Where to put the light – that is the question…
To answer this question I ask myself: Where is the lighting supposed to becoming from? A window? A table lamp? A refrigerator? Whatever the answer is, that is where the light should be coming from. You must also ask yourself, what is the level of reality of the look you are doing onstage? That also dictates how exact you need to be with your lighting position.
Of course, sometimes practical spacing problems in the physical confines of the theatre building get in your way of putting the light exactly where you want it. It is your challenge to get past those problems as best you can and then learning some tricks to make the audience believe it is coming from where you want it to while it is coming from only somewhere close to that.
To put it simply, the light must be somewhere to do its job. Some lights are in front of the performers, some to the side, some on top and some behind. All of these positions have different jobs and all are important. The architecture of our theatres gives us lighting positions. While they may not always be exactly what you want for that particular production, they are reality and you have to know them and know how to manipulate them. Let us explore what, where and who they are.
Also known as Front of House (FOH), these positions are in the audience area and projecting towards the stage. They are useful in both texturing the stage and in color toning and visibility. Many folks only see front light as a boring visibility function. Some complain that it will only flatten out the look on stage. I say that they are just not using them correctly. First of all, you can have front light dead on or you can put it in a “Box Boom” position which mimics side light. Box Boom positions are wonderful for lighting the face while still giving the body dimension. It is also my favorite way to tone the stage in color and make really pretty curtain warmers.Info You can also use dead on front light with templates that will really give the stage some wonderful texture. Imagine a foliage gobo wash from the front. You can add visibility while still having very interesting high lights and shadows. Lastly, if you are projecting a gobo as scenery or as a logo, dead on front light is the only way to make that image be as straight and readable as possible.
Dead on FOH
Often named Catwalks, FOH’s and Coves. When there are multiple positions in the front of house, like Catwalk 1 and Catwalk 2, you number them from the proscenium back. Thus the Catwalk that is closest to the proscenium is number 1 and the numbers increase until you get to the rear of the theatre.
A FOH position that is still in front of the stage but closer to the stage on the side.
When you hear the description of Box Boom you really have to break the word down into two parts. The Box and the Boom. The Box comes from where people would sit in the elevated sides of the auditorium. The Boom was a vertical pipe that was already being used onstage. Put the two together and WA LA you have a vertical lighting pipe in the area of the Boxes where people used to sit. It was a very quick easy solution to having a place to mount some lights in the front of house area. There were also some artistic benefits that I believe happened by accident. Side lighting is one of the most attractive angles of lighting to the body. A Box Boom position is side light that is slightly pulled to the front. This gives you the benefit of side light while the light does reach across the face of the performer a little. If lit from both sides by the Box Boom you can have an incredibly attractive look on the stage that includes front visibility. Put that together with a really tight headshot from a followspot and you have what I believe is todays most popular “Broadway” look. If I had to go into a theatre that had absolutely no lighting positions and was told to pick one, a Box Boom is what I would choose.
Cinderella on Broadway
Generally as high and to the back of the house as possible to house the followspots. Hopefully glassed off and air conditioned. The position in the back, while classic, gives you that defined circle of light behind the performer. In some circumstances that is perfectly correct for the style of that show. There are other shows that simply want the performer to be brighter but not to see a large circle of light behind them. For this you need to place your followspots closer and at a steeper angle. Some may find that their catwalks can offer a good place for a followspot position. Many Broadway theatres will create their own temporary followspot positions per show. The upside is that the angle is great, the downside is that they probably don’t really fit well into the architectural style of the building.
Balcony Rail Position
A Balcony Rail is also one of the first modern lighting positions installed in a proscenium house. Much like the Box Boom it was a quick solution to finding a place to hang lighting fixtures as front light to go beyond foot lights being the only source of illumination. To understand what a Balcony Rail is think of splitting the phrase up. It’s on the balcony and it is a rail to hang lights on. Many balconies had hand rails made out of pipe to begin with. It become a quick natural place to hang a light. As time went on it became apparent that the lights were now blocking the view of the audience in the balcony. Folks started hanging the units off of side arms on the rail towards the stage to lower the lights and then they also found ways to hang a pipe on the actual architecture of the face of the balcony keeping the light out of the eyes of the balcony audience.
