By Design: Don Holder Updates The Lion King With LEDs

lion king 2 crop © Disney.jpg
(© Disney)

After 21 years on Broadway and 20 years in London, Disney’s The Lion King is still roaring as one of the most popular musicals of all time. Since its Broadway premiere on November 13, 1997, The Lion King has had 25 global productions seen by more than 100 million people, and made theatrical history with six productions worldwide running 15 or more years.

There have been big changes from a lighting point of view over the years: In 1997, the production was groundbreaking in the sheer volume of lights and moving lights, and all of the dimmers, circuiting, and power to run the system. Through the years, the production has gradually introduced more modern elements to the various incarnations; for example, testing out LED solutions to replace 756' of striplights, so that the show could go into venues with limited power resources.

Recently, the most successful aspects of this modernization were added to the oldest productions in New York, London, and Hamburg, to reduce maintenance and energy costs, and position the show for the inevitable transition away from tungsten lighting sources (which is becoming a major push in Europe, as they phase out manufacturing of traditional lamps). In particular, changes comprise the switch to moving lights with LED engines, LED striplights in place of the old mini-strips, LED ellipsoidals, and a decentralized dimming system, which has saved at least 32' of floor space on the stage floor and uncountable lengths of cable.

Check out the lighting plots here.

Lion King 1 crop © Disney.jpg

Lighting designer Don Holder, who won a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for The Lion King in 1998, recently updated the lighting to almost all current-generation LED automated fixtures, and almost all of the conventional tungsten lighting sources have been replaced, while maintaining the artistic and visual integrity of the original production. The latest iteration of the LED rig can be seen on the current UK-Ireland tour of The Lion King, which has announced dates through January 2021. This tour represents the most green and energy-saving version of The Lion King to date.

“We tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original design,” says Holder. “This included finessing color and intensity to closely reference the original cues. The process of conversion from tungsten to LED actually began during our preparations for the 2012 UK tour. This was the first Lion King production to replace tungsten cyc-lights with ETC Selador VividR LED striplights. We constructed a full-scale version of The Lion King cyclorama, legs, and borders at Hudson Scenic Studio, and installed tungsten fixtures stage left, LED stage right. We then made our best attempt to match color, intensity, and rhythm of fade between LED and tungsten for each cue. This data served as the foundation from which we’ve built all subsequent productions.”

Thandazile Soni (Rafiki) in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour © Disney.jpg

For the current UK-Ireland tour, Holder also replaced the Vari-Lite VL2500 series lighting fixtures with LED profiles, and most of the ETC Source Four ellipsoidals have been swapped with ETC Lustr2 profiles. “The colors in the yellow-amber-red range of the spectrum are a pretty close match to the original,” Holder explains. “But the greens feel more ‘electric,’ and the pale blue tones feel colder. We’ve found for example that reproducing the distinct quality of Lee 201 via a tungsten source has been impossible to achieve. Although we’ve maintained the palette, the production overall feels ‘cleaner’ and brighter, the colors more vivid. We’re all very happy with the results, but I really miss the grit and the warmth of the light that can only be realized with heat-based sources.”

In terms of fixture updates, the VL2500s (increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain) were replaced with High End Systems SolaFrame 1000 LED Profiles. “Fixtures replacing the 2500 Wash were fitted with the heavy frost lens; those replacing spots are fitted with the light frost,” says Holder, who notes, “There is a small component of tungsten light (a single high-sidelight system onstage and fixtures revealing the theatre aisles and walls for ‘The Circle of Life’) that still require dimmers. But the number is vastly reduced. It’s so strange to see a touring backstage so uncluttered: the traditional ‘dimmer village’ with cable bundles converging from everywhere, feeding into several 96x2.4kw racks, has been replaced with Lan LD+ 788 Quad packs, which are local to each position.” As almost every lighting fixture is digitally controlled, they require constant power and data only.

