noted director has defined operators as 'People Who Spoil Plays'. As a board operator myself (and not one, I hasten to add, who feels able to exclude himself from that description), I tend to agree with him to the extent that I feel it to be so ludicrously easy not to do the perfect fade. So very few people have any very high expectation of the operator's ability to do one, that when an operator is encountered that has any feel for the dynamics of a fade without having it spelled out to him, surprise is often expressed. In fact there must be lots of first class 'feeling' board operators in the regions where the pressures tend to encourage the right sort of thinking, but certainly in town they all seem to have moved to television or have been promoted on the 'Peter Principle' to chief penpusher and formfiller, and who then may well have taken to drink after failing to convince their replacements that a fade can consist of something more than a smooth transition from one state to another. Well, what can a fade consist of? If you were to ask a musician what playing a scale is you would probably get a definition that was straightforward and educational, but would be saying nothing of the wealth of emotional associations that could be contained in combinations of those few notes when played by an .expert who knows how to bring them out. There is an exact parallel between the dynamic of a fade and the dynamic range of a piece of music. 'The Emperor Concerto', adjusted so that each individual note was given equal weight would be efficient, yet boring. The perfectly adjusted proportional dipless crossfade, whilst generally unobjectional, is a sad misuse of the power that an operator has to make a real contribution to the performance by the artistes, and the craft of the other technicians by reinforcing, orchestrating and occasionally counterpointing what they are doing.

Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock is a good example that I can use to illustrate this. A lighting change was plotted for the end of Act II. The lighting designer, Roger Weaver, had set two fine and subtle states, the first being more or less full stage, the sun coming through the window, the fire lit, the votive candle flickering on the mantlepiece. The second state, very dark and gloomy, nearly night, the fire almost out. The brief was: fade down in twenty minutes. Now, let's look at the script. The Boyles, Joxer and Mrs. Madigan are in the living room. They are having a little drink, which leads on naturally to a few songs with that Irish sentimentality that is known 'and feared the world over. They are joined by a neighbour on her way to bury her son, shot by the Black and Tans. They discuss the shooting with bitterness. The neighbour leaves and they try to cheer themselves up, and eventually succeed with some atrocious homebrewed poetry. They put on the gramophone, playing a lively jig, interrupted by the funeral procession passing in the street below. All but Johnny, injured taking part in an earlier republican action, go out to watch. We hear the procession pass. This takes about a minute, while Johnny moodily watches the fire going out. A man has crept into the room. He orders Johnny to report to the Commandant to answer questions about a suspected informing.
JOHNNY: (passionately) I won't go! Havn't I done enough for Ireland! I've lost me arm and me hip's desthroyed so I'll never walk right agen! Good God, Havn't I done enough for Ireland?

THE MAN: Boyle, no man can do enough for Ireland. (he goes)

faintly, in the distance, the crowd is heard: Hail Mary, full of grace, etc., etc. End of Act II You can see that during this twenty minutes there are a wide variety of moods, and that the amount of stage area in use also varies. Now the bulk of the fade has to take place after the family has gone out, and must be down to a very low level indeed in less than a minute. This is how it happened. When the cue was given the only thing that happened was a hand move to take down the level of the lanterns covering the wall at an angle to the window. This enabled the light that was set to shine through the window to register the pattern of the window bars onto the set, where previously they had been largely washed out. The effect of this was to warm up the natural source of light, while removing the diffused component of light in the room itself, giving the impression that evening was approaching. The sunlight lanterns were set at a lower angle than the covering lights, and therefore the shadows lengthened too. By the time this was over, about half a minute, we were into a particularly sentimental song, and the change of mood that the song engendered was reinforced by checking down, again by hand, most of the warm cover, leaving the fireglow, the warm low afternoon sun catching the two girl singers, the rest of the room cool and a little hard. A moment or two after the end of the song, the mood now subdued, the door is opened and the neighbour comes in. The door to the hall is left open, and light from a reflectorless pattern 60 flood fitted with 117 (steel blue) plus 160 (grey) casts a very long hard shadow into the room, and acts as a back keylight. There is a beautiful chiarascuro effect on the group, centre. During the rest of this scene the edges of the room and the area now covered by the spill from the hall are taken down a trifle and the sunlight lantern and any remaining sunlight cover are quietly removed. The neighbour leaves and closes the door. The artistes have naturally gravitated to the area round the fire, the warmest-feeling place in the room. A little warmth is slowly reintroduced into the centre of the room as the mood lightens, to the area where they are to dance. They hear the funeral. At the exact moment that the needle is lifted from the gramophone, a tiny drop, just within the edge of perception is made in the general light level, and this starts the remainder of the fade. As the stereophonic funeral passes, pick up and follow the mood of the sound, trying to get the main bulk of it done by the time the sound is panned halfway across the stage, thus leaving a few moments in which nothing at all is happening, except the fire going out and the votive candle gently glowing, trying to reflect the mood of stillness and introspection of the crippled boy. There is now only just enough light by the door for us to see that a man has entered, silently. We cannot see who it is, and in fact we never do see his face as we are now very, very slowly creeping the light on the door area to virtually out. As he leaves, all we can see is the panic-stricken face of the boy in the faint guttering light of the votive lamp. The fade to black takes almost painfully long to wring every ounce out of it. Now, the important thing is this. All that could have been set by the lighting designer. But in fact it was not. All that had been issued to the operator was the plot consisting of two states. The rest was the unique contribution of the operator, as the result of the trust of the lighting designer. Of course, this was largely done in rehearsal, and eventually evaluated, split up into separate cues and tidied up before the first night.

