CPM Product Review: ETC’s Emphasis Lighting Control System
By: David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2004 by David Jacques

Published in the February, 2004, issue of Church Production Magazine

Ever purchase a computer only to find out shortly afterwards that technology has passed it by? Well, this “buyer’s nightmare” occurs in the stage lighting industry too. Since modern lighting controllers are basically designed around computer systems, in many cases the hardware becomes obsolete by the time the controller is manufactured. This leads to manufacturers stockpiling spare parts so they can service their products for an indefinite period of time. After a certain amount of years, the user is forced to purchase a new lighting controller either because there are no new parts manufactured for it, or that the requirements of their lighting is now beyond the horsepower of their controller.

Electronic Theatre Controls has developed a lighting control system the will instantly update aging light boards to state-of-the-art automated lighting controllers. This system, named “Emphasis”, will directly connect to and integrate with an ETC Expression, Express, or Insight lighting console, and turn it into a sophisticated automated lighting console with 2-D or 3-D visualization and off-line editing.

So what does all this mean? Instead of forcing you to throw out your ten year old controller and spend $25,000 to upgrade to a sophisticated automated lighting controller with 3-D visualization and off-line editing, ETC will upgrade your “obsolete” controller with Emphasis for a few thousand dollars! How many computer companies do you know that offer “backward compatible” products?

This is what you get when you purchase an Emphasis system. The software runs on an included Dell Pentium 4 PC with integrated hardware and software upgrades. The video cards will be different depending on the system you purchase (2-D or 3-D). ETCNet is fully supported in the server so that control data can be distributed through Ethernet. The server will be configured according to how many channels you require for your system: 500, 1000, 2500, or 5000.

To use the software with the greatest amount of flexibility, four video screens should be used. The first two screens are the typical ETC control screens: cue list and channel intensities. The third and fourth screens can be customized to a number of different views. I prefer to have a light plot on one of the screens so I can point and click on a light to activate it, along with a 3-D wire frame view so I can move the light to the appropriate focus point. The fourth screen could have attribute menus so I can choose color, template, or other parameters, or a shaded virtual picture of the set so I can see the lighting change in real time. This is useful when the lighting controller has to be in a position where the operator cannot see the stage.

Case Software’s WYSIWYG (and acronym for What You See Is What You Get) program is integrated into the Emphasis software. This software is a complete 3-dimensional computer aided design and drafting program (CADD) with extensive libraries of lighting fixtures, set pieces, surfaces, figures, furniture, and accessories already pre-loaded into the system. Along with a complete CADD package, this program will also produce all the paperwork that is commonly associated with lighting design including Hook-ups, Instrument Schedules, Inventory Sheets, Color Orders and Cut Lists, Shop Orders, and many other reports. Any change you make regarding the lighting fixtures is instantly updated to all other reports and views. You can also import drawings that you produced in other CADD programs (such as AutoCAD) and work with them in WYSIWYG.

This software enables lighting designers to create their designs on their home computers and download them directly into the lighting controller. This is a wonderful feature as many times lighting work must be performed when the church is not available. The lighting is virtually represented with color, shadows, textures, and gobos on the computer screen. Although not 100% true to life, it does give you enough of an idea of the intent of the lighting atmosphere. This is also quite useful when the designer wishes to show a lighting atmosphere to a director before the lights are hung. The program will render a two dimensional color sketch of the lighting with highlights, shadows, and textures present.

The Emphasis software will allow the operator to completely control the lighting in an “interactive” way. All the numbers normally associated with DMX control are automatically entered when the operator clicks on a light and points it to its intended focus point. When the operator “moves” the light on the screen, the automated light actually moves in real time! Instead of choosing a color by mixing the cyan, yellow and magenta DMX attributes, the operator only has to click on a color palette and all the commands are automatically entered. If the operator wishes to change gobos, then all he/she has to do is click on the gobo menu and the gobo changes!

