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Jon Hole

Introduction to lighting design & programming

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Around Christmas and New Year, many find themselves once again behind a lighting console for the first time in 12 months, designing pantomimes, winter shows, school concerts, outdoor events, Christmas parties and carol services.

Stage Electrics, Zero 88 and Chauvet Professional have prepared a short guide to encourage those not so familiar with lighting design and programming to push the boundaries slightly further than usual this year! We’ve also borrowed sections of Skip Mort’s “Stage Lighting - The Technicians Guide” – a fantastically practical resource worth purchasing and keeping nearby.

You’re invited!

Once your shows have finished and calmed down, we invite you to a free afternoon workshop on 1st February 2017 at 3.30pm. Ideal for technicians, drama teachers, hobbyist and supervisors, we’ll include lighting design and programming techniques, expert guidance and a Q&A to discuss how your past shows went and suggestions on how to improve them even further next time. The workshop will be hosted by Stage Electrics in Bristol, and led by professionals from Zero 88, Chauvet and a local university. Refreshments and snacks will be provided. Register now!

How to design (rather than just facilitating)

The obvious role of the lighting designer is to illuminate the action on stage. However, to move from simple “lighting facilitation” into lighting designing, start thinking about how lighting can help reinforce the overall message. For example, it’s arguably just as important to define the areas which won’t be visible - an audience’s attention can be focused onto just one or two performers by losing the rest of the stage into darkness, removing all context of space and location.

Some of the best performances are when the spoken words, actions, choreography, set design, costume, props, sound, video and lighting are all in alignment. A sensible place to start is not thinking about equipment or venue, but instead answering the following questions:

  1. Does the performance’s style call for a naturalistic or more abstract / surreal design?
  2. Are there specific requirements defined within the script or by the artistic director?

  3. Which moods and emotions need to be portray? How can lighting help tell the story?

  4. The “Five Ws” - Who? What? Where? Why? When? Each of these could affect design decisions

Next, start looking for inspiration. Critiquing the lighting on TV, concerts and theatre is a great start. Although the scale maybe different, the ideas, emotions and moods being portrayed are the same. Google Image Search opens the door to a gigantic portfolio of images to gain further inspiration from –Why does it look great? How does it make you feel? Why is it lit in the way it is?

Did you know?

Zero 88’s FLX lighting console can load images and photographs and replicate the colours on stage using LED lights. Chauvet Professional have a large range of LED lanterns that works flawlessly with FLX. All of this is available to hire and purchase through Stage Electrics.

Realising your design (without breaking the budget)

Once you have an idea of what you’re trying to create, it’s time to think about how you’ll create it. Effective lighting, like all other theatre design processes, is based on an equal measure of creative inspiration and logical decisions. Therefore, it doesn't matter whether you're planning an amateur production or a professional one - the principles of stage lighting remain the same for everyone.

Stage Electrics have put together a small guide explaining the main types of theatre light and what you can use them for – visit the Stage Electrics website (stage-electrics.co.uk), choose “Educational Resources” and then visit “Theatre Light Explained”.

Did you know?

LED fixtures use significantly less energy, don’t get so hot and don’t have any filaments to break, reducing a venue’s ongoing maintenance and running costs. Fixtures like Chauvet Professional’s “COLORado” and “Ovation” ranges can remotely change colour, and moving fixtures like Chauvet Professional’s affordable “Rogue” range and more advanced “Maverick” range can change their position, zoom and much more all without the need of a ladder! Consoles such as Zero 88’s “Jester ML”, “FLX” and “Solution” all simplify LED control to allow you to create great lighting quickly and easily.

Once you’re familiar with the types of stage lights available, it’s time to decide where they need to go, and how they should be used. Stages are illuminated from a range of directions and positions overhead (“front light”), the side (“side light”) and from behind (“back light”). The different directions and angles of illumination can be combined to light the face and body or to create special effects.

Front lighting

This is the main source of illumination for the action, being angled to illuminate the face for drama or directly overhead to light the body for dance. To help choose the position of your front light, stand where the performers will stand, hold your two arms out straight in front of you and raise them 45degrees. Next, move them apart 45 degrees in each direction (90 degrees between them). Where you’re pointing is a good position for front lights. Generally, pastel colours (light blues and ambers) are used here as these look best on performers’ faces.

Side lighting

This is a secondary source of lighting used to profile the face and body, illuminating the shoulders and the sides of the face. It removes the shadows created by front lighting and illuminates the moving body for dance. It is used at three different positions – flood, head and high-level cross lighting diagonally across the stage.

Back lighting

This is another secondary light source from behind, it adds depth to the scene by highlighting the head and shoulders. It creates a dramatic shadow-light effect, making the actor stand out from the background. Saturated colours can be used in backlighting without causing strange tones on performers’ faces.

Selecting colours that work great together!

We respond to colour and intensity of lighting in our daily life:

  • The heat of a midsummers day
  • The warmth of the sunshine on a spring afternoon

  • The harsh light from a hanging light in a room

  • The coolness of early morning

  • The chill of a cold and frosty day

  • The contrast of a bright to an overcast day

Did you know?

Chauvet Professional’s range of static and moving lights can produce millions of different colours from a single unit by using colour changing LED technology, and can easily match the intensity of your current standard tungsten lanterns.

