Monday, June 20, 2011

The "Cert"

In Evan S. Connel's book "The White Lantern" he mentions an old medieval ship-building document called a "Cert." According to Connel, this was a chunk of wood with the basic dimensions of the ship on it, which also functioned as a contract to build.

I have not been able to find verification of this, but it is such a handy concept I've used it since. To wit; the idea of boiling down a complex project to a set of numbers that, if executed according to the ordinary standards and practices of the craft, are sufficient expression of the artistic intent.

As an antithesis, let me quote from Howard Bay (Stage Design, Drama Book Publishers 1974):

Lighting folk accumulate too many pieces of paper. Frustrated engineers unable to find an excuse for flashing a slide rule, they make up for it with complicated documents. This pseudo-organization leads to chaos at dress rehearsal time. With a full complement of actors, singers, dancers, musicians and stagehands in suspended animation, the light designer amidst his squawk box, headphones, and little beaver assistants with containers of coffee, is scrambling between blueprints, board diagrams, focusing charts, clipboard and cue sheets struggling to find one light and match it up with the one switch that turns it on and off.

Paperwork is good. Paperwork is indeed a great thing. But the worst error of confusing map with territory is thinking that lots of paperwork is a substitute for lots of actual work. And the second error is trying to make the map too detailed, too filled with what should be clear in context.

If it is sanely possible, there should be a few, even one, key piece of paper that is small enough to fold into a pocket and take on stage, and simple enough so a single glance is enough to tell you which microphone is which (or which light, or whatever). In the middle of a song is not a good time to be squinting at fine print on an elaborate diagram!

The other thing we are trying to do here is leverage skills (of your A2, of yourself), and contextual knowledge, and to thus escape duplicative effort. What you want is not a sheet that tells a completely inexperienced hand how to screw a mic clip onto a stand, but a sheet that will either remind you of what you planned (or what you already did but already forgot), or tell an experienced hand the basics of what you want done.

Much depends in the latter on the actual experience and rapport your A2 shares with you. Some wireless microphone wranglers, I can just say "ear, hair, hair, ear" and they'll put the mics where I want them. Others, I have to instruct them more; they may have learned bad habits of taping mics too low, for instance, so I need to train them to my preferences before I can say "My usual ear position" to them.

And some depends on the flow of the gig itself. Plenty of times I've been at one end or the other of the signal chain and the only thing we've shared is "I put a mic on the kick and there's one overhead on the hihat side." We basically hope that the other person will have either done about what we would have done, OR will have done something that their experience tells them works. And when we hit sound check, a bit of EQ will probably be enough to make it work for this show.

Because at least when it gets to paperwork, sure you can try to spell things out, but describing exactly how a kick mic is aimed is something you really have to see. So the most detailed I will normally get is "Oktava on the fiddle, looking down at the face 6-8" just above the bridge."

And when I put it on the "cert," on the diagram I will refer to during the performance and also the next time I set up that act, this is what I will put:

Okay: The above is a fake; I drew that one for this blog entry. But that is the basic principle. The numbers are usually channel numbers, and when possible my channel numbers match snake numbers as well (if not, I might notate it on the rough plot as well).

I've identified the microphones that matter most; anything else is probably pulled as needed. But let's look at the IMPLIED data. First off, the mic'd cab means we probably need a short mic stand. The overheads, on the other hand, are going to require tripod boom stands for stability and placement. The DI will require a pair of quarter-inch cables to connect to the keyboard.

And, really, a good audio person would probably guess that we wanted the only dedicated kick mic in the house, so would put the D6 there unless I specified something different. Same logic for the cab mic.

This doesn't show the exact placement, of course, or settings on the DI (ground lifted? Pad in or out?) or whether roll-off or pad is engaged on the mics. But this is the glory of standards, again. A good A2 can guess, and I will probably remember, and even if we get it wrong the default is good enough and probably won't kill the show.

But now for something completely different:

This is what I call a "Rose" diagram, after the compass rose found on a map. This is a diagram that encapsulates the heart of a lighting design. Although there are many nuances of specials, of area plot, of cuts and edge and so forth, this is where to me the heart of the concept lies; in the interaction of colors and angles.

I grew up on the Rosco book so most of these are Rosco colors. Why X as a prefix? Because when I started, the last sheets of Roscolene were leaving inventory, and Roscolux was taking over! Fortunately, this happened long before the Lee and Gam books (and the even less-used Cinecolor book) needed to have unique prefixes.

While I am working out the lighting scheme I'll often have several different roses, one for each basic "look." This is a combined rose. The lavenders from the left are always balancing the key, but daytime scenes are in the Rosco 08 and darker scenes are in the Rosco 61. Same for the twin back lights; the Lee 119 for night, the Rosco 14 for day. The x66 comes slanting across as moonlight in one scene, and the x35 in an extremely low angle for dawn in another.

The angles of the diagram are the angles relative to the acting areas. The length of the lines has a rough correspondence with the height angle (the angle to the floor). Notations are given on a couple of them for potentially unusual instrument choices.

With nothing but this rose, I could re-create 80% of a lighting design I'd completely forgotten about. And a different designer, given this to work from, could still get within 60-70% of my original intent. Because matters such as how much coverage per instrument -- hence how many areas in the area plot -- are as much photometrics as they are design. Hang positions are dictated by available pipes and position of scenery.

Not to say there isn't a great deal of artistic choice in all of these matters, but the fact remains that the essentials are in this diagram. Unfortunately, I do not have a copy at the moment of an even more useful scribble; the Magic Sheet. This is the sheet that, in conjunction with the rose as a key, links the area hit by each light in a system with the channel controlling it.

(As an aside...I used to have strange conversations at one house when a designer hadn't provided detailed paperwork and they realized during dimmer check that a light wasn't working. The point I could never get across is that if the rest of the lights are working, you know what the system should look like. Since you know that, you should have a good idea where the bad light physically is. Or, easier; since you know the channel that isn't coming up, and the dimmer number is in the physical patch, all you have to do is trace the cable from that dimmer to find the light you wanted.)

((Or, to make things even simpler, do a Broadway check and fix the one light that isn't lit!))

When I'm working out details of a design there are some elements the rose is not as suited for. It still is the best place to refer back to solve problems, but sometimes a different diagram makes it easier to visualize the solution in the first place:

In this simulated diagram, the left side shows how I wanted a rim light effect on the actors, with their shadow sides filled somewhat with diffuse lavender light (the x54) and an overall fill of deep blue (the Lee 119). The greenish-blue x66 also shines through a gobo to cast window patterns on the floor.

In the outdoor scenes, no gobos, but the street lamps are given practical bulbs and have boosters that throw pools of amber at their feet.

And some time, I'll have more to say about lighting design. I'm missing it a bit myself; haven't had a show for about a year.

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