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George Ledo
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***WARNING*** Smile

Just like my previous two articles on stage lighting, this one is about lighting itself, not about the equipment. The previous article discussed mostly “outdoor” lighting, its sources and directions, and how to go about simulating this “look” on stage. In this piece I'm going to discuss “indoor” lighting, i.e., light created by artificial means although sometimes it's augmented by natural light coming through a window or skylight.

I've said many times, in my posts as well as my columns, that we need to look outside magic in order to learn why and how magic works, i.e., why and how human beings respond to specific things. Lighting is no different. In order to learn how to create a dramatic visual effect on stage, we need to study lots of dramatic visual effects and understand why they are dramatic and how they affect us. Art, photography, and the movies are full of these visual dramatic effects, so I'm going to refer to them liberally in this article.


***END OF WARNING*** Smile

Place and mood

Let's think for a moment about several different types of indoor spaces we're all familiar with:

a) Our living or dining rooms at night.

b) Our garage just before we open the door.

c) Department stores or the local bank.

d) Nice restaurants, especially at night.

e) Our workplace, particularly if it's an office lit by recessed fluorescents.

Did you get a tiny little feeling – almost a mini-emotion – when you read each one? I did.


Well, for one thing, each of these places has a specific purpose, and we are so used to that purpose that we tend to associate the place itself with how we feel about the purpose. Even more interesting, each of these places tends to have a specific type of lighting, so even thinking about that particular type of lighting – all by itself – often reminds us of how we feel about the purpose. When I think of a nice restaurant at night I can visualize a softly lit room, a nice dinner and a bottle of fine wine, and it makes me feel relaxed. On the other hand, when I think of the local bank all I can visualize is standing in line watching people ahead of me apparently writing and defending their PhD dissertations at the window.

Good lighting designers learn to recognize these emotions that we feel in different places so they can study the lighting associated with the places so they can duplicate that type of lighting on stage or on screen. Think of several restaurant scenes you've seen in the movies. If you watch the scene several times, you'll notice that the lighting actually reflects the mood of the scene. The lighting “created” by that chandelier overhead, or by the wall sconces, or by the candles on the table, or by the sunlight or moonlight coming through the window, wasn't just put there at random: it was put there to create a specific mood that supports the story.

This “place and purpose and mood” idea has been used outdoors as well as indoors. Think of the number of times we've seen a funeral taking place on a bright and sunny day versus the number of times the funeral has taken place in the rain. Then think of the story itself and the character being buried and what happens afterwards. Interesting, isn't it?

Light sources

In contrast to outdoor lighting, which tends to have one primary source (unless of course the sky is overcast), indoor lighting can have several sources, or lack of sources, which is wonderful from the standpoint of creating highlights and shadows that reflect the mood of the scene.

Although, in a real room, the light coming from a given light source will actually illuminate part of the room, we have an itsy-bitsy technical problem when lighting a stage or a movie. Any on-stage light source that's bright enough to light the action will be so bright as to be distracting (or blinding) to the audience. So, for instance, if we want to have a sconce on the wall, the sconce itself will be need to be just bright enough to look like it's lit, but the light given off by it will need to be simulated by a separate, off-stage light source.

The nice thing about this technical problem, of course, is that the solution to it actually gives us almost unlimited choices as to how the light coming from that sconce will look, and who it will hit, and exactly where on their face or body. Add another sconce or two, and now we can create just about any effect we want.

Then there's the question of what type of sconce we want to use, which gives us even more options. Is it an electric sconce? A gas light? Or is it a candle, or an oil lamp, or a large torchiere? Each of these has a different quality; for instance, a real electric sconce can have a warm light bulb, a cool light bulb, a fluorescent bulb, a frosted shade, a colored shade, a multi-colored shade, and so forth. A gas light will flicker, but then there's also the question of what kind of globe it's in: clear, frosted, colored, etched, or whatever. So we can put that wall-mounted light where we want it in order to set the scene (it's basically set dressing), but then we create the light coming off it with real lighting instruments and put the light exactly where we want it for dramatic effect.

This is exactly why I said in a previous post that it's all too easy to decide to light our magic show and then start out by spending several grand on equipment and controls without really knowing what type of an effect we want.

We may not need to replicate a Rembrandt scene on stage for a magic show, but we can get lots of ideas about how to light the show (and individual tricks!) from studying painters like him, or like Titian, or Caravaggio, or many others. A visit to the library's art history shelf will yield lots of books and color photos on these people's work.

A walk through an art museum is even better. I like to stand back and get the overall picture, and the feeling in it, and then get closer and study where the highlights and shadows are, and what's in the background, and why it's there. And it's so interesting to note that some periods really emphasized light and shadow while others did not: some paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for instance, could have been painted in an office building lit by fluorescents.

Another good source at the library is the theatrical shelf. Look particularly for recent books on musicals or opera. They are full of wonderful stage lighting and ideas. You'll notice a lot of the older photos were shot by Martha Swope, who was a top Broadway photographer for many years.

Then there are the photographers, especially those who specialize in character portraits. Margaret Bourke White did some wonderful work in black and white during the Depression, and it's amazing how much feeling she managed to get just by how she positioned her subject to get the best lighting on the face.

So how to apply all this to magic?

If you're going to try lighting your show, just do it like any lighting designer lights any other type of show. Think first in terms of the overall show, the story, the effect, the audience, and the message you want to deliver. Think of the main character, who he or she is, and why he or she is there in the first place. Basically, come up with a short and clear statement that describes the show.

Then break the show down into a series of parts that fit together and add up to that short and clear statement. Then think of the effect you want to create with each part. Then work out the movement (the choreography) for each part, and then, finally, decide how you want to light that particular choreography to create that particular effect.

Then, and only then, sit down and figure out what instruments you need. Or, better yet, get a lighting designer to help you get the most mileage out of your investment.


I hope this article has been useful to you. Please feel free to PM me about this or any of my other articles, or if you have any ideas for topics you'd like to see me cover in my column.
That's our departed buddy Burt, aka The Great Burtini, doing his famous Cups and Mice routine

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