Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lighting Paperwork

Lighting Designers seem to like paperwork a lot. Howard Bay, in his book "Designing for the Stage," claims it is because they are frustrated engineers. He paints a vivid picture of being in tech while a harried LD leafs through sheet after sheet of channel schedules, dimmer schedules, hookup charts, strip charts, and so forth trying to figure out what one channel is controlling one mis-aimed and distracting light.

Don't get me wrong; paperwork is not itself bad. If you have to communicate with a Master Electrician and a crew of a dozen lampies, and you are juggling two-hundred plus instruments, it helps a lot to be able to generate specific charts and cut lists and strip plots. What I mean is be sensible; if you are hanging your own show, your paperwork only needs to document what you can't keep in your own memory, and if you only have six lights, you are unlikely to need much help.

My focus is the smaller theater, inventories that rarely exceed a hundred instruments, and small teams involved in the hang and focus (with the Lighting Designer usually in charge and on the deck during that labor). For that, the paperwork is less about communicating to others, and more about keeping track of things for your own needs.

And for that, I find the Magic Sheet rules.

I am all about derived data. With the exception of Specials, most lights in a plot are part of a System, or a family. And as such, their details are shared with the other lights in the system. If you are hanging a warm backlight, once you've put up one 6" fresnel with a cut of Rosco 14 in it, you hardly need to consult paperwork to know the next instrument will also be a 6" fresnel with x14 in it.

And this continues in depth. Assuming a bare stage, if you went four instruments across on the first electric, then there are probably four instruments across on the other pipes in the system as well. All you need to know is which electrics are being used. Even more; most plots are symmetrical, so if you hung all the Stage Right instruments, you know what the Stage Left part of the plot should look like.

After all, in the situation I described you are either doing paperwork for yourself, or for a small crew of equally skilled people who have you right there to answer questions. So it isn't necessary to document everything in detail.

More importantly, it isn't efficient to bury that information inside a surfeit of different kinds of paperwork. It should not be necessary for your technician to have to look through a channel schedule to figure out the focus point of the instrument that's on the strip plot, and then find a color schedule in order to gel it!

And this information logjam is not just for the hang and focus; it is even more essential to avoid when you are in Tech Rehearsal, trying to quickly adjust (or write from scratch!) cues when you have little desk space, little light, and little time. This is not a good place to have to consult three different pieces of paper in order to get a sconce warmer adjusted to the right intensity.

What a Magic Sheet is, is like a cartoon of a plot. My typical Magic Sheet has a sketch of the set for each major system, a glyph at the top corner indicating direction, color, and anything else that seems important to document about the particular instrumentation or lighting quality, and then channel numbers placed in each of the focus positions.

This makes it very quick to relate the acting area in question to the proper channels for the systems that light it. And it also provides a reminder of the boundaries of the systems; you can see quickly that all the cool backlight is from channels 25-39 and remove those from a daytime scene you are editing.

But it is also a wealth for derived data. Yes; you can go back to the plot, or to dimmer schedules and so forth. But, especially in a smaller space, most of the data is derivable from the sheet.

Say you have a dark spot in the front light. You know what the front system is supposed to be. The magic sheet tells you the Warms are channels 1-5 across the apron from left to right. It is quite obvious that channel 4 is the one that isn't coming up.

Flip into patch mode on any modern lighting board, and you discover the dimmer number. So you can look to see if the breaker is tripped, or some similar problem.

Also; you know which instrument is not coming on. In any sensible plot, that front light system is hung with identical instruments at a consistent spacing. Turn the system on, and which instrument isn't on is pretty obvious. You don't need to delve into the Light Plot to identify it. You need to put up a ladder and see what's going on with the instrument that isn't lit.

See, this is the trap that paperwork creates. People start relating to the virtual world, the solipsistic universe of the paperwork. They get all involved with trying to find "Instrument #15 on the First Electric" or "We need to trace cables to see what is plugged into Dimmer #45 because the paperwork says that is the one that Channel #4 brings up."

No, you need to fix the light that is out, and in many cases a mere glance will reveal which one it is. (And, yes...even if the plot is complicated and cramped, then just put up everything at 35 percent. The light that doesn't will then be obvious.)

The thing is, working from the reality of what is in the air, and relating to it in terms of systems, is going to catch what are really the common problems. To wit; that in the heat of hanging, someone marked down the wrong dimmer number. Or during focus, someone pulled out the plug. Or during Tech, the lamp burnt out. None of these are revealed in the solipsistic universe of the paperwork; they are all aspects of the map not resembling the territory.

At some arbitrary number of instruments I'll go to Light Plot. The biggest advantage to a Light Plot, in my mind, is that it makes it easy to figure out where you have room (and circuits!) to plug in the lights you need. It is also handy during a quick hang to be able to just go down a pipe going "fresnel, fresnel, fresnel, 6x9, another fresnel, two more 6x9's..."

I tend to schematize my Light Plots as well, though. I typically drop circuit and/or dimmer data on them while hanging, and maybe go back and add channels when everything is patched. Color, probably. Instrument type, certainly -- but often I don't even bother with the CAD, or even the nice template, but just use a sketch style I've derived from the latter.

Because again it is a reminder, not the thing and the whole of the thing, the tilt of the instrument combined with the color and position in the plot is enough to derive the aim point. The circuit is right on the plot and ends up in the light board software (or a physical patch board) so the relation to the channel is documented there -- as well as in the Magic Sheet. The instrument type is determined by similarity across a system and the known availability; if there are only four 6x12's in the building, you will know where they are going to end up, and it isn't necessary to mark every other ellipsoidal in the plot to make sure you remember it isn't one of the four.

In fact, the plot is what I figure out the physical layout, the angles, the potential interference with. It is what I use to hang the instruments. The last time it is used is to record circuits; after that, the patch is in the board and the identity of the lights is in the Magic Sheet; I focus, write cues, and diagnose problems from the Magic Sheet and the Light Plot goes back into the folder.

Yeah, these days, there are lots of lovely software packages, including some that will link up to your light board and present the data in a form that is more direct and easier to comprehend. And, yes, you really do need something like this if half your inventory is color-changers, LED pars, intelligent lights, and similar devices that can't be so easily put into a box of "moonlight wash from Stage Left."

But there are still a lot of small theaters, with primitive equipment which is itself falling apart. And for these, you need a way to organize your data that allows you to move swiftly; either to problem-solve, or to re-design your lighting design on the fly.

No comments:

Post a Comment