A Very VL500 Christmas


Lighting gear launched at LDI often heads in the direction of the car show circuit. The Vari-Lite VL500 wash luminaire, which is based on the Emmy-winning design of the 12-year-old VL5, took a different route for its debut. Thirty-two of the units were whisked from the factory floor to play a featured role in last year's Concordia Christmas Concert, held December 2-4 at the Concordia College campus in Moorhead, MN, and December 8 in Minneapolis. A videotaped version of the performances, recorded for the first time in high-definition, will be broadcast this coming holiday season on PBS stations nationwide.

Last year marked the 79th Concordia Christmas Concert, which features sacred music performances by The Concordia College Orchestra, its bell choirs, and its five vocal choirs, led by The Concordia Choir. The 2005 theme, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” was emblazoned on a hand-painted panoramic mural created by liturgical artist David Hetland, a Concordia alumnus, and placed behind the performers. Another alum, Bryan Duncan, is the campus lighting director (“maybe the only person with that title in the country,” he quips), for whom each year is an illuminating experience.

“When I first became involved with concerts, as a student in 1986, we used maybe 50 lighting fixtures, with two-scene preset boards,” Duncan says. “This year, with the HD taping in mind, we had almost 400 instruments and 700 to 800 channels of computerized control, up from what's become a typical fixture count of 120 to 140.”

The concert isn't always taped for future broadcast. The decision to record, much less record in HD, wasn't set until mid-summer. “I was a little apprehensive, as we were six months behind, and I had to find a whole lot of fixtures in a short amount of time,” Duncan recalls. He had a script in hand by July, at which time Hetland went to work on the 24-panel mural, which differs each year. Each panel is 7' wide, with a range in height from 14' to 20'. “The center section is 10' off the deck, so it's got an overall height of 30',” Duncan says. “By late September, the main mural section was designed; we didn't know what the side panels would be like until three weeks before the concert. He lets us know what the palette will be before his volunteers paint each numbered section with its assigned color, and I try to accent his choices with gel colors that will really make all its imagery pop.”

The lighting serves the mural, though there are effects, notably in 2005 a VL1000 with a custom-made star gobo layered with VL3000s poised atop of it “to give it that shimmering feeling,” Duncan says. “If you watch it on TV this year, you'll see the star go out, which brings the show to a close. The TV production crew was ecstatic, saying it was built-in post-production,” he laughs.

The HD, provided by Clear Channel HD of Little Rock, AR, proved an artistic challenge. “Any lighting mistake shows up in HD. The blacks are black, and the colors are ideal. The image is so clear you can see the brushstrokes on the mural,” Duncan says. “My main concern was the unknown.”

Using the brand-new VL500s was another journey into the unknown, one from which the concert also emerged successfully, although down-to-the-wire. “I had contacted Clearwing Productions in West Allis, WI, about providing our equipment, including VL5s,” Duncan says. “I had really liked their color saturation when we taped the show in 2001. But Aaron Hubbard, its lighting department operations manager, said Clearwing, who were fantastic throughout, had sold them all; however, they had 60 VL500s on order. The delivery date was November 1, which was a little close, as we were doing load-in on the 26th. As of November 15, they didn't have them. In the end, Vari-Lite wound up keeping the factory opened the weekend before Thanksgiving to get them finished and shipped them to Clearwing overnight. They got to us on the 25th and were installed and fired up for the first time on the 26th.”

Duncan says the units lived up to their advance word as “souped-up versions of the VL5.” “They're a little heavier, have more output, which was great, and excellent color saturation,” he says. “We used the incandescent version, and they blended really well with the incandescent rig I had. There were minor noise issues that went away once we burned them in, and we did kill one of them, but that was due to a software issue that Vari-Lite has addressed and fixed.”

The production week was sabotaged by a huge ice storm. “Weighted down by the ice, the power lines started to fade in the area,” Duncan relates. “We put in power pumps, and by the next day, we were putting in enough power to light up 50 homes. We were the only campus open that day. Our electrician called and said we couldn't do that — that we had to power down as the power company was threatening to do rolling blackouts unless we reduced our consumption to 50 percent of normal. So I had a $60,000 rig all installed and no way to use it. But through our local TV production company, we were able to track down a generator in Minneapolis; the problem was we couldn't get the funds to pay for its use. Ultimately, we were able to work off-peak — meaning 11pm to 6am — then from noon the next day to the first night's concert. As luck would have it, nothing from the first taping was actually used for a broadcast that aired locally, not that it turned out badly, but the cueing continuity wasn't exactly perfect given the hectic schedule.”

Duncan credits his students for their hard work. “I'm a one-man band, and without them, I'm dead,” he says. “This is by far the largest event we do out of the 100 events held annually at Concordia. What they may lack in technical know-how, they make up for in enthusiasm, and they did all the focusing. [Hubbard programmed the Vari-Lite units on a Virtuoso DX console for the show.] They gave up their Thanksgiving to put the show together, and I bribed them with 16 quarts of venison chili to get it done.”

Look for the national telecast of the 2005 concert this Christmas. Duncan has a wish list for this season, which marks the Concordia Christmas Concert's 80th anniversary. “We'd love to use lasers but can't quite figure out how to use them with Jesus,” he laughs. “A fiber-optic starfield is something we're looking at seriously for the future. A giant video wall would be nice, but I can't see how that will ever come into the budget, unless someone out there in lighting-land wants to see one up there for its publicity value.” Potential Santas can contact him at the college.


Lighting Designer:
Bryan Duncan

Lighting Assistants:
Jennifer Helget, Patrick Baker

Lighting Crew:
Kelly McGannon, Jason Ray, Jessica Gillaspey, Toni Berning, Lisa Schafer, Paul Sommerfeld, Jason Olson, Erin Green, Kevin Thomas

Lighting Supplied By:
Clearwing Productions

Automated Lighting Programmer:
Aaron Hubbard

Master Electrician:
Bryan Brunclik

Automated Lighting By:

Lighting Equipment:
84 ETC Source Four® 750W 19°
53 ETC Source Four 750W 26°
20 ETC Source Four 750W 36°
167 ETC Source Four PAR
32 Vari-Lite VL500
8 Vari-Lite VL3000 Spot
2 Vari-Lite VL1000TI
1 Vari-Lite VL1000TS
3 ETC Sensor Touring Rack
2 ETC Sensor 12×2.4kW rack
1 ETC Sensor 24×2.4kW rack
3 Strand CD-80 Pack
8 AC Lighting Chroma-Q Broadway
16 Morpheus ColorFader
2 Lycian 2K followspot
520' Tomcat Box Truss
18 1-Ton CM hoists
3 1/4 ton CM hoists
2 Lightronics AS-40D dimmers
3 Doug Fleenor Design 5-way DMX splitters
1 ETC Expression 3 console
1 Vari-Lite Virtuoso DX console
1 Goddard Design Virtual Magic Sheet

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