Lighting designer

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The role of the lighting designer (or LD) within theater is to work with the director, set designer, costume designer, and sometimes the sound designer and choreographer to create an overall 'look' for the show in response to the text, while keeping in mind issues of visibility, safety and cost. The LD also works closely with the stage manager on show control programming.

During pre-production

The role of the lighting designer varies greatly depending on whether a production is professional or amateur. For a Broadway show or a touring production the LD is usually an outside freelance specialist hired early in the production process, but most smaller theater companies will have a resident lighting designer responsible for most of the company's productions. At the amateur, Off-Broadway, or Off-Off-Broadway level the LD will often be responsible for much of the hands-on technical work (hanging instruments, programming the lighting control console or light board, etc.) that would be the work of the lighting crew in a larger theater.

The LD will read the script carefully and make notes on changes in place and time between scenes - such changes are often done just with lighting - and will have meetings (called Design or Production Meetings) with the Director, Designers, Stage Manager and production manager during the pre-production period to discuss ideas for the show and establish budget and scheduling details. The LD will also attend several later rehearsals to observe the way the actors are being directed to use the stage area ('blocking') during different scenes, and will receive updates from the stage manager on any changes that occur. The LD will also make sure that he or she has an accurate plan of the theater's lighting positions and a list of their equipment, as well as an accurate copy of the set design, especially the floor plan. The LD must take into account the show's mood and the director's vision in creating a lighting design.

Because lighting design is much more abstract than costume or scenic design, it is often difficult for the lighting designer to accurately convey his ideas to the rest of the production team. The lighting designer's chief tool, the light plot, is a very technical document that means almost nothing to someone unfamiliar with stage lighting. In some instances, a lighting designer may be expected to provide rough cue sheets or storyboards during pre-production. This non-technical document gives the rest of the production team a way to understand the lighting designer's vision without having to immerse themselves in the technical details of theatrical lighting. These cue sheets will typically include descriptions of each "look" that the LD has created for the show, using artistic terminology rather than technical language, and information on exactly when each look changes to the next.

While cue sheets or storyboards provide the lighting designer with a means of communicating his ideas to others, it is of little value to the lighting designer himself. When designing a show, the most important document for the lighting designer is the light plot. The plot is a scale drawing of the theater, with the lighting positions and instruments used in the show marked on it, also to scale. Next to each instrument will be information for any color gel, gobo lighting, animation wheel or other accessory that needs to go with it, and its channel number. Professional LDs usually use special computer-aided design packages such as Vectorworks or Auto-Plot to create accurate and easily read plots that can be swiftly updated as necessary. The LD will discuss the plot with the show's production manager and the theater's master electrician or technical director to make sure there are no unforeseen problems during Load-In. In addition to the light plot the LD will generate paperwork that helps assist the master electrician during load-in, focus and technical rehearsals.

During installation (Load-In/Focus/Cue to Cue) and technical rehearsals

The lighting designer is responsible, in conjunction with the production's independently hired "Production Electrician" who will interface with the theater's Master Electrician, for directing the theater's electrics crew in the realization of his or her designs during the technical rehearsals. After the Electricians have hung, circuited and patched the lighting units, the LD will direct the focusing (pointing, shaping and sizing of the light beams) and gelling (coloring) of each unit. Then the LD usually sits at a temporary desk (tech table) somewhere in the theater where they have a good view of the stage and work with the lighting board operator/programmer, who will either be seated alongside him or her at a portable control console or talk via headset to the control room. At the tech table, the LD will generally have a copy of the light plot and channel hookup, a remote lighting console, a computer monitor connected to the light board (so they can see what the board op is doing), and a headset. After hang and focus, if scheduled, and depending if the production is following closely on schedule there is a period of one to two days that might be allowed for pre-lighting or "pre-cueing." At an arranged time, the performers arrive and the production is worked through in chronological order, with occasional stops to correct sound, lighting, entrances etc. The lighting designer will work constantly with the board operator to refine the lighting states as the technical rehearsal continues, but because the focus of a "tech" or "cue-to-cue" rehearsal is the production's technical aspects, the LD may require the performers to pause ("hold") frequently. Nevertheless, any errors of focusing or changes to the lighting plan are corrected only when the performers are not onstage. These changes take place during 'work' or 'note' calls. The LD only attends these notes calls if units are hung or rehung and require additional focusing. The LD will be in charge if in attendance. If the only work to be done is maintenance (i.e. changing a lamp or burnt out gel) then the Production or Master Electrician will be in charge and will direct the Electrics crew.

