Setting The Scene: Richard Cadena on Scenic Elements

Posted on January 5, 2016

The term “lighting designer” is often somewhat of a misnomer nowadays, as more LDs are going beyond simply illuminating the stage to molding the look of it with scenic elements. In some cases this is being done with LED panels and pixel mapped arrays. In others the scene is far less high tech, as LDs take familiar objects picked up at the local hardware store and give them new life on stage through the magic of creative lighting.

Well-known designer, educator and author Richard Cadena applauds the convergence of lighting and scenic design, believing that the blurring of this age-old distinction has the power to unleash a wave of new ideas in touring and stage applications. The author of several lighting industry bibles, including Automated Lighting: the Art and Science of Moving Light, and a columnist for Lighting and Sound America, Cadena sees “endless possibilities” for incorporating new scenic elements into lighting designs of all sizes and budgets.

Cadena, who also conducts popular seminars for The Academy of Production Technologies, took time from his busy schedule to talk to us about the rapidly changing (and growing) role of scenic elements in lighting design.

Has the role of scenic changed in recent years?

“Yeah, the role of the lighting designer has evolved over the last decade or two. I think it stems from around 2000 when the DMX-controlled media server first came out. All of a sudden lighting designers realized that they could drive more of the scenic elements on stage with video and video mapping. It was around that time that some lighting designers were starting to call themselves production designers to encompass more of the design on stage. Now that that genie is out of the bottle, there’s no getting it back in.”

How does the incorporation of a prominent or large scenic element into a stage design affect the composition of the lighting rig? Does it affect what an LD should do with lights?

“That can affect everything from the aesthetics to the logistics. Sometimes it’s a matter of balance between the story, the set, and the action, and other times it’s a matter of blocking sight lines or something as simple as lighting the talent without casting shadows in the wrong place. But that’s the fun of design. The more challenging, then the more creative you have to be to solve problems and to accomplish your design goals.”

Is the line becoming blurred between lighting designer and set designer? What advice do you have for engendering communication between LDs and set designers?

“We were just talking about this today. Yes, the line between lighting design and scenic design is getting more blurry all the time—and that’s a good thing! Designers have a lot more tools at their disposal, like battery-powered LEDs and wireless DMX. Almost every set piece you see on the news and sports channels include LEDs, and it really makes them pop on television. Automation is another area that is inspiring creativity. Hardware is getting cheaper, and along with new technologies like 3D printing, embedded computers, sensors, video, drones…the creative possibilities are endless. We’re very close to a tipping point in creativity. The next few years is going to be a really wild ride.”

Are we seeing the growth of more unconventional scenic elements? At the recent WFX Conference, we spoke to designers from big churches who used bubble wrap and rubber balls as scenic elements and transformed them with lighting? What are your thoughts on that?

“Yes, there’s no question that there are more unconventional approaches to scenic design. Sometimes it’s because not everyone can afford the technology toys we’ve been talking about, and other times it’s because designers are very creative. I just lit an independent movie where we had no budget.

“We went into a theatre and used their space but there were no scenic elements—I mean none. So we made a trip to the hardware store and came back with some screen material to use as a backdrop. I lit it with some LED color wash fixtures and it looked great on camera. There are lots of low-cost materials that could have been used. The main criterion is to create layers of texture, create depth, shadow, highlights, and to break up the scene.

“As much as I love hi-tech, I am enamored of certain low-technology too, like mirror balls and confetti. In the right applications they are like the tuxedos of scenic elements—they never go out of style.”


Does adding scenic elements to the design process help stimulate greater creativity in a lighting designer?

“It certainly adds another dimension and forces you to open your mind. Lighting designers have a relatively limited toolbox, but when you add scenic elements, there are no limits. For some people that’s frightening, but in the hands of a creative designer it’s like a kid with a box of crayons and no lines to color it—just pure fun.”

On a related topic, we’re seeing the growth of light art, which is often built around the LD/artist taking discarded industrial objects like automobile parts and the like, and weaving them together with lighting to create a light sculpture. Do you see this influencing entertainment lighting design?

“Artists are always looking for stimulation and new ideas. It doesn’t matter what the medium is; they have to keep moving or their art dies—like a shark. I think the growth of the internet helps in this regard. There are some incredibly talented people doing some amazing things online, and that ups the ante for everyone. I doubt that there will ever be a shadow art movement in concert lighting or on Broadway, but those types of art installations make artists of every ilk raise their game.”

What advice do you have on using gobos on scenic elements?

“I used to think in very literal terms and I would try to project recognizable patterns or objects, but someone showed me how to create more abstract art with gobo projection and I’ve never looked back. I wish I could remember who that was but I’ve slept since then.”

How about projection video? What advice on using it with scenic elements?

“Do you mean with projectors? It’s tricky because you need very high lumen projectors, which are big and expensive, and you have to balance the projected image with the light on the stage. You also have to worry about sight lines and you have to be careful not to wash out the projection surface with moving lights. But if you’re going to use projection, the key is to use as low light levels as you can get away with, so take the master fader on your lighting console and drop it. Keep dropping it until somebody yells at you. And then sneak it down some more when they’re not looking. Their eyes will adjust and the video will pop.” 

Broadly speaking, how can an LD make a scenic element more exciting or engaging with lighting?

“I love automation, and there are tools that are now coming out that will make it much easier to automate a set. Wireless control of motors, battery power so it doesn’t have to be tethered, and 3D printing are going to completely and utterly transform scenic design. Anne McMills, the author of The Assistant Lighting Designer’s Toolkit, is way ahead of the curve on this. She teaches a class at San Diego State University that involves 3D printing.”

This may be a dumb or impossible-to- answer question, but how would you describe the role of scenic elements in stage design?

“I think the role of any design element is to support a story. That can be very literal or very abstract, or anything in between. At the end of the day, the audience wants one thing, and that’s to get completely engrossed in the show and forget all about what’s going on in the real world. We tend to get overloaded with news and media, and if you can go to a show and forget about the terrorists, the presidential campaigns, the Ebola virus, and everything else, then it’s a win for everyone. So the role of the designer is to create a fantasy world that shuts everything else out. How that’s done is a matter of creativity.”

It seems like there’s always a challenge balancing the practical and the visionary with scenic elements; how do you achieve that balance?

“That’s a tough question to answer because it often comes back to budget and time. There’s never enough of either, so you have to do what you can with what you have in the amount of time you’re given. Sometimes that forces you to be really creative, and sometimes it’s just another stressor.”

Has the growth of LED video walls impacted the way scenic elements are used?

“Yes, without question. That might be the single biggest influence on scenic design, although I think the term ‘walls’ may be too constricting because you can configure the panels in so many different ways. I think that trend will continue as long as it takes to figure out how to create a hologram in mid-air.”

Any other advice or observations about lighting scenic elements?

“I watched the American Music Awards the other night and it was incredible. I kept asking myself, why is this so good? There are several reasons, but most of them have to do with layering, creating texture, depth, shadow, light, dynamics, and energy. And one of my favorite looks was when they used a ton of very low-tech confetti. I was disappointed that they had no mirror balls. So to those aspiring scenic designers out there, I say, think about those design elements. And if that doesn’t work, I have this idea about how to take discarded industrial objects and weave them together to create a light sculpture. I just thought of it! LOL.”


RichardCadena4About 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.

Rather than work for Dell or IBM, he went to work for Blackstone Audio Visual, which became High End Systems one year later. After leaving High End and a short stint with Martin Professional and the ill-fated Hubbell Entertainment, he began following a path of writing books and magazine articles in the lighting industry, practicing freelance lighting design, and teaching classes and workshops.

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].