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.

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