Stage Lighting 101…

This article, geared more towards stage/theatre productions rather than stage lighting for bands, tells you how stage lighting gurus think.

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Stage Lighting Goals

First and foremost, it is important to understand the goals of stage lighting in a theatrical production, which are as follows:
  1. To control what can and cannot be seen.
  2. To create the environment in which the action happens.
  3. To participate in collaboration in the style of the production.
  4. To support the story of the theatrical piece according to the chosen style and goal of the production.

We will now discuss these goals in detail, in relation to a lighting designer’s responsibilities. I believe these responsibilities are to create an environment that supports the production as a whole and to control where the audience focuses their attention.

Lighting Goal #1 – Control What Can and Cannot Be Seen

I begin with what might seem to be a simplistic statement: without light, we cannot see. The manipulation of this simple fact is one of the greatest tools a lighting designer has.  It is our job to direct the audience as to where they should be looking and away from where they should not be looking.

For example:

I designed a production of “Bat Boy” in which the director had asked me to help hide characters who had died while they got off the stage. The real trick was that the exiting performers were only about two feet away from the performers who were singing downstage of them. We chose to put the downstage performers in an extremely thin lane of light that was stark white. Lighting the side of the stage, rather than the front, assured that no light would travel upstage to hit the “dead” people. It worked great! You really could not see the dead people moving because there was no light on them.

That moment on stage really reinforced the idea that contrast equals interest. Because I wanted the audience to concentrate on the singers downstage, I visually hid the “dead” people.  The desired effect not only drew attention away from the “dead” people, but also increased interest in the singers by lighting and accentuating their movement. Using an extreme contrast of bright light and dark void helped to make the singers visually pop. This manipulation of light was compositionally pleasing and also helped the action move.  So we began with the simple idea that we see that which is lit, but equally compelling is the notion that a lighting designer is in command of what cannot be seen.

Here are a couple of thoughts that will be helpful.

  • Do not think, even for a second, that by simply not lighting something it will vanish.  There is always bleeding of light and something that is not purposely treated with light can still be seen.
  • There are dominant colors and submissive colors.  Dominant colors will never change or go away, no matter what color of light you lay on top of them.  Submissive colors will change what they look like if a dominant color is laid on top of them.  Experiment with this and it can help you direct the audiences eye.  Generally the redder the color the more submissive and the more green the color the more dominant.  Even if you are working in a blue palette you can choose blues that are more submissive or dominant.
  • If an object appears too dim and adding intensity is not helping, it usually means that there is too much light on other items.  Adding light is not always the answer, taking away light can be more effective.

Lighting Goal #2 – Create the Environment in Which the Action Happens

The next issue is the environment. Ask yourself the question: In what environment does the story take place? What does it look like? Is it a moonlit forest with a campfire? Is it a beach with a sunset? Is it a prison cell with the sun rising through the window? Is it a sewer where the only light comes from the grate above, and reflects in the pools of water below? It is our job to create and manipulate that environment.  I do not believe it our job to be the emotion or the conflict.  Emotion is the job of the performer.  We create the environment in which that happens within.

Lighting Goal #3 – Control the Style

This next goal is a little difficult to describe. It is an essence, a style. You can have the same environment done in many different styles. To show this, imagine a jail cell with the only light source being a single window at sunrise.

A realistic style would attempt to create the scene as real as possible.  As far as scenery, in realism there must be real doors, real walls and certainly the real jail cell window.  Realism must have tangible, physical things appropriate to the reality. The lighting aspect would stylistically support the realism, using color choices and direction of the light.

Assume you have selected the color for sunrise and have now placed it at an appropriate angle through the window to create the environment. Think ultra-simplistically. Sunrise ascends, or rises, moving from low to high. This movement is relative to the position of the light. If the scene has the time required for the sunrise to move, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the light created the movement?

