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Will lighting re-find its way, or are we doomed
to be eternally awash in a fog of scroll, spin,
zoom, iris, colour change, rotate and chase?
by Richard Bonner
A beam of light lands on a stage somewhere in a certain quantity, with a certain quality and colour value. How it got there means little to the viewer. How it represents the moment and how it affects those watching are what is important, not the fixture that produced it. How many audiences do you think wonder what lighting instruments were used to create the look they just saw? Do you think they even care about the condition and age of those fixtures? The reality is that most are there to see the show, not the equipment.
Stage lighting has become too much about that which produces it. When today's lighting people get together, there is likely to be more talk of the equipment and latest software than about the art of the lighting itself. This is a sad commentary on the state of today's performance lighting in the minds of those that make it their profession.
As a lighting designer, surprisingly I really care very little about the equipment. Yes, I favour certain lighting instruments because they produce a given quantity and quality of light in a particular manner, but in the end, I could just as easily use fixtures from the 1930s as most any of today's.
Those persons that let the lighting desk and automated lights go through
their repertoire of tricks are not really doing lighting. They are
technicians allowing some electronic device to manipulate the lights. It
takes little talent or artistry to press a switch labelled "Chase". These
are the questions I pose:
Lighting's basic appeal of texture, shadow and mood is now too often lost to complexity and expense. Some productions have so many fixtures on at a given moment that subtlety is diluted to the point of non existence. Many of my best compliments have come from those viewing my simplest looks and most minimal changes. Perhaps they are responding to the fact that I am doing something different compared to what they see at typical shows, but I believe it to be more than that.
I have over the years studied how the brain "sees" light and perceives colour -- the psychology of lighting, if you will. I use that to great advantage when I create mood and atmosphere, especially when I want to invoke certain audience reactions to a look or a change. I won't go into the details here; they are a complete series of lessons in themselves. However, suffice to say that humans respond to colour, intensity and direction of lighting in ways that are fairly common to one another, and that I exploit this commonness of human traits in some of my designs and operations.
As I was alluding earlier, subtlety is lost in shows that only offer fast changes and movement for the sake of being continuously busy. Some shows I have seen resemble a dance club where the DJ has scanners constantly running (sometimes even when no music is playing!), and these shows differed little more from that. Now yes, fast changes and movement invoke their own human responses, and I have used them, but there is much more to be explored when one considers quality, colour and direction as a static look, leaving movement for only the parts where it really suits and when it produces the best impact. Sometimes allowing an audience to absorb a scene elicits more response than fleeting views of a myriad of fast, ever-changing and repeated looks.
Is there any meaningful lighting left or is it
doomed to suffer an over-lit, overproduced afterlife?
Unfortunately, over-lit scenes and overproduced lighting have become the norm and are often expected by too many producers and directors. I recall a variety show from past years in which there were several dance numbers. I opened one of those numbers with an artistic top light presenting the dancers in silhouette before intending to bring up brighter light for the main part of the dance. For their choreographer, it wasn't bright enough. She wanted the audience to see her dancers and their costumes brightly lit for every instant they were on stage. Sadly, even a few seconds of artistry seem to be too much for some today.
It is not completely lost, however. I have viewed designs done without fog and moving beams, without a lot of flash, and with minimal fixture numbers. Some were superlative designs, I might add. A few of the latter that come to mind are one for a Cirque du Soleil television production, and two for American Motion Picture Academy Awards shows on different telecasts. Unfortunately, except for one(*), I did not note the years and shows where I saw these because at the times I did not consider that I would eventually be writing about them. Nonetheless, some designers do not avoid the subtleties of lighting; they balance the spectacular with the atmospheric and the sophisticated. I hope that they influence more designers to do so in the future.
(*) Robert Dickinson's lighting for the March 1999 Academy Awards
telecast is the one that I remember in particular. The other Academy
show was in the 20-0s, as was the Cirque television production. These
are not the only ones, but in my mind they are stand-outs for tasteful,
classy lighting designs drowning in an ocean of Scroll, Spin, Zoom...
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