Saturday, December 30, 2006

HickoryDickory Wrap-Up: Lesson 3

This is the third in a continuing series of lessons learned during HickoryDickory.

The third lesson I learned was that angle affects reflection. We're all taught in middle school science class that light bounces off of objects at the same angle that it hits, but for me at least, I had never really thought about how that rule applied to objects that didn't have a mirror surface. Unsurprisingly, it holds there as well.

For this show, I used a light yellow-green color (Straw Tint, I think) from one angle and a pinkish color (I don't remember the name) from the other angle. The pink and the green combined to create white, and the end result was a warm, comforting light that brought out the warmth of the actors' skin tones. The set, which was mainly a warm yellow, looked very good. However, there was one wall of the stage that didn't look like there was any of the pink color hitting it at all; it had kind of a radioactive green glow to it, even though I was certain that there were two colors of light shining on it.

I finally figured out that the wall looked radioactive because it was slanted. It was at about a 45-degree angle to the audience, so when I shined two lights onto it from 45-degree angles, one light was perpendicular to the wall surface, while the other was barely skimming along that surface. The yellow-green light was the one perpendicular to the wall surface, so its color reflected more toward the audience, while the pink light reflected into the back stage area.

The solution? Switch the gels between the two lights hitting the wall. Then any actors standing in front of the wall were still illuminated by both colors, but now the pink light was hitting the wall straight on, while the yellow-green was reflecting backstage. The pink light looked much less garish than the yellow-green, so this toned down the wall while keeping the acting space colored the same way as everything else.

HickoryDickory Wrap-Up: Lesson 2

This is the second post in my sequence of lighting lessons I learned during HickoryDickory. The first lesson was about maintaining the contrast between the actors and their surroundings.

The second lesson I learned was about sunlight. There is a convention in theatre lighting that moonlight is blue. You can use blue light, and people agree to believe that it's moonlight, even though it looks nothing like the moon. However, I discovered that there is no such convention about sunlight. Everyone always stereotypes the sun as being yellow, so I tried to create a sunny look by shining yellow light through a gobo to give the textured pattern of leaves. I discovered that it didn't really look like sunlight through leaves, it just looked weirdly greenish and acidic. When I removed the yellow gel entirely (on Charlie's recommendation), it looked a lot better.

What really makes sunlight look sunny is the angle; if you have a strong white illumination that is consistently coming from the same direction, it looks much more like sun.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

HickoryDickory Wrap-Up: Lesson 1

Well, it's been a long time since I've posted; I've had a very busy semester (gee, what's new?), so spending hours typing up blog posts wasn't high on my list of priorities. Next semester doesn't seem like it will be any different, since I will be doing three shows (possibly four or five).

For now, however, I'm on winter break, and I plan to write all the posts I should have written over the past several months.

To start, I'm going to cover HickoryDickory. When I last left you, I had just started writing cues with Bill. I don't remember too much about the process itself, but I do have some overall lessons that I learned. Some are more general than others, but I think they were all valuable. I'm just going to post one per day, so that way I can space out my content over a longer period of time.

First Lesson:

Lighting is about contrast. Those of you with more experience than I have are probably saying "Duh," to yourselves, but that was a lesson I had never really had an opportunity to see for myself until now. This was my first show done on a box set, which meant that this was the first time I ever had to deal with walls.

Walls, unfortunately, reflect a lot of light. In dances, walls aren't a problem because most of the light comes from the sides, so it never hits the back wall. In a black box with no set, the curtains soak up all the light, so it never reflects even if it does hit them. However, the walls on a box set are usually much more lightly colored than black, so they reflect more light. This isn't really a problem, until the walls start reflecting more light than the actors' skin.

Once the walls reflect more light than the actors, a strange effect happens: no matter how much light you throw onto the stage, the actors always seem to be a little bit dim. This is because given the same amount of illumination, the walls reflect more of it back to your eyes than do the actors, so when your eyes adjust to that brightness level, the actors end up looking underexposed, so to speak.