Before we go on, please take a moment to mentally put that cue onto a ratefader. It would probably have looked fine. Done by hand it was made to look magic.

I do not object to rate faders per se: but no automatic crossfader has sufficiently accessable overrides. My own definition of a lighting board is this: its an absolutely vital bloody nuisance, that gets between me and my needs. Fortunately, many of us have now been given the opportunity to thrust into the middle distance the problems normally associated with accurately repeating the plot, and therefore the operability (Ioveableness!?) of any control must be concerned with the degree of ease with which it can be incorporated as an equal partner with the operator into what I call 'Feedback Loops'. The function of these is to establish an unbroken circuit between the eye, the brain, the aesthetic response, the motor response, the hands, the fader, the lantern, the lit object and thence back to the eye, with auxilliary inputs from the ears

bio assisted feedback loop

As these are self correcting analogue/linear processes which take place not only on pairs of masters and crossfaders, but also on each and every channel, and on groups of channels as required, and bearing in mind that like every servo process it takes place largely a few microseconds in the past (think about it) and as once the need for correction is seen it has already happened, there is no time for the half second or so it takes to access channels or groups if they are not instantly to hand. On a fully manual board of medium sophistication, their contribution to these feedback loops are of course inherent; faders never need accessing or matching. Keypads, on the other hand are essentially nonlinear objects: they need staccato hand movements to operate and lead to staccato thoughts which are incompatible with the evolutionary flux of a fade. However, the advantages of dimmer level memory by far outweight these problems, and are not to be given up lightly: indeed it is only the existence of this that has made us able, even to consider taking the state of the operators' art one stage further. There are virtually no systems currently available that have all the facilities for good operator interface built-in; but a good operator is a good operator even if he has only a row of dimmer switches to work with. In fact, he has probably rigged himself up with an arrangement of meccanno and string to act as group and submasters by now. The trouble with all non-manual boards is that they force the operator into a rigidly channelled methodology of operating. The precise behaviour of a lantern or group of lanterns must be predicted during plotting or discovered the hard way during rehearsal before it can be allocated to a particular submaster or alloted a fade profile on those systems where that facility is available. On other systems anything other than a simple split fade requires the cue to be dissected into two or more separate memories, depending on how many playbacks you have available. If you wish to make up a lead group, a main group and have some lanterns lagging behind the rest, some up, some down, then you also need to use the digital wheel, or equivalent. Cumbersome. And the drill is so inflexible that two dangers are immediately apparent: the first is that you cannot instantly adjust for alterations, emergencies or mere whims: the second is that it is a bit too much like hard work for a conventional-type operator to consider doing it in the first place, and it does tax the brain so on the three hundred and forty-third performance.

