Any dramatic production, unless it is performed outdoors during the day, needs some kind of artificial light. If illumination were the only function of stage lighting, however, you could hang a bank of fluorescent lights over the stage and forget all about the dimmers, control boards, cables, and instruments.
Obviously, there is more to stage lighting than simple illumination. Effective stage lighting not only lets the spectators see the action on the stage but also ties together all the visual elements of the production and helps create an appropriate mood and atmosphere that heightens the audience’s understanding and enjoyment of the play.
Why bother to “design” light in the first place? To understand these questions, we first need to understand what light is, what it does, and how light influences our perceptions and understanding.
Light is usually described in terms of its characteristics and physical nature. Explanations of what visible light is
usually follow these boringly accurate descriptions: (1) Something that makes vision possible; (2) that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that stimulates the visual receptors in the eye; (3) that relatively narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum between infrared light and ultraviolet radiation; (4) light travels at approximately 186,281 miles per second.1
An electrical extension cord used to connect instruments to dimmers or instruments to permanent stage circuits.
Lighting fixtures designed for use in the theatre.
Although these definitions describe the physical nature of light, they don’t really tell us what light “does.” We all know that light makes objects visible. But it is much more important for someone interested in lighting design to understand that: the manner in which light illuminates an object shapes the viewer’s impression and understanding of what they’re seeing.
That concept is the crux of the discussion of light and perception as well as the underlying reason that we bother to design with light in the first place.
One of the four controllable qualities of light; the relative brightness of light.
One of the four controllable qualities of light; a perception created in the brain by the stimulation of the retina by light waves of certain lengths; a generic term applied to all light waves contained in the visible spectrum.
The angle of the light, its intensity, color and cohesion (sharpness) or diffusion (softness) all affect our impression of the object we’re seeing. To illustrate, almost everyone has heard of the phrase “the ever-changing face of the mountains.” But, if you stop to think about it, unless there is some cataclysmic disaster, the features of any particular mountain or mountain range change little, if at all, over hundreds or even thousands of years. However, if you were to critically look at a mountain range for even a few days or weeks, you would begin to understand the concept behind the phrase. The appearance of any mountain changes considerably in the course of the day. The patterns of highlight and shadow created by sunlight falling on the ridges and valleys shift continuously as the sun moves across the sky. A steep cliff that is bathed in brilliant morning sunshine slides into deep shadows in the late afternoon. A hillside that hides in morning gloom emerges into brilliant sunshine by midday. Clouds or fog soften or obscure part of the range. In the late afternoon we may be treated to the mountain being bathed in a soft purple or peach twilight at sunset. The manner in which the sun illuminates the mountain controls not only what we see but also, to a great extent, how we feel about what we’re seeing.
Intellectually everyone understands that the physical structure of mountains doesn’t often change in our lifetimes. But our individual perception, our personal understanding, of what those mountains mean to us is based on a complex process involving not only sight and intellectual recognition, but our emotional reaction to what we’re seeing. To a great extent, that emotional reaction is controlled by two primary elements: instinct and learned behavior. Another example may help explain this process. Imagine it’s a pleasant, sunny summer day. You’re walking down the sidewalk next to a park. There is a low stone wall, about waist high, between you and the park. The park is inviting, with a thick carpet of grass beneath a canopy of large shade trees. A few benches are randomly scattered on the lawn. A young couple sit on one of the benches quietly talking. Across the street there are several stores—a bookshop, a clothing store, a bank, and a drugstore on the corner.
Now, imagine that you’re on this same street at 2:00 a.m. on a moonless night. It’s really dark. The only light comes from the window of the drugstore on the far corner at the other end of the park. As you walk beside the stone wall, you peer into the blackness of the park. A little starlight filters through the leaves. You hear low voices coming from the park. Then you think you see something move. You’re not sure. You quicken your pace as you cross the street then almost break into a run as you rush toward the drugstore.
Design “voice” refers to the ability to express your own artistic style.
As mentioned earlier, our emotional reaction to what we see is controlled by two primary elements: instinct and learned response.
Instinctively, most people are afraid of the dark. This response was genetically programmed into our ancestors tens of thousands of years ago when our progenitors roamed the plains and woodlands looking for food. Our vision was our primary defense against being eaten by something larger, stronger, and/or faster. If we saw it, we would at least have a chance of defending ourselves. If we couldn’t see it, it could jump out of the dark and “get” us. Humans don’t see well in the dark, so our ancestors who avoided dark places were more likely to live to pass on their gene pool than those who ventured into the dark and didn’t return. With each succeeding generation this healthy act of self-preservation became more and more reinforced in our genetic code.
The second contributor to our reaction to what we see is learned response. From the time that we’re infants we are busy learning. A great deal of what we learn is stored in the brain as memories. Almost all of our early learning is experiential—learning by experience. These experiences are major contributors to how we will react in any given circumstance. Occasionally I have looked outside on a cloudy summer day and absently thought, “It looks like it could snow.” Logically, I know that it isn’t going to snow, but there is something about the shape and color of the clouds, the direction and speed of the wind, and the color of the light that reminds me of the way it looks before a snowstorm. Our subconscious minds are constantly comparing incoming information—what we’re currently seeing—with memories of what we’ve experienced before in our ongoing struggle to help our conscious minds make sense of our surroundings. An interesting example of this learned response occurred during the University of Arizona production of Terra Nova, which is primarily set in Antarctica and chronicles Scott’s ill-fated trip to the South Pole. Gillette was designing the lights and the director wanted the lighting for the Antarctica scenes to be “white and painfully bright.” At first I left the lights uncolored, but the white light seemed warm rather than cool. Before the next rehearsal I put a light blue color media into all the lights. At rehearsal that night almost all the people in the audience complained of being chilly or cold. The thermostat in the theatre hadn’t been changed from the previous day. The only difference was the light blue color in the lights. My assumption is that our subconscious minds saw the blue light, compared it with memories of “the color of cold,” and convinced our conscious minds into thinking that the theatre actually was cold. Subsequently we had several comments from the paying audience that the theatre was rather cold. We raised the thermostat a few degrees even though the production occurred in late September in Tucson when the average temperature was in the high 90s. Such is the power of the mind.
Light that contains all wavelengths of the visible spectrum in relatively equal proportion.
The plastic or glass materials used to color the light emitted by lighting instruments.
The reason that we design the lighting for an event or a place is to influence the audience’s perception, understanding, and emotional reaction to what they’re seeing. That is the reason lighting is thoughtfully designed for theatre, films, and television as well as for rock concerts, theme parks, and retail stores.
Lighting strongly influences our perceptions and understanding. Machiavellian, isn’t it? Read on and learn how Machiavellian lighting design actually is.