Lighting Goes to Hollywood

Specifying lights for classrooms and residence hall rooms, cafeterias, and libraries isn’t a challenge for most university administrators. Pathway lighting gets a little trickier, but the blueprint is usually easy to follow.

But planning how to illuminate a performance theater or sports area requires a sophistication few regular Joes have obtained.

For instance, when administrators at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, WA, decided to take up a $450,000 renovation of its Phillip Tarro Theater in the fall of 2007, changes like a ticket booth, concession stand, new seats and flooring, a backstage restroom, and a permanent thrust stage have made the drawing board. Ellen White, product education manager at Electronic Theater Controls (ETC) in Middletown, WI, would start with a different question: What is the use of this space?

If a campus intends to use the space for just theater, the lighting set-up will be different than if officials also plan to use the space for graduation ceremonies, town hall meetings with the president, guest lectures, and even touring companies; the choices become more involved.

The good news: there is nothing new under the sun so far when it comes to the lamps themselves. Most venues go with an LED system, and the gels used in theatrical applications simply add more colors to the palette as opposed to changing their chemical make-up.

“But the way technology is moving right now, the key thing is networking within the auditoriums for the specific use of lighting systems,” said White. She isn’t talking about networking as in getting on the Internet to download control mechanisms.“In all honesty, that type of networking would slow the lighting system down,” she explained. Networking in this case means linking the entire system from dimmers to fixtures into one computer-controlled environment.

“One of the key things we see in most college auditoriums is the ability to do any of the high-definition projections and high-end training elements that include LCD projectors and sound systems. In some cases, the LCD projectors even set the mood through scenic elements. (Recall at your last concert how technicians projected a video of a song on a screen while the artist performs that number live on the stage. Creating animated characters on a live stage, however, remains out of reach.)

Happily, most college campuses already have a majority of the pieces they need to make the magic, according to White. The starting point is to invest in the appropriate computerized lighting control system that can interface with all the existing components of the lighting system. Just be warned that many high-end lighting consoles stand alone with proprietary software. At the very basic end, these controls cost just $3,000, although White notes that this extreme budget end may not be adequate for the situation. Next, it’s a matter of investing in or even renting the automated fixtures.

Moving lights are the buzzword here among campuses — to the point that even if officials pass up the option now, they should make sure their console system can add them in the future, experts say. It’s an option for any size stage, too; White has installed moving lights in intimate glass-box style theaters as well as 3,000-seat auditoriums. She recommends administrators turn to a theatrical dealer in their area — in her experience, the vendor who supplies the lamps and gels typically has the right connections.“It will pay off in the long run. You can pick up the phone and say, ‘Remember we talked about those moving fixtures? Now we really want to see one, so can you bring over a demo that we can play with?’” she said.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble

Show biz glamour has come to arena events — ticket holders would protest if their favorite NBA or NHL players took the floor without a fanfare. That pregame hoopla has begun to trickle down to the college level as well, complete with dancing colored lights, spots that hit the players, and pump-them-up music blaring from the loudspeakers. At the very least, fans want to see the team logo projected onto the floor during player announcements, and it’s nice if a spotlight projects that team logo onto the side of the building as they are walking in.

The projected logo, as any kid with a flashlight can tell you, involves putting a custom cap over a spotlight. But the other stunts are equally as simple to pull off, assured Pete Baselici, Sr., the product line manager for Watt Stopper-Legrande headquartered in Santa Clara, CA. “These projects aren’t complex, they’re just large, “ he said. And large, of course, translates to massive upfront planning meetings and good communication.

For starters, many sports arenas do double duty, serving as the venue for both basketball and hockey, with each requiring totally different floor space. This means the lighting system really needs to be on a preset automated system, so that technicians can hit a button as opposed to physically repositioning the lights to the correct spot several times a week. It can become so detailed, Baselici said, that engineers will even program when and which concession stand lights will come on in conjunction with the court lights. “Everyone tends to be a little different, but everyone is the same in the respect that they all want a one-button control for the venue,” he added.

Of course, the behind-the-scenes installation involves a little more brow sweat than that. For one thing, most arenas are lit with metal halide lighting, a ballast fixture that does not turn on instantly. So if the tech crew were to shut off the lights in order to cue up the spotlights and pregame hysteria, the lamps would need to cool down and then warm up again — a 15-minute process — before the referee could throw down the puck or toss the tip. The answer is a shading device on the light fixtures that shutters the illumination to create a temporary darkness.

Thankfully, it is not necessary to tear down the arena and start again just to adopt such glitz. Most of the projects Watt Stopper-Legrande land are retrofits they address during larger renovation projects to the building. Angles are very important in the planning stages, with major light sources located next to catwalks in case something goes awry. After all, players can’t concentrate on the game if a wrong glare is bouncing in their eyes. “At the same time you have to provide sufficient lighting for television, too,” Baslici said. And each light fixture (arenas can have as many as 400) must be on its own relay scattered around on panels throughout that catwalk. Audience lighting must be planned in zones so that operators can turn off sections — during a rock concert, for instance.

However, administrators need to bring a calendar to the installation meetings in order to work out any scheduling that needs to be programmed into the one-touch control screens. Unlike an office building where engineers can assume every Wednesday is the same, in an arena the crew must look ahead several months to set up the proper lighting angles on the correct days.

“A lot of arenas prefer to do it manually because they have a staff that is going to be on site for every event,” he pointed out. Thanks to the touch screens, the training can be minimal: a security pass to access the software, and knowledge of which selection to make for the event. Still, “these are not people off the street. You many not need unusually trained operators, but they do need to understand what is happening,” Baselici said.