We associate colour with our feelings. Reds are “warm”, blues are “cold”. On a sunny day, we might feel happy. On an overcast day, we might feel sad, down or depressed. However, the association of colours can be very different depending upon the cultural background and the content of the show. White may donate purity or innocence in the West, but is more associated with death in the East. Red may recall foreboding or violence in the West, and luck or prosperity for a Chinese audience. We can simulate these associated responses by playing with the colour and intensity of light on-stage to create a mood or atmosphere to reflect the feelings and action of drama or dance.

Did you know?

There’s a large section on colour within Skip Mort’s book “Stage Lighting - The Technicians Guide”, where some of this has been taken from. Stage Electrics also have an online Educational Resource entitled “Psychology of Colour” – worth investigating if this subject interests you.

To help with specific colour choices, masters of light “Lee Filters” have developed “Moodboards” – selections of colours that work great together to portray particular moods and situations. These can be found at leefilters.com/lighting/moods.html and are designed to spark ideas and possible colour palettes. As always the overall effect of these colours isn't predetermined and can be transformed in a myriad ways - placement of light source, the other colours being used, intensity, colours of scenery and costumes, and more. The palettes are offered simply a nudge in the right direction.

Did you know?

Stage Electrics stock Lee Filter’s full colour range which can be delivered next day if you need. “Moodboards by Lee Filters” are built right into Zero 88’s FLX lighting console. Moods like Envy, Excitement, Tension, Moonlight and Royalty can be chosen on the lighting console, which displays a range of Lee Filter’s colours that’ll work great together, allowing you to order exactly the gels you need, or apply these colours straight to your colour mixing LED lighting at the touch of a button.

Quick tips when setting up your lights

  1. ‘Save your lamps’ by turning the lanterns off when they are not in use to keep them cool and to save electricity
  2. Ask someone else to angle and focus, so you can see the light from the audiences point of view

  3. When angling and focusing, run the lamps at 90% to reduce the possibility of damaging the filament of a tungsten lamp

  4. Use rigging gloves when adjusting lanterns as they get hot very quickly

  5. Use your arms and hands to give directions as well as verbal instructions to the operator when adjusting the size and shape of the beam

  6. ‘Flag’ the lantern by waving a hand in front of the beam from a lantern to check the size of the area of illumination and the spill light

  7. Make sure that you have peace and quiet so that you can communicate with your team

Utilising your lighting console’s full potential (and still getting home on time)

Once a design has been developed, fixtures rigged and given the correct positions, angles and colour, it’s time to sit behind the lighting console and turn some lights on!

Start by spending some time without distractions exploring how different lights work together (remember that there’s 98 other values between 0% and 100% - explore them!). It’s helpful having someone on stage so you see how the light works on the performers, not just the stage and set. If there’s looks you like, save them (or take a note of the intensities) so you can recreate it in the future.

“Fader per channel” vs “Syntax”

Some lighting consoles will be “fader per channel”, where each light in the rig is associated to a single fader on the lighting console. This is the easiest method of lighting control, but also be time consuming. Other lighting consoles will be “syntax” driven, where a number pad allows the user to type commands such as “1 AND 2 @ 50%”. Some lighting consoles offer both, giving most flexibility to the users.


When an artist starts a new painting, they create a palette with each of the colours they’re planning to use. Some lighting consoles offer the same functionality, with palettes not just for Colour, but often Position and other attributes too. Spending time building a range of palettes before rehearsals greatly reduces the time spent during programming mixing colours and positioning moving lights.

“Cues” vs “Submasters”

“Cues” (sometimes written as “Qs” or “LXQs”) are lighting states you store into the lighting console in a sequential order, and with a “fade time” between each one. During the performance, the operator just presses a “GO” button every time they wish to proceed to the next lighting cue. This is perfect for well-rehearsed scripted performances, but take longer to create and are less flexible if the order changes.

The alternative is “Submasters”, where each lighting state is stored onto a separate fader, and recalled by simply raising that fader. This allows lighting states to be faded up / down in any order by the operator (or two raise two at the same time to achieve a mix of both). It can be helpful to mix Cues and Submasters – for example the main show maybe stored on Cues, but a lightning strike effect, camera flash effect or smoke machine is stored on a submaster so it can be triggered manually by the operator at any time.

Up / Down (“Split”) fade times

When programming cues, most consoles offer separate “Fade Up” and “Fade Down” time to be programmed. Both of these fades start at the same time as soon as the operator presses the GO button, with the Fade Up time affecting any lights which are fading up in intensity, and the Fade Down affecting any lights which are fading down in intensity. Adjusting the times independently can transform the feel of the transition between cues (often designers will specify a couple of extra seconds on the fade down time compared to the fade up time).

Every lighting console is different, but usually the core fundamentals are shared. Always consult the manufacturer’s instructions for specific queries, which are usually available to download online or via YouTube videos.

Did you know?

Zero 88’s versatile FLX lighting console won the coveted PLASA Innovation Award specifically for its intuitive control of LED colour changing fixtures and reduce programming time. The judges said that the Zero 88 FLX offered "a revolutionary approach to colour and movement for the tablet generation as being part of a well thought-out desk package aimed at an accessible price point for entry-level and more professional users". A full series of training videos are available online at youtube.com/zero88


Hopefully we’ve encouraged you to unleash your inner Lighting Designer this year, and get the most out of your lighting console. Remember that you’re invited to our free afternoon workshop on 1st February 2017 at 3.30pm to meet professionals, learn more about lighting design & programming, and discuss how your show went. Refreshments and snacks will be provided. Register now!

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