In the case of HickoryDickory, the walls were a muted yellow, which was almost exactly the same brightness as a typical pale white American. Bill thought everything looked okay, but I was constantly frustrated by how dark the actors looked.

There's no easy solution to the wall/actor problem, but the best thing I found to do was to use light from angles that hit the actors but not the walls, such as from the sides or from a very steep angle from the front. Angles like that create shadows in weird places, like in the eye sockets, so I had to fill those shadows with light from the front, which lit up the walls, but since the actors were already mostly lit, I could use the wall-hitting lights at a lower intensity. Since this lowered the illumination of the whole stage, I was in esssence tricking the audience's eyes into overexposing the well-lit parts of the actors in order to see the dimmer parts, rather than underexposing the actors because everyone's eyes were adjusting to the bright walls.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Lesson in Lighting: Be Flexible

Today was my first day of doing lights for HickoryDickory with my director. I was petrified that he wasn't going to like my design because it was obvious during the focus process that it wasn't turning out as I expected it to, and that, to me, meant that it wasn't good. However, it became pretty clear throughout the course of the day that my lights were actually in pretty good shape. I was able to accomplish most of the things Bill (my director) asked me to do, and we made really good progress. I was a bit surprised, since it seemed to me that my lights weren't going to work out at all, because they couldn't accomplish what I had expected them to in the way I had expected them to accomplish it. I mentioned this to Charlie, my mentor, and he agreed. He likened designing lights to creating a musical instrument: the construction of it is important, but equally and perhaps more important is the skill with which you employ the instrument you have been given. It's just that with lighting, you get to design the instrument as well as play it. So that's a big lesson for me; the realization that designing the lights correctly on the first try isn't a huge obstacle is extremely valuable, because it'll keep me from freaking out so much, and just allow me to design what I want to design. This time I spent a lot of time agonizing over angles and colors, and I shouldn't have. Colors can be easily changed, and angles probably won't survive the hanging process anyway, because something will get in the way, so you'll have to move stuff. Moral of the story: design something that you can use to accomplish the basic looks that your director gives you: sad, angry, happy, morning, afternoon, night, inside, outside, underwater, whatever. That's where the design comes in. Once you've got that, throw in some random stuff, because you'll need it--but make sure you have some sort of vague idea what you want to use it for. If you get some good ideas for specific effects, go for it; the small touches can really improve a play. Once you've got your lights, pick some colors that work well together, and then plop the whole thing on the ceiling and starting clickety-clacking on your light board.

Friday, September 22, 2006

HickoryDickory Lights

I mostly finished hanging my lights as of last night, and a lot of things didn't look the way I wanted them to. The blue color I used in my zooms just ended up looking really out of place when mixed in with all the warm colors on the set, and you could see where it was hitting, because there would be these patches of random coolness to the colors. Also, my idea for having fresnels mimic spill from windows onto the outdoors isn't really going to read, I don't think--you need blue in order to have night time, and as it stands, only half of the outdoor areas can be lit with blue. So I think I'm going to switch out the orange (Rosco 15) for some more of the blue I'm using for the moon already (Rosco 69, I think). Last, the sunlight through the trees (Rosco 12) effect looked like crap. I'm going to try switching it out for a green of some sort (Rosco 87, I think). I also need to move the sun-through-trees lights so that they're coming from the same direction. Next time I try to re-create a sun effect, I'm going to pay VERY close attention to the direction that the sun comes from; it really matters. Actually, in this case, it can just be diffuse daylight and that's okay, but I'm glad it wasn't supposed to be glaring sun. On the other hand, all of the choreographers in the department seem to want me to light their dances for WUDT. This is a good thing. Apparently they liked my work last year. So that makes me pretty happy.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Hanging Lights for HickoryDickory

