Spotlight on Spotlights: Choosing the Right Followspot
By: David Martin Jacques
For: Church Production Magazine
Copyright 2006 by David Jacques

Pubished in the November 2006 issue of Church Production Magazine

Remember the first time you experienced a Broadway musical? Or was it a national tour of the Circus or Ice Show? Or maybe it was a local theatre group producing an exciting theatrical presentation... Most of us remember how exciting it was to see the spotlight hit the lead performer and how the performance became something special. When the performer would move, the light would “magically” move with him. There is something inherently romantic about the effect of a hard-edged followspot on the performer as it can bring out a feeling of importance, and at the same time can be starkly revealing. In any case, followspots add an important visual element to any performance.

So how can this effect benefit your church’s service? It all depends on how the followspot is used. Yes, you can create the hard-edged light that places the performer “in the spotlight”, separating them from the rest of the participants and creating focus for the congregation. You can also use a followspot in very subtle ways. Through the use of soft focus and subtle movements, a followspot can be a very effective tool in creating focus and filling in shadows. I use followspots in this fashion for many of the operas and musicals I design. Most of the time the audience has no idea that this effect is being used.

I have witnessed followspots being used in worship services. Unfortunately, most of the time they are used at inopportune times. The key is in the hands of the operator. This person must have very sensitive hands and eyes so that they direct the light and move it smoothly and accurately. This skill is easy to teach, but hard to master.

When I designed my first Christmas Pageant, there were four followspots on the production. Church volunteers who had little if any direction prior to my arrival operated all of them. After a few pep talks, and a lot of instruction, they became a “team of technicians”, and proud members of the production. So I know that it is possible to use these powerful lighting instruments effectively in a worship environment.

Before I recommend followspots for a house of worship my first question is to ask how will they be used. If they are to be used to overpower and pick out a single performer on a stage that is also being lit by many powerful automated lights, I immediately know that I will need a larger, high-powered followspot to cut through the lumens on stage. If the church only requires subtle highlighting of the pastor for added focus, then a smaller spot may be enough. In any case, you must look at all your needs to discover the most appropriate model.

What are the features to look for if you decide to add this tool to your lighting arsenal? Well, followspots come in many different varieties and sizes, and at different price points. Followspots are manufactured by many of the leading lighting companies. Strong, Lyceum, Altman and Phoebus dominate the market. All these companies make different models for different needs. Where do you start?

First, it is important to determine if you have a place in your church that can be used to mount a followspot? Remember, these are large lighting fixtures that need room for both the instrument and the operator. If you have one followspot placed in the rear of the balcony, expect to lose about 6 seats for your congregation. Some churches build scaffolding above the seating so the followspots can be located above the congregation. In any case, you must decide if the effect is worth losing seats. If you are fortunate to have an enclosed booth at the rear of your church, then the followspot and its inherent heat and noise can be isolated from your congregation.

After deciding where you will mount your followspot, the primary consideration in determining which model to choose is throw distance. This is how far the physical location of the followspot will be from the stage. The throw distance will dictate what type of lamp will be used and the optics of the lens system. Followspots come is three basic optic systems: Short Throw (50’- 100’), Medium Throw (100’- 200’), and Long Throw (200’- 400’). Most followspots have a zoom control that enlarges and reduces the size of the beam. But choosing the correct optics is vital.

You will find that the more expensive followspots usually have better optics. This is very important, especially if you use these instruments for video applications. Because a followspot has a large visible field of light and may be the primary lighting source on the subject, a flat field of light (with no dark spots) is critical for video. The very nature of having the light “follow” the performer makes any intensity drop-off visible to the camera. So as the performer moves within the field of light, it is critical that the intensity is consistent. To achieve this my crew spends hours aligning the lamps in the followspots before any video shoot. A good rule is to purchase a followspot that already has good optics, and can be easily adjusted for a flat field.

You also have a choice of lamps depending on the throw distance. Most short-throw spots use incandescent or short-arc lamps. Arc lamps are much more intense than incandescent, and are used in most medium to long-throw fixtures. Different arc lamps are used including HMI and Xenon. Xenon lamps are typically used for the longest throw applications. Although arc lamps use more power and have shorter life spans than incandescent lamps, the increased intensity is worth the added expense.

There are also considerations concerning the features of the fixture. Most followspots include a zoom control, iris, shutter, focus control, and douser (allows you to dim the intensity of the beam). In addition, a series of manual color frames are arranged in a device places at the front of the light (a.k.a.: the “Boomerang”). Some more expensive followspots include other features like drop-in irises, pattern holders, vertical and horizontal shutters, and automated dimmers. I suggest that you consider these features very carefully when choosing your followspot. The douser may be the most important control, as you will want to be sure that the light fades in and fades out smoothly and evenly.

The ergonomics of the fixture are crucial. If it is difficult for the operator to run the followspot, the spot will look terrible no matter what features it has. The followspot must almost become a part of the operator, as the light “travels with the performer”. Most modern followspots are designed so that they are perfectly balanced on their yoke. The operator usually stands on the right side of the instrument and with their hands on the controls guiding the light to the performer. The zoom, douser, iris, shutter, and boomerang must be in easy reach so that sophisticated light operation may be achieved. Also, controls must be designed so that they function smoothly and be covered with heat resistant materials. The fans in the fixture should be quiet and efficient, keeping the light cool without creating a racket in the audience. Also, the lamp must be designed so that it can be easily adjusted and replaced. This will make your technicians very happy.

Finally, the followspot should include a heavy-duty base that will support the fixture and offer smooth and secure operation. Some companies overlook this important feature to save money. I suggest that you go to your local lighting supplier and try the different models out for yourself. Make sure that it feels comfortable to control and have some fun shining the light on several objects (and people) in the shop.

So it is possible to find the right followspot for your worship needs. All you need is to identify your needs and find out if you have a place to mount it in your church. Be careful, for once in the spotlight, you may find your pastor breaking out into a song.

Sidebar: The “Auto-Pilot”

Several years ago, Wybron introduced a device to the theatrical world called the Auto-Pilot. This is an ultra-sonic device that allows moving lights to automatically “follow” specific performers onstage. The performer wears a belt-pack ultra-sonic transmitter, and multiple receivers are placed above the stage that triangulates the performers’ location. This information is transmitted to the lighting controller that sends pan and tilt information to specific moving lights, following the performers wherever they go onstage (as long as the light can hit them). In addition, the Auto-Pilot can control the size of the iris so that the beam-size is consistent. Although some believed that this device would make followspot operators obsolete, there is something to be said about the dependability and versatility of the manually operated followspot. There is also the added cost of the Auto-Pilot system along with the required moving lights. However, this is an interesting option if you don’t have a suitable location to house a followspot.

David Martin Jacques is a lighting designer and consultant for theatre, opera, television, and houses of worship in the US and worldwide. He also serves as Head of Stage Design at California State University Long Beach. He can be reached at .