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.