I'm currently in the middle of hanging lights for the first drama of the year at my school, HickoryDickory, which is a great new show by Marisa Wegrzyn, who is a WashU alumna currently residing in Chicago. I designed the lights, and with tech week exactly one week away, it's time to get lights in the air. I'll post more on the design process later; right now I'm too busy to give much of an account. Today we started the light hang, and this is the first show I've done where I've had a significant amount of help with the hang. I was astounded at how quickly everything went. Just having five people or six people working instead of two or one made all the difference. You can assign one person to do all the bookkeeping and reading of the plot, so that the people doing the actual hanging just holler out for another light, and the person at the plot tells them where to go next. Meanwhile, she (it was a she today) can keep track of any changes that are made, all without the workers interrupting their progress to write stuff down. Moral of the story: Theatre is massively time-consuming, but if you have enough people, you can do a lot of things in parallel so that it doesn't take quite as long. I'm really excited for the show; if you have a chance to see it (i.e., you're in St. Louis), you really should. Show dates are Sept. 29 and 30, and Oct. 1, 6 and 8. 8PM Friday and Saturday, 2PM Sunday.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Thoughts on the Muny

Anyone in St. Louis during the summer probably goes to the Muny at least once. It's located in Forest Park, and it is one of the largest and oldest outdoor theatres in the world. During the summer, the Muny puts on a series of musicals, which this summer included Aida, The Wizard of Oz and The King and I. The Muny employs professional actors and technicians, and is probably one of the preeminent summer stock venues in the country. If you look at the cast bios next time you see a Broadway musical, chances are you will find that some of the members of the cast performed at the Muny at one time or another. In addition, 1,200 of the seats at the Muny (the ones way in the back) are free, so college students can afford to go see all the shows. Having said that, however, the Muny isn't all that great. The main problem at the Muny is the number of shows they do. In order to maximize profit, they cram seven shows into seven weeks, without skipping a day. This gives them less than 24 hours between the end of one show and the beginning of the next. In that time, they have to rip all the set pieces out, put in the new ones, program the light and sound cues, and put it all together into a show. Granted, everyone working at the Muny is very skillful, but even so, putting together a show in under 24 hours is a monumental undertaking. In order to make it work, they cut corners. The lights are bland and static, because programming complex cues takes time. The sets always have similar features, so that it's easier to build them and work the scene changes. The acting and directing isn't very inspired because there isn't much rehearsal time. All these things add up to performances which are enjoyable, and which involve people who are clearly very talented, but which are decidedly, well, blah. They're not sloppy, because the actors and techies are both too talented for that, but they're lacking the kind of intense, refined energy that you would see at a show that had more time to rehearse. Luckily for the Muny, no one really seems to notice. This is a general trend of theatre audiences in general; they have an astonishing capacity to be bored out of their minds for an entire performance, and yet when it's all over, only remember the sparkling, glitzy Act II finale. They'll give the actors a standing ovation and gush about how much they loved the show. I'm still going to go to the Muny for the rest of the summer, because I would never skip an opportunity for free theatre, but if you consider yourself a discerning theatre viewer, don't expect great things from the Muny.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hanging lights with St. Louis Shakespeare

I spent most of my day today helping the St. Louis Shakespeare Company hang lights for their upcoming production of Ovid's Metamorphoses. They work in the Grandel Theatre, which is on Grand, just north of the Fox. The theatre's lighting grid is absolutely awful. There is no metal grating next to the hanging positions to walk on. Instead, someone put a whole bunch of two-by-sixes over top of the support structure for the grid. But they didn't bother to fasten them down. So when you're up in the grid, you're simply walking around on a whole bunch of loose boards, 50 feet above the stage floor. The boards are uneven, and being loose, can be easily moved. So it's easy to trip, and as people shift the boards around to make room for lights, giant gaping holes can open in the floor. Not only that, but as I was working, I noticed that one of vertical support struts, which was supposed to be supporting the weight of the grid, was loose. So loose, in fact, that when I tried to tighten it, it simply came unfastened in my hand. Luckily, the lighting grid didn't come crashing down, but it certainly doesn't inspire great faith in the safety of the theatre. Not only that, but some of the lighting positions aren't even over the boards. They're just sticking out into space. So to hang a fixture on them, one person has to haul the light into the air with a rope, while the other person hangs the fixture one-handed, since his other hand is clamped in a death grip to the nearest solid object, and only his hand is preventing him from pitching headfirst off the grid into the seats below. That person, this time around, was me.

