Vari*Lites Go to High School

Or, How to Succeed in the Big Musical with Moving Lights

Sitting at my desk at a high-tech consulting firm in Seattle:

DING. "You've got mail!"

   >Now, Sit back down... 
   >They are in the lobby... 
   >See you tonight :-) 

I could not believe it. They were in the lobby: two Vari*Lite VL2201s, two VL2416s, and a brand-new Strand 520i console. Three months earlier I had not touched, much less programmed, moving lights, and would not have believed I would do so any time soon. But, last December I had attended the Broadway Lighting Master Classes (BLMC) in New York. While there, I had my first opportunity to use intelligent lighting equipment, and I was hooked. Now I had some on loan waiting for me to get off work. What I didn't have was any idea of how much trouble was ahead of me.

By day I am a High Tech Project Manager, but at night you may just find me dressed in black lurking about the bowels of a number of local school and community theatres lighting shows in the greater Seattle area.

In the winter of 2000 this avocation took me to the BLMC. The first day there I took the automated console training course. Just before the session my friend Brian Fletcher had struck up a conversation with the guys at the Strand console (Rob Halliday and Bobby Harrell), so we chose to go with them. Rob and Bobby were great instructors. We learned so much and at the end of the day all the teams pulled together and produced a unified show to a piece of music. When it was over we were all brain-fried but inspired.

Every other year I work with a middle school and high school to produce "the Big Musical." This year it was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Intoxicated with my success programming intelligent lighting at the BLMC, I decided to try to use intelligent lighting in How to Succeed. Through the generosity of Strand Lighting and Vari-Lite, I was able to obtain the exact equipment that we had in the class: the Strand 520i lighting console, two VL2416s, and two VL2201s--a pretty impressive lineup for a high school show. It was like a dream come true. I had visions of the kids learning to create preset focus groups, and program the moving lights with the same ease I had picked up from Bobby and Rob. I was so excited the day they all arrived at the high school that the theatre technician asked if I was going to need a cigarette.

When I got there that night we could not turn on the VL2416s yet because the district had not hooked up the 208V power required. So, they sat out that day. We interconnected the console with one of the VL2201s and we were up and running in about 15 minutes. However, the other VL2201 just wouldn't come on. We tried everything we knew. Then, following the instructions in the manual, we opened the housing on the head and looked for anything obviously wrong. Nothing. We called Vari*Lite tech support. They declared it DOA and had us ship it back. They said they would have it back to us by Saturday so I would have it for my one dark day.

Through no fault of Vari*Lite the instrument did not show up until Monday: Fed Ex just doesn't do boxes of that size and weight to my area for Saturday delivery. That Saturday I spent many hours with the board op, an 8th grader, Ray Rodriguez, and when he had to leave, with Amanda Barilleaux, the multi-talented high school senior stage manager, creating preset colors, focus groups, and other show settings without the missing VL2201.

When I came in the next day, I turned on the console and the house lights began to flicker, then the conventionals began what looked like a chase. It was not a completely random chase but not apparently ordered either. I tried shutting down the board and starting again. Nothing. I tried, with much fear, dumping all the show program presets and group settings that we had spent the whole night before creating. Nothing. The chase still kept running. I called Bobby in New York. After about 45 minutes of troubleshooting we had exhausted what we could do over the phone. Then Keith Corning, our invaluable tech, called PNTA, the local theatre supply and tech shop. Mac, the owner, came out the next day and spent the better part of the day troubleshooting--to no avail. We had borrowed a DMXter from Westsun and everything appeared clean on the DMX but the chase still ran on. Finally, in a flash of insight, Mac figured out that it was probably a difference in the DMX signaling between the old dimmers (pre-DMX512/1990) and the new board. He installed an ETC DMX Network Node and the problem went away. By this time I had lost four days of programming.

Being ever optimistic, I had been going on the assumption that we could fix the problem and we would be able to use the conventional and intelligent instruments. On the nights we lost because the console was unavailable we turned our attention to finishing the hang, focusing and mounting the remaining VLs--which proved to be a feat in itself.

In the BLMC class, we walked in and sat down at a console that was preprogrammed and ready to go. The luminaires were all mounted neatly in the grid of the theatre and we just got right down to programming. It's not so easy in the real world. Mounting those things is like nailing Jell-O. The luminaires consist of a heavy base and a balanced but heavy head interconnected by a yoke that spins on X and Y axes with the greatest of ease. This makes mounting them a bit like lifting a 50lb salmon and trying to nail its tail to the wall. On the first try, four of my high school tech students and Keith helped me. We hoisted the instrument up a 12' ladder and over my head and mounted it to the bracket in one of the side pockets of the stage. It was quite a workout. On to the next one: This time we got smart and attached a pulley system to the grid to ease the installation. I put my arm through the yoke to steady it while we were lifting it with the pulley system. Still, once the instrument was in place I had to hold it there myself and mount it holding all the weight on one arm. Unfortunately, the weight of the instrument shifted and the head spun in the yoke, trapping my arm like a heavy pair of blunt scissors. Lesson learned: Never put my arm through a yoke. Ouch!

Next were the spot units. To get a full range of motion from the catwalk, we had to extend the instruments down on a T-bar an extra 6', putting them 50' directly above the audience. We had to get the Genie lift out into the audience, lift it on its hoist above the chairs and extend it as high as it would go to just reach the T-bar. The one VL2201 luminaire we had went up without a problem, except for a little vertigo. (The other one was still in Texas.) So we left the Genie in the audience and I started programming.

Finally I was going to be able to recreate my BLMC experience. Or so I thought.