Front light is often complained about in being a flat position of lighting. I happen to agree with that but I believe there are many uses for the position beyond “area” lighting.
Here are some that I like…
- Amazing place to do some template texture washes.
- If you have to light a front / show drop or curtain from bottom to top.
- Can help to fill in the front lighting of a down stage scrim.
- Great place to hang a video monitor for the cast to see the out of site conductor.
- If you really want to tone with a deep saturated color.
- You need to cover that really far downstage center spot with the same color as the box boom washes
- You have a text gobo that needs to be “dead on” to not be skewed.
Front view of a typical Balcony Rail
Pittsburgh Playhouse Balcony Rail
View from under a packed Balcony Rail
On the edge of the apron going across the front of the stage. Very useful in lighting the curtain, toning the whole stage and in Classical Ballet. Sometimes the units are recessed into the stage and sometimes they sit or are suspended on the edge of the stage.
Recessed foot lights are the most wonderful because the unit itself does not get in the visual way of seeing anything onstage. In the very olden days they were candles. Then they became gas lamps, then traditional light bulbs and now they are quite often LED fixtures.
(I recently saw the Broadway production of “How to Succeed” and that lighting designer used LED recessed fixtures to great success. For one drop the individual LED’s were able to be separately colored, which emphasized the colors on the drop as they changed. It looked marvelous.)
Lighting coming from the side is one of the most wonderful things in the world. It creates illumination with dimension. If I had my choice the majority of my lighting comes from the side.
Pipe End Side Light
As the name suggests, this is the side light at the end of the pipe. Most common in a proscenium format where the flying lighting positions are called electrics. Electrics are numbered from the plaster lineInfoThe plaster line is the upstage edge of the smoke pocket of a proscenium arch. going upstage. So the electric closest to the proscenium arch is No. 1 Elec.
The lights at the top of a lighting boom that is at the side of the stages upstage of the proscenium. Very common setup for dance light plots.
The lights at the mid range of the boom at about, you guessed it, head high.
Kicker (Shin Buster)
Once again, very aptly named. This is the unit closest to the floor on a boom. You can choose to focus it so it lights the floor as well or you can shutter cut it off of the floor. The benefit to that is you can really add some intensity to the performer without lighting the stage. It can really help you adjust the contrast ratio and make the person pop. It also, when used by itself, can give the idea of the person floating as they are moving.
As the name suggests, these are the lights pointed straight down. Good for coloring the floor or doing something as basic as lighting the music stands in a concert. This is also a good position to pattern the floor with gobos.
Many similarities to down light, backlight also helps define the performer. It helps separate them from the scenery behind them. In video, backlight is essential for a good looking image. Watch the news. You will notice a white rim of light around the anchors head and shoulders. Without that it would look like a home video as opposed to professional quality.
Positions to Light a Cyc
The goal of lighting a cyc is to produce a wash of light that colors the cyc in an attractive way. Sometimes you are hoping to accomplish an even wash and sometimes you want to have it be brighter in one height and ombré the rest of the way. There are also times you want to create scenery with light on a cyc like a sunset with clouds and water. Each of these artistic desires require a different place to place the light.
Cyc from the Top
Very common in school situations as well as ballet. The benefit is that you can light the cyc without having lighting units on the floor to trip over. The negative is that this will put your hot spot of the light near the top. This is not good because “contrast equals interest“. If you have the brightest bright next to the darkest dark of the black curtains that is where your eyes are going to be drawn to. You are no longer watching the performers.
Cyc from the Bottom
From this position you can focus the hot spot of the light at the performers head height forcing the audience to subconsciously be looking at that height. The light can then gracefully ombré up the cyc.
Cyc from the Back
The best of both worlds if you have the space behind the cyc to put the lights. If you have a seamless cyc this can absolutely be the most attractive cyc you will ever have. Put a black scrim just downstage of the cyc and when you don’t light it you go to a beautiful black of night. Remember, painting the cyc with dark blue light is not reality when it comes to night if you care about your level of reality.
Cyc from the Front Flat
This is a tricky shot to make but one that helps you project clouds and such on to the cyc. The trick is to find the position that you can shoot above the performers head but under the masking to get it on to the cyc.