Friday, July 07, 2006

A few instrument maintenance tips

I learned a couple things about destroying lighting instruments today. First: never put a 1000-watt FEL lamp into an old Altman zoom fixture. The bulb is so big that if you slide the back lens all the way back, it will contact the tip of the bulb, causing the lens to shatter because of the heat. We found nine or ten Altmans with this problem. Second: never put a 1000-watt FEL lamp into one of those teensy baby Altman fixtures--it will melt the reflector. As for theatre this summer, I'm currently helping with lighting at St. Louis Shakespeare, and they have a gorgeous theatre. I'll also be running the light board for Hot City Theatre's production of MOments in August.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Young Choreographers' Showcase

I recently designed lights for Young Choreographers' Showcase 2006 (YCS), which is a biennial dance show that WashU puts on to, well, showcase the works of student choreographers. Earlier this year, I designed lights for another dance concert, Style/Form, which was a senior thesis performance for Justin Huebener and Allison Califano. I didn't get a chance to write a post about it, but that show was a really great experience for me; I learned many valuable lessons about designing dance shows (see the post below this one). Style/Form also took place in the same performance space as YCS, which meant that I got to leave most of my lights hung. Since I already had most of the equipment already in the space, tech for YCS was a very pleasant process; there were no late nights in the theatre, and since I had tech support (in other words, warm bodies to do my bidding, and a budget), I didn't have to do everything myself. At least in part because tech was so nice, I think the lights for YCS turned out very well, and I just got hold of some pictures of the performance, so I'm excited to get those posted and discuss them a bit. I didn't take most of these photos; I believe I am within my rights to post them, since this size is freely available from David Marchant, the photographer, but don't ask me if you want to copy them or something--ask him. I did take the shots that are from Style/Form, however, and those are Creative Commons licensed, so do whatever you want (so long as you follow the license). Also, if you have access to a CRT monitor, I recommend it for viewing these photos--the colors will be much nicer on a CRT than they would be on an LCD.


Allison Califano

This piece was a repeat from Style/Form, and it was very fast-paced and angry. Allison wanted a leafy, foresty look, so she asked for patterns on the dancers, and in Style/Form, I wasn't able to get it to work very well. However, with a second chance at it, I used more saturate colors and changed the instrument focus a bit, and the leaf patterns showed up quite well this time, I think. An unexpected side effect of the bright green cyc is that whenever the dancers were in silhouette, they left weird blue streaks as they moved. It was clearly a trick of the eyes, but it still looked very cool. Picture 9 IMG_2136.JPG

Decompose. Recompose

Heather Wigmore

Heather didn't really have any clue what she wanted in the way of lighting, so I took the opportunity to play a bit, and use a lighting technique that I've seen Charlie Chapman use from time to time: having intense complementary colors from opposite angles. Where the lights blend, they create white, and the shadows cast by each light are actually the areas illuminated by the other color, so it actually makes all the shadows colored rather than black, which I think looks neat. I don't think I was completely successful in mimicking Charlie's work in this piece, but I still like the overall effect, especially on her face. Picture 1

