Atlantic Illumination Entertainment Lighting

Lighting Essays


The Lazy Lighting Designer

Have you at times considered the idea of
re-using one of your stage lighting layouts?

by Richard Bonner

    When one has had a career as a lighting designer for a good length of time, it is easy to slip into the practice of repeating layouts. It's not difficult to think: "Hey, this client has a similar setup to one I did a few years ago", and to then decide to use that previous show's design for the new one -- meaning employing the same fixtures, in the same positions, with the same colours, at the same intensities. "This person wouldn't have attended that show I did back then; I can get away with this."

    Well yes, likely one can get away with it, but is it really serving the current client in a proper and ethical manner? If the two events are widely separated geographically, then patrons attending the present show will likely not be the same as those that went to see the other. Thus, one probably can get away with re-using that exact lighting plot. Even if some do go to both events, would any lay persons recognise that the same lighting design has been used for two different shows? Given these circumstances, will reusing the design really hurt anyone? Probably not if the design from the previous show absolutely suits that of the present client.

    However, even if the design suits, what happens in the few cases where one or both clients realise what has taken place? If those were not major productions and if you didn't charge a lot, neither person is likely to be too miffed; but what if you levied top dollar? What if you are passing the second one off as an original design, either by direct statement or by implication? Who is hurt? It will mainly be you and your integrity.

    Realise that I have no problem if a lighting artist wants to repeat a design as long as the client does not expect, is not told, or does not believe by insinuation or inference, that the concept will be an original.

    We all use favoured lighting instruments, favoured colours, and favoured looks; it's part of a designer's style. Regardless, I want to give a client some originality because I like to present varying aspects of stage lighting to both that client and his or her patrons. Plus, it preserves my interest in the design process when I must come up with something fresh, or devise a new way of doing something old. My final point on this part of the subject is that whatever you do, the design should be tailored to the particular event.

    Now, I acknowledge that I have reused my own designs from time to time, but more often I have brought just some element of a past layout into a new one. As I mentioned, part of that is a designer's style -- his or her signature. As well, some presentations of architecture, set design or musical acts just cry out for certain cliche looks. Regardless, the truly professional lighting designer attempts to give a client something different, while still maintaining the appropriateness of the design for the event, act, and space.

    There is another consideration that bears upon this subject and that is the payment received. I am not going to knock myself out expending a great deal of time to come up with a lot of originality in exchange for low payment. This is not to imply that a low-paying client receives less expertise from me. It does mean that some components of my design are liable to be appropriated from one or more past productions that I have lighted. This is especially true if they were put on in the same venue as the upcoming event. Re-using aspects of previous designs in these situations is simply frugality of time based on the amount of compensation being offered. Conversely though, well-paying clients deserve better because their money buys them more of my time to be devoted to their projects.

    I like to pride myself with the ability to do a lot with a little. The clients with low budgets always get this portion of my abilities. Yet they will not, and should not expect to, see a design sporting a plethora of original ideas culminating in an abundance of lighting fixtures.

    Then there is the point regarding the number of clients being served at a given time. Being swamped with requests can mean that corners are often cut, but when it comes to top-paying clients, cutting those corners via the duplication of layouts may eventually come to reflect on a designer's reputation -- either now or at some time in the future, should the reusage ultimately catch up with that designer.

    Regarding this point, if you are one that finds yourself in a crunch for time during busy seasons, think about developing ahead of time. During days when work is less intense, fashion some generic designs or segments of designs, one or more each for a variety of purposes. Whenever you have some time to kill in a venue, or even in a private residence or a retail space, think of how you would light that area if you were to be approached by a client. Consider the appropriate fixtures, and their placement and colouring for that space. Commit this to paper or computer as soon as you can and keep it in a file for later reference. Then when budget and/or time is scant, consult your files for usable concepts. Be sure to categorise these design snippets so that you can locate them quickly as the need arises.

    Further, whenever you view a play, motion picture or television production, consider how you might light that production or even various segments of it. Commit that to your files as well.

    Yes, some of what might come to be in your files will not be conceived with a performance space in mind, but modify and apply it to fit your design for an entertainment purpose. In fact, designing for others' productions and for everyday spaces (even if they are just thought experiments) is good practice of theory for when it comes to lighting a stage. The more experiences one has with lighting concepts, even if they are for purposes not in one's normal repertoire, makes for a well-rounded designer. This means that one is less likely to be stumped when previously unencountered requirements come one's way.

As lighting professionals, we must balance all of the points in the
preceding discussion to create an atmosphere of light that flatters,
intrigues, satisfies, and complements the space and scene being lit.
Adopting lazy design methods rarely can fulfil those ideals.

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