Positions to Light a Scrim
The purpose to light a scrim, to not light a scrim and to light objects behind a scrim are simply to facilitate the effect of a scrim. A scrim gives you the choice of being seen and not being seen. If it has light in front of it, it is opaque. If there is no light in front of it but the object behind it is lit then you see through the scrim. This effect is very often called a reveal. A scrim could have the “show” logo on it. Treated with light in the front and then at the right time the light is transitioned and “voila” you have a bleed through. It can truly be a magical moment. I do caution though that a scrim is basically a very loose weave. It can never truly be opaque 100%. It is very common to have a black flat curtain, known as a blackout curtain, just upstage of it and in its down position while you desire to be opaque. Just before the reveal, it gets flown out and then the reveal can happen perfectly. If you pay attention to a show and they are doing this trick you will see the bottom line of the black out curtain flying up just before the reveal.
To make the scrim most opaque you want to light from the front at a steep angle down.To project on the scrim you want to be more flat from the front. Here is a situation where you really want that blackout curtain behind the scrim. If not, you will light right through it.
When you want to do the reveal, lose all of the light out front. Side light the object/performer behind the scrim with no light touching the scrim at all.
Uplighting is simply that: light from below pointing up. Uplight on people give you that fun Halloween effect. Uplighting on scenery can just be pretty. It’s a great way to take architecture in a room and color it. Make the scenery that is already there work for you as opposed to having bring some in with you.
The Process to Hang Lights on an Electric
Now that we know the different types of hanging positions, we should go over the most simple process. For the light to stay at that hanging position you must attach it to it in a safe and secure manner, one that also allows you the flexibility to focus the unit. Here I will list the process of hanging a light onto an onstage electric. All processes listed here may be varied slightly to accommodate the other hanging positions.
Picture this: You are onstage with a light plot and the first electric fixture has been flown in for you to hang. You have all of your lights at hand along with your light hanging accessories, a tape measure, piece of chalk, tie line, lighting cable and hopefully a friend.
- Find centerline on the pipe. It is most likely marked, but if not, measure the whole pipe and mark centerline.
- Determine how far away from center the first light will be that you are hanging. Always start at center and work your way out.
- It does not matter if you hang stage left first or stage right. Maybe there are two people working on the pipe and you have split down the middle.
- Take your tape measure from center and mark how far from center your first light will hang.
- Get your light. Install the “C” clamp on it with the pipe bolt open enough so that you can get it around the pipe.
- Find out from your Master Electrician if he/she wants all of the “C” clamps hung the same direction (upstage or downstage).
- If functionally does not matter but it look nicer if they are all the same.
- Lift the light onto the mark on the pipe.
- With one hand, hold the “C” clamp in place.
- With the other hand use your crescent wrench and tighten down the bolt. Make sure it is secure but not so tight that you will bend the bolt.
- Now take your safety cable and wrap it around the yoke and the pipe it is hanging on. Some people do a single wrap, some people do a double wrap. I prefer the single for focus ability. If it is a show that is going to run for years and years and there is flying scenery nearby that I am concerned about, I would consider the double wrap. It would just give fewer things for scenery to catch on.
- Now pre-focus the unit in the general direction that it is going in.
- Make sure that it is secure in its pre-focus but not so tight that it will be difficult to focus at focus time.
- If it is a leko, pull open the shutters.
- If it is a PAR can, rotate the lamp to the correct orientation.
- If it is a fresnel, find out if they should be preset as spot, flood or halfway in between.
- Now simply move on to your next light until all lights are hung.
- Now it is time to cable. Find the circuit it is going to. Determine the length.
- Attach the cable to the light to the circuit.
- Tie up with a bow and knot the cable right at the “C” clamp’s bottom so that the pig tail of the light has full room to move around.
- Do not tie up the pigtail. Later on when the lamp blows and you have to remove the cap, you will be happy about this.
- Now tie with tie line the cable up to the pipe as you work towards the circuit. Pick up other cables as you travel across. This is where a friend will come in handy.
- If there is excess in cable length, double the cable back a little until it is taken up. Do not just coil it at the end.
- Patch the light and test it.