Some people use the term “Directorial Need,” where I use the term “Theatrical Need.” I prefer the term theatrical need because a scene is a whole, and the lighting should be part of this whole. While people may have different views, both the director’s vision and a good lighting designer’s vision for that scene are probably the same. The director is (most likely) going to want that shaft of light to fall upon the performer, and so should the lighting designer. How else is the audience going to see what the performer is doing? Adversely, there are times when the performer is hiding from the sunrise – in the olden times, sunrise may very well have meant it was time for the morning execution. Here you need to have what I call the “shadow light”, where the shaft of light is present, but there is just enough light to see the performer in the shadows. There are ways of adding reflected and bounce lighting into an environment. It uses a very tight color palette, but the shadow is a shade of the directional light. Once you master this skill, which it is not an easy one, you will be a very popular lighting designer.

Now consider whether there should be one light moving very slowly, or a number of stationary lights that are cued in a sequence in order to simulate movement. Because the sun only creates one shadow, a single light (to keep from creating two shadows) would be most realistic when compared to multiple lights cross-fading because there will be a time when you have two shadows. Realism strives to re-create the most natural environment as possible.

So, now it gets a little more confusing. How real do you really need to go? There are some theatrical needs that may have to be fulfilled, even if to do so means to go against strict realism.

Therefore, within one style there are different degrees. Some people call strict realism “naturalism”, where if the lighting does not occur in reality, it is not created on the stage. I have seen many successful shows where the setting is a naturalistic living room, and the only light in the scene comes from realistic lighting sources such as table lamps, fireplaces and windows. In a small theatre, where the audience is close, these wonderfully designed shows worked perfectly. However, a 60-watt light bulb in an Ikea lamp is not going to cut it at the Metropolitan Opera.

In a realistic jail cell, at sunrise, another thing to consider is the location of the performer. Most probably, the theatrical need is for the sunrise light to hit the performer wherever he or she is. Take the concept of a low angle of sunrise and follow it through to make sure that the shaft of light then falls upon the performer. If the performer moves, the movement of the sunrise may very well want to follow, almost as if the sunrise is conveniently following the exact path of the performer. Of course, it must be done in an artistic way so that it does not look like a follow spot is following the performer. The shaft of light should gently move to make sure the performer is lit. The shaft may also widen as the performer starts to become more active.

Assume we are doing the jail cell in a stylistic way – venturing away from reality. There are no walls, doors or windows – only the actor, the costume and you, the lighting designer. Light can create the shape and shadows of jail bar windows. Light can create a box of light that makes the cage of the jail. Light can keep the scene very isolated. Here, I have described the same scene with the same script, but have it lit in two different styles. Both of them will work to tell the story. It is all a choice of the production team, from the director to all of the designers.

Lighting Goal #4 – Support the Story

Here is another issue that is always up for interpretation.  What is the piece about?  Is it a piece in which the author has hidden meanings that you are trying to get across?  Is it a rock concert that is simply about lighting that performer and making everything look cool?  Is it a child’s character show about a big purple dinosaur where your job is just to keep the scene clear and colorful?  You have to decide what your production as a whole is trying to tell an audience and then decide how you support that.  This is where your decisions and the collaborative teams’ artistic decisions really take hold.

In achieving this goal as well as the style goal, I greatly consider what level of reality is the most appropriate.  How realistic or abstract should my lighting be?  Is it a very realistic box set?  Are there real doors and windows?  Are there places in which the light comes from?  Does the light have to look like it is coming from the fireplace?  Is this one of those productions that are simply based upon graphic shapes of light to shift location to location?  See how many questions I’m asking?  This simply shows how individualized every production is and how adaptive you must be in being able to support it.


Let UTTPro control your stage lighting system…



I saw this well-written, informative article by Mr. Sayer here.

Let UTTPro help you put the power of automated stage lighting systems to work for you!


Pro Production: A Guide To LED Stage Lighting

Mar. 28, 2013, by Rob Sayer

The market in LED based lighting fixtures has possibly seen the biggest growth area in the stage lighting industry in recent years. All of the major stage lighting manufacturer have dived into the LED market while cheap imported lights mean that every church, small band or DJ can get a slice of the action too.

