Stage Lighting Basics, part 1 of 2

What the heck am I doin’ writing an article on stage lighting? After all, I’m an audio guy! Well, if you’re on stage, you need lights, so you might need a little help, and while I’m no expert, I do have two good stage lighting resources on which to draw: friends & books. As with the audio articles here at Magic Roadie, I won’t recommend brand names, and I’ll spend as little time as possible on the science behind everything. This is intended to be an “applications” guide to effective stage lighting for your magic act. Part 1 will talk about the lighting instruments in common usage, and Part 2 will outline how to build an effective stage lighting design.

The essential goals of stage lighting for magicians, as for most theatrical performers, are;

  • To help focus the audience’s attention where you want it, and,
  • To help distract the audience’s attention away from where you don’t want it.

Right arrow free iconHalogen vs LED

  • Halogen
    • Have very high light output at a very low cost.
    • Use a lot of electrical power.
    • Often, each light can produce only one colour that you select during set-up.
    • They produce a lot of heat, and apart from making them more difficult to handle, it also means their lamps need to be replaced more often.
  • LED
    • An LED fixture at the same brightness as a halogen fixture is much more expensive.
    • Use much less electrical power.
    • Almost always, each LED fixture can produce quite a range of colours, all controlled remotely.
    • They produce very little heat, are safer to handle, and last tens of thousands of hours.
  • Other LED advantages
    • LED fixtures include a built-in dimmer.
    • An LED fixture can stand alone, without a light board, controlled directly using DMX.
    • You can even set many LED lights to control themselves in numerous special-effects modes, or to control other LED fixtures (in slave mode) so that they work in sync with one another.
  • LED Drawbacks
    • Cost compared to halogen.

Right arrow free iconLED Types: RGB RGBA, RGBW, RGBAW

  • RGB: Instruments with red, green and blue LEDs are basic & limited.  They are capable of the fewest colour options and don’t create convincing whites.
  • RGBA: Instruments with red, green, blue and amber LEDs create warm, rich colours. RGBA fixtures project a warm shade of white and exceptionally rich shades of gold, yellow and orange. Additionally, adding amber to standard colours broadens the colour spectrum.
  • RGBW: Instruments with red, green, blue and white LEDs create vivid, bright colours. RGBW fixtures project a cool shade of white and are ideal for color mixing pastels. Add white to any standard color and adjust the saturation to get your desired shade. In addition to creating pastels, white LEDs can be used independently so you do not have to mix colours to achieve it.
  • RGBAW: Instruments with red, green, blue, amber and white LEDs have all the possibilities of RGBA & RGBW.

Right arrow free iconThe Components Of A Stage Lighting System

Controllers (sometimes called, boards, consoles or desks) come in two flavours; manual & computerized. Manual controllers consist of rows of sliders, each slider corresponding to a channel on the halogen dimmer or to an LED fixture. The controller is connected to the dimmer by an electronic cable. Computerized controllers are software-based and can store a massive number of “scenes” which can include every possible parametric variable available in any type of instrument( non-moving and moving).

With old-school, halogen stage lights, the dimmer is the large bit that regulates the amount of voltage conducted to the lighting instrument. The dimmer is connected to the instrument by an electrical cable.  LED lights have that functionality built into each instrument, so dimmers are not used.

The “instrument” is what some folks call a fixture or a lamp.  The most common LED instruments are:

    • PAR.  This is a halogen-era title that is now mistakenly applied to LEDs.  What gets called an LED PAR probably should be called an LED floodlight.
    • Strip Lights
    • Moving Head

Right arrow free iconSmoke Effects

A fogger creates a relatively thick, white smoke which is great for obscuring or “mystifying” a scene.

A hazer looks very similar to, and is an alternative to, traditional fog machines, and its main use is for enhancing light beams. A hazer produces a thin, translucent haze that fills a room evenly, without a “heavy cloud” anywhere.

“Dry ice” and “liquid nitrogen” machines produce a low-lying, ground-hugging type of smoke, but the dry ice or liquid nitrogen that they consume can be difficult to obtain & store. A “chiller” is a device that collects the “hot” smoke output of a traditional fogger and converts it into cooler, low-lying, ground-hugging smoke, similar to the effect obtained with dry ice or liquid nitrogen.

Right arrow free iconPyrotechnics
If I had a lawyer, I’m absolutely certain he’d advise me not to talk about pyro. The stuff can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, and since don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t teach you. Anyone who uses pyro should have formal training, as well as any necessary government permits. What I can tell you, is that tastefully applied pyro can be very effective.

There ya go, my friends! Those are many of the basic lighting & effects instruments you can use to build an effective lighting design. I have most certainly learned a great deal about stage lighting as a result of writing this article, and I hope you’ve learned a lot as a result of reading it! Stay tuned for “Stage Lighting, Part 2 of 2“, on how to create an effective stage lighting design.