Richard Hurst (Scar) and Matthew Forbes (Zazu) in Disney's The Lion King UK & Ireland tour © Disney.jpg

A few design changes, for the better, are a result of the new rig. “The VL2500 profiles don’t include programmable shutters and 2500 washlights have no beam shaping capabilities,” Holder points out. “By using the SolaFrame 1000 with shutters for both wash and spot, it’s now possible to detail the focus and composition on the cyclorama and other vertical surfaces in a manner that I had always wanted, but was held back by the limitations of the technology. So this in particular has been really exciting and gratifying.”

What has kept this show so successful over the past two decades? “The story of The Lion King largely unfolds within the vast skyscapes of the Serengeti, where the ever-changing light of the sun colors the world in magical and unexpected ways,” states Holder. At the time that the show was developed, the range of colors for the skies were created by double-hanging striplights in the cyclorama and light legs and mixing six different colors together, which gave the breadth and depth of the palette. In recent years, the striplights have been replaced with LED fixtures with an engine of seven different colored emitters, to provide the whole range of blue skies: stormy skies, humid night skies, bright clear day skies. Holder developed the rough analogue version of the color-mixing striplight, and the LED version has replaced it.

“The scenery has been designed to evoke this Serengeti landscape, receiving its color and depth through the application of light,” Holder notes. “So the lighting for the production activates what is often a neutral and open space, filling it with sunlight, moonlight, and the magical starlight of the cosmos. The Lion King transports the audience through time, and to many locations over the course of the evening. The design is crafted to clarify this storytelling by imbuing each scene with a distinct visual vocabulary, rendering the landscape with a light that references the natural world but always with a sense of magic and fantasy.”


Check out the lighting plots here and the gear list below.

The Lion King, UK-Ireland Tour

Lighting Gear List

  • 144 ETC Source Four (various lenses)
  • 123 ETC Source Four Lustr2 (various lenses)
  • 66 ETC Selador LED Vivid R •63
  • 27 ETC Selador LED Vivid R •42
  • 12 ETC Selador LED Vivid R •21
  • Color Kinetics MX Power Graze - 78LF
  • 6 Vari-Lite VL4000 Spot
  • 34 High End Systems SolaFrame 1000 Heavy Frost
  • 45 High End Systems SolaFrame 1000 Light Frost
  • 2 Lycian 1271 Followspot
  • 2 Robert Juliat Cyrano Followspot
  • 2 Cyro-Fogger
  • 4 Viper Fogger
  • 2 Hazer
  • 46 Wybron ColoRamII Scroller
  • 10 AF1000 DataFlash
  • 12 Coemar PAR LED (worklights)


  • ETC EOS Ti Unlocked, Gio, ETC RPUs

From City Theatrical

  • Custom Flocked Top Hats for Solar Frame 1000
  • Custom Flocked Concentric Spill Rings for Lycian 1271 
  • Flocked Top Hats for Standard ETC Source Fours 
  • Moving Light Hangers Standard VET’s, Custom Length VET’s (9”, 18”, 24”)
  • Custom Scenery bumpers for Event Systems Fiberoptic Illuminators
  • Numerous DMX Cats
  • SHow DMX Neo Transmitters
  • Custom Personal Dimmer Packs MLA, LW6, Vectorworks

Staff for The Lion King, Worldwide:

  • Lighting Designer - Donald Holder
  • Associate Lighting Designer - Carolyn Wong
  • Lighting Supervisor - Jeanne Koenig
  • Assistant Lighting Designer - Marty Vreeland
  • Automated Lighting Designer - Aland Henderson
  • UK Crew: UK associate - Stuart Cross/Alistair Grant Production Electrician - Pete Lambert with Chris Dunford, Simon Targett, & Adam Frost
  • Programmer - Nick Simmons
  • Assistant Programmer - Sarah Brown
  • Touring Show Chief - Jim Bristow with Ashley Tutt, Leoni Withers, & Dan Hobbs


Suggested Articles:

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Scenic designer Christine Jones shares how she is coping with COVID-19 closings.

GLP's 10 Out Of 10 with award-winning West End & Broadway Lighting Designer Neil Austin, can be seen right here.