Rental companies are now expected to stock a wide range of LED units alongside their tungsten conventionals and discharge moving lights and the technology is developing rapidly. If you are new to using LED lighting or are thinking of adding LED to your inventory, we present a guide to LED stage lighting.

What’s so exciting about LEDs?

LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology has now developed to become a usable source of light in live performance and recorded media. LED fixtures have some advantages over ‘old’ tungsten based instruments and are particularly attractive to the events and concerts market right now. Manufacturers specializing in theatre and television equipment are also developing more sophisticated LED based fixtures to answer the needs of those shows too.

Let’s have a look at what lighting folks like about LEDs.

  • Low Power Consumption – Because LEDs draw a comparatively small amount of power, you can use a lot of fixtures on smaller supply such as a wall socket. This is great for small band lighting rigs and the disco/party DJ. Bearing in mind that 20 years ago we were still working with large rigs of PAR cans, there are also benefits of low(er) power requirements for the large show too.
  • Low Heat – Although LED stage lighting does produce heat, fixtures produce light without getting extremely hot as with their tungsten or discharge counterparts. In some environments, the lower heat properties of LED stage lighting are very desirable.
  • Lightweight and Portable – The hardware that LED fixtures are packaged in does not need to be heavy and even with the various power supplies and other elements, LED units are usually fairly lightweight. To make them even more portable, LED units can be more readily powered by battery and several products boast battery power and wireless control via DMX over WiFi. This creates a lighting product that you can place and control quickly with no messy wires and a minimum of fuss.
  • Color Effects – A common use of LED for stage lighting purposes is additively mixing a combination of different colored LEDs. A fixture with all three lighting primary colors, Red, Green and Blue (RGB) LEDs blended together in different combinations gives the lighting designer easy access to many color choices in one fixture. More complex LED color mixing fixtures use additional sources such as RGBA (Amber), RGBW (White) or more such as with the ETC Selador 7 color range of LEDs. The color functionality of all these fixtures does away with creating color subtractively using gel filters completely.
  • Small and Compact – LED lighting fixtures can be made in small, discreet packages which suit applications where size and appearance are important such as exhibitions stands.
  • High Brightness – Looking at Low Power from the other end, this is the ratio of light brightness to power consumption. Often advertised as Lumens Per Watt, high-powered LEDs are very bright considering the amount of electrical power they use.  The “additive” color mixing mentioned above means that light produced is not wasted being filtered out.
  • Longevity. LED lighting manufacturers often quote the number of hours an LED light source will last in comparison to sources such as traditional tungsten halogen lamps.  And we are talking tens of thousands of hours for an LED.
  • Built-In Dimmer. Most LED units offer dimming built inside the fixture, so there is no need to have a separate dimmer rack. In addition, many have onboard controls that allow setting the unit to a color, dimming the fixture, or even cycling or scrolling through different looks, all without the need for a separate controller.

So, LEDs are the answer to everything now?

Not yet. There are a few things you might want to know about LED stage lighting, before you go out and buy a truck full.