So what is the ideal? Well (temporarily discounting such beyond-our-art schemes as direct connections into the human brain, or attaching sensors to various parts of our bodies to control our lighting rigs merely by waving the appropriate parts of our anatomy at the stage) memories, of course, plus one full set of channel levers that never need matching, plus a system whereby clues are worked fully manually until the fade is perfect and all parties are satisfied with what is happening on the stage, and then the machine memorises the actual dynamic of each channel and can reproduce the fade exactly as the operator last worked it, plus the ability for the operator to override each channel and submaster merely by reaching for it, plus the ability to override the overall playback dynamic merely by reaching for the master, plus the ability to re-record a new dynamic without erasing the old, plus automods, etc., plus a full pin patch with level pins for that inevitable moment of failure and to allow easy access to the control lines for the connection of chasers, flashing keys, etc., plus V.D.U., somewhere to put your bottle of water, etc. Here, then, we may be groping toward a possibility of a control that is all things to all men. It can be worked by a beginner or an accomplished expert, an artist or a cretin, and can handle any situation, including those unpredictable Sunday concerts, colour music or the non-arrival of the board operator. It is capable (but God forbid that it should ever be so!) of being worked by a simple push from the prompt corner and still be capable of looking good under emergency conditions, or worked by the designer from the stalls until the fade was perfect, and could then be reproduced by any member of the LX team secure in the knowledge that it at least stood a fighting chance of looking the same night after night. It would, more importantly, be capable of performing that elusive phrasing and harmonising, would have, in fact, 'playability'. There is even the possibility of there emerging a new breed of artist-operators whose sole function is to record his personal touch onto the board at the beginning of the run and to touch it up from time to time. Perhaps we may even be seeing a new production credit in our programmes 'Lighting Control dynamics by Walter Plinge'. In many ways, though, I hope not. The best person to work the board on the first night should really work it for the rest of the run. Hopefully, he just wouldn't be able to keep his hands off all those overrides, and in his hands, the performance would evolve as all good performances must. I believe that it is of great importance that he who is to work the control should focus the lanterns, or be present on stage during the focussing session, preferably after some discussion with the designer. Only this way will he have enough knowledge of the tools at his disposal.

It will also enable him to offer constructive suggestions to the lighting designer at the plotting session, something rarely resented unless the suggester patently does not know what he is talking about. Of equal importance is his presence at rehearsal, perhaps even more often than the designer (often busy on other shows) as this can be a very useful extra channel of information between him and the company. Apropos of nothing in particular I might suggest that for a musical, the head limesman may also benefit from a visit to rehearsals. (Incidentally, I happen to believe that a long spell as a lime operator is the very best training that a board operator can get). Nothing else can give such sense of the dynamic and kinetic possibilities of the use of light. I should like here to enter a plea to reappraise the hierarchy and role of the electrical department of any medium-tolarge theatre, to accommodate the new grade and job description of Technical Operator. This would cover board operators, sound operators, head limes man, power flying system operators, audio-visual system operators and so on, and allow them to be freed of the otherwise unconnected duties relating to heating and ventilation, power installation, plumbing, changing the bulbs in the ladies 100, etc., and allow them to spend their forty-odd hours more productively, working shows, maintaining the rig properly, doing turnarounds, and generally learning their trade at courses covering optics, fibre optics, lasers, electronic first aid repairs, use of microphones, spectrum analysers, graphic equalisers and all the tools of the future, for it is from this grade that the sound and lighting designers and all the innovators will spring. It will also enable theatre managements to hire properly qualified persons capable of taking. responsibility for the electrical installation, health and safety, etc., without regard for the fact that they may not know one end of a colour frame from the other. Perhaps never again will a House Manager poke his head into the control room just as finger muscles are being tensed for a cue to demand replacement bulbs for the foyer, or as in one theatre where I was (dear God!) a fresh supply of toilet paper. One of the nicest sights to see in the professional theatre is the sight of a real pro technician working the board. You really can tell the difference in the house. He obviously enjoys his work. He is always ready to react to anything new, even notices new lines, gags, etc., and who has a keen eye for potential dangers, trucks about to run into obstructions, important props missing, obstructions to the Iron, or an emergency in the auditorium, and informs the prompt corner in time to avert disaster. I cannot help contrasting this to the sight I had recently of a West End board operator with his feet up on the console reading a book pressing a GO button on sequence, complete with all the electronic goodies designed to deny the operator even the simple pleasures of needing to look out of the window to notice the fact that he was on the wrong cue. When informed of this state of affairs he was seen to 'wallop' the right cue in and then expect to enlist my support in the fiction that the '@*&*@ board had gone wrong again' for the purposes of the show report. He is still working there. A pity.

DORIAN KELLY is a Lighting and Sound Designer, and freelance production Electrician/ technical operator.


This was written- as you might tell -some years ago for the now defunct Cue Magazine

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