LIGHTING DESIGN PROCESS PART 2: Hang and Focus
Focus is everything. I’m generally addressing those of you who are entirely unfamiliar with this process. Focus is exactly what you think it is. I am talking about how the light is “pointed” and affected by the provisioned features of specific lighting implements. There are various types of light that produces a range of light quality (and quantity). I could spend several posts on that topic alone, so for the purpose of the entry I will “focus” on the essentials (see what I did there… yeah sorry I couldn’t help myself). In order to point the light where and how you desire you must first hang the light in the appropriate location (physically attach and plug in). So this is really where the fun comes in. Most performance spaces have some variation of the same types of hanging positions, meaning if you were to set a point of origin at the center of the stage most venues have physical attachment points relative to each other on the X,Y,Z coordinate plane relative to the origin. I am using a lot of words to describe an established set of conventions allowing designers to point light from appropriate angles and vantages such as front, back, or side light. The composition is entirely based on the lights interaction with an object in the space and the relationship that has with the audience. Sometimes it is necessary to supplement the infrastructure to accomplish a design. I encourage this! Be inventive. Explore beyond established convention. Challenge the way the audience views the world you are building out of darkness. Put the light where you need it in order to tell the story. You must respect the responsibility you have as a storyteller and artist.
And so we build out of darkness. Not because we have harnessed the power of the day star, because the sun would not allow us to control it so. We use a multitude of lights that will be uniquely purposed to feature specific elements as if each lights presence was a brush stroke on the canvas of each scene. You control what is seen and more importantly what is not seen. Live production is all about slight of hand and misdirection. A successful lighting designer knows how to support the magic without calling attention to it. So we activate the magic using color and pattern, sculpting form from nothingness enabling the audience to willfully suspend the disbelief and fully engage in fantastic, imaginary worlds. Every light counts. It is with that in mind that we designers spend countless hours pouring over because we are often limited in our tools (equipment inventory, infrastructure limitations, limits of time, limited finical resources). We do not ever have the luxury of unlimited means in acting our vision, so we compromise and horse trade, ensuring that the integrity of the story remains intact. We advocate for a thing that has no voice until we are able to do our part to breathe life into it. It is up to the design team to give the director and performers a fighting chance of being heard.
So tell the story and where appropriate make it pop! This is the wow factor we talk a great deal about in graphic design. The more specificity and nuance you can employ, the more engaging the story will be. Generally, good lighting design is not noticed, but when it is being featured, by god make a statement. Rock concerts are an exception to this rule, as generally the lights become extensions of both music and performer, expressing an emotional layer that otherwise has no voice. The lights sing, dance, and transport the audience into another realm. This is obvious transparency exemplified. The audience is immersed and while the “light show” is an obvious component of the experience, it subordinates itself appropriately to the music (which is the real star of the show). Its transparency is “in your face.” We no longer focus our entire attention on it, but instead we experience the music in a new way, a way that engages our peripheral senses. We not only hear the music, but we see it as well. I say this simply to illustrate the wide verity of applications for lighting design with “rock show” at one end the spectrum and “theatre show” on the other. We pick the appropriate strategy and map it all out, but in the end we hang the light and point the light where we think it should go. Did I put that in the best location? Could I have focused it differently? These questions will persist regardless of how successful we are at “placing and pointing.”
We document our successes and failures so that next time can be better. The plot is updated to reflect our discovery (what works and what does not) in the space as often we are confronted with previously unknown obstructions and limitations. Sometimes we discover things that are simply out of our control, while on the contrary we often make discoveries about things we never realized we could control before. The interaction of light and object can be very complex if you want it to be, but the best design makes it look simple and easy. What adds to the believability? What heightens fantasy, creates whimsey, or engages the subconscious? These are all questions to be explored in the design. Sometimes a single shaft of “colorless” light tells the story more clearly than 100 representing all the colors of the rainbow. It is important to know when to exercise restraint. I design with texture in mind. Often times I will use atmospheric effects such as haze so that the light has substance and and can seemingly be touched. I use color, as Van Gogh did, to express mood and not always the reality through a seemingly arbitrary palate of bold colors meant to evoke a deep emotional response. When I was young I was a painter. I used pigmented color on a literal canvas to express myself. Nowadays I paint with light. My deep respect for the masters (painters) informs a great deal of my composition methodology. To me, this (lighting design) has importance. I experience it all around me. Color, color temperature, intensity, and pattern all inform my world view and ultimately how I perceive the world. To me “focus” is truly everything. When done well it shows me what I need to see, communicates what needs to be conveyed, hides what needs to be hidden, evokes an otherwise intangible response from deep within me.
I realize I went off on a bit of a tangent, but I feel it is necessary to understand my sense of universe. I will return to topic with the next entry, where I will discuss the wiring and programming. It will likely be an exploration of the science behind what otherwise appears to be purely an artistic endeavor. The complexities will astound. I leave you with this: Next time you are sketching a form or designing a poster think about what I have written. “Focus is everything.” Allow the simplicity of that philosophy to refine and declutter your composition, pick a light source/direction that tells a story, and have an opinion.