Of course, all this is fine for automated lights. But what do you do if you only have a system of conventional theatrical fixtures? Well, this software can help your planning of your lighting in amazing ways. You can “hang” your lighting fixtures in the CADD program and see what happens if you place certain colored gels in them. You can actually see if a 26 degree leko is a better choice than a 36 degree leko before you actually hang the light. You can also discover if any set pieces will get in the way if you hang the light in certain positions.

WYSIWYG is a great tool in understanding lighting angles and how they affect people’s faces and other important objects. This program has revolutionized my method of teaching as I now have my students email me their WYSIWYG plots and I look at them on my home computer and instantly see if their lighting designs will work. All this occurs long before they hang the lights!

In January we installed an Emphasis 3-D system into one of our university theatres along with six new Vari*Lite VL1000TS automated lighting fixtures. This theatre uses the Vari*lites along with sixty conventional 36 and 50 degree Source Four ellipsoidal reflector spotlights for five productions during the school year. There were no problems with the initial set-up of connecting the Dell PC and Emphasis program into our existing Expression console. ETC followed Dell’s lead in making the set-up as simple as matching color to color.

One of my graduate students drafted in the theatre and lighting positions so that the virtual screens would be accurate. This was accomplished by importing an existing AutoCAD drawing of the theatre into WYSIWYG and assigning heights to the objects. This took only a few hours! It is important to note that once this is done, it does not have to change (unless your building does). We then selected the appropriate lights from the WYSIWYG library and placed them on their hanging positions in the program.

We set focus points where the conventional lights were focused, assigned the appropriate gels, gobos, and channels, and made virtual shutter-cuts for the ellipsoidals. The software automatically interfaces with the Expression to soft-patch all the fixtures. In fact, when you select an automated fixture such as the Vari*lite VL1000TS, twenty-seven channels are automatically assigned for that fixture’s unique attributes.

Once all this pre-production work is accomplished, you can proceed to the real fun! We turned on our system and watched as we can seamlessly control our lights to set-up cues and other lighting effects simply by pointing and clicking. My students took to this system naturally as they instantly identified the light on the screen and moved it with ease. The interactive menus worked extremely well with the lights responding any commands sent to the color, gobo, and zoom palettes.

Another nice feature of Emphasis is that you can simplify your lighting control so the operator only has one button to push. This works very well for student productions so that mistakes are minimized. On the other hand, if you wish to take control of a moving light during a production, it is easy to do so by just clicking on the light and moving it with an encoder wheel.

The problems we ran into are relatively minor and could be addressed with software upgrades. As the Emphasis system is still very early in its development, not all parameters of the VL1000TS are supported. To adjust the shutters, you have to assign them to the old encoder wheels on the Expression to move them in and out. It seems logical for ETC to include the same shutter control diagram already present in WYSIWYG into a dedicated Emphasis control palette. But alas, this is not the case.

Another issue seems to be the difficulty in selecting fixtures if many fixtures are “on”. When Emphasis turns on a light, the light is indicated by lines drawn on the screen. Unfortunately, when many fixtures are on, it is difficult to select one without accidentally clicking on the line from another. There is a similar issue with the resolution in the shaded view. With multiple fixtures on, the screen blooms to a mass of white light, rendering it almost useless in visualizing the lighting.

I must also comment that the WYSIWYG learning curve is steep. Several days of training is required to use this software, but that is the case with many new lighting consoles. That is why whenever I specify a lighting system for a church, I always include training.

As Emphasis is constantly being updated, all the issues may be moot by the time you read this review. ETC is known as a true “customer service” company--one who believes that their success depends on listening to their customers’ concerns. Their track record speaks for itself when it comes to developing leading edge fixtures (the Source Four), dimmers (Sensors), and controllers (Expression and Obsession). In this age of rapidly developing technology, I am confident that this product will lead the way to manufacturers caring about the expense of upgrading our lighting systems.