As I began to design the show, we did as Peggy Eisenhauer suggested in her class on Cueing the Musical and set the first look before we showed it to anyone. Then we would be able to show the director and she would be assured that we were on the right track.

I set the board configuration just as we had it in the class. One of the settings was different than any console I had worked on before--the setting for tracking. I used this because, well, because we had used it at the BLMC class. I knew what it was doing but what I didn't realize was how cue-to-cue programming was ingrained in how I do programming. I kept trying to do things that would have worked fine in a cue-to-cue board and they would not work right. For example, I would go back and change an instrument setting in a cue just before a scene change, low light situation. Well, that light would track right through the next cue and there was a bright pool of light right down center spoiling the low light. It took me quite a while to figure out why this was happening and then it would still happen, just because it was ingrained in my way of working. Much later I found that I could use the board in non-tracking mode, but by then I was determined to learn to use it in tracking mode.

Then there were the instruments. For all our setting of presets and groups, we didn't use them much and that is where the trouble all began. As I said, I am used to building a show then going back and refining it, then refining it more. But I am not used to intelligent lighting. So I would be in one cue and want to go back two scenes and change a look. So I would go to that scene, position the intelligent instrument and then go on. But the next time I ran the show through the scene that I had gone back and changed, the intelligent lights would go crazy, puking light across the stage and audience in a spinning, flickering sweep. What was the problem? The problem was that the instruments were not in their preset positions and I failed to take them to the home position before starting to build a look. So the instrument would go from its X/Y position to the new position while swinging through its gobo selections and color wheel. We came to call this "the instrument is throwing up." It happened often. When I figured out what was causing the problem, I knew how to avoid it, but every so often when I got busy I would forget and then some VL2201 would throw up all over the scene.

Monday afternoon, the sickly VL2201 that had been shipped off to Texas was back. We tested it and it appeared to work fine, so up it went. The installation went without a hitch and we were soon operating on all four instruments, so the Genie lift went away.

Things went fine for a couple of days, except that the one sickly 2201 had been shifting to the wrong gobo index. I would reset it and it would run fine, then, randomly, it would be in the wrong gobo index again. It was very confusing, until one day I was playing with some looks on the wall of the theatre and noticed that the iris was not working well. I had not been using the iris feature much, so I had not noticed it in the cues. I could also see three dim lines across the beam. After some experimenting I determined that the dim lines were actually iris shutters that had gone awry and were probably the cause of my gobo-indexing problem as well. I surmised that they were out of alignment and sticking across the way into the gobo wheel itself. So, out came the Genie lift again, and up we went. I took out the card with the iris in it and, sure enough, one of the four retaining screws was missing. The iris wheel had slipped out and was sliding around when the iris arm moved. I removed the iris ring and leaves and decided to just go on without it. Vari-Lite agreed to send me a new card. All I would have to do is put the new card in and it would work fine. However, we were getting close to opening night and I was not going to count on it. I had the board op reprogram the cues that used the iris to use the zoom instead. This created a brighter pool of light but at least it was the right size. We did get the new board and it worked fine. The gobo problem went away too, so I was right that the iris was causing the gobo wheel to misalign.

All of the problems of setup and configuration aside, intelligent lights are really wonderful. The stage at the theatre was very large, at least by my standards. The stage area was 60' wide and 60' deep, the apron was 70' wide. The downstage 35' was the acting area and the upstage area was the orchestra, on 8'-tall risers and behind a scrim for most of the show. The plot for the show was fairly standard, with 15 acting areas and another 15 for the orchestra. It consisted of warm and cool frontlight, backlight, and two high headlights. I also included some low PARs gelled with UV to pop the whites and, in Jules Fisher's words, be "like candy for the eyes." I had some strips upstage over the orchestra, but I had no way to dramatically change the overall color of the main acting areas. I did not include any specials. I was able to use two spot units and two wash units to take the place of at least a dozen, if not two dozen, instruments.

Several situations stand out that were possible only with intelligent lights. Similarly there were things I tried that did not work out. One scene that worked particularly well, I think, was scene change from the chaos at the TV studio to the resulting mayhem in the office. Since the stage was so large and this scene change took quite a bit of time it would have been easy to lose the onstage energy in the moving of the furniture. To keep this heightened energy going, I used the VL2416s. I used a looped set of cues that simultaneously spun the diffuser while moving the instrument up and downstage. The effect was not unlike a tornado. This allowed the stagehands to make the scene change in full light and the audience kept its feeling of the chaos of the time. The only other time that the instruments moved while there was light coming out of them took place when the character of Hedy LaRue crossed the stage. I used one of the VL2201s to create a pool of light that followed her. She had to hit her mark every time, though, and her timing had to be the same every night or it would look awkward. Fortunately, she was a very good actress and after two or three tries had it cold.

For the rest of the show I used the Vari*Lites much as I would have used a special or wash light. They provided me with almost infinite flexibility. When the directors changed the placement of a spike, I simply pointed the VL to the new location, no ladders, no wrenches required. When I wanted to change the color and mood of a scene I just went to the VL2416s and changed the CMY mix and voila! These two features, specials anywhere, anytime, and color-mixing on the fly, allowed me to create images that would have taken vastly more time and instrumentation with conventional luminaires.

Opening night went well and the show was a success, thanks in large part to the hard work of the students on the show, and the manufacturers and suppliers who helped out. With all the headaches of putting the equipment together and getting it to work, some people have asked me if I would ever use intelligent lighting again. My answer is: in a heartbeat. The moving heads, CMY color-mixing, rotating and indexing multiple gobos all allow the artist to have much greater flexibility during the creative process. It is worth every bit of the headache. Besides, I learned so much that it's gotta be easier next time ... right?

Joseph Flahiff can be contacted at [email protected].