Church Production Magazine Equipment Review: The New Vari*Lite VL1000
By: David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2003 David Martin Jacques

Published in February 2003 issue of Church Production Magazine


It is rare to find a lighting product that addresses so many needs so well. Vari*Lite has developed the new VL1000 not as a "super moving light", but as a well-designed workhorse that fits beautifully in theatrical, as well as video sound-sensitive environments.

Does the VL1000 have two rotating gobo wheels? No… Does it have rotating prisms? No… How about incredibly fast movement? Not really… That is not what the designers of this fixture intended. What it does do is beautifully fit the requirements of most theatrical and church lighting designers. All this for a price that starts under $4000!

I had the opportunity to thoroughly test three VL1000's during this past summer's intensive repertory schedule at Central City Opera. These fixtures played a primary role in the lighting design of all three productions. They were used an average of six hours per day for three months-affording us the opportunity to test these fixtures in an intense programming and production environment.

Before we get to the results of this product review, a little history is required on how this light was developed. Vari*lite began as a lighting company that catered to the rock and roll industry. Flash and spectacle were the primary requirements when they developed the first generation of moving lights. Due to the industry's desire for high lighting output, the fixtures incorporated arc sources to create a brilliant white light. The intense heat that these sources produced necessitated the inclusion of powerful fans to vent the heat of the lamp to keep the electronics cool. This new technology fascinated both rock and roll and theatrical lighting designers. However, the noise from the cooling fans made these fixtures unsuitable for noise-sensitive theatrical and architectural environments.

Seeing an opportunity to integrate moving lights into these environments, Vari*Lite introduced the Series 300 system of moving lights in the 1990's. Included was the VL5 (the first incandescent moving light with subtle color fading). Since this model did not use an arc source, noisy fans were not required. Finally, a moving light was developed with theatrical implementation in mind. Many designers (including this one) welcomed this technology into the theatre and video world.

During this time, Jim Waits (then Education Manager of Vari*lite) began pushing for the development of an automated ellipsoidal reflector spotlight with remote control zoom, shutters, color fading, and indexable gobos. This was the genesis of the VL1000.

The VL1000 is what some term as a "Moving Leko". However, that is a simplistic term for this extraordinarily versatile light. The VL1000 is a moving head fixture with a pan range of 540°, a tilt range of 270°, and a movement resolution of 0.1°. It has a zoom that ranges from 19° to 70° (this allows the fixture to be suitable for multiple throw distances). The VL1000 has a fully mixable CMY color mixing system, a diffusion filter, and a six position rotating gobo wheel with five rotatable, indexable gobo positions and one open position.

There are two models of VL1000's which to choose from. The VL1000TS incorporates a framing module that uses four automated framing shutters, each with the capability of translating to beam center while also rotating ±35°. The entire shutter module can also rotate up to 45°. It is important to note that up to this time, automated framing shutters were only available on a few high-priced moving lights. The inclusion of this feature on a sub-$4000 fixture is revolutionary indeed!

The other model (the VL1000TI) replaces the shutter module with an iris. Although quite useful if you need a circle of light smaller than the 19° minimum zoom, it is my belief that most users will choose the automated shutters over the iris (especially since the shutters can also "iris down" the light).

The VL1000 also comes in an incandescent lamp model and a model that uses an arc source. The incandescent model incorporates a 1000W tungsten-halogen lamp that produces 10,000 lumens at 3200° Kelvin. The 575W arc model produces 15,000 lumens at 5,600° Kelvin. There is also a long-life 575W arc lamp available that produces 15,000 lumens at 6,000° Kelvin.

As the incandescent lamp is one of the primary features of this fixture, I specified this model for our review. Why is this important? Theatrical lighting designers frequently mix automated fixtures with conventional Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlights, Par Cans, and Fresnels. Most of these fixtures incorporate incandescent sources at 3200° Kelvin. It has always been a challenge to color-match a moving light with a color temperature of 6,200° Kelvin with incandescent fixtures. The higher color temperature would cause the moving lights to "stick out" of the design. The development of such a versatile moving light with the same color temperature of conventional stage lights now enables the designer to seamlessly integrate moving lights into the existing conventional light plot.

