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Topic: Stage lighting: understanding the basics
Message: Posted by: George Ledo (Jul 21, 2007 05:31PM)
***WARNING*** :)

This article is about stage lighting, not about stage lighting equipment. I’m going to discuss the very basics of stage lighting first, and then move into how it is used and how it can be used to create dramatic effects. However, except for a couple of brief instances, I’m going to avoid mentioning equipment at all.

I’m a set designer, not a lighting designer. Yes I studied lighting design (we were taught that the set and the lights need to be one integral whole, and ideally be designed by the same person), and yes I’ve lit a few shows, but I discovered very early that my interest is in the visual images and how they contribute to the story, and not in the equipment required to get there. This is the main reason I moved away from lighting; lighting designers need to keep up with the constant improvements in equipment (their primary tools) even as they consciously try to avoid letting the tail wag the dog. Even today, when a lighting designer starts talking about the latest and greatest in equipment, I usually remember that I need to do something in the next room.

But, just like with any other tool, the latest and greatest in equipment doesn’t always give you the best results if you don’t know how to use it. If I were to light a big musical on a medium-sized stage today, I’d end up using about three dozen 6” and 8” Fresnels, another three dozen 6x9’s and 6x12’s (we used to call them “Lekos”), maybe two striplights, six or eight scoops, a few inkies, two spots, and the usual assortment of barn doors, top hats, snoots, and gobos. Maybe ten or twelve colors, max. I know how to use this stuff and can get some good mileage out of it; however, give me the new stuff and I have some serious catching up to do.

On the other hand, if someone asked me to light a rock concert, with vari-lights and all those newfangled contraptions, I’d suggest they look elsewhere. It’s not my field.

I’m mentioning all this because lighting is one of those fields where it’s very easy to get caught up in the equipment and totally miss what it’s supposed to do. I hope this article will shed some light (did I really say that?) on the “art” part of stage lighting.

***END OF WARNING***


The basic, bottom-line goal of stage lighting is to allow the audience to see the action on stage.

It's that simple. If you go to a play and can't see the actors (i.e., can't see who's where), you might as well stay home and turn on the radio. Some of the old radio dramas were wonderful as far as creating atmosphere.

Now let's take a look at that statement about seeing who's where, because it's very important. A play (in fact, all of theater) is about people, not about things. We need to be aware of who's who, and who's doing what, in order to follow the story. So we can say that the basic [i]theatrical[/i] goal of stage lighting is to create a sense of place and time.

We can add qualifiers to that, such as “...so the audience can understand it,” or “...for maximum dramatic impact,” or even “...to create an environment that helps clarify the themes in the story,” but, for all intents and purposes, stage lighting is there to help the audience understand who is where in the story. I'm going to come back to this later.

As obvious as those two goals sound, they are too often misunderstood or ignored. Yet, those two simple goals allow for unlimited possibilities, i.e., the magic of theater. Many years ago the director and producer Max Reinhardt said something to the effect that "...the art of lighting a stage consists of putting light where you want it and taking it away where you don't want it," and, for my money, the word “art” in that quote is the key to the whole subject.

So let’s put those two goals together with Mr. Reinhardt's comment and think about it for a little bit. Consider the following:

1.The restaurant scene in [i]When Harry Met Sally[/i].

2.The boat scenes in [i]Jaws[/i].

3.The later bedroom scenes in [i]The Exorcist[/i].

4.The hospital scenes in the original [i]The Godfather[/i].

5.The pub scene in [i]Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone[/i].

6.The later scenes on the spaceship in [i]Alien[/i].

I picked movies instead of stage shows just because it’s more likely that we’ve all seen at least some of these, but my point is the same. The lighting in any of these scenes is so well done, so carefully done, that we are not consciously aware of it, but yet it gives us a very clear sense of where the characters are and what’s going on.

In order to understand how to use lighting in a dramatic manner, such as in the above examples, we need first to understand how light works in the real world. Let's take a look at what we call “natural light” first.


[b]Natural light[/b]

When we’re outdoors on a bright and sunny day, there is one primary light source: the Sun. This results in one side of us (of any object) being brightly lit, while the other side is not. This primary source is known as the key light.

The back sides, however, are also illuminated, mostly by light bouncing off the pavement, the grass, water, nearby buildings -- and the sky. This is the secondary source and is known as fill light.

So, in general daylight illumination (“natural light”), we have a key light and a fill light. The key light is much stronger than the fill, and it’s the one that creates the shadows.

Therefore, if we’re lighting an outdoor scene on stage (say the opening scene in [i]The Sound of Music[/i]), we need to be aware of this. Yes we have a lot of options as far as how we interpret the scene visually, but we start by understanding how natural light works so we can make the scene look like it’s outdoors, not like it’s taking place in an office building lit by 2x4 fluorescents.

Now we come to another little detail. The primary light source outdoors (the Sun) provides what is known as warm light, whereas the fill sources, which only give us reflected light, provide cool light. Although sunlight is really white (a white made up of all the colors in the spectrum), it is very difficult to simulate effectively on stage without some help. That’s why we so often hear lighting designers talk about putting a warm gel (a light filter) on one side and a cool gel on the other.

So now we know two things about how to light that scene in [i]The Sound of Music[/i]: we want a strong light source from one side and a not-so-strong one from the other side -- and we want the strong side to be warm while the other side is cool.

Okay so far? Now let's take a look at another variable: light direction.

The way our faces are actually built, the most pleasing light on them comes from a 45-45 degree angle: 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to the side. Painters have known this for centuries; in fact, to this day photographers refer to this 45-45 lighting scheme as “Rembrandt lighting.” The key light comes across the face in such a way that it crosses the bridge of the nose, highlighting the other side at the cheek bone, and providing a nice three-dimensional effect. The fill light, then, literally fills in the shadows on the other side so we can still see some detail.

The designer and Yale professor Stanley McCandless defined (in the 1930's) this 45-45 lighting scheme, and it is still widely used in all of entertainment.

But here's where it gets interesting. In order to separate the actor visually from the background, we want to introduce a backlight (or rimlight) that catches him or her on one side of the head, creating a little highlight. This can be very subtle, or quite intense.

Now we know the basics of simulating natural light on stage, and how to light that scene to make it look like it's outdoors during the day – which is what creates a sense of time and place.

But – even more important – [i]because we know how natural light works[/i], we can now get creative. Which is the fun part.

Even with natural light, there are lots of variations. Early morning light is different from mid-day and from late afternoon, and so forth. Then there are the seasons of the year and the geographical location. We know (approximately) what time of day the scene in [i]The Sound of Music[/i] takes place, because Maria mentions she is late for prayers.

And this is where we realize how many choices we actually have.

Depending on the director's interpretation of this particular production, we can create an absolutely crisp and lovely mountain scene that will either carry on throughout the show (reminding us of Maria's internal joy), or that will slowly “gray down” during the Nazi scenes, only to come back again full strength at the end when the family takes off over the mountains. This coming back to the beginning creates a “full circle,” a technique that is very effective when used properly. Or, we can light it in such a way as to create a sense of foreboding: yes it's bright and sunny here, but we can feel the “storm clouds” just over the German border.

There are lots of other options, but every one of them falls back on how natural light works. All we're doing is using creativity and artistic license to tweak it to create a particular mood.

I'm going to add to this article (hopefully later today or tomorrow) and discuss how to create "artificial light," which gives us even more options. Then, later, I'll go into how to use all this for dramatic effect in a magic show.