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Be More Chill lighting design off broadway © Maria Baranova
Be More Chill, Off-Broadway

What's Trending: The LED Revolution With Tyler Micoleau

Is it here, the LED Revolution? Has the game-changing LED stolen the spotlight on the theatrical stage? While there is a valiant fight to save tungsten and other more traditional 20th-century sources, which are near and dear to the heart of many designers, the LED is definitely here to stay as a big part of the 21st-century lighting toolbox.

In the Live Design series, What’s Trending: The LED Revolution, designers discuss their relationship with these little light emitting diodes, how they use them, or what they think the future might bring. The series started with Clifton Taylor and continues here with Tony Award and KOI-USA Award-winner Tyler Micoleau, who lit the Off-Broadway version of Be More Chill, as well as the Broadway version, which opens this month. Off-Broadway, he notes: “The lighting rig was about 60% LED, consisting of Martin by Harman Mac Encore WRM LED movers, Elation SixPar 200, Elation Z19 and Z37 LED Wash fixtures, and RGB LED tape as footlights and in the set electrics. There were cross-light and front-light systems of ETC Source Four ellipsoidal fixtures, including the two followspots. On Broadway, the ratio has shifted much farther into LED, with 90% of the ellipsoidal fixtures switching to ETC Lustr II.”

2018 KOI-USA Award for lighting designer Tyler Micoleau

Photo: Bob Schacherel (right) presented the 2018 KOI-USA Robe Lighting Award for Musicals in the Theatre category to Tyler Micoleau (left) for The Band's Visit.

By Tyler Micoleau

I began thinking about these questions most actively when I attended Clifton Taylor’s ClifTalks session at LDI last fall: “The Changing Workflow of Design in The Midst of an LED Revolution.” I realized that there was a name for what was happening with LEDs and stage lighting (a “revolution”) and that I had been successful in surviving it—in making the transition from a non-LED world of stage lighting to one where LED technology is prevalent, if not dominant.

I started out in the mid-80s in an all-incandescent world, with the Altman 360Q ellipsoidal and 65Q Fresnel. The big questions then were: the quality of the field of light (mostly a factor of alignment of the filament relative to the reflector, sometimes to a dead animal in the lens train); the color of the raw beam (Are there any green lenses? Is the lamp an HX600 or an HX601? or perhaps there were a couple of base-up units leftover in the inventory); and output inefficiency and heat (light leaks)—followed by—if I wrap this light in blackwrap like a baked potato, will the lamp last more than a couple shows)? 

Be More Chill lighting design off broadway

I used my first static LED fixtures in 2010 (ETC Selador strip lights under a Plexiglas floor for When the Rain Stops Falling in the Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center Theater). 2012 was the first year I started to use LED tape in set electrics (Nobody Loves You at The Old Globe in San Diego, home of Environmental Lights, one of my favorite LED tape vendors). I used my first LED moving lights in 2014 (GLP impression X4s on Fortress of Solitude at The Public Theater). My first time using an ETC Lustr II was as recent as 2016 (The Effect at the Barrow Street Theater). Today, in 2019, I’m designing the new musical Be More Chill on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater. The lighting rig is 95% LED and arc sources. In the span of only eight years, I’ve gone from light plots with 99% incandescent sources to one with 5% incandescent sources.

Not every one of my light plots today represents this ratio; I’d say on average it’s closer to 75% incandescent sources. The majority of my work is designing lighting for new plays. Color rendition of an actor’s face is still crucial to the process of storytelling to a live audience. As Clifton pointed out in his essay, the full-spectrum output of an incandescent lamp is still the most reliable means we have to rendering color. It also is still the most available and inexpensive stage light (I’m speaking entirely about cost of purchase or rental, not about long-term operating and maintenance costs).

Over the eight-year span of time since using my first LED sources, my design process has undoubtedly shifted. Eight years represents almost eighty productions, where I found a design problem that needed solving, and there happened to be a new tool available that seemed particularly suited to solving it. With any design, I try to give myself a good foundation of tried and true resources and vocabulary to light the show. But I also like to give myself 10-15% of room to experiment and try out something new. I incorporated LED sources as experiments—ones where I could safely make a mistake, and if it bombed, I had some other means of meeting the challenge in my back pocket.

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Now that I am using more and more LED sources in my plots, there has been a more comprehensive shift in my design thinking. If I had one word to describe what aspect of my design process is impacted the most by LED sources, it’s layering—how one lamp relates to another, or how one system relates to another. In an incandescent world, the layering concerns were about maximum intensity (wattage translated into light output and wavelength transmission) of a fixture relative to another, often balanced with color. When I’m putting together a plot, now I’m thinking a lot more about the light quality of the sources and how they interrelate. For example, I’ll have a bright color changing LED fixture to shift the color tonality of an incandescent wash. Where I used to perhaps place two or three differently gelled fixtures, each with similar purposes (“same shot different color”), now I’m placing a single full-spectrum incandescent source besides an LED source. Interestingly, this shift in thinking really started as arc-sourced moving fixtures—with color-mixing options—became more available. We’re just doing it again with LEDs.

As Clifton said, color choices in gel selection were more purposeful and gave our designs a point of view. The rigor of having worked that way for so long before LEDs has instilled in me the ability to think comparatively about how colors interact. That all still applies today, but must include an understanding of the source producing that color. How we layer sources (incandescent, arc, LED, etc.) and systems of sources into our visual compositions is perhaps our most valuable skill now as designers.

It will be interesting to see the rate at which arc sources fade from the mix of options. We’re very concerned about how an LED source functions against an incandescent one (it’s as stark as incandescent is ‘true’ and LED is ‘false’). But the quality of an arc source is still distinct from either of those, yet doesn’t have the cachet of being a full-spectrum source.

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