Dream Lights: Top of the Line Automated Fixtures
By: David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2002 David Martin Jacques

Published in May 2002, issue of Church Production Magazine


Until recently most lighting designers have only dreamt about using state-of-the-art moving lights. Automated lighting has steadily become more affordable with the introduction of modular automated accessories that can turn your ordinary ellipsoidal reflector spotlight into an exciting moving light. These accessories can remotely change focus, color, iris, rotate a gobo, and even can use an arc source to create that piercing white light commonly associated with modern moving lights (see my article in the October 2001, issue of Church Production Magazine). In addition, the leading automated lighting companies have been developing relatively low-cost alternatives for users on a budget. Automated lights that once cost upwards of $12,000-$15,000 each are now available in the $5000-$7,000 range. By the time you read this, Vari-Lite™ will be offering the VL1000™ for sale (see sidebar). This revolutionary moving light can pan and tilt, zoom from 19 to 70 degrees, has CMY color fading, automated shutters and focus, and can either be powered with an arc source or an incandescent lamp. Best of all, pricing for this light begins at under $5000! I will be writing a review of this revolutionary automated fixture in an upcoming issue.

But what about the few churches where cost is not an issue and are able to indulge in the latest and greatest technology? This article will introduce you to the latest bells and whistles that automated lighting fixtures offer, and how dependable they are in a "real-world" test.

Vari-Lite™ Production Services (VLPS Los Angeles) donated six automated lights and their new Virtuoso™ automated lighting console for a rigorous on-site test on the campus of California State University Long Beach. Included in the extended tests were the VL2202™, VL2402™, and the VL2416™ model luminaires. These fixtures are evolutionary offspring of the ground-breaking VL5™ and VL6™--and unlike previous models of VARI*LITE luminaires, are available for sale as well as for rental.

Vari-Lite™ has been recognized as the leader of automated lighting technology since developing the first commercially available automated lights in the 1980's (the Series 100™ fixtures). Through the years Vari-Lite™ has developed extremely high-quality lighting equipment for the entertainment industries, and pioneered noise sensitive automated lighting fixtures for theatrical and television applications. The Series 300™ luminaires (which include the VL5™ and VL6™) were the first to incorporate quiet fans (or no fans at all) for noise-sensitive theatrical, television, and church environments.

There are two distinctive approaches in automated fixture design. One is the philosophy of designing a few products that are designed to excel in their own strengths; i.e., as a wash or spot fixture. The other is to design a fixture that tries to do it all. There are inherent challenges with the latter philosophy. These fixtures tend to have many more moving parts which create maintenance issues, are much larger and bulkier than the specialized fixtures, are more costly, and since larger motors and fans are required, tend to be much noisier than the smaller lights.

Vari-Lite™ focuses on the former philosophy. The VL2202™ (photo #1) is a spot fixture that is based on the VL6™ design. It incorporates two fixed gobo/color wheels, one indexable rotating gobo wheel, a variable zoom from 19 to 43 degrees, a variable beam size control, a powerful and fast strobe, variable beam focus, and incredible movement resolution and accuracy. It uses a 700 watt short arc lamp with an output of 15,500 lumens. Like all VARI*LITES™, what sets this fixture apart from its competitors is its optics. Testing proved that the VL2202™ can zoom from 19 to 43 degrees without the image losing focus. Other fixtures have a difficult time doing this as constant focus adjustments must be made as the zoom travels. In addition, the field consistency of this fixture is outstanding. Through its 200+ hour testing, the beam of light maintained consistency from edge to edge. A tribute to its optics is the fact that the VL2202™ can be softened and still sustains a wonderfully even field. It should be noted that this fixture was not designed to be a wash light and does not have CYM (cyan, yellow, magenta) color mixing. The fixture is small, fast, weighs 55lbs, and is virtually silent. The SMRP for the VL2202™ is $9,095.

The VL2402™ (photo #2) is the wash equivalent to the VL2202™. This fixture incorporates the same 700 watt short arc lamp and also produces an output of 15,500 lumens. What separates the men from the boys in wash lights is the ability to smoothly fade from color to color through a CYM color change system. The problem with many CYM color mechanisms is as you add a cyan, magenta, or yellow color filter into the beam of light, you see the edges of the light turn color before the center of the beam (photo #3). This is not a good quality, especially when using these fixtures for video lighting. Vari-Lite™ has succeeded in developing a nearly seamless CYM color system that produces an amazingly smooth color transition. In addition, the VL2402™ has an 11 position color wheel for fixed dichroic color choices. Again, due to its advanced optics, the VL2402™ has a remarkably even field of light. It also has a variable beam spreader, a powerful strobe (color and intensity), smooth dimming, and due to its small size and weight, is very, very fast. The MSRP for the VL2402™ is $7,895.

