Product Of The Month: VARI*LITE VL3500


What It Does:

VARI*LITE's VL3500 Spot is a remote-controlled, motorized spot fixture that combines some of the “greatest hits” from the company's VL1000 and VL3000 lines. The most striking new component is the shutter system, which allows four shutter blades to be operated in tandem or independently on two separate planes resulting in a crisp image favored by designers and performers alike.

The optics feature a 6:1 zoom complemented by CYM color mixing, variable CTO color temperature correction, a six-position color wheel, two gobo/effects wheels, a shutter and separate dimmer, and strobe mechanisms.

Much like the company's popular VL3000 line, the head, yoke and enclosure housings are constructed of aluminum alloy and steel for lightweight strength and durability. Hum is kept to a minimum when in operation due to the virtually silent fans that provide forced-air cooling for the internal components. The rear cap is hinged and provides easy access to the lamp (a 1200W short arc lamp with a 24,000 lumen output). A single input cable along with two five-pin DMX-512-compatible connectors (in and through) are provided and the unit can be controlled by a wide variety of DMX-512 consoles.

The unit contains two independent three-phase stepper motors to provide a 540° pan and a 270° tilt. Since the pan and tilt mechanisms are belt-driven, the fixture has a positional resolution and repeatability of 0.3° on either axis. The 6:1 zoom optics system adjusts the projected field angle over a range of 10° to 60°. Variable beam focus is provided to soften the edges of gobos or spots and also provides gobo morphing. The result is a projected image that remains in focus throughout the entire zoom range.

The entire assembly operates in a smooth, time-continuous motion using stepper motors (two per frame blade and one for the entire mechanism). The shutter mechanism can rotate 50° in either direction and the frame blades can tilt ±30°. Each unit is equipped with multiple on-board processors providing diagnostic and self-calibration functions as well as internal test routines and software update capabilities.

The unit comes equipped with a standard set of gobos and effects. (A wide selection of colored and patterned gobos and effects is available from Vari-Lite.) There is also a patterned glass dimmer wheel that provides full field dimming and allows for smooth, timed fades or fast blackouts.

How It Came to Be:

The VL3500 Spot was driven by customer requests, according to George Masek, product manager at Vari-Lite, and it entailed taking the options end users loved from different fixtures and combining them, specifically the optics of the VL3000 Spot and the automated shutters of the VL1000. “The 1000 was designed at a lower price point so it does not have as much clarity as the 3000. That's how we got to it,” he explains. “We thought it would be a natural offshoot of this fixture since we always try to do families of fixtures, as well fixtures that work well together.”

Mechanical engineers Travis Reinert and Ken Wilson were deeply involved in creating the new design since the mechanical aspect of the fixture was the biggest change. The VL3000's gobo bulkhead was replaced by a shutter/gobo bulkhead which is the standout feature of the 3500 Spot. Masek added that the industry has evolved to a point that a manufacturer can no longer just throw out a new automated fixture and expect everyone to run to it. Now new automated lights really have to do the job and do it well. “Let's try to create a tool that does eight things really well for this market and that's where we're headed,” he says.

Masek again stresses the importance of listening to customers when planning future products and he uses trade shows as a sounding board. “I look at it as less showing a product and more of finding out what people are looking for,” he says. “I use the product to lure them in and say, ‘Look at this and tell me what you want.’ Then we sit down with the engineers and say, ‘Here's what we're hearing and here's what we think we can sell it for. Can you make it work?’”

However, since the 3500 Spot was somewhat of a melding of two of Vari-Lite's other fixtures, the building process was easier. “We weren't looking to reinvent the wheel,” Masek says. “We had a good history with the shutter bulkhead in the 1000 and we built off of that. The frustration from designers was the inability to focus really nicely on all four blades.”

The mockups and the testing were much easier because the fixture base already existed and the new bulkhead could simply be inserted for mock ups and testing. “We put the mechanics into a 3000, shuttered it off manually, and let it burn straight up and then put it into a heat chamber,” Masek explains. “We saw what it could do by manually moving the shutters and heat testing right away. We didn't have to wait for software or for the boards to be completed.”

The VL3500 Spot is very much in line with the recent trend in the automated lighting industry where companies are debuting products that build on the success and popularity of pre-existing products. “We've already gone to the moon, now we have to get there cheaper and more reliably,” Masek says. “We get a lot less leeway from designers and programmers in terms of failure. We're held to the same accountability as a PAR can, which is fascinating because you would never expect the same reliability from a race car as you would from a station wagon.”

After a “soft opening” in New York last August, the response to the fixture was immediate which told Masek that Vari-Lite had hit the bull's eye. “You want to be so mindful of not creating something that's, A: already out there, or B: something that you thought was necessary but it's really not,” he says. “That's such a great concern because at 25 years old, this industry is still incredibly new. All manufacturers are still learning what the customer wants and how to best deliver that.”

What's Next:

As Masek indicated, he pays a lot of attention to what Vari-Lite's customers are asking for and one of the things they want is new and improved versions of fixtures they are already using. Specifically, customers are asking for an improved VL5. “That was a very popular fixture. People like it and it's not as available as they would like them to be,” Masek says. “People like the quality of light and the look of the fixture. Because we're so close to it we almost underestimated the popularity and the quality of that fixture.

“Taking into account the improvements in the last couple of years since that product was last built, I'd say the number one thing we want to work on is reliability and cost effectiveness of these fixtures,” he says. “I've had fewer requests for a brighter fixture and more requests for refinements, especially products people loved in the past and can no longer get.”

What End Users Say:

The new musical version of the Steve Martin/Michael Caine farce, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is the first Broadway show to use the VL3500 Spot. LD Kenneth Posner is no stranger to the Vari-Lite line; he typically uses between 250 and 300 of the company's fixtures on his shows and he has been impressed with the 3500 Spot. “The shuttering is beautiful,” he says. “It's very reliable and the combination of the two gobo wheels and the shuttering lends the light tremendous flexibility.”

Posner is using the new fixture specifically to carve out and shape different scenic elements in and he discovered that the light's flexibility allows him to hang fewer fixtures. “The 3500s can do the work of many fixtures, because they can constantly change shuttering and recompose as the stage pictures recompose,” he explains. “It will be a tremendous asset in touring productions where you truly can't troupe a Broadway-sized conventional rig around the country.”

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