From a Designer's Perspective- Should Your Church Invest in Automated Lighting?

By: David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2001 by David Jacques

Published in the February, 2001, issue of Church Production Magazine


It's a wonderful time to be a lighting designer. As I write this article intensely colored lights are flashing through the air, bold strokes of white light penetrate the saturated hues with spinning patterns and flashes, and layers of moving light create marvelous spatial effects though the haze. I sit here marveling at the tools in my palette-almost an infinite variety of lighting effects that I can create for this production, fully aware of the power that these fixtures have in the hands of a creative artist. For the past ten years I have incorporated moving lights into my designs for theatre, opera, television, and church productions, and these incredible tools have greatly assisted in realizing my artistic visions.

The production I am presently designing (The Ft. Lauderdale Christmas Pageant) uses a large automated lighting plot to create stunning visual atmospheres and effects. Five years ago the Pastor and Ministers of the First Baptist Church of Ft. Lauderdale asked me what was necessary to take the lighting design for their Pageant to a new level of technology and art. They decided that it was time to make that commitment--and the Pageant's artistic level leapt to new heights. Is it time for your church to do the same?

It is important to remember that taking the grand leap into this technology isn't for everyone. In my work as lighting consultant, I always approach the possibility of my clients investing in automated lighting. Why would a church wish to do this? For various reasons...

First, the flexibility of automated lighting cannot be underestimated. As in most live theatrical productions, church lighting designs evolve with the show during the rehearsal process. In many cases, changes are made once the director sees the performers on stage. It is efficient to adjust the lighting when it can all be done remotely, and in "real-time" during the rehearsal. There is no need to wait until after the rehearsal for a group of electricians to position a ladder under the light, climb up, and manually make the changes. The automated lighting programmer can now make these changes on the spot-whether it is position, intensity, focus, color, or gobo. This adaptability is crucial in the modern lighting design process.

Another consideration is the quick changeover time that an automated system provides. Churches usually schedule many services and events during the week. I recently designed the stage lighting system for a new church in Texas that uses a modest automated lighting system with pre-set focuses for regularly scheduled services-including special focuses for baptisms, funerals, and weddings. Within seconds the lighting programmer can quickly call-up these pre-set focuses for these events without taking the time to refocus and recolor conventional lighting fixtures.

Although it was once true that mixing automated lighting fixtures that used arc lamps and conventional lighting fixtures that used incandescent lamps was problematic, automated lighting technology has now reached a point where it is possible to mix these different lamps successfully. The new Martin MAC 2000 has a revolutionary color correction filter that can match incandescent color pretty well. This is extremely important when lighting for television as many churches now incorporate live video for their services-for even a subtle shift in color can be quite noticeable to the camera. I have designed many church productions that are broadcast on network television, and it is wonderful to be able to immediately "dial-in" an adjustment to correct color-temperature problems.

Regarding the issue of how many conventional lighting fixtures equal one automated light, it is important to realize that the power of the arc lamps used in moving lights is impossible to match with ordinary incandescent ellipsoidal reflector spotlights (ERS). Although you could use several ERS's for the various focuses accomplished by one automated light, an ERS cannot even come near the sheer light intensity of an automated fixture. In the production I am presently designing, the twelve Coemar automated wash fixtures that I use for front-light will cover a stage 40 feet deep and 150 feet wide with incredibly saturated colors that can change in a fraction of a second. It would take approximately 200 conventional fixtures to replicate that power and color flexibility--and they would not be able to change focus and color remotely. It's hard to imagine how many conventional fixtures it would take to replicate the other fifty automated lights in my design, not to mention how long it would take to focus and re-focus them. Judging moving lights against conventional fixtures is truly an "apples and oranges" comparison.

So should your church look at purchasing an automated lighting system? This is what I ask my clients before I design a new church:

1. How many large-scale productions do you produce a year?

An automated lighting system may be worth the capital investment if you use your facility numerous times during the week for special services and several times a year for large-scale productions. Otherwise, it may be wiser to have an "automated lighting-ready" system in place and consider renting automated lighting equipment just for the larger events.

2. Are you willing to make the substantial investment (usually around $6,000-$10,000 per fixture) for lights that will probably be obsolete in three to five years?

This technology moves rapidly with new, improved models appearing every year. The average life span is relatively short for these fixtures.

3. Can you purchase enough of these fixtures to make a substantial impact on the lighting capabilities of your facility?

One or two moving lights will not suffice. Depending on the size of the church, I suggest a good starting point for a basic system is 24 fixtures. For churches with heavy production schedules, a larger system may be justified. These systems can be used to create many spectacular lighting effects.

4. Can your present lighting controller efficiently program automated lights?

Many modern light boards already have moving light software integrated into their operating systems. This is fine for small systems. For larger systems (30 or more fixtures), a dedicated automated lighting controller (like the Whole Hog, Grand MA, or Case Console) is recommended. The prices for these controllers range from $15,000 to $40,000.

5. Are you willing to budget additional funds for lamp expenses?

The lamp life of an automated light is approximately 500 hours with a replacement cost of about $250 per lamp, compared with 2000 hours at $20 per lamp for a typical conventional fixture. Again, because we are comparing arc lamps with incandescent lamps, it's once again an "apples and oranges" comparison.

6. Can you afford to hire and train a full-time automated lighting technician to program and service these complex fixtures?

Your present technician may be able to handle this added responsibility. However, he/she must go through specialized training from the automated lighting company to program and repair these fixtures.

7. Is your building's power service sufficient to handle the increased voltage demands of this technology?

Moving lights are sensitive to power fluctuations. Although newer fixtures are much more stable, they still require constant power, and enough of it, to handle the increased electrical load from these arc sources. Whenever I consult on a new church I always look ahead to the possible use of automated lights when specifying building power.


So, if you decide that the investment is too much for your church, don't despair-for there are options:

You may rent moving lights on a show-by-show basis. That way you are not committing to a huge capital investment. Some churches purchase a modest automated lighting system and supplement it with additional rented moving lights--depending on the needs of each production. I have found that this is a good solution for churches with modest budgets.

Another option is to lease a system. Most of the major automated lighting companies offer attractive leasing options. This allows you to have the lights on-site for your productions and with a maintenance agreement have someone else responsible to service the equipment. This has the added benefit of allowing you to upgrade the fixtures in a few years when your present moving lights become obsolete.

In any case, I highly recommend that your first step is to engage a professional lighting consultant that is experienced in automated lighting design and production. This professional can assist you in identifying your lighting needs and help you discover the most cost-effective solution.

Your church can make the leap to this state-of-the-art technology. Its how you leap that will make the difference in either addressing your Church's needs, or needlessly wasting money.