The VL2416™ (photo #4) is a larger wash fixture based on the venerable VL5™. Like the VL5™, lenses may be added to shape the beam, and uses the VARI*LITE™ Dichro*Tune™ color mixing system that produces smooth, even color fades (photo #5). It also incorporates a fast, zoomable beam spreader system that provides a 5 degree to 55 degree field. The VL2416™'s 1200 watt arc lamp is extremely powerful and could be used for long throws (front light) and color and area washes. Due to its features, this light is heavier and about a second slower. The VL2416™ weighs 69lbs and the MSRP is $10,495.

The most important quality in an automated light is its reliability. All the VARI*LITE ™ luminaires performed marvelously during their three-week testing. There were no mechanical problems at all-even when put through intensive movement and strobe tests. This was not unexpected as the VARI*LITES™ on the 2002 Olympics performed magnificently for weeks outside in sub-zero temperatures and snow. These lights were also easy to install and maintain. The parts are easily removed in modules for quick and efficient repair (photo #6). This, no doubt, comes from Vari-Lite's™ heritage as a production company where efficient load-ins and load-outs are crucial, and where the support does not stop after the equipment goes out the shop door. Most impressive was the care in design for sound damping, as they were never sonically obtrusive in this sensitive theatrical environment.

High End Systems™ supplied us with their new x.Spot™ fixture for a limited one-day evaluation (photo #7). Although we were unable to test this light as thoroughly as the VARI*LITE™ luminaires, we were impressed with its features. The x.Spot™ is basically from the "all-in-one" philosophy of automated fixture design. Although designed as a spot fixture, the x.Spot™ can also be used as a wash light due to its CYM color fading system. It is designed to be modular as the user may configure its three accessory slots with either three (that's right, three!) gobo and effects wheels (two which rotate), or two gobo wheels and automated framing shutters (photo #8).

The design of the optics for this fixture is interesting as the entire lens train, along with much of the accessory tray, moves when you zoom this light. The x.Spot™ also offers a 4:1 zoom (12-45 degrees). High End recently announced the x.Spot HO™ that features an optics system with a 2:1 zoom with a new flat-field reflector that results in a significant increase in light output. Another nice feature is a variable color correction filter that changes the color temperature from 3000-7000 degrees. This is quite useful for video and other color matching applications.

The visual effects possible that this light can produce are stunning. Being able to rotate one gobo in one direction and another in the other direction at different speeds can be quite effective. It also has a decent prism and other advanced beam effects. The x.Spot™ would be a fabulous light to add to a design around a solid system of VARI*LITE™ luminaires. There are things you can do with the x.Spot™ that you cannot achieve with other models--which like all good automated lights, make it a distinctive tool for the designer.

As the x.Spot™ has many more features than a typical moving light, it is inherently electronically more complex, and is larger, slower, and noisier (photo 9). The sonic factor may or may not be a problem depending on where the x.Spot™ is located in the design. The x.Spot™ weighs around 64lbs and costs $12,498 (depending on the model and optional features).

In the same league as the x.Spot™ is the Martin™ MAC2000™ (photo 10). This fixture has similar features as the x.Spot™ (multiple rotating gobo wheels, variable color correction filter, etc.). What differentiates the MAC2000™ is that is only has a zoom of 10-28 degrees and uses a 1200 watt short arc lamp. Due to availability issues, Martin™ was unable to supply us with a fixture to test. The MAC2000™ weighs 103lbs and the base MSRP is: $11,995.

Finally, it should be noted that when using such advanced fixtures that require multiple control channels, a well designed lighting console is a necessity. There are many choices for automated lighting control including the new ETC™ Emphasis™ system developed for their Expression™ and Express™ consoles (look for my review in an upcoming issue).

VLPS Los Angeles loaned us the new VARI*LITE™ Virtuoso™ automated lighting console for the testing (photo #11). This console features some very impressive features along with a three-dimensional programming environment. The Virtuoso™ is one of the more intuitive consoles that I have reviewed. One of my graduate lighting students essentially learned the console by himself after a basic introduction by a technician from VLPS Los Angeles. The Virtuoso™ made programming complicated chases intuitive, and easily controlled the moving lights along with about 250 conventional fixtures.

Whether purchasing or renting, state-of-the-art automated fixtures can add efficiency and excitement to your lighting design. Although the purchase prices of these fixtures are beyond many readers, renting a few to supplement your lighting for special events may not be. Bells and whistles aside, it is paramount to keep in mind reliability and ease of service when specifying automated lighting for your next event.

Sidebar: Preview-The VL1000™

Vari-Lite™ has recently announced the new VL1000™ for sale (photo 12). This "automated ellipsoidal reflector spotlight" has been developed to aggressively compete with low-cost automated lights and accessories sold by several manufacturers. This extremely quiet fixture has CYM color fading, a zoom that ranges from 19 to 70 degrees, rotating gobos, variable diffusion, and automated framing shutters. The arc version of this fixture has a light output of 15,000 lumens and the tungsten version has a light output of 10,000 lumens. Pretty impressive for a light that starts at less than $5000. I will putting this light through extensive testing this summer at Central City Opera and will write a complete review for the fall issue of Church Production Magazine.