For this review I rented three VL1000TS fixtures for this past summer's productions at Central City Opera in Central City, Colorado. Central City Opera produces three productions each season that run in rotating repertory. The schedule included a technical rehearsal for one production in the morning, turning to a matinee performance of another production in the afternoon, then turning to a third production for the evening. There is less than two hours allotted to completely change the scenery and lights between the shows. This makes the use of automated lighting fixtures crucial as fewer lights need to be manually refocused (see photo).

The three VL1000's were placed on the first electric position for maximum functionality (see photo). They were used for specials, color washes, area light, and special effects. The height trim at Central City is low (approximately 17'), so the wide zoom range was quite useful. I was able to cover almost the entire width of the stage (24') at the 70° zoom. I used this feature to project patterns from one of the five rotatable gobos. I was also able to zoom-in for tight specials and shutter-in for "pin spots". When zooming from spot to full flood, there is a slight pause after the zoom reaches 35°. Also, gobos are less defined at the wider zoom limit.

The automated shutters functioned flawlessly. I used the shutters to cut the light off of borders and legs, cut to chairs and doors, cut off of curtain tracks and facings, and multiple other uses. The shutters are controlled by eight parameters (two for each shutter enabling angles) and a ninth parameter that rotates the entire mechanism. I would rate the shutter mechanism as the finest I have seen in an automated fixture.

The CMY color mixing is exceptional. I did not see any "color crawl" or multiple colors when fading one color into another. In fact, the color range is quite useful in a theatrical environment. Subtle tints that mix well within the design can be achieved. In addition, bold colors can be created for special effects. However, like most CMY systems, pure primaries are difficult to achieve.

The diffusion filter enables the designer to seamlessly mix two adjacent beams of light together. I was amazed at the quality of the field of light as three lights could easily wash across the stage without any perceptible intensity drop-off. The video engineers were quite grateful for that. In fact, I will now be specifying VL1000's for most of my future video designs.

The resolution precision of the fixture was dead-on. The lights always hit their mark. This was crucial as the fixtures were frequently shuttered off of scenery and tight to actors. Gobos consistently hit their index marks. In addition, the colors always matched perfectly from fixture to fixture. This is not always the case with arc fixtures as their lamps can severely drift in color as they age. Using the incandescent lamps in the VL1000's seemed to solve this.

I must comment on the surprising brightness of this fixture. Even though the lamp is rated at 1000W, the light output is exceptional! The VL1000's seemed at least twice as bright as any other fixture in the design. However, I was using these lights at a relatively low trim. If your church requires throws over 50 feet, then I would suggest using the arc source instead of the incandescent lamp.

This fixture is built like a tank. There were no breakdowns during the long test period. In fact, we only had to change one lamp (due to age) in three months! This dependability is amazing, especially for samples from an early production run.

My only negative comments would be the relatively slow speed of the VL1000's parameters. As these fixtures are designed for subtle theatrical effects, the speed issue was really not a factor. It's only when you need the fixture to dim out, stage to a new position, then dim up again would the speed factor become an issue. Designers should leave a couple of seconds for the light to re-stage to its new position.

All this bodes well for our churches. I just completed the installation of a new lighting system for a small Baptist church in McAllen, Texas. I replaced their sixty conventional fixtures with six VL1000's. Not only will this upgrade offer an amazing amount of lighting flexibility to their Pageant and Sunday services, it will also save the church the significant costs of upgrading their electrical service to accommodate additional conventional fixtures (more about this in a later issue).

The VL1000 is truly a revolutionary development in automated lighting for theatres and churches. The low price-point of the VL1000 is certain to have a significant affect on the industry as other manufacturers will probably lower their prices to stay competitive with Vari*Lite. From my observations at the recent Lighting Dimensions International Convention, there is no other product out there like it. It will be very interesting to see how the other manufacturers respond.