Introduction to the Tools of the Lighting Designer
For: Church Production Magazine
December 18, 2005
By: David Jacques
Stage lighting has come a long way since the days of candles and gas flame. Technological developments during the 19th and 20th centuries have offered us an incredible amount of sophisticated lighting control. From the very first lighting instruments developed for the theatre (the old PC spotlight) through the latest moving light with an onboard computer and 10,000 moving parts, the purpose of lighting remains the same: to support the message of the moment.
This article will explore the basic tools of the lighting designer. These tools have been in existence for many years with significant design modifications and improvements. However, the concepts of these basic lighting fixtures remain the same. Only technology has made them more efficient.
One of the first lighting instruments developed for the theatre is called
This instrument is named after its lens, the “Plano-convex lens”. Although developed in the early 20th century, this fixture remains in use today, mostly in Europe. (In fact, I am using about 50 - 2000 watt PC’s right now in my lighting design for Cherubin in Cagliari, Italy.)
The PC is basically a metal box that houses a sled with a lamp and reflector attached. Depending on the position of this sled, the field of the light will get larger or smaller. At the front of the fixture there is a permanently mounted plano-convex lens.
The PC is an extremely useful lighting fixture. Although it does not have the shuttering capabilities of the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight (discussed later), it does project a very powerful beam with a lovely soft-edged field. These qualities make the PC useful for strong washes of area light.
A relative of the PC is the Fresnel.
Like the PC, the Fresnel is designed with a movable sled that carries its lamp and reflector so that the beam can be spotted or flooded. It also has a permanently mounted lens at the front of the fixture. The difference is in its lens type. Named after Augustin Fresnel and originally designed for high powered lighthouses, the Fresnel lens is much thinner than the PC, allowing less heat to build up within the glass. Due to its lens design, the Fresnel is available in numerous sizes including the large 5000-watt version (shown). The Fresnel spotlight produces a much softer edged light than the PC, and is used primarily for soft washes of light. These qualities make the Fresnel spotlight extremely useful for theatre and video applications.
Due to their relative primitive designs, the only way to control the light
from PC’s and Fresnels is to mask off the light with a device known as
This device fits inside the fixture’s gel-frame. With this the designer
can mask off unwanted spill by blocking it with the four “doors”.
However, as lighting designers needed to exercise more control over the shape
of the light, the Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight (ERS) was developed.
This type of fixture (with its slang name “Leko”) is basically
a large projection device. Named after its reflector, the ERS is designed to
project the image of light as it passes through the focal point or “gate”.
This is where the shutters, iris, and gobo slot are located. The ERS permits
an almost limitless amount of beam shaping possibilities. You can shutter and
shape the light to cut off spill, you can insert an iris to make the beam smaller,
you can also insert a metal or glass pattern in its gobo slot to create a projection.
An Iris module from an ERS
Early models of ERS’s were designated by their lens size and focal lengths. A “6x12” was an ERS with a 6-inch diameter lens and a 12-inch focal length. Contemporary ERS’s are now designated by their field diameter. For instance, a 26 degree ERS means that the field of light (the angle that the light leaves the instrument) is 26 degrees wide.
Over the years no other lighting fixture has experienced such amazing technological
development as the ERS. When these fixtures were first introduced they were
very large and heavy. Many modern ERS’s are much smaller, lighter, and
more efficient. For instance, most new ERS’s utilize advanced dichroic
coated reflectors (called the “cool mirror reflector”). This enables
the fixture to be smaller and run much cooler with a greater amount of efficiency.
Standard ERS’s are available with variable field spreads including: 50,
36, 26, 19, 10, and 5 degrees. In addition, you can purchase”Zoom Lekos” that
have a variable field adjustment. Below is one that I am presently using on
the production of Cherubin.
This fixture is a 10-22 degree 2000 watt ERS that is approximately 30 inches long and weighs 60 lbs.
ERS’s are truly the workhorses of the theatrical lighting designer. For you can do most anything you wish with these fixtures. They offer the most control over light shaping and projections. In fact, many sophisticated moving lights are designed after the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight. They just have motors and internal devices that change the parameters that you would manually change on the classic ERS. Due to this, the ERS can be used for almost any function. From spotlights to wash and specials, nothing beats the “Leko”.
Another useful lighting fixture is the Par Can.
This is a very simple design that incorporates a PAR (Parabolic Aluminized Reflector) lamp inside a basic metal housing. Because a PAR lamp itself uses a design that includes the lamp, reflector, and lens, the Par Can’s design is relatively unsophisticated. This simplicity usually translates into a more economical lighting fixture than an ERS of Fresnel.
The Par Can has also developed with technology. The Source Four Par uses a
cool mirror reflector and incorporates interchangeable lenses so that the field
of light can be changed.
Par Cans are used for many purposes. This includes beams of sunlight, moonlight, specials, and any other re-creation of a strong source of light. They can also be used for banks of wash lights for television and other video applications.
Another basic lighting fixture is the Beam Projector.
This fixture incorporates a lamp and a parabolic reflector, but uses no lens. These fixtures were very popular in the mid to later parts of the 20th century, and many are still used today. (You may find a few of these in your church’s attic). However, the Par Can has pretty much replaced this fixture. The Beam Projector’s name is pretty self explanatory. I am sure you have seen those searchlights in the sky when there is a grand opening for a new shopping plaza or an entertainment event. Well, those are usually very powerful beam projectors.
Another important fixture is the Striplight. (Insert L&E Zip Strip picture here)
The striplight is used anywhere the lighting designer needs a wide wash of light and variable color mixture. The most obvious use of the striplight is for lighting scenic painted drops. However, striplights are also used for footlights (check out the next video concert on TV and look by the artists’ feet. Footlights have a wonderful way of washing out wrinkles from those “classic rock faces”). Striplights can be used quite creatively. One of my favorite ways to use striplights is to hang the striplight vertically, or as a VTS (vertical toning strips). This application is an excellent method to achieve soft washes of sidelight.
Striplights come in many sizes and variations. The classic striplight is 8’ long with 15 lamps inside (five lamps per circuit). This allows the designer to mix three different colors of light. Many other sizes and circuit configurations are available. You can order striplights with R40, PAR38, PAR56, PAR64, T-12, MR16, and many other types of lamps. You can also order them with one, two, three, or four circuits. It all depends on the designer’s needs and size limitations. The MR16 striplight offers the best combination of power and small size.
The striplight may be experiencing the most revolutionary technological development in lighting today. New LED (light emitting diodes) striplights are now being introduced that offer the lighting designer an almost infinite number of color mixing combinations. (Place Color Kinetics Striplight Photo HERE)
So you see that you do not necessarily need sophisticated moving lights to create exciting lighting atmospheres. In many cases, the tools you need may already be in your house of worship. All you need to do is blow off the dust and learn how to use them.
David Martin Jacques is a professional lighting designer and consultant for theatre, opera, and houses of worship. He is Head of Stage Design at California State University Long Beach and can be reached at email@example.com .