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George Ledo
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A few weeks ago I was chatting with a lighting designer, and, out of the blue, he asked me whether I thought three-dimensionally when I designed a set.

It took us a few moments to get on the same page, but what he was really asking was whether I thought in terms of layering the stage, front to back, in order to create interesting lighting possibilities. I replied that I did, because that's how we were taught in school: things like positive space versus negative space, silhouettes, and chiaroscuro (a fifty-cent word that basically means “light and shadow”). It turned out that he was asking because he felt that other set designers he's worked with don't think this way at all.

Stage lighting is a funny thing. Umpteen years ago Max Reinhardt described it as “...putting light where you want it and taking it away where you don't want it.” Such a simple concept when you stop to think about it, but so easy (and so common) to ignore.

I'm going to get on a soapbox here (a soapbox with a paper-thin top), and state that we, as people, are visual animals. We are used to getting our input visually, and we are influenced visually. A lot of us were afraid of dark rooms when we were very small – probably a primal instinct – and we still associate the dark with fear and danger. Remember the original Alien movie? The folks in Hollywood certainly knew how to capitalize on that fear, didn't they?

But it goes beyond that. We are influenced by visual images all the time, everywhere. Thumb through any major consumer magazine and look at the ads. Those ads are designed specifically to catch your attention as you're thumbing through the magazine. The colors, contrast, balance, verbiage, typography, and everything else, are very carefully constructed to deliver the message in the moment it takes to flip the page.

Architecture, fashion, landscape design, and lots of other fields work exactly the same way. They are meant to influence us visually, and the people who work in these fields spend years studying and learning what works and what doesn't. Lighting designers do too.

Stage lighting can literally make or break a show. It's that powerful. A fantastic piece of stage lighting can help the audience “get into” the show, appreciate it, and add immensely to their enjoyment of it. Unfortunately, lighting can sometimes also make things look better than they are, and it's an old joke that if the set has a problem, you can usually fix it with lighting. A bad lighting job, on the other hand, can distract the audience, confuse them as to what's important, and even compete with the actors.

Designers often mention that if the lighting is perfect, nobody will notice it. This isn't totally true, but it's a good way to think about it.

One of the problems with lighting is that it's so easy to get caught up in the instruments and the control that we forget that the purpose of all this stuff is to create an effect. Gel colors and schemes can be used to create specific moods (such as excitement, fear, and mystery), but they can also be used to tone down, highlight, blend, separate, and so forth, the actors, the costumes, and the scenery. An appropriate color scheme can make a gorgeous costume look gorgeous; an inappropriate scheme can turn it drab gray.

Even worse, and all too common, is when the lighting makes the star look like a corpse. That may be okay in Dracula, but it's not too cool in Mame or The Sound of Music.

A couple of years ago I was talking with a producer about doing Disney's Beauty and the Beast. We were both being very realistic here, knowing that a) our pockets weren't as deep as Disney's, and b) we didn't want to pretend that they were and disappoint our audience. So we started talking about a slightly “Cocteau-esque” approach, rather than doing the production the same way everyone else was doing it. To make a long story short, I wanted to do a sort of unit set, and have the household staff blend into the set when not needed, and appear magically (“peel themselves off the wall”) when needed. This would have required the set colors and textures, the costume colors and textures, and the lighting to be very carefully coordinated. In fact, we knew we would need to double-hang the portion of the plot covering the castle, and even triple-hang it in a few areas.

This was where my instincts kicked in and I started working on that final scene where the Beast turns into the Prince. I wanted that scene to be right out of the movie, levitation and all (of course Smile ), but I also wanted the lighting to actually change the staff costumes from household appliances to servants' attire. A tall order, but lighting can do wonderful things.

As it turned out, our option on the rights was canceled because another theater in the area exercised theirs, so we didn't do the show. But that's another story.

I said in a post just this morning that if anyone really wants to consider adding lighting to his or her show, the first step should be to get a hold of a recognized theatrical lighting designer. Not a kid from the local community college. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids know all about the equipment, but very little about the artistic end of lighting -- and, even more unfortunately, so do some of the professors. Sit down and discuss why you want lighting, where you do your shows, what kinds of effects you want, what kind of a budget you have and so forth.

And be ready to walk out if the designer even begins to talk about instruments or control anytime within the first hour or so of the meeting. I'm obviously exaggerating here, but at this point the designer should be spending his or her time asking good questions (some of which you can't possibly answer), listening to the answers, and understanding who you are, what you do, and why you need lighting

Once the designer has the necessary information, he or she can make some recommendations. Say you do a forty-five minute show and your primary venue is school auditoriums. You do general stand-up magic, with a bit of comedy and some audience participation, and include a couple of small illusions. You have your own full-size van, and there's space inside for a couple of road crates.

The designer may, for instance, suggest you stick with house lighting for general illumination, but add a few instruments (“specials”) for the illusions. Since you're getting into the height vs. throw vs. angle equation here (and since you have to consider where the shadows will end up), the designer may suggest using your own trees instead of relying on finding a pipe where you need it.

This is also where you also get into power supply. If the auditorium doesn't have any more than a few 120V 20A outlets (which may just be on the same circuit!), you may need to provide your own hamster cages. You know, those little round wheels with a hamster inside, running like crazy...

And so on and on and on. If you're not careful you can end up with more lighting equipment than magic equipment, and spend more money and time on it than on the magic. Is it really worth it for you?

Only you and a competent lighting designer can answer that.

As long as I'm on this, I'm going to daydream a bit...

I'm a set designer, not a lighting designer. And, although I took a number of lighting design classes in college and grad school and lit a few shows, I've been out of the lighting scene for so long that I don't feel qualified to teach lighting. However... if someone were to ask me to prepare a basic two-semester college lighting design class, here's what I'd do.

The first semester would be mostly classroom, with a few excursions into a lighting lab. We'd study art, photography, movies, TV, architecture, advertising, fashion, and other visual arts. We'd learn how Rembrandt used light and shadow, and how he differed from, say, El Greco. We'd study Turner, Caravaggio, Raphael, and others. We'd look at Käthe Kollwitz, the tube drawings of Henry Moore (done in the London subway during WWII), and even Aubrey Beardsley and some of the children's book illustrators of the early twentieth century. Ansel Adams would probably take a full week.

We'd also watch movies (Caligari, Nosferatu, Citizen Kane, Alien, and others), and go see theatrical productions, rock concerts, operas, and similar stuff. We'd see how Gothic cathedrals used those stained-glass windows, and how architects like Bernini and Palladio used windows, columns, niches, and other elements to define interior space.

The purpose of this approach would be twofold. First would be to ingrain the idea that the effects created by lighting actually influence us more than we realize, and to learn how artists in lots of fields have used them. Second (my hidden agenda), would be to weed out the kids who are more interested in the technology than in the art. They could always go over to the theater technology classes.

The second semester would be in the lab, learning how to create specific effects using only a few instruments. Actually, this would be more like a photography studio: a few small spots and floods lighting a series of mannequins. Start out with a key, then add a fill, and then add a rim light. This basic setup is still called “Rembrandt lighting” in photography circles. Vary the angles and intensities. Jean Rosenthal's book The Magic of Light has a wonderful chapter on this, with photos of a small drawing dummy lit from different angles, and all in black and white.

All the technical stuff – the electricity, physics, control systems, and so on – would come in the second year, after the kids understood what lighting is all about.

So much for daydreaming.

Theater lighting is learnable – very learnable – but it's like a lot of other fields where it's very easy to decide to do it yourself and not realize how the final effect actually looks.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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