After the tech process the performance may (or may not, depending on time constraints) go into dress rehearsals. During this time, if the cueing is finished, the LD will sit in the audience and take notes on what works and what needs changing. At this point, the Stage Manager will begin to take over the work of calling cues for the light board op to follow. Generally the LD will stay on headset, and may still have a monitor connected to the light board, in case of problems. Often changes will take place during notes call, but if serious problems occur the performance may be halted and the issue will be resolved then.

Once the show is open to the public the lighting designer will often stay and watch several performances of the show, making notes each night and making desired changes the next day during notes call. If the show is still in previews, then the LD will may changes, but once the production officially opens, normally the lighting designer will not make further changes.

Changes should not be made after the lighting design is finished, and never without the LD's approval. There may be times when changes are necessary after the production has officially opened. Reasons for changes after opening night include: casting changes; significant changes in blocking; addition, deletion or rearrangement of scenes; or the tech and/or preview period (if there was a preview period) was too short to accommodate as thorough a cueing as was needed (this is particularly common in dance productions). If significant changes need to be made then the LD will come in and make them, however if only smaller changes are needed, the LD may opt to send the Assistant Lighting Designer (see below for ALD description). If a show runs for a particularly long time then the LD may come in periodically to check the focus of each lighting instrument and if they are retaining their color (some gel, especially saturated gel, looses its richness and can fade or 'burn out' over time). The LD may also sit in on a performance to make sure that the cues are still be called at the right place and time. The goal is often to finish by the opening of the show, but what is most important is that the LD and the directors believe that the design is finished to each's satifaction. If that happens to be by opening night, then after opening no changes are normally made to that particular production run at that venue. The general maintenance of the lighting rig then becomes the responsibility of the Master Electrician.

NB: There are different protocols between European technical theater and American technical theater.

Advances in Visualization and Presentation

As previously mentioned, lighting design is an intangible and abstract design that is often not fully understood until all the lights are hung and focused and all the cues are written. In the past, story-boards and sketches have been the only visual methods for lighting designers to communicate their ideas to the director and the rest of the design team; however, there have been two developments in recent years that have given lighting designers additional (and in some ways more accurate) ways of communicating their ideas.

Computer Rendering/Visualization

With the advancement in computer processing and visualization software, lighting designers are now able to create computer generated images (CGI) that represent their ideas. The lighting designer enters the light plot into the visualization software and then enters the ground plan of the theater and set design, giving as much 3 dimensional data as possible (which helps in creating complete renderings). This creates a 3D model in computer space that can be lit and manipulated. Using the software, the LD can use the lights from his plot to create actual lighting in the 3D model with the ability to define paramaters such as color, focus, gobo, beam angle etc. The designer can then take renderings or "snapshots" of various looks that can then be printed out and shown to the director and other members of the design team.

The LightBox

Next to computer visualization, the LightBox is the most accurate way to depict a lighting designer's ideas. Invented by Charles Kirby, the LightBox is a tool that allows a user to light a scale model of the set in virtually any space. The LightBox is set up so that is uses fiberoptic cables that run from a power supply up into what is essentially a box with scaled down lighting positions. For example, a set designer can create a model of the set in 1/4" scale and it can be placed in the light box. The lighting designer can then take the fiberoptic cables and attach them to scaled down lighting units that can accuratly replicate the beam angles of specified lighting fixtures. These 'mini lights' can then be attached to cross pieces attached to the Lightbox simulating different lighting positions. The lighting designer can utilize the effects of color, beam angle, intensity, and even some gobos. The fiberoptics are controllable through computer software or a DMX controlled Light board. This gives the lighting designer the ability to depict scaled down representations of specific cues or looks that would take place during the show. One advantage the Lightbox has over computer visualization is that the model as well as the lights lighting the model can be manipulated in real time, allowing the lighting designer to respond to changes and suggestions from the Director and Design Team.

External links

"Stagecraft" articles
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