Theatrical lighting has been turned on its head in recent years as emergent technologies have opened a host of new creative possibilities for designers. However, along with these opportunities have come a host of challenges, as designers have had to learn how to navigate a new set of rules to create impact without losing their aesthetic balance.
Well known designer, author and Lighting and Sound America columnist Richard Cadena, who has written the book (make that several books) on stage lighting, talked about the impact that new technology is having on theatrical design. With his customary perceptiveness and wit, Cadena shared some advice on incorporating next generation fixtures into lighting designs and offered some predictions on where the march of technology is headed.
Is theatrical lighting becoming more eclectic in terms of the types of fixtures that are being incorporated into rigs?
“Yes. I think the theatrical lighting industry is doing a great job of coming up with new product offerings. Today, designers have a huge range of choices in lighting at relatively affordable prices. In a way, this is dulling creativity because sometimes you don’t have to work very hard to get really great looks. But in another way, the availability of these great tools is unleashing creativity in designers who love to use new technology in more innovative ways.
“I just saw the Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm and the lighting designer, Fredrik Jönsson, used a huge number of the usual lights in unusual ways. In some instances, he used tight beams as extensions of the set in a very geometric way or as an extension of the video in very organic ways. In other instances, he used beams of light as a metaphorical cage or simply to make a statement, which, I think was something like, ‘Wow, this band is very loud and full of energy!’”
So given what you just said what impact is this having on the way lighting designers approach their work?
“It is turning the design of systems on its head. It used to be that a lighting designer had to ask, ‘What is this rig capable of?’ Today, a better question is, ‘What am I capable of?’ because there are so few technological limits now. You can pretty much realize any design you can imagine with a combination of technology and creativity. It’s all about art now more than ever. That’s not to say there aren’t some lackluster designs or implementations. There are. Lots of them. But in creative hands, we have some powerful technology for creating art.”
We know that moving heads have popped up more often in theatrical designs recently; what are your thoughts on that? What are the pros and cons?
“Theatre designers, in general, are among the most thoughtful of lighting designers, and they spend a lot of time thinking about the design and studying the story before they ever pick up a pencil or take up a mouse to start drawing. That pretty much keeps the cons at bay, and it’s a good thing because moving lights can easily be abused. We’ve all seen the shows where the heads are moving way too much or way too fast for the song or the story. It can take you out of the moment and you come crashing down to earth. On the other hand, moving lights have so many advantages, from subtle color change, to realistic projection, to abstract projection, to slow and graceful movement. In the right hands, they can be used to accentuate the story and make the highs higher, the lows lower, and the in-betweens more memorable.”
When theatrical LDs incorporate entertainment fixtures into their designs, do they run the risk of upsetting the balance that they use to define space with ellipsoidals?
“In terms of the geometry of beams, entertainment lighting can behave exactly the same as conventional theatrical lighting like ellipsoidals. I think the bigger risk a designer takes today is the difference between the way entertainment lighting renders color and the way conventional theatrical lighting renders color. If you had a chance to see Spider-man on Broadway, then you know that it was a drastic example of how different LED fixtures can look in the theatre as compared to ellipsoidals with gel colors. In this case, Don Holder (the lighting designer) was going for a very different look, trying to emulate or create something reminiscent of comic books, and I think he did a fantastic job of that. It was very “cartoony.” But I can see how that could be a problem in other shows. You certainly don’t want that look in “Grapes of Wrath” or “Chicago.” On the other hand, “Wicked” could look really wicked with surreal colors.”
It seems as if more designers are using lighting to accent or define scenic elements, either by lighting them from the inside or outlining them with LED tape. Do you think this will impact the approach that LDs take to their theatrical work?
“I certainly hope so. We’ll never know unless designers push the envelope and try new things like that. Yesterday I had a great conversation with Bill Holshevnikoff, who is a director of photography. We were talking about innovation, and he told me about how the Irish were trying to emulate the success of Silicon Valley, but they were having trouble because they tend to shame people who fail and declare bankruptcy. But in Silicon Valley, it’s almost a point of pride to have tried and failed. Of course, we all want to succeed in a big way but unless you’re failing on a regular basis, then you’re probably not trying enough new things. I recently saw a Salvador Dali quote that said, ‘Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature.’ Dali revered mistakes, and I revere Dali. So whatever your vocation, I say get out there and fail more. Lord knows I have!”
Which entertainment lighting fixtures do you think will have the biggest effect on theatrical lighting over the next few years?
“It’s hard to predict the future and I’ve failed at it many times. I don’t consider that a badge of honor, by the way, but failing has never stopped me from trying new things or trying different things. But this I feel fairly certain about…small, battery-powered, wireless light sources that are completely untethered are going places, literally and figuratively. Light sources are still getting brighter and more efficient, and batteries are about to take a quantum leap, as in a 10X advance in power versus size. Wireless is already pretty much there. That’s a powerful combination and one that is begging to be exploited in theatre.”
Any parting advice on weaving entertainment lighting into theatrical designs?
“Yeah, take a hard look at how television has dramatically changed over the last few years. It used to be that lighting design was very well defined and the light levels were very high so that the cameras could capture every nuance. Today, it’s a whole new ball game and all the rules have changed. If you look at the lighting mood of the most popular shows like “Game of Thrones” and some of the others, it’s no longer about always revealing the action in every detail. Sometimes it’s more about concealing the character and creating mystery. People love mystery. It lets your mind wander and fill in the gaps that used to be dictated. We don’t always have to have 350 foot-candles on the subject to make compelling lighting design. Shadows need love too.
About Richard Cadena
Richard Cadena is a self-fashioned Renaissance man of the live event production industry. As a child he often had a sketch pad and pencil in hand, and played violin, drums, guitar and bass. At an early age he began experimenting with electronics and audio recording, dubbing multiple tracks on a cassette recorder using a well-placed piece of Scotch tape. He aspired to be a recording engineer, but he ended up studying electrical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin.
Cadena is the author of “Automated Lighting: The Art and Science of Moving Light,” “Electricity for the Entertainment Electrician & Technician,” “Lighting Design for Modern Houses of Worship,” and “Focus on Technology.” He is an ETCP Certified Entertainment Electrician and an ETCP Recognized Trainer, and he writes a column called “Video Matters” for Lighting and Sound America and Lighting and Sound International, another called “Technology Focus” for Lighting and Sound International, and a third called “Shadow, Light, and Truth” for Protocol magazine. When he’s not traveling, he likes to start his day by riding his bicycle to and from yoga class and end his day by spending time with his wife Lisa and his daughter Joanna. He can be reached at [email protected].