In the Spot light


Recently, Lighting Dimensions asked me to review High End Systems' Studio Spot(TM) 575, traveling inside this moving-yoke light from the designer's POV. Since I had recently spec'd these units on two very different musicals, Evita and Fame, I was up for the journey.

I must start by saying that it is virtually impossible to think of doing a musical without moving lights. There are four elements that help me determine which I am going to use: flexibility and space (as the designer), cost (for the producer), and reliability (for the electrician). Touring, with one-week stops, makes reliability even more important; it was perhaps my primary consideration, along with the Studio Spot's flexibility, that helped me decide to use it the way I did.

On the telephone with Production Arts, I was told High End was coming out with the Studio Spot, its version of a moving-yoke light. I said, "I want to see one." About three days later a fixture showed up at PA. We did a show-and-tell, and I ended up with the first rental units hot off the assembly line. (Simultaneously, I had conversations with Darren DeVerna from Four Star Lighting about supplying the units for Evita, which was going into tech rehearsals before Fame, which PA was handling.)

Some LDs are more interested in a wash fixture, while others prefer hard-edged units, but I believe in flexibility. If I had to choose only one, I would opt for the hard-edged units, which can always be frosted. They are usually stronger and therefore create cleaner lines. Because they have more output, their colors are clearer, and you can throw in templates whenever needed. The Studio Spot's extensive palette of pale and saturated colors provided the variety of shades I envisioned for both shows, which are as different as chalk and cheese.

I did use its extended movement (370x225 degrees) a great deal in both productions; the Studio Spot could provide whatever the moment needed. And one of the wonderful things about it is that it doesn't take up much room on a pipe or truss. They can be hung on 18" centers, right next to each other, giving the designer more flexibility (imagine how many conventional lights we would have to hang to create the same looks) and the producer a less expensive shop order.

I believe a designer must be fiscally responsible, while also being responsible to the art form and his or her collaborators. You need to do your homework, know exactly what each piece of equipment will do for you, and what you want each moment to feel like. There must be a need for every unit you put on the plot.

It's also up to the LD to take into account variables such as heat production and noise level. The Studio Spot is convection-cooled, meaning there are no fans--very helpful to the sound designers on both shows. This cooling system does not suck fog and dust particles into the optical system, helping our electricians, and, inevitably, the entire production.

Preproduction took place simultaneously, with the tech weeks backing up to each other. I was in tech for five weeks straight from 8am to midnight, and so were the Studio Spots. On the job, mid-journey, High End proved the reliability of their construction.

In Evita, full company dance numbers segue into intimate scenes between two or three people, then return to a scene of enormous pageantry. Its structural magic is in revealing something, then pulling back. That concept must be f ollowed and furthered in the visual realization of the scenery, costumes, lighting, and sound. The Studio Spots helped give me that flexibility, and put a 90s production feeling into the 21-year-old show.

The original production used about 300 lights. While this national tour had about the same number of static fixtures, I added moving lights, which let me, director/choreographer Larry Fuller, and scenic/costume designer Timothy O'Brien create and accentuate each moment.

Much of the lighting for Evita is dictated by the set. It is a U-shaped black box with scenic pieces that appear and disappear; the architectural definition is created by making it appear as if the high sidelights were part of the side portals, and, therefore, used to accentuate the visual concept of "political life in the arena." The first time we turned the Studio Spots on, they looked like eyes peering down at the empty black stage. They are so strong that if you turn one on in a beautiful black box and put some fog in the air, the audience doesn't really see what's happening on the other side of the stage. They also helped move the audience from one scene to another, and highlighted moments within scenes.

And there are several key moments. Evita begins in a cinema in Buenos Aires where the onstage audience is told of the death of Evita. This is followed by the funeral sequence, which begins as the mourners (the people from the cinema) open the casket. All the Studio Spots iris to her face, then begin to glow and slowly come to full, as the air onstage fills with haze, creating a huge crown of clear, clean white light that seems to come from within her.

The next major moment is when the mourners are "transported" to the interior of a church. The Spots morph from her face to bathe the entire cast in a strong stained glass church light, a huge transformation. What happens is that the units move, iris open, slide their dichroic templates into the gate, and wash the stage as the music and style of staging change the mourners into churchgoers.

The Studio Spots are also used to define an ever-changing conversation between two warring sides. As the music and staging brings each side into and out of focus, the lighting does the same. We crossfade from one set of Studio Spot colors to another and follow whichever faction is more important at the moment.

Litho templates with hard-edged focus are also important. In the second act, during "Rainbow High," Evita dresses onstage, starting in a slip and winding up in her famous Chanel suit. During the number, she comes downstage and goes back upstage numerous times to add one piece of clothing with each verse. I use the Studio Spot's tunnel effect around her downstage, along with a followspot, so that she is ringed from the front and back. Each time she turns upstage to get her next wardrobe piece, she is visible only in the uplights of the center circle on the raked floor. I enclose her when she is downstage as well as when she is upstage getting dressed.

Evita uses the stock Studio Spot dichroic colors extensively, especially the pastels, the CTO, a couple of different magentas, and a very pale blue-green similar to Lee 117. The more saturated colors are used primarily for the nightclub scene and the dance numbers. Studio Spots are used to their full capacity in color, movement, and image projection all the way through the show.

By contrast, Fame epitomizes the high-energy musical, where I need to be comfortable with the use of moving lights as moving lights to create that rock and roll look. Like MTV choreography, Fame flashes, moves, and swirls with instant color changes--to make it work without moving lights would be virtually impossible. Luckily the Studio Spot had just come out, and I use 20 of them on Fame, along with plenty of High End Cyberlights(R) and Technobeams(R).

Fame's lighting reflects constant movement. There is an effective unit set, designed by Norbert Kolb, with pieces that fly in and track. We see the high school 98% of the time. Not until Act II and the finale does most of it fly a way, moving the action outside of the school.

The trademark imagery in Fame is a series of dichroic graffiti templates that I designed and had custom-made by Rosco. They are used in ETC Source Fours on the show scrim and, used in the Studio Spots, they are projected all over and around the proscenium. I use this three times: as the audience enters, for intermission, and for the final look. I also use the onstage Studio Spots as interesting crosslight in several scene changes, an effect that would not have been possible without its clarity, punch, and definition.

While designing Fame, I listened to the music over and over. For every single section there is a color and angle palette chosen, and the Studio Spots are there every step of the way. I was fortunate to have two superb programmers to help me realize the moving lights' potential. They are both collaborators and first-rate professionals. A rock-and-roll veteran from Australia, David Arch programmed Fame. Mike Pitzer, who programmed Evita, comes from the theme park world. I should also credit our electricians, Mike Hyman (Evita) and Greg Mazure (Fame), who build and strike these shows every week.

The excitement of live theatre comes when all of us integrate perfectly to create an emotional response from the audience. We all need the best tools to get the audience onboard the journey we want them on. High End's Studio Spots turned out to be extremely expressive tools, and ultimately an integral part of both productions. From the company's perspective, creating a partner for its Studio Color(R) is a big bonus; this fixture now completes its package.

One more point. The Texans have produced a color-mixing version, dubbed Studio Spot(TM) CYM, which should be at rental houses soon. That's great--as long as I can be the first to use them.