Alone Everybody

Laura Vilines

This dance was divided into three sections; I am posting pictures of the first and last section. This dance discussed themes of solitude and becoming part of a group. All of the lighting is very saturate because Laura wanted bright colors (look at the accents on the dresses). The first section is the orange one, and it was a short solo section for Laura; she stood in that pool of light and considered breaking out of it, but never really managed to. That's the solitude part. The second scene was blue, and involved lots of group work. That represented the group--what everybody else was doing. The third section is the red photo, and it involved similar choreography to the second section, except this time it told a story about a girl going from solitude to becoming part of the group. My lighting for this dance very closely mirrored the music; it was bright and fun and happy, and for the last piece ("It's Oh So Quiet" by Björk), I went with the mood changes almost exactly. This seemed to work, because the choreography was very open and forthright. Picture 10 Picture 3

Drifting into Focus

Patricia Engel

The lights for this happened by accident--because of the white floor, any lights that shine on the floor are very visible. When I turned on the side lights with an intense blue color in them, I created those really nice-looking symmetrical scallops on either side of the stage. Because this was a very symmetrical, structured piece with music that sounded a lot like Philip Glass or Brian Eno, I immediately had a "eureka!" moment when I saw those scallops on either side. As you can see, Patricia's costume is pink and purple, so I used the blue scallops to accent her costume, and then I used pink in the mid and high side lights to make the costume and her skin seem warm and mellow. The eureka part was when I realized that her dance enters from the upper-right corner of the stage, moves downstage, and then goes back out that part of the stage. I followed the dance by turning on the alleys of side light one by one, from upstage to downstage, and then turning them off in reverse order, and I think it looked great. This was probably my favorite piece of the show. Picture 4

Sorrows of the Past

Marquita Redd

This piece was about black people in the South getting lynched. It was a repeat from Marquita's thesis, but I didn't design lights for that, so I essentially re-created the lights from scratch, based on what she told me her original designer had done. I didn't really enjoy this piece, just because I thought the theme was overdone, but the lighting came out quite nicely; I've noticed that reds and yellows do a good job of accenting dark skin. Picture 2

You Must Meet My Wife

Justin Huebener

This was another repeat from Style/Form, and I'm really glad I got the chance to re-do it--I just wasn't happy with the lights for it the first time, and I think they were much improved this time around, even though all I really changed was that I used more saturate colors. The picture, however, isn't from YCS, it's from Style/Form, so you don't get to see how much better things looked, sadly. Basically, this piece was about sexual repression in the 1950s, I think. That makes it sound rather pompous and dreary, but it was actually just a heck of a lot of fun; the dancers maintained expressionless faces throughout most of the dance, making robotic sexual gestures and movements, and everyone was cracking up the whole time. It was set to "Hey Big Spender" from Sweet Charity, and the dancers were pretty much acting out a weird robot version of that in big frilly dresses, so you can probably imagine how strange it was. IMG_2171.JPG IMG_2167.JPG IMG_2172.JPG


Meredith Wilensky

This dance also included a eureka moment; when Meredith started asking for lights that kept her in a pathway up and down center stage, I realized that a rectangular path from the back would look great, so I added that as a special. Then I saw her costume, and things got even better, because as you can see, the fabric of her shirt was a translucent red material that glowed just beautifully under the backlighting that I had. Picture 8


Jenny Boissiere

No, you're not imagining things; the dancers really are wearing blindfolds. Luckily, the blindfolds were thin enough that they could see through them reasonably well--so long as the lighting was bright enough. My first priority with this dance was clearly to prevent collisions, so I just picked colors that I thought went well with their costumes, and then turned everything up full blast. Not particularly creative, but it still came out nicely. The music for this was really cool a cappella beat-boxing. Throughout the dance, one by one, most of the members of the company took off their blindfolds. I thought it would be really cool to make them go dark as they took their blindfolds off, to kind of invert the audiences expectations of what happens when you remove an impediment to clear sight. However, that ended up being not really possible given the choreography, and it would have been semi-dangerous for the dancers who were still blindfolded, so I settled for just changing the color on anyone who wasn't blindfolded. By the end, only one dancer was left with a blindfold, and you can see in the second photo that I got my chance to make the blindfolded person light, and the un-blinded dark, which I was happy about. Picture 7 Picture 5


