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Lighting for videography and theatrical works are very different yet very similar.  Theatrical lighting is generally intended to be more dramatic whereas lighting for videography is more utilitarian.  Regardless of your needs, UES can assist you in planning and implementing the correct lighting scheme you need.  There are HUGE energy savings to be had for a lighting system designed properly.

The following information is intended to help introduce you to different types of lighting for use in a theater environment.


Understanding the General Purposes of Lighting

So many different types of fixtures exist that it is easy to feel overwhelmed when looking through any lighting catalog. But there are only two basic purposes for the fixtures. Once you understand these purposes, it is much easier to sort through all of the different kinds of fixtures.


This concept entails making certain areas of the stage brighter than others so that the audience will direct their attention to that particular spot. For example, if you have two characters talking on a crowded street, you want the audience to pay attention to those two actors, not the rest of the crowd. By highlighting their area (or dimming the rest of the stage), the audience will bring their attention to those two people.


A wide area of coverage or "wash" is used to provide color or tone to the performance area. This can be done with one or more fixtures as in a color wash. Where the highlights do not reach, it may be desirable to fill in the shadows with softer light. Also known as Fill Lights for this purpose, they can be used to fill in the dark spaces of the stage. These lights are also used to provide additional lighting on actors. Wash lights provide a less directional beam of light than those used to accent.

The Differences Between Fixtures

Ellipsoidal: This is the most common type of fixture used for accenting. Also called the ERS or Leko (which is a trademarked type of ellipsoidal created by Strand Lighting), the ellipsoidal can adjust its beam from a sharp-edged, focused beam to a soft, diffused light. Using shutters, the beam can be shaped (for example, if part of the light "spills" off the stage into the orchestra pit, the shutters can be used to crop the beam so the pit is not lit). Ellipsoidals often have features to hold patterns.


Follow Spot: This type of fixture you see all of the time in concerts, ice skating, lectures and other performances where the main character(s) moves around constantly and unpredictably. It is the type of fixture that is controlled by an operator standing beside it. Although different followspots sport different features, most will let you adjust the beam size, instantly change the color, and many will let you lock pan and tilt adjustment.
Fresnel: This instrument is somewhat similar to the ellipsoidal, but has a softer edge to the light beam. The beam can go from narrow to wide, but shutters are not available on the fixture to shape the beam, nor is it able to utilize patterns. Often barn doors are used to shape the beam.

Par: This is a no-frills, lightweight instrument that looks like a lightbulb at the bottom of a tin can (using a PAR lamp, this is how it got its name). Depending on the brand/model of a PAR can, the beam of the fixture might be able to adjust from a horizontal to vertical beam. The lens is usually part of the lamp, so by changing the lamp type you can change the beam angle.
Scoop: Pretty much the same as a PAR can, the floodlight is less directional and will provide more of a wash than the PAR can fixture. Flood lights are relatively inexpensive, durable and lightweight. They cannot support patterns, beam adjustment or any other accessories except color.

Controlling Your Lights

Imagine all of the lighting fixtures being at full brightness on your stage: not only would the actors pass out from heat exhaustion, but the colors of the set would be washed out. Also, the audience would not know where to focus their attention. In order to achieve the desired look and intensity of lighting for your production, it is necessary to use dimming and control. 

Almost all theatres and performance spaces have some sort of dimming and control system. But portable dimming and control also exists for temporary applications, outdoor or alternate area performances.  Most lighting systems consist of four major components: control console, dimmers, distribution, and fixtures.

1. Control console or light board: The control console is the brains of the system. It takes input from an operator and existing program and sends it down a control cable to the dimmers. It is important that the console and dimmers are able to speak the same language. Some common control languages or "control protocols" are AMX, DMX or a simple analog signal. Control boards can range from small shoe box sized boards to large Microprocessor based consoles, which can drive hundreds of dimmers.

2. Dimmers: Dimmers take the main power from the electric source at your performance space and send out various amounts of power through the individual dimmers. The control console's signal is what determines how much power goes through which dimmers and when.

Dimmers come two different ways. Rack mounted dimmers are usually for larger systems and are usually permanently mounted in the performance space. Dimmer packs tend to be for portable or semi-portable applications and can generally be carried by one person.

3. Distribution system: The distribution system is the wiring system that takes the power from the dimmers to the fixtures. A distribution system can consist of wireways, plug-in boxes and connector strips, or can be as simple as a set of extension cords if conditions permit.

Confused? It's quite all right. UES has experience in just about every conceivable combination of dimmers and consoles. Give us a call; we'll help you figure it out.

Placing the Fixtures

There are many schools of thought on the proper way to light a performance space. One of the most popular theories of lighting a stage was developed by Stanley McCandless at Yale. In his theory, the stage is broken up into smaller overlapping circular sections or Acting Areas; between 6 to 12 feet in diameter.


Each acting area is lit by two lights, each from a position 45 degrees above and to each side of the center of that area. The reason for angling the lights at 45 degrees is to place enhancing shadows on the actor. If a fixture is placed directly in front of the actor, the result will wash out all shadows and make the actor's face look very flat.


To separate the actor from the background and give him three-dimensional appearance, downlighting and backlighting is also important. Unless trying to achieve a special effect, this type of lighting is not as bright as the frontlighting. Ellipsoidal and Fresnel spotlights or Par Cans are ideal to use for downlighting and backlighting.

Another angle used to create a three-dimensional appearance is side lighting. Side lighting from both a very low angle and a high angle is used to light dance and musicals. Side lighting for dance takes on more importance in some designs than front lighting.

For general illumination, the McCandless theory will provide good lighting in most cases. Different angles, however, will give interesting effects. So, if time allows, try experimenting with alternate placement of fixtures. After you've highlighted each of your acting areas, fill in the rest of the areas with wash lights so that none of the stage is lost.

Adding Color and Texture

When discussing color, it is important to understand the difference in color of light versus color of pigment. As taught in school, the primary colors of pigment are red, yellow and blue; mixed together they will make black. However, in colors of light, the primary colors are red, green and blue; when mixed together, the end color will be white light.

When we talk about adding color to the lights, what we're really suggesting is adding a specially-made transparent/translucent piece of colored plastic in front of the lights. This plastic is known as gel, color media, color filter, or just color. The gel is a special transparent or translucent piece which can withstand higher temperatures (although it will lose its color as time goes on). This is the most common type of medium used to color lighting. Other methods include a more permanent glass filter or lamp dip (Colorine) for applications where low wattage will be used and gel is inappropriate to use.

Gel is applied in front of the lights using a color frame. This frame allows a piece of gel to slide in between the two panels. Then the frame fits in the slots located at the front of the fixture.

Cool colors include those in the blue-green-violet range. Warm colors include the red-yellow-orange range. Generally, it is ideal to add a cool color to one of the 45 angled front lights, and a warm color to the other. This will provide a good color of light on the actors' face or set, and give the illusion of depth.

Color in the rest of the instruments depends on what feeling or mood you want your area to convey. For example, if you have a cheerful, fun musical, you'd most likely want to use warm, vibrant reds, pinks, yellows, etc. But you are the designer, so the choice is up to you.

Textures of light add an interesting effect to any stage. If your setting is in a park, adding leafy patterns to the ellipsoidals will project a look of sunlight shining through the trees. This can also work for windows, clouds, or more abstract effects.

Patterns can also be used to project images onto cycloramas; images such as clouds, stars, city skylines can be added rather easily (much more easily than painting a drop) and can change from scene to scene with less effort than flying drops in and out.