Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"How to Choose the Right Light" by Kerry Chafin

This article is from the August 2012 issue of KC Stage

When I was in college, I had a wonderful professor who was able to put the awe and complications of lighting design into one simple and inspiring sentence. "Lighting design," he would say pausing to look at each one of us, "is simply painting with air."

And like any good painting, an artist has to use the right tools to get the desired effect. This is no different with lighting instruments. Picking the right type can make or break your design. A good start to help you decide is to know that there are three main types: Ellipsoidal Reflector Spotlight, Fresnel, and PAR Can.

They are the most widely used in the theater world. With the ability to have a soft or a hard focus, the gamut of gels and gobos that are available make this the instrument of choice for most design needs. The Ellipsoidal that is most widely used is ETC's Source Four.

If your design requires hard edges or specific patterns, the Source Four is the way to go. This instrument is also ideal if you have a large distance between the lighting fixture and your subject. Use this instrument in conjunction with color and gobos to give your stage texture, or to add the illusion of a set. You can also use them to create individually lit acting areas. ETC also makes a spotlight adaption kit, which includes an iris and an extended handle, allowing you to turn a normal source four into a follow-spot.

These guys have a fairly wide angle and almost no hard focus. They have no shutters, but the lenses can be replaced to change the texture of a light. Use these instruments in intimate settings, or when you are trying to achieve an indoor lighting effect. They also work well for soft fill lighting that can help you plug any holes in the design.

Literally a light in a can, PARs are mostly used in concerts and rock shows. Like fresnels, they have no built in shutters but you can slide barn doors and top hats onto them allowing for more control over the beam. They're great for a general wash of color or for fill light.

These three are just the tip of the lighting iceberg. Our job as designers is to allow the audience to experience the full creation of each and every scene. Lights are one of the primary tools that help the audience suspend their disbelief and become immersed in the world we want to show them. Choosing the right instrument can mean the difference between creating something awe inspiring, or creating a show look consistently off kilter. Play with each type of instrument to understand how the light really looks and feels. Not all lighting instruments are equal, allow yourself to experiment before making your final decision.

Now you can begin to create your own painting.

Kerry Chafin is the resident lighting designer for Journeyman Theatre Company.

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