Lighting: Who Takes Care of the Followspots?


It's opening night at the brand new, larger than life, downtown Performing Arts Center. The lights have dimmed, and the audience's conversations begin to lull. Pop! The followspots are on as the curtains open. Performers hit their marks, and their voices dance.

However, the protagonist's nose has a peculiar shadow, and the gold trim in the fair maiden's dress isn't shining like the sun. Could it be that the followspot was set up incorrectly? It could be. The sad truth is that the electrical contractor probably installed the followspots. Maybe his people had never seen such a machine before. Are the followspot operators the ones to blame? Probably not. They might be the least experienced technicians on the crew.

One must simply flip a switch to throw on the light. Years ago, it took a fair amount of skill to change the carbons and keep the lamp house clean. Back then, followspot skills had to be learned. Today, intelligent lighting and sophisticated dimming systems are the ones demanding higher skills. Followspots seem simple by comparison.

Of course, the manufacturer or system integrator provides a factory-trained and authorized technician to “commission the system and instruct persons designated in the safe operation and maintenance” for the intelligent lighting and dimming systems. Yet new facility bid-packages rarely call for followspot commissioning. Chances are the vendor who added that cost lost the bid. So followspots often are just hoisted into position and left with every wobbly screw and off-kilter adjustment, all jostled loose in transit.

The result? You get a followspot that works inefficiently because it was set up improperly. While the wooden crates that manufacturers provide protect the machines quite well, they cannot eliminate the potential for knobs coming loose or components bumping out of position when the truck hits a pothole. Manufacturers see reflectors vibrated so far out of their factory set position that it's impossible to properly trim the lamp. But even if everything shipped perfectly, why would an apprentice electrician know how to properly trim a followspot's xenon lamp? In the end, a flat field of light with maximum intensity is mostly the result of the experience, training, and eye of the technician who set up the machine. Is it any wonder that far too often followspots never perform to their potential?

Even worse, incorrect setup can be hazardous to your health. Have you ever heard a xenon lamp explode? It sounds like a hand grenade. It will take out most of the lamp house. You had better hope that you closed the cover before the blast. Yet our industry simply assumes that the person lamping the new followspots read and understood all of the warning labels.

Sure, followspot manufacturers include those warnings on their products. The xenon lamp label warns that it's “highly pressurized” and that it may “explode if not handled in strict accordance to the manufacturer's operating instructions.” And the manuals recommend gear such as safety glasses, face shield, gloves, and chest protection. While these lamps are stable if properly handled, the key is to have them handled by a technician who knows what “proper handling” means.

But setting up followspots is not just about safety. It's about performance! Only an unwary owner would risk acceptance of a dimmer system that had been energized before commissioning by a factory-trained and authorized technician. Even more rare are those occasions when the trained technician spends time training the facility's followspot operators.

Don't blame the owners and specifiers. It has been common practice for years to have more than $100,000 worth of followspots simply drop-shipped to a new facility, only for those in charge to complain much later about the results. It took years for dimmer manufacturers to convince the industry they really would void the warranty if the electrical contractor energized the system before the trained technician arrived. Followspot manufacturers never drew that hard line.

For things to change, we might start by recognizing a few bits of knowledge:

  • There really are qualified followspot technicians out there. Followspot manufacturers have provided ad hoc training for years.
  • Manufacturers need to provide something better than word-of-mouth to identify qualified technicians.
  • No vendor can offer followspot commissioning for free. It must be included in the bid specification.
  • Manufacturers may not always be able to provide service and parts that go far beyond their stated warranty.
  • Followspot dealers desire a continuing relationship with their customers, so they will work with manufacturers to gain service support and easy access to parts.
  • When issuing a followspot Request For Quotation, take care to specify clearly what level of service you expect to receive. There are plenty of good models for the language. Just ask your consultant or salesperson.
  • An investment in operator training always pays large dividends.

Places of assembly are complex machines. We take the time and spend the money to build arenas, concert halls, places of worship, theatres, school auditoria, civic centers, and stadia so that they might house artists who lift our spirits, broaden our vision — in short, do all of the wonderful things of live performance.

The design, construction, and equipping of these facilities bring together an array of technologies. There are just so many details that must all work together for the facility to be successful and safe. But it's not rocket science. It's the same business that PT Barnum and Shakespeare were in. Preachers, actors, and athletes have been presenting their art to audiences since humans first congregated. The followspots ought to be included in the plan.

Jack Gallagher is the followspot product sales manager for Strong Entertainment Lighting. He can be reached at [email protected]. In 2005, Strong instituted a formal Authorized Service Center program for followspot technicians. A list of those centers can be found at