Rebecca Hutt

This was a cute little piece that I really enjoyed. It had already been performed at the American College Dance Festival, so someone designed lights for it there, and I mimicked what they did based on description. I admit that I probably wouldn't have come up with this particular color scheme on my own, but I really liked it, and I'm going to add this type of look to my bag of tricks. I only wish the floor weren't so reflective, because the red on the back wall kind of turns into purple near the bottom, as it blends with the blue from the stage wash. Picture 6 And, that's all the dances in YCS 2006--I hope you've enjoyed reading about them! Just for fun, here are some shots that I took myself from Style/Form. My camera isn't great though, so these aren't of the highest quality. IMG_2132.JPG IMG_2147.JPG IMG_2155.JPG IMG_2163.JPG IMG_2161.JPG

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Some Light Designing Lessons

I've done a lot more light designing over the past few months, and I've learned some useful rules of thumb:
  1. Make sure your top lights are soft-edged, otherwise people will look like they're getting darker when they walk in and out of them.
  2. When designing a dance concert, use VERY saturate colors. If you ever say to yourself "that's too saturate," then you're probably wrong, and it's just right.
  3. Also when designing a dance concert, pick a palette of side light colors before you start tech with the choreographers, and stick to it. That way, if the designer wants green, or blue, you'll already have the gels sitting nearby, and you know they'll look good with the colors you have for your top and back lights. It's usually good to have a darker and a lighter shade of everything too.
  4. Always make sure to hang, or have enough circuits available for hanging, a smack-in-the-face front wash. It'll flatten everything out when you use it, but directors and choreographers will inevitably tell you "I need to see their eyes". If you can bring the front wash in at a low level, it'll fill in the shadows under the brows, without compromising the modeling from your main lighting. This will make the director/choreographer happy, and keep you from looking stupid.
  5. During the rehearsal process, arrange with somebody (probably the stage manager or assistant stage manager, or your assistant light designer, if you have one) to make a note of every time somebody stands on something. Unless the actor is really short, the extra foot or two of height will make most actors' heads disappear above your light if you don't compensate for that action.
  6. Likewise, especially with plays and sets that have highly localized scenes where the action tends to be limited to certain subsections of the set, arrange to have yourself notified whenever the director blocks a scene that breaks those boundaries. This will always happen; 75% of the play will occur within your nicely-defined lighting boundaries, but at some point during wet tech, usually in Act 2 when everyone is tired and wants to go home, the blocking will call for an actor to cross between two areas, and it will look like they walked into a black hole for a second. If you're aware of the areas whose boundaries are broken often, you can smooth out their blending so that those dark spots don't have to be fixed later.
  7. Make sure you know what your director wants. At least at my school, lighting designers are not necessarily encouraged to work as closely with the director as the scenic or costume or props designers, and I think that's a mistake. Even though most directors feel less comfortable with lights, you as the designer at least need to make darn sure that you're on the same page as the director as far as your concept of the play, and it wouldn't hurt for you to go to plenty of rehearsals too. That way, you'll design something that the director feels comfortable working with, rather than lights which the director feels hamper his or her vision.
  8. Contrast can create the perception of darkness. If you have a VERY bright key light from a shadowy direction (side, top, back), it will tend to override some of your fill lighting and make the scene look like there is darkness where there isn't, because the eyes adjust to the brightest part of the scene. The solution here is not more light, because you will end up with everything at 100%, and it'll still look shadowy. The solution is to take the key light down a bit, and as it gets closer to the level of the fill light, suddenly those shadows will get filled in, and the scene won't look so stark.
I'm putting these down partially for my own benefit, so that I can remember them until they become internalized, but I figured that it's a good idea to have them out on the Internet in general as well, so that other new lighting designers can benefit.