  • Many LED arrays can’t provide a point source like a conventional. Because there are many sources of light in the LED array, it is harder to create a LED fixture that will focus like sharp spotlight or project a gobo. Manufacturers have worked their magic on this, creating a point source with optical systems or by using a single, bright LED source. Recent developments have been in the introduction of hard edged spots such as the ETC LED Source Four but still, many LED units are designed to be washlights.
  • 16 Million Colors. Just not the one you want. Because of the way colored LEDs are made, different LED fixtures have colors that they just can’t do. A good quality white light that looks great on human skin is often cited as being one of them. Because of the way that all LED source colors are mixed together and the way LEDs are made, a nice white light is extremely difficult to achieve with many fixtures. LED lights that are designed to be white light sources often lack the range of spectral colours of daylight or an incandescent.
  • LED lighting fixtures are bright but …  Although when considering power consumed for brightness LED stage lighting fixtures are really efficient, many units lack the punch of their conventional lantern relatives. A cheap PAR can with LEDs in it is nowhere near as punchy as a 1000W PAR64 CP62. Cheaper LED lighting units have neither a lens nor a reflector, the light they produce scatters and struggles to maintain intensity when thrown much of a distance. However, great strides have been made regarding the optics in the last few years and the top LED fixtures really blast out some light.
  • Color Mixing And Shadows. Colored LEDs mix on a surface to create an even light, this mix improves further away from the light source. If there is much distance between the colors, the end result is multi-colored shadows that don’t get with a single-colored conventional. The latest professional and more costly LED optical systems are better at reducing these issues.
  • Dimming Issues. Because LEDs don’t use traditional AC powered dimming systems, LED based stage lights don’t behave the same as traditional lighting equipment when it comes to dimming. Cheaper units can have poor or steppy dimming curves and there is the real possibility of high frequency flicker when used with cameras. At some point in the dimming curve, LEDs can snap to blackout unlike the cooling down of an incandescent filament. Although high end LED fixtures can attempt to replicate it, LEDs also don’t naturally shift in colour like a tungsten source does over it’s dimming range.
  • You get what you pay for. All LED stage lighting fixtures are not the same. Even though you can buy them cheap doesn’t mean that you should and all of the above points are more apparent in cheap LED lighting fixtures. A good quality lighting manufacturer will always be more expensive but you can expect the quality of the light to be superior. If you want good colors, beam quality and optics, you must be prepared to pay for them.

Before you throw your rig of conventionals in the trash, be aware that there are serious and often complex reasons why LEDs are currently not a cure-all in stage lighting right now. These caveats encompass colour rendition, fixture life, dimming, optics and even environmental questions. Lighting designers have their reasons for choosing LEDs, along with reasons why they continue to specify other light sources.

What can I get from LED?

The color mixing capabilities of the LED fixture is often a key selling point. They come in different forms such as the lighting batten, a long strip with an array of colored LEDs or in a compact, circular array that produces a beam of light, similar to a conventional PAR can or a Floodlight. The batten are useful for lighting up flat areas, such as a wall or backcloth, while the PAR/Flood fixtures will give you a beam of light, similar to their conventional stage lighting relatives.

Moving light technology has also joined the LED fun with arrays being packaged in all shapes and sizes of waggly fixture goodness. There was also a passing fashion for the LEDs in a large, screen-like array which can be used to show colors, patterns and moving images like a low-resolution jumbo screen.

The most modern developments in LED lighting for theatre use include colour mixing Fresnels and lekos such as the ETC Source Four LED ranges. However, not all LED based units are designed to give multiple colors and manufacturers offer different versions of White only sources in a range of color temperatures commonly known as Cool White and Warm White. These fixtures can take templates and be controlled with lenses and shutters just alike an ellipsoidal reflector spot but while the White is not bad, they aren’t going to match up with your regular tungsten units.

How do I control my LED lighting?

Stage lighting systems are commonly controlled using the standard DMX512 protocol, and LED fixtures are no exception. Different DMX channels control the Red, Green, Blue or other colors while other channels may deal with overall intensity or special chases and effects.

If you don’t have a DMX lighting controller, many LED stage lighting units can be used in “stand alone” mode or can have control locally, using a local controller/power supply that enable you to change the color and run simple effects and leave them to it.

Do LEDs replace other sources?

While having their faults and limitations, DMX-controlled LED lighting fixtures are an important and welcome development in the technology of stage and theatre lighting. The rate of change means that it would be foolish to try to pinpoint if or when LEDs would replace other sources, even if we wanted them to.

If you are using or buying LED-based stage lighting fixtures, you should familiarize yourself with their limitations along with their benefits. We can look at those limitations in a future article but for now, enjoy the possibilities of LED in stage lighting—and don’t junk all your incandescent or discharge source equipment just yet. Rob Sayer is a Lighting Designer and Moving Light Programmer based in the UK with over 20 years of industry experience in a wide range of performance genres.  He is currently Senior Lecturer in Technical Theatre Production at Bath Spa University and is also Editor of On Stage Lighting.


Let UTTPro help you put the power of automated stage lighting systems to work for you!

DMX 101…

Since 2000, there has been a quiet revolution in stage lighting fixtures. Relatively fragile, inefficient (high heat output), single-color (with gels) incandescent lights have been replaced by more durable, long-lasting, low-heat-output multicolor LED’s. LED lighting fixtures are becoming smarter. The earliest LED light fixtures offer only passive, one-way communication – i.e., they can listen to control sources and respond to commands, but they do not send any information back to the controller. The newer fixtures implement two-way communications in the same way that newer MIDI devices both listen to computer controllers as well as send information back to them.

In both cases, a computer communicates to lighting devices through the Digital Multiplex (DMX) software protocol and a DMX hardware interface.  The “software protocol” is how the information is sent and received, and the hardware interface converts the USB or wireless port on your computer to the right kinds of signals to operate the lighting system.

A single DMX interface services 512 “addresses” or “channels” (these two terms are often used interchangeably). A collection of 512 addresses is called a “DMX universe”, and are numbered sequentially from 1 to 512. A single lighting device requires between 1 and 30 channels (even more for some devices) to control all its built-in (i.e., “smart” device) functions. The number of channels a device has is the number of DMX addresses it will respond to.

A DMX message consists of two “codes”.  Each code is 8-bits long.  The first is the address or “channel”, the second is a value. The value most often represents intensity information, but can also be anything the manufacturer wants it to be, such as a fade-in or fade-out time, or a value that represents how fast a strobe light is flashing, or which direction a spotlight should be pointing.

In building your own lighting system, set your devices so that there are no gaps in the addresses. Gaps will result in wasted information being sent to devices that are not part of your system. It’s okay to overlap devices, especially on identical devices, and especially when the operator always wants those devices to function in unison. Combining both overlapped and unique addresses makes it possible to control a hundred devices with a single 512-channel interface – more than sufficient for the vast majority of venues that you’ll be playing.

General-purpose lighting fixtures, which provide a range of colors as well as some internal automated functions, are usually low-channel-count devices (3 to 7 channels). Special lighting devices (such as motorized or laser devices) are generally higher channel-count (more than 10 channel) devices. An exception to this might be a fog machine, which would be classified as a “special effect” device, but may only require only a single DMX channel to operate.

The number of lighting devices you can connect to a single DMX interface will vary depending on the number of channels each device requires. A complete lighting system will usually contain a mix of devices, each with its own channel count. Most will usually be fairly low-channel-count, general-purpose devices. For example, if all your lighting devices required 7 channels, then the total number of lighting devices that you can put on a single 512-channel DMX interface will be 512 divided by 7, or a little over 70 devices.

When the special effects programs found in the higher channels of some lighting devices are not used or necessary, lighting fixtures often provide for operating in more than one mode in order to save channels in larger installations that may push the DMX channel count to its 512 channel limit. One mode might be basic RGB, requiring only 3 DMX channels. Another mode might be a 7-channel mode, where the first 3 are basic RGB, but the next 4 channels might control fade-in / fade-out times, some color macros, strobe effect rates, etc. Which mode you want to use will affect how your system controller will interact with your smart light fixtures. Some lighting devices have numerous such modes, allowing the device to act as a 3-channel, 7-channel, 12-channel, or 17-channel device.  Some moving devices can take up 30 channels or more.

A typical stage lighting system for a small act can be as few as 4 or 8 lighting devices, and could be as many as 30 or 40 for larger acts. In the majority of cases, a single DMX interface is all that’s necessary for even complex lighting systems.

Refer to the Owner’s Manual for the specific lighting device provided by the device manufacturer to understand how many channels are required and how the information sent to each channel affects the operation of the device.

UTTPro makes it easy to control up to 73 7-channel devices on a single interface, more than enough for very elaborate stage lighting displays.